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Old July 15th, 2013, 09:11 PM   #1

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The 1847 Whitman Massacre


In 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman founded an Indian mission close to what is now Walla Walla, southeastern Washington state. Marcus Whitman was a doctor as well as a Christian missionary, and dedicated the next decade of his life to evangelizing the local Indian Nations.

Over the course of 1842-1843, Dr. Whitman had taken a break from his missionary work to travel east and recruit a following of white settlers. His return at the head of this large group particularly upset the Cayuses of the Blue Mountains. This tribe, speaking a language unlike that of any of their neighbors, was already declining in their regional importance due to a bitter conflict with the Snake Indians to their south.

The relationship between the Whitmans and the Cayuses became increasingly stormy as the 1840s wore on, but came to a bloody climax on November 29th, 1847. An outbreak of measles was decimating the tribe, and many of the Indians blamed it on the presence of the whites. A party of enraged warriors attacked the mission, killing fourteen whites - among them both Dr. and Mrs. Whitman. Fifty-three other whites were taken captive, and some of the young women were used as sex slaves.

The Whitman Massacre triggered a war between the Cayuses and both the white settlers and the US Army. Five Cayuse chiefs were captured and were tried for their role in the Whitman incident; they were all executed in 1850. The captives taken in 1847 were all eventually freed as well, and hostilities effectively came to an end with the 1855 Walla Walla Council.

Popular culture, and even historians, are prone to demonizing either one side or the other in the American Indian Wars. The tragedy of the Whitman Massacre, however, is that misunderstanding, rather than avarice or 'savagery', was the catalyst for the violence. As a missionary and a physician, Dr. Whitman must have sincerely believed that his presence was a benefit to the local peoples. The Cayuses, in turn, like so many Indian Nations before and after their time, were bewildered and threatened by the seemingly unending number of white settlers.

A contemporary engraving depicting the murder of Dr. Whitman. In fact, two Indian warriors acted together; Mrs. Whitman, presumably depicted here as the woman with the outstretched arm, was shot with a firearm.

Click the image to open in full size.
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Old July 16th, 2013, 04:04 AM   #2

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Narcissa's journal is a very good primary source for those interested in frontier women.

A very dense couple, the warnings they received were numerous if I remember correctly.
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Old July 16th, 2013, 06:24 AM   #3

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Really, the Whitmans were remarkable people. In 1836 the Whitmans headed West toward Oregon with another missionary couple, Henry Harmon Spalding and his wife Eliza. They traveled with fur traders for most of the way, and took wagons farther West than had any American expedition before them. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.

They had rough going at the mission they founded with Narcissa going nearly blind and having their 2 yr only child drown. The mission itself wasn't very successful and the Whitmans closed it for awile.

In 1843, Marcus helped guide a wagon train of one thousand pioneers up the Oregon Trail. Reopening the mission, they became an important connection for settlers heading west and were mostly involved in that function, rather than in mission work. They took in eleven children of deceased settlers and adopted the seven Sager children in 1844. The ran a boarding school and one noteworthy student was the daughter of the famous early pioneer, Joe Meek.
But, it was an unfortunate end for the Whitmans, their mission and the Cayuse people, eventually.

Last edited by unclefred; July 16th, 2013 at 07:47 AM.
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Old July 16th, 2013, 08:26 AM   #4

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Good to see you in this thread Uncle; the Whitmans definitely had a busy life.
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