Lit Life

Narcissa Whitman paid a terrible price for her place in history. Her name is synonymous with the 1847 Whitman Massacre near Walla Walla — she was one of 13 white settlers killed by a group of Cayuse Indians enraged by broken promises, a flood of white settlers and the white-carried diseases that were killing their children.

But Narcissa’s tragic death was just the last link in a long chain of startling stories. Burning with religious fervor, Narcissa agreed to marry her husband, Marcus, just a few hours after meeting him, because only a married woman could serve in a Western mission. She traveled thousands of miles — on a steamboat, in a wagon, on horseback and on foot — to southeast Washington, enduring hunger and thirst, illness and pregnancy in the name of spreading her Christian faith.

There, at the mission called Waiilatpu, the Whitmans tried to spread the gospel and convert the Natives to their way of life, but they were devastated when their only child, a beloved 2-year-old girl, drowned in the Walla Walla River. After fleeing the mission and suffering from a bout of deep depression, Narcissa returned to a mission roiled by internal dissension and external threats.  Tensions peaked, and Narcissa was ultimately slaughtered in front of the very orphans she had dedicated the rest of her life to bringing up.

Every student of Washington state history knows these facts, but Oregon writer Debra Gwartney has gone beyond them, going beyond the facts of Narcissa’s story to examine its emotional core. In the process, she revisits her own fraught relationship with her libertarian-style Idaho upbringing. The result is her new book, “I Am a Stranger Here Myself” (University of New Mexico Press).

A National Book Critics Circle finalist for her memoir “Live Through This,” Gwartney is an empathetic writer. She resurrects Narcissa as a human being, enduring a flood of homesickness, fretting about middle-age weight gain. But Gwartney is unblinking in her assessment of the Whitmans’ blunders and what they portended for the history of the American West.

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Gwartney appears at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Friday, March 22. She answered some questions about Narcissa and her own evolving understanding of a star-crossed woman:

Q: Where did your interest in Narcissa Whitman begin?

A: Ranging through my grandmother’s library, I picked up a book about her. I sort of remembered who she was, but then I realized she had an incredible story. At the same time I had been working on essays of my personal experience growing up in the West and how unsettled I felt about it. … I think she really became a pry bar to let me open up a context for what it meant to be in the West.

Q: I was shocked to read that Narcissa and her husband, Marcus Whitman, knew each other for less than a day before they announced they would get married. What was going on there?

A: Isn’t that wild? I think it was because they wanted desperately to go West and do good things for the Native people. The missionary board wanted married couples. They didn’t want (male) missionaries to get involved with Native women. … At 28, Narcissa was thought of as an old maid. They went into a parlor, talked for a couple of hours and then the agreement was made.

Q: You write that Narcissa and Marcus had a “scratch post of a marriage.” What did your research suggest about their relationship?

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A: I didn’t go at this book as a historian or scholar. But just from reading their journals and the survivors’ journals, I think they didn’t have much to do with each other after their baby died. She was very angry. He was gone all the time — he left on horseback and was gone for days and days. I think they didn’t choose to have any more children.

She spent all her time on the Sager children (a group of orphans left at the mission for the Whitmans to raise). … I think Marcus was single-minded. … He wanted what he wanted. And of course she was notoriously hard to get along with. None of the other women (among the missionaries) could stand her.

Q: One of your themes is how myths drove the white settlement of the American West. What was it about Western expansion that made people prone to believe stories that weren’t true, such as the largely made-up narrative that the Indians were begging for Christian instruction?

A: Again, I’m not a historian, but I would say the dispute between the American government and the British government and who was going to get which part of the Northwest had a lot to do with it (the Northwest was jointly claimed by the United States and Britain until 1846, when the U.S. assumed control; the massacre helped spur Congressional creation of the Oregon Territory in 1848). (White expansion advocates) thought, “If we just filled up this land with American settlers, the British would have to go.” There were lots of brochures, town meetings, false advertisements — it would be a fabulous trip, you could shoot buffalo every day, no one would ever get sick. They knew they had to get rid of the Native people for the land to be settled. There was no sympathy for the Native way of life at all.

Q: What did you like about Narcissa?

A: I don’t know what, if anything, I liked about her. I could relate to how lonely she was — the force of loneliness and how it shapes a person. She became so hard and callous because she didn’t know how else to be.

Q: Do you think it’s possible to really understand her? I can’t comprehend the variety of religious faith that to drove her to such extremes. How can we, in the far more connected and skeptical 21st century, understand that kind of conviction?

A: I love this question because I would often stop and say to myself, “I can’t put my modern sensibility on her.” I admit that if I had been alive in that time, I probably would have done exactly the same thing. … I think No. 1 for Narcissa was her mother. Her mother was not going to allow her to be anything but a missionary. She groomed her to be a missionary from God.

Q: How did writing about Narcissa affect your own feelings about being “a woman of the West”?

A: I think she helped me understand my discomfort with things in my family and my own culture. … It always bothered me that the Native (Lemhi Shoshone) people in my community (Salmon, Idaho) were not treated the way I wanted them to be treated. … I started seeing my family and where they came from and why they believe what they believe. That message that “we’re going to go out there, and what is yours is yours,” I think that has lingered in the West. That libertarian movement is so powerful in Idaho, the belief that the government has no business telling us what to do. … getting to know her helped me understand why I love and adore and honor my family but am so unsettled in it.

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Debra Gwartney will read from “I Am a Stranger Here Myself” at 7 p.m. Friday, March 22, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; elliottbaybook.com