• bible sitting next to a teapot

    Whitman Mission

    National Historic Site Washington

1847 Attack - Short Version

Nineteen of the survivors provided accounts of what happened. From these statements historians have been able to piece together a detailed picture of what happened. Below is a short retelling of the major events. For a more detailed account see Chapter 22 of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford Drury.
 

Monday, November 29

The morning of November 29, 1847 was cold and foggy. Seventy-five people were staying with the Whitmans. Most were emigrants who were spending the winter at the mission before continuing their journey to the Willamette Valley. The buildings were crowded: 23 in the main mission house; 8 in the blacksmith shop; and 31 in the emigrant house. Joe Lewis and Nicholas Finley, who were of mixed blood, lived in an Indian lodge on the mission grounds. Eleven others were staying in the sawmill cabin, which was located 20 miles up Mill Creek.

In the morning Marcus treated Cayuse who were sick with the measles. He also conducted a funeral service for three Cayuse children who had died during the night. In the afternoon he rested and read in the living room. Narcissa was in the living room bathing the two older Sager girls in a tub. The mission was humming with normal activities. School was in session. A cow was being butchered. Grain was being ground at the gristmill. Work was being done on the unfinished east end of the main mission house. There was an unusually large number of Indians on the grounds. Those staying at the mission thought the increased numbers were due to the cow being butchered.

 

Tiloukaikt and Tomahas Attack

Cayuse chiefs Tiloukaikt and Tomahas came to the mission house claiming they wanted medicine. Dr. Whitman left them in the kitchen to retrieve the requested medicine. When he returned he had Narcissa bolt the door behind him that led into the living room. But the two chiefs didn’t really want the medicine. Tiloukaikt distracted the doctor while Tomahas attacked him from behind with a tomahawk.

Mary Ann Bridger was there. She ran out the north door and around the outside of building. She came into the living room and cried, "They have killed father!" John Sager was also in the kitchen. He was shot and killed while reaching for a pistol.

 

The Attack Expands

After the gunshot the Indians outside dropped their blankets revealing guns and tomahawks. The Cayuse attacked all the men they saw. Francis Sager, a young teenager, was found in the rafters of the school room and killed. Nathan Kimball, who had been butchering, and Andrew Rodgers, who had been at the river, were only wounded. They made it to the main mission house and Narcissa let them in.

Mrs. Whitman looked out the window and saw Joe Lewis. He was a man of mixed blood from the east who had come with a group of immigrants. He was not liked. The group left him at the mission; they wouldn’t travel any farther with him. He was not well liked at the mission either. When Narcissa saw him she asked if this was his doing. An Indian heard her and shot her in the left breast.

 

Inside the Main House

Wounded and in pain, Narcissa gathered the children and two wounded men. She took them upstairs into the attic just as Indians burst into the living room. They found a broken musket which they pointed down the staircase, bluffing their attackers. Eventually, one of the Indians said that they were going to burn the building. Narcissa and Rogers came down, but Narcissa was so weak from blood loss that Rogers and Joe Lewis had to carry her outside on a settee. But once outside Joe Lewis dropped his end. The Indians opened fire killing Rodgers and Narcissa.

 

Tuesday, November 30

The wounded Mr. Kimball had stayed in the attic with the children. The next morning he snuck out to get water, but was seen and shot. Eventually, Catherine Sager, one of the older children asked for water. Some Indians brought bread and water to the foot of the stairs. Joe Stanfield was a French-Canadian who had been working for Dr. Whitman. Perhaps due to his ancestry he was not targeted by the attackers. He came into the attic and told Catherine to take the children to the emigrant house. Eventually all of the survivors were brought there.

James Young was driving a load of lumber down from the sawmill. He had no idea what had happened. He was seen and killed.

 

Some Escaped

Peter Hall was a carpenter working on the house. He managed to slip away and make it to Fort Walla Walla. He continued on to Fort Vancouver, but he never arrived. He could have been found and killed, or maybe he drowned. No one knows.

W. D. Canfield had been butchering the bull. He was able to get to his family, but was shot in the process. They hid under some lumber and trash. Joe Stanfield found them and showed Canfield the trail to Lapwai where the Spaldings’ mission was. Mr. Canfield became convinced that the women and children would be safe, but that he would probably be shot if found. He left to warn the Spaldings at Lapwai, which was 110 miles away. He reached the Spaldings’ mission on Saturday, Dec. 4. (A more detailed account of Canfield’s escape.)

The Osborn family hid under the floor of the “Indian Room” of the mission house. Around ten o’clock, when the rooms above them grew quiet, the Osborns came out of hiding and made their way silently to the river. They started walking to Fort Walla Walla which was 25 miles away. They hid during the day and continued the next night. After the next day of hiding Mrs. Osborn, who had been ill, was too tired to go on. Mr. Osborn hid his wife and two of their children in willows. He and their son John continued to the fort. They succeeded in reaching Fort Walla Walla. Mr. Osborn retrieved the rest of his family. Finally, on Thursday all the Osborns were safe at the fort. (A more detailed account of the Osborns’ escape.)

Did You Know?

painting of mission with wagon in front

The Whitmans’ mission was important to early Oregon Trail travelers. Those who were sick, tired, or hungry or who needed a wagon fixed would make the side trip to the mission. Some would spend the winter with the Whitmans before continuing on to the Willamette Valley.