One of the first white women to cross the plains, climb the Rocky Mountains and set up home in the Pacific Northwest, Narcissa Whitman was a pillar of love and strength. During the incredibly difficult journey from her family home in New York to what is now Walla Walla, Washington, Whitman encouraged her husband and companions, and endured extreme elements and fatigue. In 1836, after more than six months on the trail Whitman miraculously managed to get her husband and pregnant self safely settled into their new home and build a mission where she cared for orphans and taught school until 1847.
Born Narcissa Prentiss in Prattsburgh, New York on March 14, 1808, she was the third of nine children and the oldest girl. Growing up she helped with tasks necessary in a large family, was active in church and social activities, and attended and later taught school. At only 11-years-old she joined the Congregational Church, and was only 15 when she “. . .felt to consecrate [herself] without reserve to the Missionary work . . “ Having received her appointment as a missionary in March 1835 she married physician and missionary Marcus Whitman on February 18, 1836 in New York. The next day they began their journey west.
The first forty days of the journey were pleasant. Whitman’s many letters home and her diaries have been mostly preserved. On March 28, 1836, on board the Majestic sailing on the Mississippi River she wrote her mother that the food was excellent and there were servants at her elbow. That evening the Majestic stuck on a sand bar, and the weather was rainy, densely foggy, and cold. The next day, damp and cold, was the beginning of hardship.
In July 1836 Whitman wrote of purchasing “filthy” food from the natives, of yearning for home baked bread and sometimes being “very hungry and weary.” In August, at American Falls on the Snake River she wrote of “the greatest heat” and that “it was more than we could well endure.” At this time they were in company with a larger traveling party that included an experienced guide. But, on August 26, she wrote, “On account of our worn out cattle and horses, it was thought best to separate from Mr. McLeod’s party, at least some of us, and travel more deliberately.” From here on the journey became increasingly difficult. Animals failed, Whitman’s health deteriorated and she became pregnant. Nevertheless, her resolve and integrity remained steadfast. On September 2, 1836 the party arrived in Walla Walla. The next couple of months were spent touring the country and getting to know folks, and attempting to understand and preach to natives.
In January 1837 the Whitman Mission was started. On March 14, 1837 Whitman’s daughter Alice was born. When Alice was a little over 2-years-old, on June 23, 1839, she drowned. Despite caring for a handful of half-native, half white children the next five years were isolated and lonely for Whitman. In 1844 seven orphaned white children, the Sagers, showed up at the Whitman Mission, and were a great joy to her.
Whitman made easy friends with the natives and was genuinely interested in them, and helped care for and educate many native children. But, her husband was unyielding in what he perceived was his work in Christ by way of attempting to convert natives.
This rigidity of doctrine of an unknown spiritual entity preached to the natives created suspicion as early as 1841, and evolved into fear and hate.
In 1847 measles broke out. The white population had some immunity but not the natives. Seeing their people dying while whites lived was an evil omen for the natives. An easterner, Joe Lewis, wishing to ransack the Whitman Mission, goaded the natives by telling them that Marcus Whitman was saving white people but further contaminating natives. By this time half of the local tribe, including most of the children, were dead. On November 29, 1847 the natives attacked the Whitman Mission taking hostages and killing 14 whites, including Narcissa Whitman and her husband.
Joan Brown ~ NEWSslinger Contributor