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.