The tragic saga of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman has transformed, again and again and again, over the years. The Whitmans, two Protestant missionaries killed in 1847 by Cayuse Native Americans in what is now southeast Washington state, first were cast as heroes of a patriotic narrative, a sanctified couple who made the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs. As the decades rolled by, it became the narrative for boosterish memorials aimed at keeping the story alive, at Whitman College and Whitman County and other Whitman-named institutions.
Then, in the soul-searching 1960s and 1970s, Marcus and Narcissa’s history became something else entirely — a cautionary tale of two white people, dedicated to erasing the Native way of life, who were murdered, with 11 other whites, in rage and vengeance.
Seattle journalist and author Cassandra Tate has gone back through the Whitman archive, and the result is “Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and Its Shifting Legacy in the American West.” Tate, who has a doctorate in history and writes for HistoryLink.org, accomplishes multiple and divergent tasks. She tells the Cayuse’s side of the story with empathy and clarity, and she builds psychologically astute portraits of the Whitmans to show how their backgrounds and intentions contributed to the fatal encounter. She writes with a flair and transparency unusual in such a meticulously researched book.
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, both evangelical Christians yearning to save souls, met in 1835, talked for a few hours and then decided to marry, mainly because their sponsoring missionary society would only send married couples to the West.
Their astonishing trip west from New England to the Northwest, by boat, wagon, cart, horse, mule and foot, was vividly documented in Narcissa’s diary (she was a graceful writer). But the stubborn grit that got them across the country worked against them once they and their fellow missionaries settled into four separate Northwest posts, the Whitmans at Waiilatpu, a few miles west of modern day Walla Walla. Nobody in this band of fervent believers got along: “We have a strange company of Missionaries,” wrote Narcissa in her diary. “Scarcely one who is not intolerable on some account.” The missionary board back east was deluged with letters of complaint, as one missionary bitterly inveighed against another.
The Cayuse, the Whitmans’ prospective converts, were called the “Imperial Tribe” for their mastery of horsemanship and fighting skills. They were “tough, hard-minded traders and much feared as warriors,” Tate writes. At first the Cayuse welcomed the Whitmans, but as other settlers began to congregate at their mission, the Cayuse began to suspect that a few whites were about to turn into many more.
Marcus and Narcissa were a temperamental mismatch for Cayuse ways, including their expectation of gifts and unrestricted access to the Whitman home. The missionary society had done nothing to ground the couple in Native traditions, and neither Marcus nor Narcissa ever mastered the Cayuse language. Perhaps most poisonously, the Whitmans seemed to want to convince the Cayuse that everything about their lifestyle was bad, and that only complete adherence to white, Protestant ways would save their souls. “Some feel almost to blame us for telling them about eternal realities,” Narcissa wrote. “One said it was good when they knew nothing but to hunt, eat, drink and sleep; now it was bad.”
Predictably, the Whitmans’ relationship with the Cayuse soured, and the death of their 2-year-old daughter by drowning sent Narcissa into a time of “almost suicidal depression.” The Whitmans became colonizers, aiding the white settlers flowing into Native lands. The final straw came when Marcus Whitman, a trained physician, failed to save Indians from a measles epidemic that most whites, who had brought the infection, survived — Cayuse traditions dictated that it was “acceptable, even mandatory,” to take the life of a healer who failed to save his patients. When the attack came, it was brutal and fatal. The Cayuse took multiple hostages, and it took weeks to retrieve them. The aftermath was brutal for the Cayuse. Five men were tried in a makeshift western Oregon court, convicted and hanged, and Congress gave the Oregon country territorial status, opening it to waves of white settlers. The Cayuse and other neighboring tribes, who once roamed 6 million acres, were shoehorned into what would become a 172,000-acre reservation.
But the Cayuse have survived, and today the tribe, now part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — which includes Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla — has reclaimed their heritage at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton, Oregon, the only Native-owned museum on the Oregon Trail. The National Park Service’s Whitman Mission National Historic Site presents the story with an understanding of both sides. Consider a visit, but first read this book, by turns moving, evenhanded and lyrical in its evocation of time and place. “We seem to live in a binary world, where the lines between good and bad are clearly drawn, without much room for nuance,” writes Tate in the introduction. Her book knits the threads of this long-ago tragedy together.