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

Marcus Whitman was born in 1802 in what is now Rushville, New York. When his father died in 1810, Marcus was sent to live with an uncle in Massachusetts. His uncle and grandfather provided him with an education and “constant religious instruction and care.”1 

His teenage years were spent in Plainfield, Massachusetts. 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 that he wanted to be a minister and told his family of his desire. They were not very supportive of his goal, perhaps because it took seven years to become a minister- four years of college, followed by three years in a theological seminary- or perhaps because one of the family businesses was a tavern and the Second Great Awakening strengthened support for temperance.

At the time, becoming a doctor required less schooling than becoming a minister, so Marcus instead began studying medicine. He was an apprentice to Rushville's doctor for possibly up to two years and may have spent some of that time teaching. In 1825, he enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District of New York, Fairfield; after sixteen weeks, he was qualified for a license to practice medicine. He went to Canada to put his license to use, spending about two and a half years in the Niagara District before returning to Rushville. 

When he returned, Marcus was still interested in becoming a minister. He began pursuing the ministry, but his studies were cut short by illness and never completed. However, in October 1831, he returned to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Fairfield, and earned his Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree. 

After receiving his M.D., Marcus settled in Wheeler, New York, where he lived until 1835. In 1834, Marcus Whitman was brought to the attention of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Boston, Massachusetts. Due to the ill health that had prevented Marcus from completing his ministerial studies, the ABCFM was hesitant to accept him as a missionary and did not appoint him as such at that time.

After later receiving more letters recommending Dr. Whitman to the Board, the Board met in 1835 and appointed Dr. Whitman as a missionary doctor. His appointment began with orders to accompany Samuel Parker to the Rocky Mountains that summer and scout out a location for a mission. The ABCFM was not fond of the idea of sending unmarried men abroad, however, so Marcus needed to get married before he left for his mission station in Oregon Country.

Marcus visited Narcissa Prentiss at her family’s home in February 1835. The two may or may not have been acquainted beforehand, but by the end of the visit Marcus had proposed to Narcissa. Narcissa, who also wished to be a missionary and also needed to marry to do so, accepted Marcus' proposal. Both had a year to anticipate their marriage while Marcus made his journey west for the first time with Samuel Parker.

Marcus and Narcissa married in February 1836 and almost immediately set off on their journey west to a new life as 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 Whitman continued to practice medicine and served as a tıwáat, a weyíiletpuu doctor. Along with the other missionaries who were assigned to the Oregon missions, Dr. Whitman also attempted to convert Native peoples and introduce extensive changes to the traditional lifestyle. Many weyíiletpuu adopted some of the ideas Whitman endorsed, but not to the extent he had hoped. For example, though many began interweaving Christian beliefs into their spiritual practice, none met Dr. Whitman’s high standards for admittance to the church. He did not have any official converts over the eleven years that he operated the mission.

The missionaries also quarreled with each other over how to run the mission stations and meet their goals. Some of 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. Stories of his 1842 ride east to stop the ABCFM from closing some of the Oregon missions became a legend that "Whitman saved Oregon," making it seem that Marcus single-handedly led to Oregon Country becoming a part of the United States. In reality, this was not the case. Though he did return west with the 1843 wave of United States emigrants and provide some guidance, that was not the intent of Dr. Whitman’s ride nor did he play a role in organizing the wagon train. 

Over the years, miscommunications and misunderstandings grew into frustration and conflict between the weyíiletpuu people and the missionaries. The situation came to a breaking point in 1847 when a measles epidemic struck the Columbia Plateau. Dr. Whitman’s treatments were significantly less effective for weyíiletpuu patients than they were for patients arriving from the United States. Trust between Whitman and many Cayuse people was already waning, and the imbalanced results of the doctor’s treatments struck some as suspicious. 

Part of Cayuse traditional law was that a tıwáat could be killed for malpractice if it resulted in death. The Whitmans were aware of this law, and in November of 1847, Marcus was warned that his welcome was running out. When he continued to lose Cayuse patients during the measles epidemic, 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 others.

The death of the Whitmans sparked outrage from United States citizens who ensured their names continued on. Cushing Eells, another missionary who had joined the Whitmans and Spaldings in Oregon Country, built Whitman Seminary on the grounds of the old mission. It later moved to Walla Walla and became Whitman College. A statue of Marcus was erected in Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. Then, one hundred years after the mission was established, the mission site became a part of the National Park Service in 1936. 

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

Last updated: March 6, 2021