Narcissa Whitman

A portrait of a woman with blonde hair pulled back and wearing a light blue dress
A portrait based off of a historic sketch by Paul Kane that might be of Narcissa Whitman

Quick Facts
An American missionary who worked amongst the Cayuse people. One of the first known white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.
Place of Birth:
Prattsburg, New York
Date of Birth:
March 14, 1808
Place of Death:
Walla Walla, Washington
Date of Death:
November 29, 1847
Place of Burial:
Walla Walla, Washington

Narcissa Whitman was one of the first white women to cross the North American continent overland on her way to become a missionary to the Cayuse Nation in present-day Washington. She, and her husband Marcus, helped facilitate the colonization of the Oregon Country via the Oregon Trail before ultimately being killed during an attack on the mission site in 1847. 

Narcissa was born March 14, 1808 in Prattsburg, New York. At a young age, Narcissa was inspired by the writings of other missionaries that appeared in newspapers. At the age of 16, she decided she would become a missionary. In her application letter to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) she wrote: 

“I frequently desire to go to the heathen but only half-heartedly and it was not till the first Monday of Jan. 1824 that I felt to consecrate myself without reserve to the Missionary work waiting the leadings of Providence concerning me.” 

Narcissa’s first application for missionary service was not accepted because she was a single woman. While awaiting the opportunity for missionary service, she remained active in church and pursued an education, later becoming a teacher. In 1834, Narcissa attended an ABCFM meeting where a call for missionaries was extended. She responded to the call and asked if single women were needed. After being denied again for being unmarried, Narcissa was introduced to fellow aspiring missionary Marcus Whitman. Shortly after meeting, the couple became engaged and they formally applied to the ABCFM for a missionary appointment together. Narcissa’s life as a missionary began the day after she was married in February 1836 when they set off on their journey to the Oregon Country. Her and Marcus would be missionaries to the Weyíiletpuu, the Cayuse people

The journey west was long and hard. She kept a detailed journal of her travels that would later be published and widely read back east. Shortly after they arrived at the mission site, Narcissa gave birth to her only child, Alice Clarissa. Alice brought much joy to her mother and was the first American child born in the Cayuse Nation. Tragically, Alice drowned in 1839 in a nearby branch of the Walla Walla River. 

Narcissa became deeply depressed and introverted after her daughter’s death and spent a lot of time in her room writing to family members in New York. Her writings reveal that her life as a missionary was not what she had expected. Despite her isolation and loneliness, she was reluctant to build relationships with or even allow any Native people into her home.  

When the seven Sager orphans arrived at the mission in 1844, Narcissa and Marcus took them in as their own. Though she still struggled with life at the mission, the Sager children helped Narcissa find renewed purpose. In addition to caring for the children at the mission, Narcissa was busy with helping with religious services, teaching in the mission school, and tending to Dr. Whitman’s patients.  

Narcissa died on November 29, 1847, along her husband and eleven other adult men. She was killed in an attack on the mission by a small group of Weyíiletpuu men who were motivated by the raging measles epidemic in their community and Dr. Whitman’s inability to cure their dying people.  

Narcissa is remembered as one of the first two white women, the other being Eliza Spalding, to cross the continent overland. Their journey proved that it was possible for women to cross the country on foot, opening the way for the next several generations of immigrant families who journeyed down the Oregon Trail. Narcissa is also remembered by some as a controversial figure who brought unwanted changes to the region. 

To learn more about Narcissa Whitman, the ABCFM missions in Oregon, and the long-lasting legacies of the mission period, you can visit Whitman Mission National Historic Site in Walla Walla, Washington.  

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Last updated: January 18, 2023