Marcus Whitman

A painted profile portrait of a man from behind wearing a buckskin shirt and a hat
This portrait is based on a sketch by Paul Kane and might be of Marcus Whitman

Quick Facts
An ABCFM missionary in Oregon Country, pushed for more white immigration into Native lands, and was killed in an attack at his mission site
Place of Birth:
Rushville, New York
Date of Birth:
Place of Death:
Walla Walla, WA
Date of Death:
November 29, 1847
Place of Burial:
Walla Walla, WA

Marcus Whitman was a doctor and Protestant missionary to the Cayuse Nation near present-day Walla Walla, WA. After rising tensions and miscommunications, he, along with his wife Narcissa and 11 other adult men, were killed at the mission by a small group of Cayuse men. His death directly led to the annexation of the Oregon Country by the United States and the colonization of the Native people of the Columbia Plateau. 

Marcus Whitman was born in 1802 in what is now Rushville, New York. In his youth, he was sent to live with family in Massachusetts where they provided him with an education and “constant religious instruction and care.”1 

By age 17, Marcus was greatly influenced by religious revivals happening throughout New England, now known as the Second Great Awakening. By the time he returned to Rushville in 1820, he knew he wanted to be a minister and told his family of his desire. His family was not supportive of him attending seminary because of the time and financial commitments required, so instead they persuaded him to study medicine which took much less time.  

In 1834, two years after receiving his M.D., Marcus showed interest in working for the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Due to Marcus’ previous health issues, the ABCFM was hesitant to accept him as a missionary and did not appoint him at that time. 

After later receiving more letters recommending Marcus, the ABCFM met in 1835 and appointed him as an assistant missionary. The ABCFM did not like sending unmarried men abroad, so Marcus was encouraged to get married. Marcus visited Narcissa Prentiss at her family’s home in February 1835. By the end of that visit, Marcus had proposed to Narcissa. Narcissa, who also wished to be a missionary, and needed to marry to become one, accepted Marcus' proposal. Marcus’ appointment and journey west began the next day when he left to accompany Rev. Samuel Parker to the Rocky Mountains to scout out a location for a mission. 

Upon his return from the journey with Samuel Parker, Marcus and Narcissa married in February 1836. The very next day, they set off on their journey west to the Oregon Country to be missionaries among the Weyíiletpuu, or Cayuse people. They were joined by fellow ABCFM missionaries Reverend Henry and Eliza Spalding and William Henry Gray. The missionaries traveled overland with a caravan of traders and reached the Columbia Plateau in the fall of 1836.  

Between 1836 and 1847, life changed greatly for the Whitmans, the other missionaries, and the Cayuse Nation. Marcus and Narcissa had a daughter, Alice Clarissa, in 1837. Alice Clarissa drowned at the mission site in 1839, causing much grief and discord amongst not only the Whitmans, but the Cayuse as well. Marcus continued to practice medicine and functioned as a tıwáat, a Weyíiletpuu doctor. Marcus also attempted to convert Native peoples and introduced extensive changes to their traditional lifestyle. Many Weyíiletpuu adopted some of the ideas the missionaries endorsed, but not to the extent he had hoped. Though many began interweaving Christian beliefs into their spiritual practice, Marcus did not admit any official converts over his eleven years with the Cayuse. 

The Oregon Country missionaries quarreled with each other over how to run the mission stations and meet their goals. Their disagreements were very personal, and they struggled to cooperate to the point that the ABCFM ordered some of the mission stations to close. In response, the missionaries decided Marcus should ride back to Boston to appeal the decision to close the mission. After arriving in Boston, Marcus convinced the ABCFM to restore funding to the Oregon missions. This journey back to the United States served as the basis for the “Whitman Saved Oregon” myth.   

Over the years, miscommunications and misunderstandings grew into frustration and conflict between the Weyíiletpuu and the missionaries. From 1843 to 1847, Marcus changed the focus of the mission site from converting and educating the Cayuse to aiding immigrants on the Oregon Trail. A measles epidemic arrived in 1847, infecting Weyíiletpuu as well as the white immigrants. Dr. Whitman’s treatments appeared to be significantly less effective for Weyíiletpuu patients than they were for immigrant patients. Trust between Marcus and many Weyíiletpuu was already waning, and the imbalanced results of the doctor’s treatments only exacerbated it.  

Cayuse traditional law holds that a tıwáat could be killed for malpractice if it resulted in death of the patient. Marcus was aware of this law and received multiple warnings about his potential fate. When he continued to lose Cayuse patients, a small group of Cayuse men decided to act on the law. On November 29, 1847, the group attacked the mission, killing Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and eleven other adult men.  

The attack on the mission sparked outrage and vengeance from the United States, leading to further bloodshed and loss. In the years following these events, many institutions and places were named in honor of the Whitmans. In 1936, the mission site became a part of the National Park Service as Whitman Mission National Historic Site.  

[1] Letter dated June 3, 1834, from Marcus Whitman to the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Last updated: January 25, 2023