Sept. 1, 1836—When Narcissa Whitman reached what is now Walla Walla, Washington (then part of what was known as Oregon Country), on this day 180 years ago, with her husband, Dr. Marcus Whitman, as part of a small missionary group, she became what is believed to be the first white woman to cross North America. The couple’s epic, 3,000-mile journey paved the way for similar journeys (many conducted with the help of Marcus) undertaken in the following decade along the Oregon Trail, and even beyond into the post-Civil War era.
I’ve long felt that the story of Narcissa and Marcus would make a compelling subject for a film: a couple engaged in missionary work who must face all kinds of struggles to achieve their goal--physical hardship, internal dissension, the constant threat of attack. But it would not be the kind of happy, triumphant film about strong pioneers favored by Hollywood in its Golden Age, but rather a kind of Protestant counterpart to the 1990 adaptation of Brian Moore’s Black Robe—about cultural conflict, misunderstanding, and self-doubt among all-too-human people who choose to do divine work.
At the time of her transcontinental trek, Narcissa was, at 28 years old, still young and strong enough to survive the rigors of an overland journeyl. (After comparatively easy steamboat travel, the trans-Mississippi portion was accomplished partly by wagon train, then on horseback, over often bumpy terrain.). But she would encounter other circumstances far less happy and far more troubling over the next 11 years, and her spirit would be tried in ways that even her deep religious faith could not help her sustain.
Ever since I read Jane Eyre, I’ve applauded the decision by that heroine not to become the missionary wife of St. John Rivers. Not only is there the rather large matter of how she could stay devoted to this repressed clergyman who is still carrying the torch for someone else, but all Jane’s considerable hard work and self-discipline might not even be enough in India, a land completely alien to her.
That mismatch between a woman’s skills and temperament in a much different environment was even more marked in the case of Narcissa Whitman in the Pacific Northwest, among American Indians. On the surface, it shouldn’t have appeared so: She had learned the kind of skills needed to survive life on the frontier, away from a community: how to weave and spin, sew, cook over an open fire, and make soap and candles. As a result of a second spiritual awakening at a revival meeting, the 16-year-old resolved to "consecrate myself without reserve" and "go to the heathen" as a missionary. A comparatively well-educated woman for her time, she was among the first students at Franklin Academy, a church-affiliated secondary school in Prattsburg, N.Y., where she was raised.
But the question faced by Jane Eyre—of how much commitment to a spouse can help one in missionary work—was present in Narcissa’s life, too. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the governing agency for missions sponsored by Presbyterian and Congregational churches, made it plain that it preferred married rather than single people for this work, perhaps believing that couples were more likely to reject any temptations in faraway places. As it happened, Narcissa and Marcus had not known each other long or well before they wed in New York State. They had still only been married six months when they reached Walla Walla.
The Whitmans, anxious to have at least one other missionary couple accompanying them to Oregon County, prevailed upon Henry Spalding, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Eliza Hart Spalding. This turned out to be a mistake.
Historians have divided on whether or not Narcissa had rejected a marriage proposal from Rev. Spalding before her marriage to Marcus. But at very least, they had been students together at Franklin Academy and had worshipped at the same church, and for whatever reason, he had expressed misgivings about her before the trip.
Trouble between the two couples soon erupted, as they differed even over the elementary question of how to load their wagon train. As they crossed prairie, mountain, and desert, guided at various points by fur traders and Nez Perce Indians, the weather turned hotter, the diet more tiresome and their patience thinner. After seven months, with the Whitmans traveling a bit ahead of their companions, they finally made it to Fort Walla Walla.
“The whole company galloped almost the whole way to the Fort,” Narcissa wrote home. “The fatigues of the long journey seemed to be forgotten in the excitement of being so near the close….[S]oon we were seated at the table and treated to fresh salmon, potatoes, tea, bread and butter. What a variety, thought I. You cannot imagine what an appetite these rides in the mountains give a person. I wish some of the feeble ones in the states could have a ride in the mountains; they would say like me, victuals, even the plainest kind, never relished so well before.”
What delighted Narcissa was a crowing rooster, as well as other animals she could no longer take for granted: “You may think me simple for speaking of such a small circumstance. No one knows the feelings occasioned by seeing objects once familiar after a long deprivation. Especially when it is heightened by no expectation of meeting with them. The door-yard was filled with hens, turkeys and pigeons. And in another place we saw cows and goats in abundance, and I think the largest and fattest cattle and swine I ever saw.”
Eleven days later, after a far less grueling trip down the Columbia River, the Whitmans and the Spaldings reached Ft. Vancouver. The two wives stayed put while the husbands, undoubtedly glad to be out of each other’s company, scouted separate missions. Henry Spalding chose one in what would become Idaho, while Marcus picked a site 120 miles away: Waiilatpu, or "Place of the Rye Grass."
The location, on the Walla Walla, was every bit as pleasant as the Indian name indicated. But it lacked good, abundant timber, and Marcus ignored warnings that the Cayuse tribe was harder to persuade than the Nez Perce. Arriving at their mission in mid-December, when food was hard to find and Narcissa was already well along in her pregnancy, the couple only survived that first winter by killing 10 wild horses. It was only the first example of misfortune arising from their own failure of vision.
In Narcissa’s case, this was more than metaphor: Within a few years, her eyesight rapidly deteriorated. That was by no means all of the couple’s problems:
*Marcus was absent from the mission for long periods, plunging Narcissa into increasing isolation and depression.
*In 1839, their two-year-old daughter Alice Clarissa—her mother’s chief solace—accidentally drowned in the river behind the mission house.
*While Alice, before her death, had, amazingly enough, started to pick up Nez Perce, the primary language of the Cayuse, Narcissa never learned the native language.
*The Whitmans denounced practices that the Cayuse enjoyed, including dancing and gambling. In fact, they made few attempts to accommodate native ways—and little headway in converting the Indians.
*Unease on the part of the Whitmans toward the Indians grew into dislike. The Indians sensed this condescension, and reacted accordingly.
*The Whitmans pretty much gave up converting Indians, concentrated on medicine and aiding white settlers. The Cayuse grew alarmed at the swelling white influx onto their land.
*In 1847, Marcus attempted to treat an outbreak of malaria in the area. The Cayuse died in greater numbers under his care than the white settlers did. The Indians, acting on their belief that the families of those who died under the care of a medicine man (as they viewed Marcus) had the right to take his life, did so. Shortly afterward, they killed Narcissa and the couple’s adopted children as well.