The Loss of Alice Clarissa

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2010

Sunday morning, June 23, 1839, started like any other. Little did Marcus and Narcissa Whitman know that by the end of the day their darling daughter would be dead.

Many visitors to Whitman Mission National Historic Site wonder how the Whitmans could have let such a tragedy happen.

Narcissa describes the day’s events in letters sent to her family:

“We both of us were sitting near the door, and she was diverting herself in and about it, and Margaret [household helper] had been ordered to set the table, and get supper. The moment I ceased to hear her voice, or to see her, I sent Margaret to find her…but she did not look for her but little, and then went into the garden for radishes and lettuce for supper, but she did not come and tell me that she could not find her.”

“Mungo [a Hawaiian boy who lived with them] went out with her [Margaret] at the same time and went to the river, but came back immediately and said there were two cups in the river. … Why I was not alarmed in an instant is to me astonishing. It was doubtless owing partially to my confidence in the girl I sent for her, because she did not come and tell me she could not find her. … I went to the other side of the house and inquired for her, but no one had seen her. … by the time I got to the river’s brink, it flashed across my mind like a dream, that I had had a glimpse of her, while sitting and reading, entering the house and on seeing the table set for supper, she exclaimed with her usual animation, “Mamma, supper is almost ready; let Alice get some water.” She went up to the table and took two cups …We thought if we could find her immediately she would not be dead entirely, so but that we could bring her to again. We ran down on the brink of the river … 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… By this time all hopes of her life were given up for she had been in the water too long now to think of saving her. As we were coming towards the house, we saw an old Indian preparing to enter the river where she fell in. …he took her from the water and exclaimed “She is found.” … We tried every means that could be used to bring her to life, for a long time, but to no effect.”

Their beloved daughter, Alice Clarissa, was dead at the age of two years, three months and nine days.

Narcissa continues:

“Her spirit had been called to rise to worlds before unknown, and I could only say, “Lord, it is right; it is right; she is not mine but thine; she has only been lent to me for a little season, and now, dearest Saviour, thou hast the best right to her; ‘Thy will be done,’ not mine.” I cannot wish her back in this world of sin and pain; her tender spirit was of too delicate material to remain here longer and be subject to the ills of this cruel and unfriendly world.”

Regardless of how tragic an event may be, life must go on. So it was for the Whitmans. Even as they dealt with the loss of their child, people arrived on their doorstop, people who needed their help and attention. For example, two couples who had traveled to the Oregon Country to be missionaries without adequate financial backing.

This is part 21 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 2

Next: On Faith Alone



Whitman, Narcissa. Letter to Honorable Stephen Prentiss (Narcissa's father). September 30, 1839. Whitman Mission Collection. Selected 1839 letters (pdf 72KB).

Whitman, Narcissa and Marcus. Letter to Mrs. Clarissa Prentiss (Narcissa's mother). October 9, 1839. Whitman Mission Collection. Selected 1839 letters (pdf 72KB).

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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