Reconsidering Narcissa Whitman


Current books have attempted to “clarify” the Marcus Whitman story in the 1840s Walla Walla Valley.  Questions continue to emerge regarding Dr. Whitman’s medical practice, his death, alleged racism, misunderstandings about the Cayuse people, the fur trade, and the myth asserting that Whitman “saved” Oregon from encroachments by Great Britain, France, and other European interests.

One good new book raising many of these awkward questions is Blaine Harden’s Murder at the Mission. Another interesting current book, notable for its even-handedness, is Cassandra Tate’s Unsettled Ground. 

The facts related to the Whitman’s death have been stated in print, through festivals, by the naming of nearby Whitman College (my alma mater), and as part of school curricula throughout the Pacific Northwest.  One aspect, however, has garnered less attention: the role and presence of Dr. Whitman’s wife and fellow missionary, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman.  Many of Narcissa’s letters from Walla Walla to her family in Upstate New York have been saved.  It’s worth taking a closer look at these fading documents to see if there are other aspects to this dramatic and ultimately sad story.

Narcissa Prentiss was the bride of Dr. Marcus Whitman, medical missionary to Native Americans beyond the Rocky Mountains.  She and Dr. Whitman built the first white American home west of the Rockies.  At that verdant and scenic location they established a community, a chapel, residences, a sawmill, a farm, and had a daughter named Alice Clarissa. 

Their new home was also an offshoot of the fabled Oregon Trail.  Their home had a Native name: Wai-i-lat-pu, or Place of Rye Grass. The cross-country trip has been a trial and an adventure, mostly alongside two rivers, the shallow Platte and the wild Snake.  After leaving St. Louis, the Whitman party passed Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, and South Pass, the smoothest route over the imposing Rocky Mountains.

This Pacific Northwest wilderness, claimed by both the United States and Great Britain, resulted in the Whitmans seeing the region as American patriots and as missionaries with a duty to carry Christianity to the Natives before more settlers arrived.

On November 29, 1847, a foggy gray day in the Walla Walla Valley, Dr. Marcus, Narcissa and seven others died at the hands of Cayuse Natives.  Five other settlers would die within the week, and  46 women and children were taken captive.  Narcissa’s death was especially appalling to her American contemporaries.  She was a handsome and romantic figure and along with Eliza Spalding, the first white woman to cross the continent.  According to witness accounts, during the conflagration, she had run to her fatally injured husband, retreated, and was shot.   

In her letters to her family in New York’s Genesee Valley, Narcissa evinced mixed feelings about her Native neighbors.  For example, Indian males would wander uninvited into the “eating room,” especially at mealtime (a common occurrence among the local Natives, most of whom were inter-related and such hospitality was traditional). Although she occasionally professed love for such visitors, especially if they professed interest in the Protestant faith, at other points she expressed exasperation. 

She wrote: “They [the Natives] are so filthy . . . we must clean after them, for we have come to elevate them and not to suffer ourselves to sink down to their standard.”  When Natives asked to worship and gather in her house she retorted that she and her husband “lived” there.  Describing these unwelcome overtures to relatives, Narcissa wrote that the Natives “would make [our house] so dirty and fill it so full of fleas . . . “

At one point Narcissa was, she thought, threatened with rape.  Marcus was away when the bedroom door was forced.  She described her shoving match with the Native and the door: “He gained upon me until he opened the door again, and . . . disengaged his blanket.”  After she called for help, her would-be molester “ran for his life.”  After this experience she thanked God for delivering her “from the hand of a savage man.”  She ended this letter with the poignant statement: “Frequently I feel as if our stay would not be long here.”

In fact, she and Marcus endured only 11 years in the Oregon country.  Their daughter Alice Clarissa had drowned in the nearby Walla Walla River.  Arguments among the missionaries, Indian deaths attributed to Dr. Whitman’s “medicines,” a failure to convert Natives to the Whitmans’ brand of Christianity, and the sometimes superior, annoyed demeanor of the Whitmans toward their aboriginal neighbors each contributed toward the horrifying events of the Whitman Massacre, which touched off a war between Natives and the U.S. Army.

Narcissa’s role was that of a Christian, a helpmate to her husband, and a homemaker.  She was undoubtedly a strong and dedicated woman.  In retrospect, their superiors at the Boston-based Mission Board should have investigated their situation more thoroughly and warned Narcissa and her husband of dangers. 

Yet, in spite of these misunderstandings and the Whitman’s violent demise, their presence helped Oregon and Washington become a part of America’s future.

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. I love your history lessons and the book tips. Thank you.

    I wonder how you felt about the switch from ‘Fighting Missionaries’ to ‘Blues’?

  2. Rather than insinuations about the Cayuse as filthy, flea bitten rapists, you might include the accepted facts that:
    1. The whites “colonized,” that is, stole fertile Cayuse land and water resources.
    2. The Cayuse (correctly) blamed the whites for the dozens of deaths from the measles epidemic and from which they had no immunities.
    3. The Cayuse believed that Dr.Whitman’s medicines were ineffective and possibly poisonous—not an illogical conclusion, given that other whites had poisoned melons so that they wouldn’t be shared with the Cayuse.
    4. The whites tried to impose their “Christian” beliefs and culture upon the Cayuse in the (successful) attempt to colonize their land and remove them from it. As you stated it:
    “This Pacific Northwest wilderness, claimed by both the United States and Great Britain, resulted in the Whitmans seeing the region as American patriots and as missionaries with a duty to carry Christianity to the Natives before more settlers arrived.”

  3. A fine piece. I grew up in Walla Walla in the 1950’s and enjoyed riding my bike out to the “Mission” and talking with the Mission staff.
    My grades wouldn’t get me into Whitman College but I did go to the Borleski stadium football games before the College dropped the sport.
    Dropping the “Fighting Missionaries” was politically correct but so are too many things today.

  4. In a bit of irony, Whitman is a secular college in the city of Walla Walla, while the college closest to the Whitman Mission is the 7th Day Adventist Walla Walla University, which is not in Walla Walla proper, but in College Place.


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