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Narcissa Whitman (Prentiss)
Born March 14, 1808
Prattsburgh, New York
Died November 29, 1847 (aged 39)
Waiilatpu, Washington
Occupation missionary
Spouse(s) Marcus Whitman

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (March 14, 1808 – November 29, 1847), was an American missionary in the Oregon Country of what would become the state of Washington. Along with Eliza Hart Spalding (wife of Henry Spalding), she was the first European-American woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in 1836 on her way to found the Protestant Whitman Mission with husband Dr. Marcus Whitman near modern day Walla Walla, Washington.[1]


Early life

Narcissa Prentiss was born in Prattsburgh, New York in the Genesee Valley on March 14, 1808.[2] She was one of nine children of Judge Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss.[3] She was the oldest of the five girls, followed by Clarissa, Mary Ann, Jane, and Harriet.[3] She also had four brothers and was the third of nine children.[4] Like many young women of the era, Narcissa became caught up in the Second Great Awakening. She decided that her true calling was to become a missionary, and was accepted for missionary service in March 1835.[4] Narcissa was educated at the Female Academy at Troy, on the Hudson before her marriage to Dr. Marcus Whitman.[3] The marriage was on February 18, 1836 in Angelica, New York.[3] The couple hardly knew each other when they exchanged vows, but the common drive for mission work forged a strong bond between them.

Journey west

Shortly after the wedding, Narcissa and Marcus, along with the also recently married Henry and Eliza Spalding, headed west for the Oregon Country in March 1836 to begin their missionary activities amongst the natives.[3] The journey was by sleigh, canal barge, wagon, river sternwheeler, horseback, and foot.[3] The founder of Ogden, Utah, Miles Goodyear, traveled with the Whitmans until Fort Hall.[3] On September 1, 1836 they arrived at Walla Walla Fort, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost near present day Walla Walla, Washington.[3] Marcus and Narcissa then traveled on to Fort Vancouver where they were hosted by Dr. John McLoughlin before returning to the Walla Walla area to build their mission.[3] Narcissa was one of the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains and live in the area. She was something of a novel addition to the community for the local Native Americans, the Cayuse.[5]

Whitman Mission

The Whitman Mission began to take shape in 1837, eventually growing into a major stopping point along the Oregon Trail.[3] Methodist missionary Jason Lee would stop off in 1838 at the mission on his way east to gather reinforcements in the United States for his mission in the Willamette Valley.[3] Then in 1840 mountain man Joseph Meek, who the Whitmans met on their journey to the area, stopped off on his way to the Willamette Valley.[3]

Built at Waiilatpu (which means "place of the rye grass" in Cayuse), the settlement was about six miles (10 km) from Fort Walla Walla and along the Walla Walla River.[3] At the mission Narcissa gave Bible classes to the native population, as well as teaching them Western domestic chores that were unknown to the Native Americans.[3] Besides the missionary goals of converting the natives, Narcissa also ran the household.[3] Her daily activities included cooking, washing & ironing clothes, churning butter, making candles & soap, and baking.[3]

On March 14, 1837, on her twenty-ninth birthday, Narcissa gave birth to the first white American born in Oregon Country.[3] Marcus and Narcissa named their daughter Alice Clarissa after her two grandmothers, and she would be their only natural child.[3] Unfortunately, Alice drowned in the Walla Walla River on June 23, 1839.[3] Unattended for only a few moments, she had gone down to the river bank to fill her cup with water and fell in.[3] Though her body was found shortly after she had fallen in, all attempts to revive her failed.[3] However, other children came to the mission.[4] In 1840, Helen Mar Meek was the first child to be taken in by the mission, as her Nez Perce mother had deserted her and her father, Joseph Meek, was unable to properly care for her. Jim Bridger sent his daughter Mary Ann to the mission in 1841. In 1842, a boy who was half-Indian and half-Spanish, between three and four years of age, came to live at the mission, and was named David Malin by Narcissa, after a friend back home.

Just before winter in late 1842 Marcus traveled back east to recruit more missionaries for the mission.[3] During the time Marcus was away, Narcissa traveled west and visited other outposts in the territory including Fort Vancouver, Jason Lee’s Methodist Mission near present day Salem, and another mission near Astoria, Oregon.[3] Dr. Whitman returned with his nephew Perrin from his trip East in 1843.[3] However the largest group of children came in 1844, when the seven Sager orphans arrived at the mission. Both parents had died on the Trail, and the wagon train had adopted the children until they could be taken in at the mission. Once they arrived at the mission, Narcissa soon was the adoptive parent of eleven children in a matter of four years.[4]

Narcissa Whitman

Whitman Massacre

Throughout their time in Oregon Country, Narcissa and Marcus encountered trouble with the native tribes.[3] The Cayuse and the Nez Percé tribes were suspicious of the activities and the encouragement of the Americans.[3] As early as 1841 Tiloukaikt had tried to force the Whitmans to leave Waiilatpu.[3]

In 1847 a measles epidemic broke out among the native population.[3] Spread to the natives by contact with whites, the native population lacked immunity to the disease and it spread quickly.[3] The American populations had some limited immunity to measles which meant a lower mortality rate than the natives.[3] This discrepancy stirred discontent among the natives who felt Dr. Whitman was only curing the white people while letting Indian children die.[3] The resentment concerning all the different issues boiled over on November 29, 1847 when Tiloukaikt and others attacked the mission killing both Marcus and Narcissa.[3] This event would be known as the Whitman Massacre, in which many others were killed and many more taken hostage.[2]


  • Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo. The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. University of Nebraska Press, 1989, 1996
  • Thompson, Erwin N. Whitman Mission National Historic Site: Here They Labored Among the Cayuse Indians. National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 37, 1964


  1. ^ The Oregon History Project: Protestant Ladder. Oregon Historical Society. Retrieved on February 19, 2008.
  2. ^ a b "Biography of Narcissa Whitman". Whitman Mission NHS - History & Culture. National Park Service. Retrieved 2006-11-21.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Allen, Opal Sweazea. Narcissa Whitman: An Historical Biography. Binfords & Mort, 1959.
  4. ^ a b c d "Biography of Narcissa Whitman". Whitman Mission National Historic Site. US National Parks Service. Retrieved 2007-11-07.  
  5. ^ Nash, Gary, The American People 6th concise ed., New York: Pearson Longman, p. 387.


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