Narcissa Prentiss was born into a deeply religious Presbyterian family in upstate New York. As a young woman, she became intent on serving as a missionary.
Marcus Whitman, also from upstate New York, received his schooling in Massachusetts and was a classmate of John Brown of Harperâ€™s Ferry fame. Whitman was inclined toward the ministry, but instead studied medicine. He practiced in Canada for four years, then returned to New York where he was active with both his practice and in Presbyterian Church affairs. The fervor aroused by the Second Great Awakening kept alive his thoughts about the ministry.
In 1835, Whitman gained the attention of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a group that governed the activities of Presbyterian and Congregational missions to various Native American tribes. He was authorized to venture into the far West to establish a base for missionary activity.
The journey was eventful. Whitmanâ€™s refusal to drink alcohol initially made relations with trappers and traders difficult. However, after using his medical skills to treat their various ailments, the relationship improved. On one occasion, Whitman successfully removed an arrowhead from the back of Jim Bridger, a famous mountain man.
At approximately the same time, Narcissa was denied her opportunity to serve. The governing board had determined that missionary work was unsuitable for a single woman. Marcus and Narcissa may have met before and gone their separate ways, but when the former returned from his western journey, the quickly decided to marry and minister together. It should be noted that marriages of convenience were not at all unusual for missionary couples of this era.
In the spring of 1836, the Whitmans traveled with another missionary couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding; Henry had been an earlier suitor of Narcissa. After an arduous trip, the group reached the Walla Walla valley in Septemberâ€"Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. The Spaldings continued westward, but the Whitmans began ministering to the local Cayuse, providing them with medical assistance, schooling and Christian instruction.
However, the Whitmansâ€™ initial optimism was quickly dampened. Their infant daughter drowned, Narcissaâ€™s health declined and the Cayuse seemed impervious to the white religion. The lack of converts led to the ABCFM's decision to close the Walla Walla mission in 1842. Marcus was deeply disappointed and journeyed east in search of reconsideration. His plea was honored and he headed west to rejoin his wife in 1843. Marcus accompanied a group of about 1,000 settlers on this trek, The Great Migration, along the Oregon Trail. In succeeding years, the Whitmans became a fixture on their part of the trail, extending aid to travelers and even adopting the children of deceased settlers. Missionary efforts became secondary.
The Cayuse became alarmed about the growing influx of whites into their homeland. Not only were prime lands being claimed, but diseases were introduced to which the natives had no natural immunity. Tensions reached crisis proportions in 1847, when an epidemic of measles struck throughout the valley. The Whitmans provided medical attention to everyone, but it appeared that only the whites recovered. Sensing that they were being denied proper treatment, a small group of Cayuse attacked the mission on November 29, 1847, killing the Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and a dozen others. Traditional native belief held that the family of a deceased person who had been treated by a medicine man was justified in taking the life of the healer if the cure failed.
This attack touched off a local war in which the whites carried out their vengeance on the entire Cayuse tribe, rather than ferreting out the raiders. Eventually the chief, Tiloukaikt, surrendered himself in the hope of sparing his dwindling followers. He was hanged. The Cayuse were virtually eliminated as a distinct tribe; the few remaining members were absorbed by others.
See Indian Wars Time Table .