S.S. Legacy Cruise: Visiting tragic Whitman Mission

Julie Kehr gives a program as Narcissa Whitman aboard the S.S. Legacy.
Julie Kehr gives a program as Narcissa Whitman aboard the S.S. Legacy.

ABOARD THE S.S. LEGACY – Tightly clutching her Bible, Narcissa Whitman tries to explain why she chose to embark on a path that eventually took her life in a horrible massacre. The slaughter also destroyed the very people she sought to help.

Of course, this isn’t the real Narcissa Whitman. She died Nov. 29, 1847.

The woman standing before us on the S.S. Legacy is Assistant Heritage Leader Julie Kehr giving a first-person presentation of that long ago pioneer woman – using journals and letters that Narcissa Whitman herself once wrote.

Soon, the Legacy will be docking in Walla Walla, Washington, and we will be visiting the mission where Whitman lived and died. Voyages on Un-Cruise Heritage Adventure are designed to showcase the history of wherever we are cruising.

For my week aboard the Legacy, we are visiting the Columbia and Snake rivers, following in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark and other pioneers who paved the way through this vast territory.

In Narcissa Whitman’s case, the young woman had long wanted to be a missionary, to help others and to lead a more adventurous life. Born March 14, 1808, in Prattsburg, New York,  Narcissa met her future husband, Dr. Marcus Whitman, at a prayer meeting at her parent’s home.

The two married in 1836 and set out on an arduous journey for the Oregon country with another missionary couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white women to cross the Continental Divide. After a difficult eight-month journey, the couples arrived in Oregon territory in December 1836.

The Whitmans built their mission seven miles west of Walla Walla, Washington. The Spaldings settled among the Nez Perce in what is today Lewiston, Idaho. At first, the Cayuse Indians were interested in what the Whitman missionaries had to share.

However, a clash of cultures resulted. Narcissa never learned the native language and she found it frustrating that so few Cayuse spoke English. She also did not understand why the Cayuse attitude toward privacy and property ownership differed so greatly from hers. Narcissa complained bitterly that the Cayuse peeked in her windows and wouldn’t stay out of her house. Accustomed to free access to one another’s lodges, the Cayuse resented Narcissa’s efforts to maintain privacy and lock them out.

The Whitman's Bible is displayed at the Whitman Mission.
The Whitman’s Bible is displayed at the Whitman Mission.

The situation eased a bit when Narcissa gave birth to her only child.  Born March 14, 1837 – Narcissa’s  own 29th birthday – the girl was named Alice Clarissa after her grandmothers. She was the first non-native child to be born in what is now Washington state. The Cayuse were intrigued by the baby who soon began to pick up the Cayuse language as well as English.

“She is a great talker,” Narcissa wrote in a Sept. 8, 1838, letter to her sister, adding that the Indians were “very much pleased to think she is going to speak their language so readily. They appear to love her much.”

Sadly, that bond between the Cayuse and Whitmans was broken on June 23, 1839, when 2-year-old Alice Clarissa wandered away and drowned in the river behind the mission house. Narcissa was inconsolable and more distressed than ever at the missionary life she had chosen for herself.

In a sad letter home on Oct. 6, 1841, Narcissa told her family she had doubts that she was really suited to be a missionary. “I am entirely unfitted for the work, and have many gloomy, desponding hours,” she confessed.

Over the years, Cayuse tribal leaders made several efforts to get the Whitmans to leave but returning home would have made the missionaries outcasts and failures. Tension reached a peak in the fall of 1847 when more than 5,000 immigrants arrived in Oregon. One of the wagon trains  brought in a virulent form of measles. Although Marcus Whitman was able to use his medical skills to save some of the pioneers, he seemed no help for the Cayuse who had no immunity against such “white man’s” diseases.

Estimates say that half the Cayuse living near the Whitman mission died in a period of two months. Some in the tribe blamed Whitman, saying he was poisoning them to take their land for whites.

It all came to a head on Nov. 29, 1847, when some Cayuse seized the Whitman Mission, killing 13 people and taking 46 others captive. Narcissa was shot in the chest. Marcus was killed with a tomahawk in the back. After a month, the captives were ransomed for tobacco, guns and blankets.

The massacre became a pivotal event in Northwest history. Fellow missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding were ordered home by the governing American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. White settlers demanded action, which all but decimated the Cayuse tribe.

Wagon ruts were so deep on the Oregon Trail that they are still visible at the Whitman Mission.
Wagon ruts were so deep on the Oregon Trail that they are still visible at the Whitman Mission.

“The massacre had a ripple effect,” said Ryan Downs, heritage leader on the S.S. Legacy. “The Cayuse were hunted down by the military … Five were hanged and many more were punished. The punishment was felt by tribes across the Columbia plateau.”

Ensuing battles eventually led to treaties that stripped Native Americans of much of their land and confined them to reservations. The Whitman Mission today is part of the National Park Service. A visit starts with a movie about the mission and a tour through the museum which offers displays and artifacts, including a Bible that belonged to the Whitmans.

Outside the visitor center are foundation ruins of mission buildings, plus a restored irrigation ditch, millpond and orchard.  Visitors are invited to walk along with a portion of the original Oregon Trail – the 2,000-mile-long path from Independence, Missouri, to the mouth of the Columbia River. Wagon wheels left the road so deeply rutted that it still remains visible at the mission.

Atop a hill is the Whitman Memorial, built in 1897 on the 50th anniversary of the Whitman’s deaths. The 27-foot-high monument commemorates the 13 people who were killed at Whitman Mission.  A Great Grave contains the remains of the 1847 massacre victims. A marble slab placed over the grave is inscribed with their names.

“The whole story is tragic on both sides,” Downs said. “It was a tragic misunderstanding that hurt both sides for a very long time.”

June 1, 2014

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

1 thought on “S.S. Legacy Cruise: Visiting tragic Whitman Mission”

  1. I traveled with Chuck West sometime around the turn of new century on one of his Cruise West boats in Alaska. Quite a modest fellow, he was. I didn’t even know he was aboard until we met about two days into the cruise.


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