Dr. Marcus Whitman was only 33 years of age when he first came to the Pacific Northwest. He was assigned as physician to the party headed by Reverend Samuel Parker. This party was sent out by the American Board of Foreign Missions located on the East Coast. Returning to his home in Rushville, New York, accompanied by two Indian boys, he persuaded the American Mission Board to make provisions for two missions in the Northwest–one to be located at Wailatpu, about six miles outside of the present day city of Walla Walla, Washington (about 25 miles distant from Fort Walla Walla, located on the east bank of the Columbia River which is now known as Wallula), the other Mission was to be located at the mouth of Lapwai Creek, on the Clearwater River about 15 miles upstream from the confluence of the Clearwater River with the Snake River near what is now known as Lewiston, Idaho. Initially, the Parker/Whitman party came overland by wagon train, passing through Fort Walla Walla and on to Fort Vancouver. After arrangements had been made for supplies, the party returned to the interior and that fall the two missions were established.
All was not harmony at the missions, and six years after the establishment at Wailatpu, Dr. Whitman called a conference of his Northwest associates and it was decided that the doctor should return east and make a personal appeal to the Mission Board for better support. Reports were floating around the missions that Great Britain was making strenuous efforts to colonize the Northwest to head off the people of the United States from settling and claiming the territory for their own.
Dr. Whitman was joined by A. L. Lovejoy, a Massachusetts attorney who had come west for his health, and was now at this point in time ready to return to the east. On October 3, 1842 the two men departed on their journey to the east coast planning on taking a full five months to reach their chosen destination.
Dr. Whitman settled his Missions Board affairs and then traveled to Washington D.C. where he was met with a rather cool reception as the U.S. President was then considering trading the “Oregon Country” to Great Britain for cod fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland.
Dr. Whitman joined the spring rush of emigrants in May, 1843, and in October of that same year passed back through Fort Walla Walla with 875 emigrants bound for Oregon.
Through ill treatment at the hands of the Indians, Mrs. Whitman had been forced to seek refuge down the Columbia River at the Methodist Mission in the present day town of The Dalles, Oregon.
When Dr. Whitman returned to his Mission, he noted that the gristmill had been burned and there was an appearance of neglect at Waiilatpu. The Indians were in a sullen peaceable mood. By the end of 1844 the physical welfare of the Mission had been restored. There were about 75 persons residing there at Waiilatpu at the time.
While there were many factors entering into the massacre at the Whitman Mission, the immediate cause of the trouble was a rumor that Dr. Whitman was poisoning the Indians. There was an epidemic of measles brought to the Mission by emigrants. Dr. Whitman prescribed medicines for the whites and Indians alike. The whites recovered, though the Indians, with less natural power of resistance, died in large numbers. Dr. Whitman had received repeated warnings of the impending massacre, both from friendly Indians and the Hudson’s Bay men. But apparently he paid no heed.
At the time of the massacre there were 59 persons living at the Mission houses, and 13 others at the sawmill, some 25 miles up Mill Creek. Fourteen persons were killed and the balance taken into captivity, from which they were later ransomed. Dr. Whitman was the first killed. Two chiefs by the names of Tilaukait and Tamsuky, came to the Mission house and called for Dr. Whitman. He met them in the kitchen. While Tilaukait engaged him in conversation Tamsuky came up from behind and felled him with a tomahawk. John Sager, in the kitchen at the time, was shot, while a daughter of Jim Bridger escaped and took the news to the others in the house. Mrs. Whitman was wounded in the shoulder, but recovered sufficiently to take charge of the situation. Under promise of protection, she permitted the couch on which she was lying to be carried from the house. When a short distance away, one of the bearers let his end of the couch fall to the ground as he stepped back. The Indians then riddled the other carrier as well as Mrs. Whitman with bullets. Eliza Spalding, wife of Missionary Rev. Henry Spalding, was at the Mission at the time, but was not harmed. There is considerable controversy as to what actually happened to the captive women. Reverend Spalding in published reports seemed to think the women had all met with assaults and indignities. But those present at the Mission at the time deny these allegations. The claim is made that only one woman was assaulted, this being Miss Bewly. A young chieftain wanted her as his wife. She refused and the Indian became so enraged that he assaulted her. The action of the Indian, to him, seemed justified. White men were continuously taking Indian women to wife, and it is asserted the Indians could not see that there was any difference in the Indians marrying the white women. This Indian returned the next day with some friends to help him take Miss Bewly to his home. In the meantime, a bachelor Indian chief at Umatilla had sent some of his friends for the young woman, as he had taken a fancy to her. She did not want to marry this second chief either, but he forcibly kept her in his tent for two weeks.
The day of the massacre, Reverend Spalding was due at the Mission. Knowing this,…a Catholic priest went out to intercept him and informed him of the tragedy. Spalding, by traveling light and at night, eluded pursuit, and arrived back at his home safely on the sixth night. From friendly Indians he learned that his family had been taken to the home of Colonel William Craig for protection. The enraged Cayuse Indians came over to the Nez Perce country to get the Spaldings, but found them protected by the friendly Nez Perces. The captives were later released to Peter Skene Ogden, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on his payment of a ransom.
There is a fairly well authenticated story to the effect that when attending the coming of a little stranger to Reverend and Mrs. Spalding a year before he was murdered, Dr. Whitman discovered gold in noticeable quantities on the Clearwater River near the mouth of Lapwai Creek. If it were actually true, this would antedate other discoveries in central Idaho by nearly fifteen years.
The last survivor of the Whitman massacre died in Portland, August 5, 1933, she was 96 years old when she died. Her name was Mrs. Gertrude Jane Denny. At 10 years of age she saw her father murdered, while she, her mother, and four other children were taken into captivity, where they remained until ransomed by Peter Skene Ogden. After becoming a mature woman, she married Captain Leonard White, a noted river boat pilot whose home was in Salem, Oregon. Some years after the death of her first husband, she married Judge Owen N. Denny, a prominent pioneer who went to the Oregon Country with his parents in 1852.
There was indeed a mighty price that was paid by those hearty souls who went before all of us into the wild and unknown parts of the far west, where life threatening dangers were found almost at every turn or stop. Thank God, our ancestors were strong and courageous men and women. Today, we all need to honor and respect with thankful hearts the bravery and fortitude that each of the early pioneers were willing to experience for the opportunities and freedoms we enjoy as we continue to live in this
awe-inspiring part of the United States.
Peace and Love to All of You…………………..Poppa Bear