Narcissa Whitman was the wife missionary Marcus Whitman. The missionary party consisting of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and Henry H and Eliza Spalding, and William H Gray, a lay aide, traveled west along with Fitzpatrick’s supply caravan. Their ultimate destination was to establish a ministry to Indians in the Oregon Territory. Along with the supply caravan with whom they were traveling, they arrived at the Green River Rendezvous in July of 1836. These were the first white women to cross the continental divide. After crossing South Pass, both women were abruptly introduced to the wild ways of mountain life. As the sun was setting, a dozen
or more shrieking horsemen charged down on the caravan, whooping and firing their rifles. These were friends, including Joe Meek, a few companions and a contingent of Nez Perce Indians come out to welcome the caravan in the traditional way.
Narcissa Whitman was described as blue-eyed, of fair skin and complexion, large framed
yet attractive, cheerful, outgoing and enthusiastic. Eliza Spalding was very different
in appearance and temperament, being dark and coarse-featured, frail and sickly,
withdrawn, serious, yet with stubborn fortitude and steely resolve. Both women created
a sensation among the trappers, who suddenly discovered an interest in religion,
attending daily services and eagerly accepting Bibles. The Mountain Men were especially
enamored of Narcissa with her bubbly enthusiasm. The Indians, particularly the Indian
women found more in common with Eliza who was learning their language even before
leaving rendezvous. Of the missionary women, trapper Osborne Russell records “The
two ladies were gazed upon with wonder and astonishment by the rude Savages they
being the first white women ever seen by these Indians and the first that had ever
penetrated into these wild and rocky regions.”
On the arrival of the missionary party in the Oregon Territory, John McLoughlin,
Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, was as enchanted by
the women as the mountain men and Indians had been at the rendezvous. The missionaries
were treated with great hospitality by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and McLoughlin even
provided assistance in establishing their missions.
The Spaldings built their mission on the Clearwater River among the Nez Perce, while
the Whitman’s mission was located near the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Walla Walla
and ministered to the Cayuse Indians. Narcissa Whitman, along with Marcus and twelve
others, were slain November 29, 1847 by the Cayuse Indians in an uprising known as
the Whitman Massacre. The massacre was triggered by an outbreak of measles which
occured as a group of emigrants were passing through. There had been long-standing
ill-feelings between the Cayuse and the missionaries. When Dr. Whitman's medicines
seemed to helped the mission children survive, but had no positive effect on the
Indian children (nearly fifty percent of the Indians, who had no resistance to this
disease, perished) the Indians were convinced the missionaries were poisoning them.
The daughters of two mountain men, Mary Ann Bridger (Jim Bridger) and Helen M Meek
(Joe Meek) were living at the mission at the time and survived the massacre. Helen
Meek, did succumb to the measles a few days later on December 1, 1847. For more
details on the Whitman Massacre.
For more information regarding Narcissa Whitman see:
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.