By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
In the summer of 1835 missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman was at the fur trappers' Rendezvous at Green River [in what is now Wyoming]. He was on a scouting trip with Rev. Parker. It was decided that Dr. Whitman should go home and marry his fiancé, Narcissa Prentiss; then return the next year with her and other missionaries for the new mission. Before Dr. Whitman left, he was approached by two Nez Perce chiefs. Each had a son whom he wanted Whitman to take east with him. Similar arrangements had previously been made with Hudson Bay Company staff. The boys names were Tack-it-ton-i-tis, whom Whitman called "Richard," and Ais, whom Whitman named "John." It seemed to be a win-win situation. The tribe would get new knowledge. Dr. Whitman would get travel assistants who could also help him learn the language. [At that point Dr. Whitman believed his mission station would be among the Nez Perce. It wasn't until he returned to the Rendezvous the following year that the location was changed to be among the Cayuse.]
On August 27 the fur traders' caravan, with wagons loaded with furs, left the Rendezvous to return to the United States. With the group were Dr. Whitman, Tack-it-ton-i-tis, and Ais. The three reached St. Louis on November 4, then headed to Marcus' home in upstate New York. They had only a few months before they would be making the trip again, but in reverse. While there, the boys visited several places and spent some time in school. On the return journey they were joined by Dr. Whitman's new bride, Narcissa, three more missionaries, two hired hands, and another Nez Perce, Samuel Temoni. Narcissa provides some descriptions:
"...we have made our tent. It is made of bed ticking in conical form, large enough for us all to sleep under, viz. Mr. Spaulding and wife, Dr. Whitman and wife, Mr. Gray, Richard Takahtoo-ah-tis, and John Aits - quite a little family, raised with a center pole and fasten down with pegs, covering a large circle. There we shall live, eat and sleep for the summer to come at least, perhaps longer."
"Here I must tell you how much good Richard, John, and Samuel did us. They did the work of driving the cattle and loose horses principally…They came up to the river before us, and seeing a skin canoe on the opposite side, they striped themselves, wound their shirts round their heads and swam over and back again with the canoe … stretched a rope across the river and pulled the goods over in the canoe."
The Whitmans hoped to keep the boys with them as helpers and translators at their mission, since the Cayuse spoke Nez Perce in addition to their own language. But Ais decided to return to his family immediately. Tack-it-ton-i-tis stayed for a short while, but he too soon left. This was a blow to the Whitmans. Overcoming the communication barrier would be one of the missionaries' most difficult challenges.
This was just one of many disappointments they would face.
This is part 2 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives."
Next: The Man Who Wasn't There