Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

The Whitman Massacre:

In 1836 a small party of missionaries, including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Henry and Eliza Spalding and William Gray came to the far west to spread the gospel amongst the Indians.  Flathead and Nez Perce Indians had previously requested that missionaries be sent to teach them of the white man's religion. The Indians' hope was that through knowledge and practice of the white man's religion, that they would obtain some of the white's power over nature and man. 

The missionary party accompanied the pack train carrying goods and supplies to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company at that years Rendezvous (1836 Rendezvous)  From there the party was escorted by men from the Hudson's Bay Company further west.  

From the beginning of the journey, there was tension within the missionary party.  Henry Spalding was a former and rejected suitor for Narcissa.  By Henry's estimation, Narcissa didn't have the temperament for the ministry. Narcissa felt that she didn't measure up to the devout Eliza.  By the time the party reached the Oregon Country, the Spaldings and the Whitmans were scarcely speaking to one another.  It was decided that they would set up separate missions.  Marcus and Narcissa Whitman would minister to the Cayuse at Waiilatpu, and Henry and Eliza Spalding to the Nez Perce at Lapwai.  

None of the missionaries had any special training to prepare them for the task which they had undertaken.  In those times there was an attitude in the missionary community that those who had been called for that purpose would provided by God with the tools and skills they needed.  Although Marcus and Narcissa were no better or worse prepared than any other missionary at the time, their own unique set of personalities, and interpersonal and intercultural skills or lack thereof, weaknesses and attitudes would inevitably lead them to the day of the massacre.

To the Indians, religion, medicine and healing were inextricably linked (See Indian Medicine).  Marcus Whitman was not only a missionary, but was also a medical doctor.  This put Marcus Whitman in a position with the Indians which was both very powerful and vulnerable at the same time.  Because Marcus exactly matched the Indians' expectation of a "Medicine Man" he could have been exceedingly influential with the Indians.  However, White medicine in the early half of the 1800's was really no more effective than that of the Indian, which left Marcus Whitman open to attack by those who  would eventually oppose the presence of the missionaries.  

The Whitmans early on made the mistake of being unable to separate the differences between faith and culture.  They quickly defined many tribal customs and traditions as "sins" and barriers to salvation.  The Indians must give up their songs, dances, gambling, horse racing, and everything else that Indian people found enjoyable.  The Indians felt that they were being told that to avoid Hell in the afterlife, they must exist in a living Hell in the here and now.  This message was not well received.

The Whitmans felt that if the Indians could be encouraged to take up the ways of the white man, that many of the "sinful" customs and traditions would be left behind.  The missionaries promoted, both by word and example, a stationary lifestyle, rooted in agriculture.  Through Marcus' hard work and effort, the mission prospered in agriculture and animal husbandry.  To the Whitmans this was a perfect example of why the Indians should give up their migratory ways and take up the lifestyles of the white man.  To the Indian, planting, harvesting and gathering was women's work.  To the Indian men it seemed that the Whitmans were trying to convert them from being Lord of the Household and Society to Slave. The message was not well taken .  Also, the "wealth" being generated at the mission was on Indian land which the Indians felt that they had never been properly compensated for.  Furthermore, in a culture which valued gift-giving, the missionaries appeared stingy and mean when they distributed clothing, food and blankets only in exchange for work.

Eventually, as the frustration with lack of progress converting the Indians increased, and the numbers of white emigrants passing through the mission grew, Marcus saw the purpose of the mission changing.  1n 1843 he wrote Narcissa's parents "It does not concern me so much what is to become of any particular set of Indians, as to give them the offer of salvation... I have no doubt our greatest work is to aid the white settlement of this country."  Although doubtless Marcus never expressed this to the Cayuse, the fact that provisions, goods and services were freely supplied to emigrants as gifts, and the white travelers were openly invited into the home of the missionaries (a place which was generally off limits to the Indians), the Cayuse could only have interpreted to show that the Whitmans were working to displace them from their own country.  

As the Indians attitude soured towards the missionaries, the Whitmans became the target of hostile and increasingly violent confrontations.  To mission visitors, the danger of the situation was apparent.  Both Marcus and Narcissa acknowledged that the situation was serious, but Marcus determined that they would not leave until they had been "unanimously" requested to leave by the Indians.  This was the setting leading into the autumn of 1847.

Late in the summer of 1847, just as a new group of emigrants arrived at the mission, a measles epidemic broke out.  Both mission personnel, their families and the local Indians were sickened.  Although several whites did die of the disease, local Indian populations were devastated.  Marcus's medicines were totally ineffective in stemming the epidemic.  Instead of crediting the doctor for his efforts, rumors were spread about how the doctor was poisoning Indians with his medicines, the same as he poisoned wolves that threatened his cattle.  

The Cayuse headmen met in council and determined that the Marcus Whitman should be killed for all the people who died after taking his medicines.  Although the tribe was divided on the plan, the young men of the tribe "wished to do it."   

The massacre started on the morning of the 29th of November.  Narcissa, who was getting milk for children in her care who were still sick with measles, found that a group of Indians had entered the kitchen of the house.  She found their manner alarming and retreated.  Marcus went into the kitchen to deal with the Indians.  A discussion, heated at times, went on for some time when suddenly a rifle shot was heard.  Marcus had been shot, tomahawked from behind, and his face had been slashed.  Narcissa, although filled with fear, with the help of another woman who had rushed to the house when the shooting began, moved her husband to the sitting room where she tried to stop the bleeding.  Marcus was still conscious and indicated that there was nothing she could do for him. 

Meanwhile, outside, the Indians attacked and killed some white laborers, the schoolmaster, and the operator of the gristmill.  The terrified whites, many of them schoolchildren, tried to hide.  When Narcissa went to the door to see what was transpiring outside, she too was shot and fell back into the room.  Time passed and towards dusk, the Cayuse began to break the windows of the mission.  Narcissa, some of the women and children and a wounded white man retreated to the second floor of the house.  The terror continued with the Indians breaking into the house and plundering the first floor.  The Indians were prevented from ascending the stairs by the sight of what they believed to be a rifle held at the top of the stairs. Eventually the hostages upstairs were induced to come down when they were told that the house was to be burned. Because of her wounds, Narcissa was carried out on a couch.  When the small group left the house, Indians fired on them, eventually killing Narcissa and two more members of the mission staff.  

The following day the violence continued.  More of the mission staff who had been away, and unaware of what had happened, were killed as they came in.  Indians continued plundering the mission.  During the confusion three white families were able to slip away, however, eventually all of those still alive, more than forty terrified men, women and children, were herded into the building used to house visiting emigrants.  Including the Whitmans, a total of twelve people were killed.  Also, several of the hostages children, would die later of measles.  

It would be a month before the hostages would be released.  During that time, the Indians put the women to work sewing and knitting.  Three young Indian men would take white women as "brides."  

In the meantime, a small American force of volunteers had been raised and was on its way to save the hostages and punish the Indians.  Before this military force arrived, Peter Ogden, a Hudson's Bay Company man, with a group of boatmen came up.  Ogden made it clear his presence was solely for the purpose of negotiating the release of the captives.  He was successful at this, exchanging the captives for fifty blankets and shirts, ten guns, tobacco, and ammunition. On December 29, 1847, the former captives left the mission with five wagons filled with food and baggage, bound for Fort Vancouver.  

By the end of January the American forces had arrived.  They engaged in several skirmishes with the Cayuse, stole Indian cattle and horses, and burned Indian lodges.  The Cayuse responded by firing what was left of the mission. Only after two years of pursuit and harassment by the Americans would the Cayuse turn over the five Cayuse braves supposed responsible for the massacre. In less than one month these five men would be tried, found guilty and put to death. 

In addition to Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, ten other men belonging to the mission staff would lose their lives in the massacre.  The Cayuse Indians, who so innocently all those years before when they requested a missionary be sent to them, would experience war, and eventually the loss of life style, homeland, culture and tribal identity.

For more information regarding the Whitman Massacre see the following:

Jeffrey, Julie Roy.  Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman.  1991 Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma.  The book is both a  historical account of the Whitman mission, and based on the many letters she wrote, a look into the mind of Narcissa Whitman. 

Jesset, Thomas E.  The Indian Side of the Whitman Massacre.  1973 published by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington.    

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