The Whitman Mission Tragedy of 1847

If you’re planning a Washington state vacation or side trip there is a National Monument outside of Walla Walla Washington that chronicles the bravery and hardships of some of the very earliest pioneers to the region. The site is the Whitman Mission which is now a National Historic Site located seven miles outside of Walla Walla.

narcissa whitmanThe site also chronicles the Whitman’s journey and mission activities with interesting exhibits. This historic site was put under the direction of the National Park Service by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. The site offers one a very good background of what it was like to be missionaries in such a remote and hostile area during the 1840’s. This site was also a place of tragedy for both Narcissa Whitman (image shown above) and her physician husband while trying to administer to the needs of the local native American population as well helping fellow pioneers traveling west.

A Mission for the Indians

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman journeyed  to the area of Walla Walla Washington in 1835 with her husband Dr. Marcus Whitman and a Reverend Samuel Parker. At that time there were very few white settlers anywhere in the region. Fur trappers and traders made up most of the population.The Whitman group traveled to this Oregon territory region with fur traders. The traders and trappers knew the trails. The goal of mr. and Mrs. Whitman was fairly simple. They wanted to establish missions in the area to help convert the Indian population to Christianity. The journey was filled with danger. Not only were the Native Americans in the area suspicious of any white settlers but the journey itself was rigorous. The Native Americans in this particular area of the northwest included the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes. The Whitmans (image of Marcus Whitman below) never really were able to establish a good relationship with the Natives even though they offered both medical attention and educational opportunities. Remember, this was an era before the Indian Wars which were to come decades later and the northwest was very much under the control of Great Britain with some British military in the area but spread out very thin. At the same time, there was no U.S. military presence in that area during those early years.

marcus whitmanA fact which I think has been very under reported was the health effect of the two races, Native American and European, mingling together. The Natives did not have the immune system built up to fight the European diseases brought west by the settlers and missionaries. The diseases which Native Americans were exposed to included measles, typhus, cholera, chicken pox, scarlet fever and several others. It’s a fact that these diseases went on to decimate the Indian population in North America. History shows that the most lethal disease affecting Native Americans was probably small pox. In the  western part of North America, the Spanish expeditions beginning with Coronado in the year 1540 most likely introduced the Indians in the southwest to many of the infectious diseases brought over from Europe with the Conquistadors. The native Americans in the eastern part of North America faced a similar situation when the English explored and colonized along the eastern seaboard. The very same health problem for indigenous tribes resulted the Spanish explorers entered South America.

The Indians were aware that they were being exposed to disease brought west by the settlers. Regardless of the poor reception the Whitmans received after building their mission, they continued their work and at various times took in orphans and attended to the sick and needy and this included the Indians. The subject of diseases brought west by the white pioneers was not unique to the Northwest region. Native American tribes suffered this  everywhere. The image below is of the Nez Perce during the Nez Perce War of 1877.

nez perce tribeA Crisis in 1847

In 1847, while the local Indian population was hoping that all white settlers, including the Whitmans  the Whitmans would leave, a large measles epidemic occurred. The white settlers were affected were much better equipped by their immune system to fight the disease. The Indians with  no immunity built up suffered a very large death toll. This measles outbreak just added to the tension. The Whitmans of course, and Marcus Whitman being a physician,  tried to help the Indians in any way possible but during the 1840’s in this very remote region there was not much that could be done. The hostile Indians accused the Whitmans of caring only for the white settlers afflicted with the measles outbreak which wasn’t true. In addition to that, the Indians had the custom of killing the medicine man whose patient died. With the native death toll rising all of these circumstances led to a climax. It was the trigger point of tragedy.

An Attack of Revenge

On November 29, 1847 the Indians attacked the mission killing both of the Whitmans. In all, about a dozen others were slain in this violent attack and some 54 women and children were also taken hostage. One month after the attack, an official of the Hudson Bay Company arranged ransom to obtain freedom for the surviving hostages.The ransom included about everything. Clothes, tobacco, blankets, rifles and ammunition. The ransom payment did free forty-nine surviving hostages.

The Cry for Justice

According to the Oregon State Archives, about twenty-nine months after the fatal attack on the Whitman Mission, the new governor of the Oregon Territory, partially due to a lot of pressure from settlers, issued indictments and ordered the arrest of five members of the Cayuse tribe. The Cayuse chief was surprised in as much as a war with the whites after the massacre had killed many of his warriors. he thought the issue was settled but obviously it wasn’t. After the accused were located and arrested they were transported some 200 miles to Oregon City where they were tried in U.S. District Court.

It’s interesting to note that during the trial, two witnesses, one Native American and the other a white doctor, testified that it was Indian custom to kill the “medicine men” whose patients died. Regardless, the trial went on for four days and the jury came back with a guilty verdict. The five convicted Cayuse tribe members were sentenced to death and were executed publicly on June 3, 1850.

As with many cultural clashes that occurred in the western pioneer days, there were accusations made and much second guessing. The accusations were that the trial was tainted because the daughter of the Territorial Marshal, who was very involved in the trial, was killed in the attack. Some other accusations involved witness lying and even some had the opinion that perhaps the missionary work itself brought on the animosity of the Native tribes

The Whitmans are buried in a mass grave at the Whitman National Historic Site.

One reply on “The Whitman Mission Tragedy of 1847”

  1. I have heard that doctor Whitman had, in an attempt to convert the natives, told them that the mission garden was a blessing from God and that they should not take food from it. The natives often took whatever was available to eat and that included raiding the garden. The natives thought that he had poisoned the food in the garden which added to the tensions leading up to the attack.

    There was obviously a lot of misunderstandings between the missionaries and the native people that could have been avoided with some understanding from the mission owners.

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