Marcus Whitman


Marcus Whitman was a physician and missionary in the Oregon county who, with the assistance of his wife, started a mission in present-day Washington State. Born in New York, Whitman moved to Massachusetts to live with his uncle after his fatherís death in 1809. He dreamed of working as a minister but could not afford the time-consuming curriculum, and he instead studied medicine under an experienced doctor before earning a degree from Fairfield Medical College. In 1834, Whitman attempted to join the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions, but he was denied for health reasons. Regardless, he continued to plead his case, and within the year he was allowed to travel with missionary Samuel Parker to present-day Montana and Idaho, where the two men ministered to local Native Americans. During his stay, Whitman also treated several cases of cholera contracted by white fur trappers.

Oregon pioneers
Upon his return, he married Narcissa Prentiss, a science teacher who had longed to travel to the frontier but was unable to do so as a single woman. Her dreams were fulfilled only shortly afterward, when the couple joined several other missionaries and traders on an expedition headed west. The group established several missions, including Whitmanís own settlement, Waiilatpu ("place of the rye grass"). Located only six miles from present-day Walla Walla, Washington, it encompassed both Cayuse and Nez Perce territory. Whitman worked as a farmer and doctor, while his wife opened a school for native children. In 1843, Whitman travelled east, returning with a large group of covered wagons that would eventually inspire the long trek along the Oregon Trail. Six years earlier, Narcissa had given birth to the first white American born in the Oregon County, but unfortunately the little girl passed away at age two, when she drowned in the Walla Walla River.

The influx of white settlers brought to the region by Whitman had a devastating effect on the Native American populations, who contracted measles in large numbers and passed away quickly. In the Indian tradition, doctors were held personally responsible for a patientís death, and the high mortality rates led the native tribes to assume that Whitman was harming their people on purpose. In retaliation, the Cayuse instigated the bloody Whitman Massacre, killing the Whitmans and twelve other settlers and destroying most of the buildings in Waiilatpu. This event eventually led to the Cayuse War, an ongoing conflict between the white settlers and the indigenous peoples. Whitman is commemorated by the Marcus Whitman Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Washington, as well as by several other institutions, and September 4th was declared Marcus Whitman Day.

Key events during the life of Marcus Whitman:

Went to live with his uncle following his father's death.
Applied to the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions but was rejected.
Travelled with Samuel Parker to Montana and Idaho, where he served both the Native Americans and white fur trappers.
Married Narcissa Prentiss.
  Travelled west with his wife to Washington state.
Narcissa gave birth to Alice Clarissa, the first white American born in Oregon County.
Alice drowned in the Walla Walla River.
Travelled east and returned with a large group of settlers.
Killed with his wife and twelve others during the Whitman Massacre.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Samuel Parker  in  Trails of the Pathfinders  by  George Bird Grinnell
Whitman's Ride  in  Story of the Great Republic  by  H. A. Guerber

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