Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847), was the oldest daughter of a judge in Prattsburg, NY. She was converted at age eleven under the conscientious nurturing of a refined Christian home. Her soprano voice was clear and unwavering. Her friend, Martha Lamb, said: “The voice of Miss Prentiss was of remarkable sweetness. She was a graceful blonde, stately and dignified, without a particle of affectation.” Marcus Whitman and Narcissa married in February, 1836.
Is it possible that the polite surroundings of Prattsburg, NY, produced the intrepid missionary who would (with Eliza Spalding) be the first white woman to cross the continent on the Oregon Trail, who would eat dried buffalo meat and tea for breakfast, and with sparkle comment in her diary on the perils and discomfort of that blistering journey?
The nearest thing to a complaint was: “The mosquitoes were so thick that we could hardly breathe,” and “the fleas covered all our garments.” Besides being hostess extraordinaire and mother to eleven orphans, Narcissa was wife, confidant, and comforter of a man who was a guide, carpenter, engineer, farmer, physician, and Bible teacher.
William H. Gray and Henry and Eliza Spalding also launched out with the Whitmans. Setting out in 1836, they were the first to cross the Oregon Trail by wagon. They drove the wagon as far as Fort Boise, Idaho, thus opening part of the trail. The trail began in Independence, Missouri, and became the longest overland route used in the westward expansion of the United States. Their destination was Waiilatpu, near the present-day city of Walla Walla, Washington, where they labored among the Cayuse tribe.
On the trip west, Narcissa wrote her sister, “When you find it hard work to open your eyes at seven o’clock–just think of me every morning. At the word ‘Arise!’ we all spring. While the horses are feeding, we get breakfast in a hurry and eat it. By that time, the words, ‘Catch up, catch up,’ ring throughout the camp for moving. We are ready to start usually at six, travel until eleven, encamp, rest and feed, and start again at two and travel till six and camp for the night.”
They ate what they shot of buffalo, deer, antelope, and fowl. On July 22, she wrote: “Had a tedious ride until 4 p.m. I thought of my mother’s bread, as a child would, but did not find it. I should relish it extremely well. But we feel that the good Father has blessed us beyond our most sanguine expectations.”
Adjusting to the work among the roving Cayuse required grace and wisdom. They felt no compunction about walking into any room in the Whitman’s home at any time unannounced (a practice to which Narcissa quickly put a stop).
Many of the Cayuse became Christians. The Whitmans’ work soon expanded beyond helping the Cayuse. Immigrants, by hundreds and thousands, reached the mission, wayworn, hungry, sick, and destitute. Henry Spalding said, “Seven children of one family were left in the hands of Dr. and Mrs. Whitman–one a babe four months old–and they cared for them all, giving food, clothing, and medicine without pay. Frequently, the Doctor would give away his entire food supply and have to send to me for grain to get through the winter.”
In her diary, Narcissa once said, “We have no less than seven families in our two houses; we are in peculiar and somewhat trying circumstances; we cannot sell to them because we are missionaries and not traders.”
In 1839, sorrow came. The Whitmans’ only had one child, a little girl. In their isolation, that bright little one was a piece of sunshine. At two years and three months, the child spoke the Cayuse language to the delight of the Indians, and had learned all the songs sung in the Nez Perce dialect, having inherited her mother’s musical ability. That September day, she had gone playing. Narcissa turned around and she was gone. After a frenzied search, two little tin cups were found on the edge of the Walla Walla River near where they got water for the household. An old Indian dove in and found the lifeless body beneath the surface.
In Narcissa’s anguish, she never rebelled. Her diary records that on the day of her drowning, the little daughter asked to sing “Rock of Ages” during family worship:
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyelids close in death;
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy Throne;
Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
When the Indians came in for the afternoon service, Dr. Whitman turned to the same hymn and the toddler again joined in. “This was the last we heard her sing. Little did we think that her young life was so fleeting or that those sparkling eyes would so soon be closed in death, and her spirit rise to worlds unknown to behold on His Throne of glory Him who said: ‘I will be a God to thee and thy seed after thee.'”
Finding the everlasting arms underneath, Narcissa Whitman wrote, “Lord, it is right; it is right. She is not mine, but Thine; she was only lent to me to comfort me for a little season, and now, dear Saviour, Thou hast the best right to her. Thy will, not mine, be done.”
Narcissa wrote to her mother: “I cannot describe what our feelings were when night came and our dear child a corpse in the next room. We went to bed, but not to sleep, for sleep had departed from our eyes. The morning came, we arose, but our child slept on. I prepared a shroud for her during the day; we kept her four days; it was a great blessing and comfort to me so long as she looked natural and was so sweet I could caress her. But when her visage began to change, I felt it a great privilege that I could put her in so safe a resting place as the grave, to see her no more until the resurrection morning.
Although her grave is in sight every time I step out of the door, my thoughts seldom wander there to find her. I look above with unspeakable delight, and contemplate her as enjoying the full delights of that bright world where her joys are perfect.”
Their daughter’s death seemed a preamble to adversity. The Roman priests and the Hudson Bay Company gave a hostile frown to the mission. Then on November 29, 1847 after an epidemic of measles broke out among some new settlers, assassins–led by a rabble-rouser named Joe Lewis–killed the Whitmans and 12 others. Joe had come to stay with the Whitmans who had befriended, housed, clothed, and fed this man for months. But when Marcus discovered him telling blatant lies and spreading distrust among the Indians, he got him a job on a wagon train, hoping to get rid of him. But Joe deserted his post and returned to Waiilatpui.
When Istikus warned the Whitmans, the day before the massacre, to “go away until my people have better hearts,” Narcissa knew Istikus was not exaggerating the situation. As the Doctor went about his work, she stayed in her room to pray and weep.
Henry Spalding, in a letter to Narcissa’s parents, dated April 6, 1848, gave this concise account:
“Fourteen persons were murdered first and last; nine the first day. Five men escaped from the Station, three in a most wonderful manner, one of whom was the trembling writer…Forty women and children fell captives into the hands of the murderers, among them my own beloved daughter, Eliza, ten years old. Three of the captive children soon died. The young women were dragged from the house by night, and beastly treated. Three of them were forced to become wives of the murderers of their parents, who often boasted of the deed, to taunt their victims.
“Monday morning, the Doctor assisted in burying an Indian; returned to the house and was reading. Several Indians, as usual, were in the house; one sat down by him to attract his attention by asking for medicine; another came behind him with a tomahawk concealed under his blanket and with two blows in the back of the head, brought him to the floor senseless but not lifeless…
“As soon as the firing commenced at the different places, Mrs. Hayes ran in and assisted Sister Whitman in taking the Doctor from the kitchen to the sitting-room and placed him upon the settee. His dear wife bent over him and mingled her flowing tears with his precious blood. It was all she could do. They were her last tears. To whatever she said, he would reply ‘no’ in a whisper, probably not sensible.
“Sister Whitman in anguish, now bending over her dying husband and now over the sick; now comforting the crying, screaming children, was passing by the window, when she received the first shot in her right breast, and fell to the floor. She immediately arose and kneeled by the settee on which lay her bleeding husband, and in humble prayer commended her soul to God, and prayed for her dear children who were about to be made a second time orphans and to fall into the hands of her direct murderers. I am certain she prayed for her murderers, too. She now went into the chamber with Mrs. Hayes, Miss Bewley, Catherine, and the sick children. They remained till near night.
“In the meantime the doors and windows were broken in and the Indians entered and commenced plundering, but they feared to go into the chamber. They called for Sister Whitman and Brother Rogers to come down and promised they should not be hurt. This promise was often repeated, and they came down. Mrs. Whitman, faint with the loss of blood, was carried on a settee to the door by Brother Rogers and Miss Bewley.
“Every corner of the room was crowded with Indians having their guns ready to fire. The children had been brought down and huddled together to be shot. Eliza was one. Here they had stood for a long time surrounded by guns pointed at their breasts. She often heard the cry, “Shall we shoot?” and her blood became cold, she says, and she fell upon the floor. But now the order was given, “Do not shoot the children…
“Fatal moment! The settee advanced about its length from the door, when the guns were discharged from without and within, the powder actually burning the faces of the children. Brother Rogers raised his hand and cried, “My God,” and fell upon his face, pierced with many balls. But he fell not alone. An equal number of the deadly weapons were leveled at the settee and the discharge had been deadly. She groaned, and lingered for some time in great agony.
“Two of the humane Indians threw their blankets over the little children huddled together in the corner of the room, and shut out the sight as they beat their dying victims with whips, and cut their faces with knives. It was Joe Lewis, the Canadian half-breed, that first shot Mrs. Whitman, but it was Tamtsaky who took her scalp as a trophy.”
Within weeks the Hudson Bay Company rescued the captive women and children by paying a ransom of $500.00.
Samuel Campbell had spent the winter of 1846 and 1847 at the Whitman Mission, and testified to the grand Christian character of Mrs. Whitman, so kind and patient, she seemed imperturbable. “Every evening she delighted all with her singing. Her voice, after all her hard life, had lost none of its sweetness.”
Says Mr. Campbell, “You can imagine my horror in 1849, when at Grand Ronde, old Tamtsaky acknowledged to me that he scalped Mrs. Whitman and told of her long, beautiful, silky hair.”
General Lane, of the United States Government, sent officers to arrest the murderers. Old Tamtsaky was killed during his arrest. Five others, Tilwkait, Tahamas, Quiahmarsum, Kvakamus and Siahsalucus, were hanged for murder two years after the crime.
Twelve years after leaving the mission, the Spaldings returned to find the believers in the tribe had met for worship and Bible teaching in all the years since. On opening a school, it was crowded with children, and even old men and women, who insisted on being taught. Cushing Eells also joined in this good work.
Marcus and Narcissa were forewarned, and might have had opportunity to flee, but they stood by their post. What selfless lives! According to the record, there were no less than seventy inhabitants in the Whitman house the day of the massacre. On that day, Narcissa was mother to eleven adopted children, for whom she prayed in her dying moments.
On the fateful trip west, Narcissa had written to her sister in a letter dated July 22, ” It is good to feel that He is all I want, and if I had ten thousand lives, I would give them all to Him.”
Much of this material was taken from:
History of Indian Missions by Myron Eells
Biography of Cushing Eells by Myron Eells
How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon by Nixon
Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs & Conditions of the North American Indians by George Catlin.