Slavery on trial in the oregon territory

Narcissa’s Letter: The Massacre

By R. GREGORY NOKES 

In what is now known at the Whitman Massacre, a gang of disaffected Cayuse Indians murdered American missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and eleven others on November 29, 1847 at their mission at Waiilatpu near present day Walla Walla, Washington. The mission was established by the Whitmans in 1836.

The circumstances of the massacre have been extensively told and retold by historians and writers, but none appear to be an accurate account. Perhaps the most reliable version was a letter sent by missionary Henry Spalding to Narcissa’s parents, Stephen and Mrs. Prentiss of West Almond in Allegheny County, New York, on April 6, 1848. Spalding had himself narrowly escaped from the massacre, but his daughter, Eliza, was among those taken captive. Spalding had also once proposed to Narcissa, who rejected him and married Marcus Whitman instead.

Prentiss, Narcissa

Narcissa Whitman

The Spaldings had traveled to the Pacific Northwest in the same wagon train as the Whitmans in 1836. Narcissa and Spalding’s wife, also named Eliza, were the first white women to cross the Continental Divide. While the Whitmans established their mission at Wailatpu to minister to the Cayuse, the Spaldings located their mission 100 miles to the the northeast at Lapwai, near today’s Lewiston, to minister to the Nez Perce.

From the outset, the Waiilatpu mission struggled, with few conversions among the Cayuse, who contracted fatal diseases from Oregon-bound white settlers stopping at the missions for rest and supplies. As many as seventy persons, including children orphaned on other wagon trains, lived at the mission, many of them working with the Whitmans. The mission included a school and gardens.

Narcissa had once before been visited by tragedy. Her beloved daughter—and only child—two-year-old Alice Clarissa, who was born at the mission in March 1837, wandered from their mission home and drowned in the nearby Walla Walla River. Narcissa evidently fell into a deep depression, from which she never fully recovered.

With no really reliable account of what happened on that fateful day in November of 1849, I’ve written the following version of the massacre constructed from Spalding’s and many other descriptions. I’ve taken the questionable liberty of putting it in Narcissa’s words, relying on the style. emotions and mission descriptions found in the many letters she sent over the years to her parents and other relatives in the East.

One had to wonder why Marcus brought Narcissa to the West in the first place, given she was ill-prepared for the hardships of a missionary wife in a remote section of the country, thousands of miles from family and familiar surroundings. Her letter:

Waiilatpu, Oregon Territory

November 29, 1847

My dearest parents:

Oh the heartbreak for you. I so fear to tell you I shall never again see you on this unhappy earth, for today a great tragedy has befallen us. I told husband it was not safe for us here, nor has it been safe for a long while. But he wouldn’t listen. He insisted we were doing God’s work; we had built so much, come so far, we had responsibilities, not just to those few Indians who have entrusted us with their spiritual lives, but to the many emigrants to pass this way needing feed and other supplies. But there were so many signs we were no longer welcome here. I doubt we ever were welcome. I had been afraid for so long. If there is any blessing in the events of today, it is that I will have cause to fear no longer.

I will tell you what I can recall of the events of today, although some of what happened is too horrible to remember. I so very much wish I didn’t have to tell you, my beloved parents, but you would hear it from others, if not from me. You may not want to show this letter to brother or sister as it would surely disturb them greatly. I had hoped Jane might join us here, Edward, too, but they wisely have not come.

I suppose I might say this day dawned as an ordinary day, if any day here has been ordinary these past eleven years. As was our custom, we arose before day break. It was cold; it is nearly always freezing this time of year, and there was but some snow remaining from a recent storm. Ice has formed along the shoreline of Walla Walla River, that same river where my sweet two-year-old Alice Clarissa drowned eight years ago. On rising, husband’s first duty was to check on the sick, I at his side. On this day, just one unfortunate young Indian youth had succumbed during the night from the measles, which are ravaging the Cayuse tribe. Most days, as many as four and five will perish in a day. Husband prepared the body for burial by wrapping it in strips of muslin. So many have died, we have little material left for proper burials. Husband had worked himself into a state of exhaustion trying to help the sick Indians, but has been helpless to save but a few. The Indians do not thank him, but call him evil names, and even threaten him. They wonder why he can cure the white people who are sick, while Indians die. He is unable to make them understand that we can tolerate some diseases, but Indians cannot. I’ve told you before that the Indians did not appreciate him. While husband attended to the burial preparations, I stoked our stove and prepared breakfast for the Sager children, three of whom are ill, and for the other half-breed children entrusted to us. Mrs. Osborn and Catherine, another Sager child, helped me in the kitchen. I then prepared the afternoon lessons for the school children.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

In the late morning, husband and Mr. Andrew Rogers carried the body of the unfortunate Indian to our cemetery. A grave had already been dug, one of several the men dug before the ground froze. The cemetery is much larger than we ever thought we would need, and I fear it will grow much larger. Husband told me he considered it unusual that only a few Indians attended the burial, as usually there are dozens. But he assumed it was because Francis, one of the Sager boys, had killed an ox that had been brought to us, and a large crowd of Indians had gathered to watch it being dressed by some of our men. There were thirty of forty Indians milling about the place. Our numbers were nearly seventy, counting the children. People were coming and going all the time. Emigrants who had fallen ill during the long journey looked to Marcus to care for them. Others simply chose to rest and work some to work with us before continuing on.

The Indians watched us, as they usually do when they aren’t working. Husband told me he did not like it that Jo Lewis was among them. Jo is an Indian from Canada, who arrived here very recently in the company of some Frenchmen and Catholic priests—Jo was said to be converted to Catholicism. The priests have moved on, but Jo remained and stirred up trouble among our Indians, encouraging ill thoughts against us. To help get rid of him, we gave him clothing and found him a job as a teamster with a family passing through. But he returned here the other day and appears to have resumed his trouble-making ways. The priests resent us. They do not like that we are here as they were here first.

On this fateful day, we had finished our mid-day meal, and most of those who ate with us had returned to their tasks. I will tell you what everyone was doing, as it was the last many of them would ever do on this earth. Messrs. Kimball, Canfield and Hoffman finished dressing the ox. Mr. Lucien Saunders had just called the children for afternoon classes in the schoolroom, which is attached to our house, next to the kitchen. Mr. Marsh was grinding wheat at the mill. Mr. Isaac Gillen was at his tailor’s bench in the large adobe house, the other house near ours. Mr. Jacob Hall worked at laying a floor to a new room for our house, helped by an Indian. Our dear Mr. Rogers, studying for the ministry, was digging potatoes in the garden. Several Indians stood watching him, but not helping. Mr. Osborn and his family were in the Indian room next to husband’s sitting room—the Indian room is the one room in our house where we allow Indians to enter. We don’t like them in other parts of the house, but they enter as they please just the same. They insist we are intruders on their land, and should pay them handsomely, even though nothing at all was here before we came, no fence, no field, no cattle, nothing but prairie.

Well, to go on. Mr. Amos Sales was ill in bed in the blacksmith shop, where the Canfield family resides. Young Mr. Crockett Bewley was ill in the second bedroom in our home. John Sager, at seventeen years, the eldest of the unfortunate Sager children whom we claimed as our own, was sitting in the kitchen, partially recovered from the measles. Marcus, with the three sick Sager children, and Mrs. Osborne and her sick child were in the sitting room. I had gone upstairs to our private quarters.

As you know, our house had been much expanded over time. The library and a bedroom are on the south end; the dining and sitting rooms in the middle section, the Indian room on the north end, and the kitchen, with an entry to the schoolroom, is on the east side of the house. Our main fireplace is in the sitting room, and we have another bedroom to the rear of that, where Mr. Bewley was recovering. At the north side of the sitting room is the stairway to our half-second floor—these are our chambers. The school room, as I said, adjoins the kitchen. Our walls are of adobe. Our second house, called the mansion house, where we first lived, is across the yard. The blacksmith shop and grist mill are on the opposite side of the mansion house; the saw mill is some distance away.

We had no warning. Several Indians had come into the kitchen, which no one thought unusual, although we don’t like Indians there because of the dirt they bring with them; they make no attempt to keep anything clean. The Indians called to husband, beseeching him to come with them to help a very sick woman. Marcus rose and followed them, taking his Bible, which he had been reading. No matter how weary, husband was always ready to help. One of the Indians, whom we knew well, began talking with him, evidently with the purpose of distracting him. Another Indian, whom we also knew well, approached from behind and struck husband on the back of the head with a tomahawk he had under his blanket. Indians are forbidden to bring weapons into the house, although they don’t follow our rules. The first blow stunned husband, but he did not fall and the Indian struck him a second time, knocking him to the floor. Another Indian, who was a candidate for admission to our church, seized him by his hair and slashed his face and throat with a knife. Why, Lord, Why? Husband bled profusely from his wounds, although he was alive. John Sager, blessed John, just seventeen years, drew his pistol to defend husband, but an Indian seized him from behind and knocked him to the floor. One took a musket hidden from under his blanket and shot him. More Indians rushed into the kitchen—there must have been a dozen—and one cut John’s throat. But he also remained alive. Mrs. Osborn by now had retreated into the empty Indian room with her children, and with Mr. Osborn, hid under the floor.

I heard the terrible events upstairs and instantly knew something horrible was happening. After their horrid deeds to husband and John, the Indians left the kitchen and went outside. I rushed down the stairs and saw husband bleeding on the floor. Mrs. Hays came in from the mansion house and helped me carry husband into the sitting room where we lay him on a settee. We tore cloth from our skirts to try to try to stop the bleeding, but the wounds were too severe. Oh, the treachery from these people we had labored so hard to help! The bleeding wouldn’t stop. To every question I put to husband he shook his head and said, “No.’’ Nothing more. We heard great violence outside. Mr. Kimball rushed in with a broken arm hanging limply at his side and ran up the stairs. Mr. Rogers also came, and although bleeding profusely from a tomahawk wound to his head, helped me lock all the doors. I asked him to take the sick children upstairs, which he did. I remained at the side of my husband, who gasped for breath, soon to join our God. I was then to be wounded myself. An Indian whom I knew well fired through the window and I took his ball in my left breast. It knocked me briefly to the floor, but I managed to stand and stumbled to the settee where husband lay. I knelt and prayed at that very spot for the Sager children, knowing they would be orphans once again, and also for you, my dear mother and father. Mrs. Hayes helped me up the stairs and into our bed chamber where I was attended to by the others. Besides Mrs. Hayes and myself, there were Miss Bewley, Catharine Sager, Messrs, Kimball and Rogers, and the three sick children.

The Indians had once again forced their way into the house below, breaking and destroying everything they could lay their hands on. How could they return our years of kindness with such horror? Jo Lewis was among them. Husband and John Sager were further abused. I will not go into more detail, but why the Lord allowed them to suffer cruelty such as that suffered by our Savior, I know not. One Indian went into the schoolroom and dragged out the children, who had hidden there. We didn’t know what would be their fate. But there was no doubt about the fate of Francis Sager, also dragged from the schoolroom and thrown to the floor.

We remained upstairs, trapped, not knowing what to do. After a time, an Indian whose voice I recognized, someone we had considered friendly to husband and me, who knew some English, called to me to come down, promising I would not be harmed. He said they would take us to the mansion house where we would be safe with others already taken there. I was so anxious to return to husband that I decided to risk it, and came down with the help of Mr. Rogers and Mrs. Hays. But on reaching the sitting room, I was so weak that Mr. Rogers laid me on another settee. He and Mrs. Hayes started to carry me and the settee out the door. However, as they stepped into the yard, a cry instantly went up from the Indians. I know not the words. Husband knew their language, but I had learned little because it was difficult. However, the meaning of the words was instantly clear. They must have shouted to kill us, because Indians both inside and outside the house at once fired on us with their muskets. Mr. Rogers was hit with many balls, and I was once again shot and was to die right then and there. The children, sadly exposed to this tragedy, were not then harmed, except for Francis Sager, who was shot and killed. Francis was just fifteen.

Narcissa Whitman

Narcissa Whitman

Mr, Kimball, Catherine Sager and the three sick children had not come down from upstairs and stayed there the night, too frightened to move. The Osborns remained hidden under the floor in the Indian room until dark and then made their escape. So many others were wounded and killed. Mr. Gillan was shot and killed at his tailor’s bench. Mr. Marsh was shot at the grist mill. Mr. Saunders had been one of the first to die. He had rushed outside from the school room and was at once shot down. Mr. Hoffman fought with his knife, but was overwhelmed, and I cannot bear to relate what they did to his body, or any of our bodies. Suffice it to say they were savagely treated. You would not want to know more.

I was the only woman murdered. Some men escaped. Our fellow missionary, Mr. Henry Spalding, was among them. The other women and children, as many as forty, were confined to the mansion house, including Mr. Spalding’s daughter, Eliza. I know not what will become of them, but I’m certain it will be evil.

This is quite enough to write about these fateful events. The shocking contents of this letter will be more than you can bear. However, if it’s of any comfort, you may be reassured to know Marcus and I will suffer no more. This treachery at the hands of people we love has brought us to the end of a difficult journey. During these past eleven years, I confess I many times doubted the worth of our mission here. But Marcus never doubted, not for a moment. I might say he was foolish. However, I’m certain husband remained convinced to his dying breath that was truly doing God’s work. He would find his reward, not on this earth, but in heaven. I now know that despite my doubts, I, too, am to find my comfort in heaven where I am now reunited at long last with my dear daughter, Alice Clarissa. We three will wait for you there.

Ever your dutiful and affectionate daughter,

Narcissa

The murder of Marcus Whitman during a raid on his missionary settlement by Cayuse Native Americans, November 1847. Wood engraving, 19th century.

The murder of Marcus Whitman during a raid on his missionary settlement by Cayuse Native Americans, November 1847. Wood engraving, 19th century.