Marcus Whitman was born September 4, 1802 to Beza and Alice Whitman, in Federal Hollow (later Rushville) New York. He was the seventh generation of "descendents of John Whitman who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime prior to December 1638. It is believed that John Whitman came from Norfolk, England, where the family name was originally spelled Whiteman." (Drury, 1986; 61) In life and then in his death Marcus Whitman became one of the most known figures of the 19th century and was an inspiration to many.
Rushville was located in western New York, and at the time was considered quite primitive. Growing up in these surroundings, tending a carding machine (preparing wool for spinning), Marcus likely acquired the knowledge and skills early on that he later needed in Oregon. Beza died when Marcus was seven years old; Marcus was sent to live with an uncle in Massachusetts where he received education and a moral upbringing for five years. His teenage years were spent in Plainfield, Massachusetts at a school taught by the Congregational pastor Reverend Moses Hallock. William Cullen Bryant and John Brown (Harper's Ferry raid) were among other students taught by Reverend Hallock. Greatly influencing Marcus at age 17 were religious revivals throughout New England, now known as the Second Great Awakening. Several Protestant churches were active in revivals including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. Marcus had a conversion experience, but did not join a specific church at that time, though he did decide that he wanted to become a minister.
Upon returning to Rushville in 1820 (age 18), he told his family of his wishes to become a minister. They were not supportive of this goal as it took seven years at that time to become a minister - four years of college, followed by three years in a theological seminary. Instead, for the next three years he worked in his stepfather's tannery and shoe business. At age 21, he began studying to be a doctor, apprenticing himself to Rushville's doctor for possibly up to two years and perhaps alternating this with 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 practice medicine, spending about 2 ½ years in the Niagara District before returning to Rushville, New York. His thoughts again turned to ministry and he entered preparatory study to become a minister. His studies for the ministry were cut short by illness and never completed. However, in October 1831 he again entered College of Physicians and Surgeons, Fairfield, and achieved his Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree. He was considered to be a very capable and qualified doctor of medicine with his two degrees and experience in being a physician.
After receiving his M.D., Marcus settled in Wheeler, New York, where he lived until 1835, when he left to scout for mission stations in Oregon. Whitman was an active member of the community and was elected to be a trustee of the Wheeler Presbyterian Church in 1832 and 1833. He was ordained as an elder of the church in 1834. It was also in 1834 that Marcus Whitman was brought to the attention of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Boston, Massachusetts. The ABCFM was an organization that sponsored Presbyterian and Congregational missions throughout the world, including America. Reverend H.P. Strong of Rushville wrote the ABCFM on April 25, 1834:
The ABCFM replied to this letter to Reverend Strong, who then communicated with Dr. Whitman, resulting in Whitman writing the American Board in June, 1834:
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 despite letters assuring them that his health had improved. Later in 1834, Marcus again had letters written on his behalf to the ABCFM to become a medical missionary. On January 6, 1835 the Board met 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 mission lands. Marcus settled affairs in Wheeler and set out to acquire the last thing missing in his life - a wife.
Marcus may have previously been acquainted with Narcissa Prentiss prior to his February 1835 visit to her family's home that ended with his marriage proposal. At that time, some missionary couples were introduced by mutual acquaintances for what seems to us today to be a marriage of convenience, the individuals hardly knowing one another, but having common morals and goals. Narcissa Prentiss was from Amity, New York. She had also applied to the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, but was told that unwed females were not accepted. Her prayers were answered when Marcus Whitman entered her life as were his. Narcissa accepted Marcus' proposal. Both had a year to anticipate their marriage while Marcus made his journey west for the first time with Samuel Parker. With the upcoming wedding, the last barrier to Marcus Whitman's dream of having a life in the field of Christian service was broken down.
The journey west with Parker was not a pleasant one. Mr. Parker was very difficult and considered Whitman to be more of a servant than an associate. They traveled with a caravan heading to the annual Rendezvous of mountain men and trappers that was held on the Green River. As Christian missionaries and supporters of temperance (no alcohol), Whitman and Parker were not well accepted by the others in the caravan until Whitman treated the cholera sweeping through the caravan. At the Rendezvous in 1835 he also operated on mountain man Jim Bridger, removing a three-inch iron arrow point from his back that was from a battle with the Blackfeet three years prior. After the success of the operation on Jim Bridger, others at the Rendezvous came forward for operations also, Whitman was well accepted as a medicine man even before he established the mission station among the Cayuse in 1836. Parker and Whitman parted ways after meeting with Nez Perce and Flathead chiefs. Samuel Parker was to continue the exploration to Walla Walla with the Indians, while Marcus returned east to marry Narcissa and make preparations for the next journey, including finding more missionaries to join them.
On his return trip east, Dr. Whitman was accompanied by two Nez Perce boys whom he renamed Richard and John. He also wrote a report to the ABCFM stating his belief that women could make the cross-country journey (before this, no woman of European descent had crossed the Rocky Mountains). Marcus still hoped to find another couple to join them in their Oregon venture. He heard of Henry and Eliza Spalding who were to be missionaries among the Osage people; they had already started for their destination, but Marcus caught up to them and convinced them to join the Oregon missions. After the Spaldings agreed, Marcus returned to New York where he married Narcissa Prentiss on February 18, 1836. The beginning of their married life was also the beginning of their journey west to a new life as missionaries among the Cayuse people, with whom they spent the rest of their lives. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman died on November 29, 1847 after spending 11 years among the Cayuse people.
Between 1836 and 1847 life changed greatly for both the Whitmans and the Cayuse. The Cayuse were a semi-nomadic people who were on a seasonal cycle of hunting, gathering and fishing. Dr. Whitman introduced agriculture in order to keep the Cayuse at the mission and introduce Christianity. By the mid-1840's the mission was also a way-stop on the Oregon Trail. Emigrants traveling to the Willamette Valley knew they could stop at Whitman's Mission if they needed food, medicine, or a place to stay during the winter. The Cayuse were suspicious of the many people flooding into the area. Tension rose between the Cayuse and the missionaries. The situation came to a breaking point in 1847 with a measles epidemic that within a matter of months killed half the Cayuse tribe. Marcus was considered to be a te-wat, or medicine man, to the Cayuse people. His medicines did not work when trying to cure Cayuse infected with measles. It was Cayuse tradition that if the patient died after being treated by the medicine man, the family of the patient had the right to kill the medicine man. On November 29, 1847, eleven Cayuse took part in what is now called the "Whitman Killings". The majority of the tribe was not involved in the deaths of the Whitmans and the eleven emigrants, however, the whole tribe was held responsible until 1850. In that year, five Cayuse were turned over to the authorities in Oregon City and hanged for the crime of killing the Whitmans.
The legacy of Dr. Whitman lived on. Stories of his 1842 ride east to stop the ABCFM from closing some of the Oregon missions became a legend that "Whitman saved Oregon for the Americans", making it seem that Whitman promoted a manifest destiny for America. Cushing Eells, an associate of Whitman, built Whitman Seminary on the grounds of the old mission; it later moved to Walla Walla and became Whitman College. A statue of Dr. Whitman was erected in Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. And finally, the mission at Waiilatpu where he lived and died, is part of the National Park Service, preserved by the people of the United States since 1936. The memories of the Whitmans, as well as those of the Cayuse and the Oregon Trail emigrants, live on serving as a lesson in cultural understanding and tolerance today.
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1986. Pacific Northwest National Parks & Forest Association: Seattle, Washington.
Drury, Clifford M. Marcus Whitman, M.D., Pioneer and Martyr. 1937. The Caxton Printers, Ltd.:Caldwell, Idaho.
Mowry, William Augustus. Marcus Whitman and the Early Days of Oregon. 1901. Silver, Burdett: New York, New York.
Woodbridge, Ross. "Are These the Whitmans?" in The Whitman Alumnus: Whitman College Bulletin,Volume 73 (Number 5). 1970.
Last updated: February 1, 2020