Mrs. Whitman looked after many children, but she gave birth to only one child, Alice Clarissa. While Alice Clarissa was alive she was her parents' "treasure invaluable." Tragically, Alice Clarissa drowned when she was only 2 years old.
The following information about Alice Clarissa Whitman is excerpted from Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford M. Drury.
The Birth of Alice Clarissa
On the evening of Narcissa’s twenty-ninth birthday, March 14, 1837, a daughter was born to the Whitmans. They named her Alice after the mother and sister of Marcus, and Clarissa after the mother and a sister of Narcissa. She was the first white child to be born of white American parents in the Old Oregon country and the second girl of American parents on the whole Pacific Slope of what is now the United States. "I was sick but about two hours,” Narcissa told her family. “She was born half past eight, so early in the evening that we all had time to get considerable rest that night.”
Description of Baby Alice Clarissa
Writing two weeks after her baby was born, Narcissa gave the following description of the child: “Her hair is a light brown . . . She is plump & large, holds her head up finely & looks about considerably. She weighs ten pounds.” The proud and happy mother called her “a treasure invaluable.”
The Cayuse Reaction to Alice Clarissa
The Cayuses were tremendously interested in the birth of a white baby in their midst. On March 30, Narcissa wrote: “The Little Stranger is visited daily by the Chiefs & principal men in camp & the women throng the house continually waiting an opportunity to see her. Her whole appearance is so new to them. Her complexion, her size & dress & all excite a deal of wonder for they never raise a child here except they are lashed tight to a board & the girls’ heads undergo the flattening process." In this same letter, she wrote “Tee-low-kiki [Tiloukaikt], a friendly Indian, called to see her the next day after she was born; Said she was a Cayuse Te-mi (Cayuse girl) because she was born on Cayuse wai-tis (Cayuse land). He told us her arrival was expected by all the people of the country . . The whole tribe are highly pleased because we allow her to be called a Cayuse girl.”
About four months before Narcissa received her first mail from her family in New York State, she wrote a letter to her “Very, Very Dear Parents,” under date of March 14, 1838. This was her thirtieth birthday and the first of her daughter, Alice Clarissa. The letter begins with the lament: “More than two years have passed since I left my father’s home and not a single word has been wafted hence, or, perhaps I should say, has greeted my ears to afford consolation in a desponding hour. This long, long silence makes me feel the truth of our situation, that we are far, very far removed from the land of our birth and Christian privileges.”
This letter, like others written by Narcissa to her loved ones during the two years her daughter was alive, is sprinkled with tender references to her. The proud mother listed the words the one-year-old could say, as “Papa,” “Mama,” and “pussy.” The last word shows that the Whitmans had a cat. From other references, we know that they also had at least one dog. The little girl was then learning to walk. Narcissa wrote: “She is as large and larger than some of the native children of two years old. Her strength, size, and activity surprise the Indians very much. They think it is owing to their being laced on their te‑cashes (as they call the board they use for them), motionless night and day, that makes their children so weak and small when compared with her.”
On April 11, 1838, Narcissa wrote again to her parents and again made mention of her little girl. “My Clarissa is my own little companion from day to day, and dear daughter.” Again: “She is her mother’s constant companion, & appears to be very lonely if she is out of sight but for a few moments . . . Dear child, she is a great solace & comfort to her mother in her lonely hours & God grant she may live still to continue so.” In this letter Narcissa requested that some flannel dresses, shoes, and other clothing items be sent for her daughter. She also requested that “the name of Alice Clarissa Whitman, born Wieletpoo, O. Territory, March 14, 1837, be placed in father’s family Bible.”
On September 18, 1838, shortly after the arrival of the reenforcement, Narcissa wrote another long letter to her sister Jane, from which the following is taken: “Yes, Jane, you cannot know how much of a comfort our little daughter, Alice Clarissa, is to her father and mother. O, how many melancholy hours she has saved me, while living here alone so long, especially when her father is gone for many days together. I wish most sincerely that her aunts could see her, for surely they would love her as well as her parents. She is now eighteen months old, very large and remarkably healthy. She is a great talker. Causes her mother many steps and much anxiety. She is just beginning to sing with us in our family worship. The moment singing commences, if she is not in her mother’s arms, she comes to me immediately and wishes me to take her, especially if it is a Nez Perce hymn that we are singing. We have but three or four of them, and sing them every day, and Alice has become so familiar with them that she is repeating some part of them most of the time.”
Alice Clarissa Drowns
The events of the last day of Alice’s life are described in detail by the sorrowing mother in a letter sent to her father dated September 30, 1839. On Sunday morning, June 23, Narcissa awakened her daughter with a kiss. The child slowly opened her eyes and, then seeing her mother, stretched up her pudgy arms for an embrace. Although only two years and three months old, Alice was able to sing a number of hymns frequently used by her parents in family worship. That morning she asked for “Rock of Ages.” Later the grieving mother remembered how, after singing the first stanza, Alice asked: “Mama, should my tears forever flow.” That was her way of calling for the second stanza where these words occur.
Later that morning the Whitmans took their daughter with them when they conducted a worship service for the Indians in their vicinity. Here again at the close of the service, “Rock of Ages” was sung. Of this, Narcissa wrote: “She united with us again, with a clearness and distinctness we shall never forget, and with such ecstacy as almost to raise her out of her chair. And no wonder for what words could have been more appropriate to her mind than these:
Dear father, when you sing this hymn, think of me, for my thoughts do not recur to it without almost overcoming me . . . This was the last [time] we heard her sing.”
About two‑thirty on that fateful Sunday afternoon, Margaret McKay set the table for the Sunday evening meal. Both Marcus and Narcissa were absorbed in reading. Later Narcissa had a dim recollection that Alice had said: “Mama, supper is almost ready; let Alice get some water.” Taking two cups from the table, the child left the house. “This was like a shadow that passed across my mind,” wrote Narcissa. “[It] passed away and made no impression.”
Soon Narcissa realized that the child was gone and asked Margaret to look for her. Margaret went out and not seeing Alice, went to the garden for some vegetables instead of returning at once to report. Then Mungo went out to look and soon he came back saying that he saw two cups in the river. “How did they get there?” asked Narcissa. “Let them be,” said Marcus, “and get them tomorrow, because of the Sabbath.” But Narcissa, becoming uneasy, again asked: “How did they get there?” Then Marcus replied: “I suppose Alice put them there.” Laying aside his book, he went out to investigate. Narcissa followed. At first they went to the garden. Then after a flash of memory crossed her mind about Alice getting the cups, Narcissa ran to the river. Marcus joined her.
In a letter to her mother, Narcissa described their frantic search: “We ran down on the brink of the river near the place where she was, and, as if forbidden to approach the spot, although accessible, we passed her, crossed a bend in the river far below, and then back again, and then in another direction, still further below, while others got into the river and waded to find her, and what was remarkable, all entered the river below where she was last found.”
During the three‑day interval following the child’s death, Narcissa had prepared a shroud for the body while Marcus supervised the making of a coffin and the digging of a grave at the foot of the hill to the northeast of the mission house. Spalding took for his text words found in II Kings 4:26: “Is it well with the child?” Only a few were present for the funeral service. These included the Whitmans and the members of their household, the Spaldings, Hall, Pambrun, and possibly a few Indians. In a letter to her mother dated October 9, 1839, Narcissa wrote that although the grave was in sight every time she stepped out‑of-doors: “I seem not to feel that she is there.” The spirit had gone to God who gave it.
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.
Last updated: March 1, 2015