By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
Two years ago we met Marcus and Narcissa Whitman as they were taking their wedding vows in Angelica, New York on February 18, 1835. They were beginning their life together and also beginning their lives as missionaries. Over the next 34 installments of this saga we traveled with them to the Oregon Country, saw them establish their mission, learned a few things about the Cayuse people with whom they worked, met some of their colleagues, were with them during the death of their daughter, and more. This is the last installment of that saga.
The end of their story begins in the fall of 1847. The buildings at the Whitmans' mission were near-to-bursting with people: Twenty-three people were staying in the main mission house; thirty-one were lodged in the Emigrant House. There were even eight people living in the blacksmith shop. Most were just temporary residents - emigrant families spending the winter with the Whitmans before continuing on to the Willamette Valley.
An epidemic of measles hit the area. Within a few months possibly as many as half of the local Cayuse people had died of the disease. Emigrants also came down with the measles, but they got better. Only one died. Today we would talk about whether or not an individual has an inherited resistance to a disease, but that is not an explanation they would have had at that time. One rumor that grew in prominence was that Dr. Whitman was actually poisoning the Cayuse to get their land and horses.With the many deaths and the ugly rumors, emotions and tensions were very high.
On the morning of November 29, 1847, three more Cayuse children were buried. Shortly after the noon meal the mission was attacked. The Whitmans's foster children were doing chores: John Sager was winding twine to make into a broom; Mary Ann Bridger was in the kitchen washing dishes. Dr. Whitman was in the living room reading. Mrs. Whitman was bathing Catherine and Elizabeth Sager. Other children were in the school room waiting for the afternoon classes to begin. Mr. Gilliland, a tailor, was sitting cross-legged on top of a table, sewing. Some of the other men were in the yard butchering a steer.
We know many details about that fateful day through the writings of 19 people who survived the attack. Many visitors to the mission site are surprised by how much is known, mainly because this event soon became known as the "Whitman Massacre." While this phrase captured the anger and frustration felt by many Americans at the time, it doesn't accurately reflect actual historic events. For many today, the term "massacre" brings to mind complete annihilation. Several people were killed, including Dr. and Mrs. Whitman, but most lived. The survivors were held hostage for a month before being ransomed by employees of the Hudson's Bay Company.
The events that happened at the mission have captured the imagination of generation after generation. But the meanings and lessons to learn changed with the times. The Whitmans have been described as courageous martyrs, held up as role models for their dedication and persistence in the face of hardship and danger. The Whitmans have also been described as culturally ignorant and inflexible, as insensitive interlopers who were trying to impose their views on an unwilling population: the Whitman story serving as a warning against even well-intentioned intervention into other cultures. The truth, if it could be determined, probably lies somewhere between these views.
Visit Whitman Mission National Historic Site, located just west of Walla Walla, Washington. See where the mission buildings once stood. Visit their graves. Walk the ground where they once trod and ponder the meaning of their story for yourself.
This is part 36 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3