The Whitman Tragedy: Into the Land of the Cayuse, Masters of the Columbia Plateau


xWhitman County (Image: Wikimedia)

“This is the country of the Cayouses” —Narcissa Whitman, October 18, 1836

Editor’s Note: What follows is an excerpt from the newly published (by Sasquatch Books) history of the events and context leading up to the famous Whitman Massacre of 1847. The chapter below sketches the history of the Native tribe, the Cayuse, who welcomed missionaries such as the Whitmans. The book, Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and its Shifting Legacy in the American West, sheds new light on the legend-shrouded story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. The Whitmans’ role in opening up the West to migration and serving as martyrs to their complex causes is now deeply questioned. A first step in this reappraisal is a deeper understanding of the once-mighty Cayuse, the tribe that came to feel betrayed by the missionaries and the settlers in their wake, and participated in the killing of the Whitmans and 11 others at the Walla Walla mission in 1847. The book is written by the historian and journalist Cassandra Tate, and is widely available ($24.95) in bookstores. Reprinted by permission of Sasquatch Books.

The people who became known as Cayuse were given that name by French Canadian fur traders, who called them Cailloux, meaning “Rock People,” because of the rocky nature of parts of their home-land. Fur trader Alexander Ross spelled it Cayouse. To the botanist and explorer David Douglas, they were the Kyeuuse or the Kyuuse. Early emigrants thought they were Cai-uses, Skyuse, Kaius, Kioos, Kiusas, and other variants. Their own name for themselves may have been Liksiyu. To their Nez Perce neighbors, they were Weyiiletpuu or Waiilatpu: the People of the Place of Waving Grass (often incorrectly translated as “Place of the Rye Grass”).

Great Basin wild rye (Leymus cinereus) is one of dozens of native grasses and sedges that flourished on the flatlands and rolling hills in Cayuse country. Ice Age floods shaped much of this landscape, drilling deep crevices into ancient basalt, stripping away topsoil in some areas, piling it up in others, plucking huge chunks of rock from basalt cliffs along the Columbia River, leaving behind shallow caves that Plateau Indians later used for shelter and storage. 

Geologists believe that the Northwest was pummeled by a hundred or more “mega floods” originating from Glacial Lake Missoula in Montana during the last Ice Age alone. Floodwaters backed up at Wallula Gap, the only outlet for water draining from the entire Columbia Basin to the sea, creating temporary lakes that inundated the Walla Walla Valley alone with up to 250 feet of water. Flood-borne sediments settled out of these lakes, becoming part of the rich topsoil that supports the farms, orchards, and ranches of the Walla Walla, Yakima, and Willamette Valleys today. The sediment is also the basis for the quality of the acclaimed wines produced in the Mid-Columbia Basin. Wine grapes require soil that is both fast-draining and water-retentive, characteristics provided by the fine-grained sand and silt in the flood deposits.

Geologists say that one of those floods, maybe 12-15,000 years ago, stripped away most of a thick outcrop-ping of basalt downstream from Wallula, leaving two massive pillars that overlook Washington State Route 730, two miles south of US Highway 12. According to a Cayuse legend, the pillars are actually the work of the trickster Coyote. One day, it is said, Coyote saw three beautiful Cayuse sisters building a fish trap in Nch’i-Wána (literally the Big River, now called the Columbia). He tricked them into marrying him. For a while, all was well, but eventually he became jealous of his wives. He turned one of the sisters into a cavern and the other two into basalt pillars on the south side of the river. Then he turned himself into a large rock on the north side, so that he might keep an eye on them forever. 

Canadian artist Paul Kane saw the pillars and heard the story about the “Rocks of the Ki-use girls” when he passed through the region in July 1847. The pillars—shown on maps as the “Cayuse Sisters” or the “Twin Sisters”—still stand sentinel near the river, but the cavern beneath them was inundated by the completion of McNary Dam in 1954.

The Cayuse were the masters of this land when the first whites saw it, in the early 1800s. Their skill in breeding and raising horses (“cayuse” continues to be used as the name of a fast, sure-footed horse in the West) gave them wealth and influence over other indigenous peoples. They were tough, hard-minded traders and much feared as warriors. Scottish-born Alexander Ross, who helped build the area’s first trading post in 1818, described them as “by far the most powerful and warlike” of the tribes on the Columbia Plateau—the region bordered by the Rockies on the east, the Cascades on the west, the Deschutes River drainages to the south, and the Okanogan highlands near the Canadian border to the north.

 They “regulate all the movements of the others in peace and war, and as they stand well or ill disposed toward their traders, so do the others,” wrote Ross. David Douglas, encountering a group of “Kyeuuse” at The Dalles in 1826, called them “the terror of all other tribes west of the mountains.” Thomas J. Farnham, a would-be colonizer who traveled through the country a decade later, gave them the label later used by many others: “the imperial tribe” of Old Oregon.

In earlier days, before horses entered their world, the Cayuse were river people, living in small villages clustered along the Walla Walla, Umatilla, and other drainages south of the Columbia. Extended families shared rectangular, A-framed longhouses, held up by driftwood logs and covered with tule mats. Tule (pronounced “too-lee”) is a type of sedge that swells when wet. During winter rains, gaps between water-swollen tules would close, creating a snug, waterproof structure. The lodges were disassembled and reassembled on new sites as needed. 

People traveled by canoe or on foot. They had dogs but no other domesticated animals. Some of the dogs were trained to haul firewood and other supplies in backpacks or on a travois (a type of sled, framed by two poles in the shape of an isosceles triangle). Like other indigenous people on the Plateau, the Cayuse were seasonally mobile, harvesting wild foods as they became available, following a way of life handed down through generations, over thousands of years.

People lived in autonomous villages or bands, bound by language, social customs, and shared purpose. There was no single, politically unified “tribe.” Headmen were selected on the basis of experience and abilities. Conflicts were resolved by a council of elders and headmen; decisions were arrived at by consensus. Women advised but did not directly participate in councils. Polygamy was common, although generally the province of headmen and others with status and influence. There were strong taboos against marrying blood relatives, including cousins, which meant that people often went outside their local communities to find partners. The resulting bonds of kinship created extensive social networks among Plateau peoples.

In the spring, when the salmon began running, people left their winter villages and moved to favorite fishing sites on the Big River. Men used traps, nets, and spears to harvest salmon as they swam upstream to spawn. Women gutted, cleaned, and spread the fish on platforms to dry. Dried fish was a staple in winter, when other food was scarce. Family groups and small bands moved on to other locations as roots, tubers, nuts, berries, and other plants ripened. The diet included more than a hundred species of plants. 

A mainstay was camas (Camassia quamash), a lily-like bulb that reminded some Euro-Americans of potatoes and others of onions. By late May, camas was in bloom, turning meadows and marshlands into seas of blue. The main harvest began in summer. Women pried the entire plant from the ground, using elkhorns or pointed hardwood sticks; removed the largest bulbs; and replanted the rest, to be harvested again the next year. Camas fields were not farmed in the conventional sense, but they were cultivated, usually by family groups that returned to the same areas year after year. Controlled burns helped reduce weeds and brush. Nutritional studies have shown that camas has more than twice as much calcium and four times as much iron as potatoes and nearly 40 percent more protein per pound than steelhead trout.

Anthropologist Eugene Hunn has estimated that plant foods provided about 60 percent of the total indigenous diet. Harvesting them required detailed knowledge of the land and its resources and rhythms. Places were named after the natural resources found there (as in “Place of Waving Grass” and “Place of Balsamroot Sunflower”), in contrast to the Euro-American convention of putting the names of people on the landscape. This intimate familiarity with the land may have helped the Cayuse see how horses could thrive on the region’s grasslands.

According to oral tradition, the Cayuse acquired their first horses sometime in the 1730s, as a result of what had originally been a war party against the Shoshone (also called Snake) Indians. Approaching a group of Shoshones on a tributary of the Snake River, Cayuse scouts were bewildered to see their enemies riding what appeared to be elk or large deer. Closer investigation revealed that the prints left by the hooves of the mysterious animals were not split, like those of other hooved mammals, but were solid and round. The Cayuse chief arranged a truce and asked to trade for some of the strange creatures. It is said that he and his warriors gave away all they had and returned home, nearly naked, with a mare and a stallion—descendants of horses that had been reintroduced into the New World by the Spanish.

The Cayuse response to those first horses reflected their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and take advantage of new opportunities. People who were hidebound by tradition would not have traded everything they had for something they had never seen before; or, later, to be as eager to acquire the guns, metal, cloth, and other new technology offered by Euro-American fur traders; or, still later, to be as receptive to the missionaries like the Whitmans who showed up in their homeland.

Cayuse herds increased rapidly—a combination of selective breeding (inferior horses were gelded), periodic raids on other tribes, and the abundance of good grazing land. By the early 1800s, an individual who owned only 15-20 horses was considered poor; wealthy families controlled 2,000 or more. Cayuse-bred horses were unprepossessing in appearance—they tended to be short and stocky—but they were famed for their speed, endurance, and agility.

Horses led to what historian Theodore Stern has called “a revolution in perspective” for the Cayuse. No longer restricted to what they could carry or what their dogs could pull, they moved into new territories, traveling as far east as the Great Plains and as far west as California to hunt, trade, fight, and capture slaves. A horse with a travois could easily haul several hundred pounds, much more than a dog. 

The seasonal migrations now included annual trips across the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo. This brought the Cayuse into contact with Midwestern tribes. They soon incorporated elements of Plains culture into their own, adopting new styles of clothing and personal ornamentation, methods of hunting, and ways of packing and transporting goods. They added conical teepees, sometimes covered with buffalo hides, to their housing options, although tule mats remained the covering of choice.

Horses improved the range and effectiveness of war parties, making it possible for the Cayuse to dominate their sedentary neighbors on the Columbia. They claimed suzerainty over The Dalles, the great fishery and trade emporium of the Columbia, forcing the weaker bands in that area to pay them tribute in the form of salmon and other goods.

 “For years to come,” wrote historians Robert Ruby and John Brown, “they would not let its salmon eaters, teeth worn and eyes blinded by river sand, forget their inferiority.” This domination continued into the 1840s. Henry K. W. Perkins, a Methodist missionary at Wascopam, near The Dalles, described the “Kaius” as “the elite of the country.” They “consider the fishers along the river as their humble servants, and there is no end of their acts of injustice and oppression toward them,” he wrote.

The increased mobility led to even tighter social and political connections between the Cayuse and Indian peoples throughout the Plateau, especially the Walla Walla, to the north; the Umatilla, to the southwest; and the Nez Perce, whose homeland lay to the east of Cayuse country. Intertribal boundaries were permeable. Combined parties camped together at fishing stations in Cayuse country on the Grande Ronde River or in Nez Perce country on the Wallowa; hunted together; intermarried; spoke each other’s languages; and joined together in raids and war parties, particularly against the Shoshonean tribes to the south. Today, it is rare to find a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla who does not have ancestors from two or three or more tribal groups.

Over time, the Cayuse became so closely affiliated with the Nez Perce that they lost their original language. Linguists divide the languages of the Plateau into two main families: Sahaptian (spoken by the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Umatilla, Yakama, and others); and Salishan (spoken by the Flathead, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, and others). The Cayuse language was an “isolate,” unrelated to either of the major groups. By the early 1800s most Cayuse spoke Nuumiipuutin, the Sahaptin language of the Nez Perce. Marcus Whitman noted in 1837 that younger Cayuse did not understand the language of their ancestors at all. A linguist who visited the Confederated Tribes reservation in 1888 found only six people who spoke what has since been designated an extinct language.

By making it easier to travel, horses greatly expanded the aboriginal trade network that was centered at Celilo Falls, the first of a ten-mile series of cataracts and cascades known collectively as The Dalles of the Columbia, where the river narrowed and squeezed and punched its way through the Cascade Mountains. For thousands of years Indians had gathered to fish, trade, gamble, and socialize at Celilo and adjacent sites. Horses extended the reach of this network, stretching it from Alaska to California and a thousand miles to the east. 

A dizzying array of goods could be found at what came to be called the Wall Street of the West: buffalo robes, grizzly claws, and parfleches (containers made of rawhide) from the Great Plains; obsidian and pipestone from the Great Basin; parrot feathers and turquoise from the Southwest; whale oil and ornamental shells (including the prized dentalium) from the Pacific coast. Manufactured goods made their way into the interior through coastal trade with European and American ships that came in search of sea otter and other furs. Cloth, metal, beads, and other items from distant factories ended up at the trade marts on the Columbia long before the first white people were seen there.

It was not just white people’s goods that flowed more freely into the Plateau after the horse revolution, but also their pathogens. Contact or “crowd” diseases such as smallpox and measles evolved along with the earliest civilizations in the Old World. People of European heritage had developed some degree of immunity to contagious diseases through long exposure, but the New World was “virgin soil”—that is, populated by people who had no experience with Old World viruses. 

The first smallpox pandemic (an epidemic that spreads beyond its initial point of infection) hit the Northwest around 1780. The consensus among anthropologists and ethnobiologists is that it broke out among tribes on the Great Plains and was carried west along trade routes. Historian Elliott West points out that it is not a coincidence that the pandemic occurred after the horse culture was fully established across the West. Earlier outbreaks, before horses, moved so slowly that the contagion burned itself out before reaching fresh populations. In contrast, “travel by hooves got the infection into virgin soil in time to set its horrors loose.”

It’s not possible to know exactly how many Plateau Indians died during that first pandemic, but anthropologist Robert Boyd has concluded that the mortality rate was at least 30 percent, killing perhaps 25,000 people. A second pandemic, a generation later, may have been even more deadly. Drawing from oral histories, accounts by early white observers, and other sources, Boyd estimated that up to 45 percent of the regional population died as a result of smallpox by 1802, leaving only about 40,000 people alive out of a pre-epidemic population of some 180,000.

 If the numbers are uncertain, the impact is clear. Whole villages were wiped out. Communities lost their leaders, their elders, their youngest members. Illness and death were traditionally understood as the result of spiritual transgression. Smallpox cut like a scythe through long-standing ideas about how the world was ordered, creating what Eugene Hunn called “a spiritual apocalypse.”…

Members of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery were the first “white-skinned ones” to have direct contact with the Cayuse and their neighbors. The expedition (which included Clark’s black slave, York, a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, and her young child) reached Plateau country in October 1805, a month after stumbling, half-starved, out of the Bitterroot Mountains onto the Weippe Prairie. A group of Nez Perce Indians there gave them food and valuable information about the region’s geography, and helped them make canoes for the passage down the Clearwater and Snake Rivers to the Columbia and on to the coast. Two Nez Perce guides accompanied the party downriver. The guides were often sent ahead to announce the group’s approach and prepare for ceremonial meetings. As word spread, hundreds of Indians gathered along the route, curious about the bearded strangers….

The Cayuse, in particular, had reasons for being interested in these powerful strangers. Their herds had multiplied, but they themselves had not. The population was probably not much more than 500 at the time of first contact with non-Indians. Mere accumulation of horses would not be enough to maintain their position of dominance; they needed new sources of power. White people had weapons that far surpassed the power of bows and arrows. They had blankets, beads, kettles, axes, knives, shiny medals, and other goods that not only made daily life more comfortable but also served as a way to display wealth and status. The very fact that white people had access to such wondrous things suggested, as historian Alexandra Harmon put it, that “they had relations with one or more particularly powerful non-mortal beings, and it behooved Indians to learn what they could about those beings and the way to get that power.” At least six of the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition could write, making strange marks on paper, a novelty with its own kind of magic. All this made the Cayuse receptive to the next wave of outsiders who came to their country—the fur traders….

Three decades after the Spokane prophet predicted the arrival of “a different kind of men from the rising sun,” parts of his prophecy had come true. The fur trade had brought many different kinds of people into Plateau communities, greatly increasing the racial and ethnic diversity. The chief traders were mostly English or Scottish. The labor force included French Canadians, Iroquois, and other eastern Indians, along with Hawaiians (called Kanakas or Owyhees), recruited by ships’ captains on their way to the Northwest coast.

Many of the men, including the chief traders, entered into common-law marriages with Indian women. Native wives were invaluable assistants on the frontier. They set up and dismantled camps; collected firewood; gathered roots, berries, and other foods; cooked; cleaned and packed the furs; and made moccasins, snow-shoes, and clothing. They also helped strengthen social ties between the traders and local people. Both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company accepted and even encouraged these relationships, although there were no priests or ministers to solemnize them in the Euro-American fashion. The traders’ métis (mixed-race) children, connected to two worlds, often grew up bilingual and took on roles as interpreters….

The first to respond to the call for missionaries were Methodists: Jason Lee, a tall, black-bearded, 31-year-old minister; his 27-year-old nephew, Daniel Lee; and three associates. Traveling west with an expedition led by Boston merchant Nathaniel J. Wyeth, they reached a Cayuse village on the Walla Walla River in August 1834. The Cayuse greeted them warmly, gave them horses, and urged them to stay. “The hospitality shown us was worthy of their pretensions as a governing tribe,” Daniel Lee remembered. The Methodists, however, moved on and eventually built a mission in the Willamette Valley.

The next year, Rev. Samuel Parker, a Presbyterian, passed through on reconnaissance for the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Again, Cayuse headmen welcomed the stranger. Parker told them he had come to select a site for a mission that would include a school and a “preaching house.” He promised that every year a ship loaded with trade goods would arrive, and the contents would be divided among the Indians as payment for the use of their land. This promise would prove to have serious repercussions in years to come, after the Cayuse welcomed the Whitmans into their realm in 1836 and waited for payments that never came.

Cassandra Tate
Cassandra Tate
Cassandra Tate is a journalist and former Nieman Fellow at Harvard who holds a history PhD from the University of Washington. She contributes to many media, including, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history.


  1. Those fascinated by the seminal Whitman story will be pleased to know that another Seattle author, Blaine Harden, will release his new book on the Whitman Massacre, to be published in April. Harden is the author of numerous books, including “A River Lost,” a superb study of the Columbia River, near which he grew up. Here’s a link to Harden’s forthcoming Whitman book, “Murder at the Mission”:


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