Whitman Massacre: Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

US settlement in the west was steeped in conflict between white settlers and the natives. One of the most infamous attacks occurred in 1847 among a group of missionaries and the Cayuse tribe. This lesson examines that event, as well as its causes and effects.

Oregon Country

In the early 1800's, Oregon Country was home to approximately 20 different Native America tribes and a growing number of settlers who had headed west in search of a fresh start.

Missionaries were also interested in the western land, and after a few tribes expressed an interest in Christianity in 1835, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions moved forward with setting up missions.

Whitman's Mission

Among the first was Dr. Marcus Whitman. He left Missouri in April of 1836 with his wife Narcissa and fellow missionaries Reverend Henry and Eliza Spalding. After a five months journey, they arrived in Fort Vancouver, Washington. Spalding continued eastward to Idaho where he set up his mission among the Nez Perce tribe. Whitman, however, picked a spot called Waiilatpu on the banks of the Walla Walla River near the Cayuse tribe.

Marcus Whitman

Narcissa Whitman

The Missionaries and the Natives

In the beginning, the missionaries and the natives got along fine. The Cayuses and the Whitmans planted crops, erected buildings, and shared meat rations. When Narcissa gave birth to a daughter in 1837, the chiefs and native women even visited to welcome the infant.

Whitman Mission
Whitman Mission

Tensions Arise

Over time, the relationship between the natives and the missionaries began to sour. The natives were interested in adopting some ways of the white man, but they were not going to eliminate their own nomadic way of life. Besides, farming was meant to be women's work according to native tradition. This disappointed the missionaries who felt they should be more excited about becoming successful Christian farmers.

There were other cultural conflicts, too. For example, the Cayuses used gift-giving as a social and political custom and believed in openly sharing the land. The white missionaries, however, saw them as extortion and only gave gifts as payment for work. They also believed in private property. Furthermore, they viewed many of the tribal customs as sinful.

Whitman became further distracted in 1838 when more missionaries arrived and established two more missions in the Oregon territory. Then, in 1839, Whitman's baby daughter drowned in a river near the mission, sending his wife into a deep depression.

White Settlers

In 1840, three wagon loads of families arrived at the mission, followed by 24 emigrants from Missouri in 1841. After traveling to Missouri in the winter of 1842, Whitman returned the following year with 800 emigrants. Then, 1500 arrived in 1844, followed by nearly 3,000 in 1845. As their numbers grew, Whitman became more and more focused on aiding the white settlers than in converting the natives.

The Cayuse were astounded at the number of emigrants now using up their land and resources. To make matters worse, over 4,000 settlers arrived in 1847, bringing a measles epidemic with them. The diseases killed nearly half of the Cayuse population compared to only a few white settlers.

These odds did not add up to the natives, and some Cayuse became suspicious of the doctor. The Cayuse also believed that if a healer could not save a patient, then they should also be put to death. This didn't look good for Whitman whose Indian patients had not always survived.

The Attack

On November 29, 1847, it was business as usual for the more than 60 people at the Whitman Mission. However, a few Cayuses arrived just after 1 p.m. carrying tomahawks and guns. Two of them barged into the kitchen, demanding medicine from the doctor. Just as Whitman turned to get it, a tomahawk was lodged in his skull. As Narcissa rushed to his side, the natives moved outside where they killed four more men.

Narcissa was the next shot when she tried to peek outside. Injured, she and others barricaded themselves upstairs. However, they had no choice but to exit the house when the natives threatened to burn it down. As they came out, the Cayuse fired on them, ultimately killing Narcissa and two others.

The killing did not stop there, though. The next day, two separate men were shot as they entered the mission grounds. The final killing took place a few days later when two men suffering in bed from measles were slaughtered.

On December 1, the survivors watched as the dead were buried in one long mass grave. It is called the Great Grave today.

The Great Grave at Whitman National Historic Site
Whitman Mass grave

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