by Heather Frey Blanton
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Not every woman who helped settle America did so with eager determination. Some did what they had to do and didn’t really think about it. Others, deeply regretted ever leaving home and most likely spent their last breaths cursing the fateful decisions. None of this makes these women any less brave.
Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel west of the Rockies, is sadly, one of the darker stories of settling the country. She started out with good intentions, focused too much on the bad when things didn’t go her way, and ended up dying an ugly death.
Early in 1836, she and her new husband Marcus Whitman left New York to open a mission in Washington state. You’ve got to put the danger and difficulty of this trip into perspective. This was before the 1849 Gold Rush that caused the West to explode with settlers. The land left of the Rockies was populated by Indians and mountain men. Period. Roads were mere trails. There was no rail road, no stagecoach lines, no towns, unless you counted military forts. But Narcissa fell in love with Jesus at the age of 11 and knew he had a plan for her.
She was convinced the Indians needed to know about Jesus and answered God’s call to carry his word into the darkness. With few possessions and an energetic, often insensitive, faith, they arrived at their destination in late September.
For Narcissa, this was really when the hard work began. Her husband, a doctor, had many opportunities to get out and about for medical calls, but she stayed mostly at the mission. The Cayuse Indians were not very receptive to the Whitman’s teachings or way of life. Constant misunderstandings occurred because of issues with cleanliness, privacy, and ownership of property.
Eventually the couple, disillusioned with the Indians, turned more towards the trappers and immigrants passing through. Still, due to language and faith barriers, Narcissa was lonely. Things only went from bad to worse for her when her daughter, two-year-old Clarissa, drowned in the Walla-Walla River.
Tensions between the Whitmans and the Cayuse continued to rise as thousands of settlers poured into Washington and the mission-turned-trading-post played host to them. Over a decade, the Cayuse saw their land and way of life disappearing because of this onslaught of settlers. Marcus had several physical altercations with warriors in the tribe who insisted the Whitman’s close the post and leave.
In the fall of 1847, a wagon train arrived with over five thousand immigrants. Along with their hopes and dreams of a brighter future, these settlers also brought with them measles. Few of the Cayuse had any resistance to the disease and dropped like flies. Rumors circulated that Dr. Whitman was causing the deaths. The Indians attacked. Along with her husband and fourteen other people, Narcissa died in the mud just outside her door.
An inglorious end to a noble, though misguided, effort. Still, Narcissa had tried. She dealt with things the best way her whiney nature would allow. I respect her efforts, but I’m glad I’m not her descendant.