Saturday, August 12, 2017

Presbyterian Missionary and Preacher’s Wife Narcissa Whitman [otd 08/12]

Narcissa Whitman.
Oregon Historical Society.
On August 12, 1836, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman wrote in her journal, “The hills are so steep and rocky that husband thought it best to lighten the wagon as much as possible and take nothing but the wheels.”

“Husband” referred to the Reverend Marcus Whitman, to whom she had been married less than six months. Narcissa’s calm chronicles of the dangers and difficulties of their trip rather “set the standard” for pioneer wives on the Oregon Trail.

Born in New York state, Narcissa felt the tug of a religious call as a pre-teen. She thought about becoming a missionary for many years, but found no way to further that dream. Then, in 1834 she heard a minister speaking about the need for missionaries in the Oregon Country. The catch was, Narcissa, at 28 years old, was still not married … and the Presbyterians would probably not send out an unmarried missionary.

In February 1835, she became engaged to Marcus Whitman, a physician with an interest in becoming a medical missionary. Neither party ever mentions any courtship, and some historians speculate that they had an “arrangement” in case church authorities decided single women were not welcome as missionaries.

Almost immediately after the engagement, Dr. Whitman left on a trip to the Pacific Northwest. He returned to the East in December and two months later he and Narcissa married.

They immediately headed west to join up with the Reverend Henry Harmon Spalding, Spalding’s wife, and some other missionaries. Narcissa and Spalding’s wife, Eliza, become the first white women to cross the Continental Divide, traveling on to attend the mountain man rendezvous on the Green River.

They entered Idaho in late July and stopped at Old Fort Hall. They visited the fort’s garden, but the plants were doing very poorly. They talked to the factor, who said that “his own did extremely well until the 8th of June, when the frost of one night completely prostrated it. It has since came up again, but does not look as well as it did before. This is their first attempt at cultivating.”

When they continued, they were still dragging one wagon along. Then, as noted above, they decided to dismantle the wagon and use the wheels to assemble a cart. Whitman had to discard her favorite trunk. She wrote, “If I were to make the journey again I would make quite different preparations.”
Three Island Crossing. Re-enactment, Glenns Ferry Tourism.

The very next day they encountered an obstacle that became notorious in Oregon Trail diaries: the Three Island Crossing, near today’s Glenns Ferry.

Some trains found this Crossing of the Snake so dangerous they chose the more arid and difficult route south of the river instead. Narcissa wrote, “Husband had considerable difficulty in crossing the cart. Both cart and mules were turned upside down in the river and entangled in the harness. The mules would have been drowned but for a desperate struggle to get them ashore.”

Despite these and other trials, the missionaries made it safely to the Columbia. The Spaldings opened a mission at Lapwai among the Nez Percés [blog, Nov 29], while the Whitmans built theirs at Waiilatpu, west of today’s Walla Walla. Unfortunately, it ended badly for Marcus and Narcissa. In November, 1847, they were murdered by the Indians they had traveled across a continent to help.
References: [B&W], [Brit]
Julie Roy Jeffrey, Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1994).
Narcissa Whitman, “Narcissa Whitman Journal,” published in Myron Eells, Marcus Whitman, Pathfinder and Patriot, Alice Harriman Company, Seattle (1909).
“History and Culture,” Whitman Mission National Historic Site, National Park Service (2004).

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