Whitman massacre

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Whitman massacre
Part of the Cayuse War
Marcus Whitman.jpg
Marcus Whitman
Location Waiilapu mission, near Walla Walla, Washington
Coordinates 46°02′32″N 118°27′51″W / 46.04222°N 118.46417°W / 46.04222; -118.46417Coordinates: 46°02′32″N 118°27′51″W / 46.04222°N 118.46417°W / 46.04222; -118.46417
Date November 29, 1847 (1847-11-29)
Deaths 14
Victims White American residents of the Waiilatpu mission
Assailants Tiloukaikt, Tomahas, Kiamsumpkin, Iaiachalakis, and Klokomas
Motive The belief that Marcus Whitman was deliberately poisoning Native Americans infected with measles

The Whitman massacre (also known as the Walla Walla massacre and the Whitman Incident) was the murder of Oregon missionaries Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with eleven others, on November 29, 1847. They were killed by a party of Cayuse and Umatilla Native Americans who accused him of having poisoned 200 Cayuse in his medical care.[1] The incident began the Cayuse War. It took place in present-day southeastern Washington state, near the town of Walla Walla, and was one of the most notorious episodes in the U.S. settlement of the Pacific Northwest. The event was the climax of several years of complex interaction between Marcus, who had helped lead the first wagon train to cross Oregon's Blue Mountains and reach the Columbia River via the Oregon Trail, his wife and fellow missionary Narcissa, and the local Native Americans.[2]

The killings are usually ascribed in part to a clash of cultures and in part to the inability of Marcus, a physician, to halt the spread of measles among the Native Americans, who then held Whitman responsible for subsequent deaths. The incident remains controversial to this day: the Whitmans are regarded by some as pioneer heroes; others see them as white settlers who attempted to impose their religion on the Native Americans and otherwise unjustly intrude, even allegedly poisoning the natives.[3]

See Cayuse War for more on the theory of culture conflict.


In 1836, Marcus, Rev. Henry Spalding, and their wives crossed the Rockies, Eliza Hart Spalding and Narcissa Whitman being the first white American women in Oregon Country. With the help of Dr. John McLoughlin – but against his advice – they settled at Waiilatpu, near Fort Walla Walla, only six miles from the site of the present day city of Walla Walla, Washington.

The Cayuse and Umatilla involved in the incident had previously lived at Waiilatpu, the mission founded by the Whitmans. Among the many new white arrivals at Waiilatpu in 1847 was Joe Lewis, an Iroquois "halfbreed." Bitter from what he perceived to be maltreatment received in the East, Lewis attempted to spread discontent among the local Cayuse, hoping to create a situation in which he could ransack the Whitman Mission. He told the Cayuse that Marcus, who was attempting to treat them during a measles epidemic for which they lacked immunity, was, in fact, not trying to save them but instead was deliberately poisoning them. A common practice among the Columbia Plateau tribes was that the doctor, or shaman, could be killed in retribution if patients died. It is probable that the Cayuse and Umatilla held Marcus responsible for the numerous deaths and therefore felt justification to take his life as per their custom. It was believed among the Cayuse that he had treated them with strychnine[4][5] or that someone from the Hudson Bay Co. had injected strychnine into the medicine after Marcus had given it to the tribe.[6]

Narcissa Whitman

Other factors that may have contributed to the massacre were outbreaks of cholera, conflict between the Protestant missionaries and local Catholic priests, resentment over missionaries' attempts to transform the Indians' lifestyle and the killing of a Walla Walla chief's son. It was also claimed by anti-Catholic ministers, including Henry Spalding, that Catholic priests may have told the Cayuse that Marcus was the cause of the disease and incited the Cayuse to attack.[citation needed] Their motivation was portrayed[by whom?] as a desire to take over his Protestant station, which he had refused to sell to them. Priests named in various versions of this theory include Pierre-Jean De Smet and Joseph Cataldo.[citation needed]

One complaint given by the Cayuse as a factor was a previous bad experience with whites in California. John Sutter had recruited a group of them to come to Sacramento for military service fighting the Mexicans, with the promise of regular army payment afterwards. When receipts were given instead, intended to be paid off after being federally sanctioned (which did happen 12 years after the fact), the Cayuse were enraged at Sutter and resorted to raiding livestock on their way back to Oregon.[7]

Measles was epidemic around Sutter's Fort while the Cayuse men were there, and it claimed lives among their party as they made their way north. It was actually they who had carried the contagion to Waiilatpu: shortly after the expedition reached home, the disease appeared among the general population around Walla Walla and quickly spread among the tribes of the middle Columbia River.[8]

Outbreak of the violence[edit]

Sketch of the mission

On November 29, Tiloukaikt, Tomahas, Kiamsumpkin, Iaiachalakis, Endoklamin, and Klokomas, enraged by the talk of Joe Lewis, attacked Waiilatpu. According to eyewitness Mary Ann Bridger, the young daughter of mountain man Jim Bridger and a lodger at the mission, the men knocked on the Whitmans' kitchen door and demanded medicine. Mary Ann, who was washing dishes in the kitchen, recounted that Marcus brought the medicine and as he sat at the kitchen table talking with Tiloukaikt, Tomahas stepped behind him and struck him twice in the head with a hatchet. Another man shot him in the neck.[9] The men then rushed outside, leaving Marcus lying on the floor, where Narcissa soon found him. Thirteen-year-old Catherine Sager, who had been with Narcissa in another room when the attack occurred, later wrote in her reminiscences, "Tiloukaikt chopped the doctor's face so badly that his features could not be recognized."[10] Although fatally wounded, he lived for several hours after the attack, sometimes responding to Narcissa's anxious reassurances but mostly unconscious. As the attackers set upon the men and boys who were working outdoors, Narcissa went to the door to peer out of the window. One of the men outside shot her through the door, but she died later from a volley of gunshots after she had been coaxed to leave the house. [11]Besides Dr. and Narcissa Whitman, those killed included Andrew Rogers, Jacob Hoffman, L. W. Saunders, Walter Marsh, John Sager, Francis Sager, Nathan Kimball, Isaac Gilliland, James Young, Crocket Bewley and Amos Sales. Peter Hall, a carpenter who had been working on the house, managed to escape the massacre and get to Fort Walla Walla to raise the alarm and get help. From there he attempted to get to Fort Vancouver but never arrived. It is speculated that Hall drowned in the Columbia River or was caught and killed. Chief "Beardy" tried in vain to stop the massacre, but did not succeed. He was found crying while riding towards the Waiilatpu Mission.

Tiloukaikt and Tomahas, Cayuse chiefs

Another 54 women and children were captured and held for ransom, including Mary Ann Bridger and the five surviving Sager children. Several of the prisoners died in captivity, including Helen Mar Meek and Louisa Sager, usually from illness such as the measles. Henry and Eliza Spalding's daughter was staying at Waiilatpu when the massacre occurred. Eliza was returned to her parents by Peter Skene Ogden, an official of Hudson's Bay Company. One month following the massacre, on December 29, on orders from Chief Factor James Douglas, Ogden arranged for an exchange of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 Hudson Bay rifles, 600 loads of ammunition, 7 pounds of tobacco and 12 flints for the return of the now 49 surviving prisoners. The Hudson's Bay Company never billed the American settlers for the ransom, nor was payment ever offered.

A few years later, after further violence in what would become known as the Cayuse War, some of the settlers insisted that the matter was still unresolved. The new governor, General Mitchell Lambertsen, demanded the surrender of those who carried out the Whitman mission killings. The head chief attempted to explain why they had killed the whites, and that the war that followed (the Cayuse War) had resulted in a greater loss of his own people than the number killed at the mission. The explanation was not accepted.

Eventually, tribal leaders Tiloukaikt and Tomahas, who had been present at the original incident, and three additional Cayuse men consented to go to Oregon City (then capital of Oregon), to be tried for murder. Oregon Supreme Court justice Orville C. Pratt presided over the trial, with U.S. Attorney Amory Holbrook as the prosecutor.[12][13] In the trial, the five Cayuse who had surrendered used the defense that it is tribal law to kill the medicine man who gives bad medicine.[3] After a lengthy trial, the Native Americans were found guilty with Hiram Straight as foreman of the jury of twelve.[13] Newly appointed Territorial Marshall Joseph Meek, seeking revenge for the death of his daughter Helen, was also involved with the process. The decision was controversial because it was suspected that the witnesses in the trial had not actually been present at the killings. On June 3, 1850, Tiloukaikt, Tomahas, Kiamasumpkin, Iaiachalakis, and Klokomas were publicly hanged for their involvement in the massacre. Isaac Keele served as the hangman.

The story of the massacre shocked the United States Congress into action concerning the future territorial status of the Oregon Country. The Oregon Territory was finally established on August 14, 1848.

Anniversary remembrance[edit]

How the West was Won: A Pioneer Pageant, was performed in Walla Walla, Washington on June 6–7, 1923, and again on May 28–29, 1924. Originally conceived by Whitman College President, Stephen Penrose, as an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Whitman Massacre, the Pageant quickly gained support throughout the greater Walla Walla community and ultimately turned into a theatrical spectacle that was allegorical in nature and spoke to prevalent social themes of the time, such as manifest destiny. The Whitman Massacre ended up as a small but significant part of a performance in 4 movements: "The white man arrives," "The Indian Wars," "The Building of Walla Walla," and "The Future." The production included 3,000 volunteers from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.[14] The Pageant was directed by Percy Jewett Burrell.

"The pageant of today is the Drama of our Democracy!"[15] declared Percy Jewett Burrell, as he extolled the merits of pageantry, citing "solidarity," "communal [artistry]," and "spirit." The pageant's success was due, in part to the popularity of the theatrical form during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which held certain commonalities with other spectacular events, such as world's fairs and the arcades.[16] These commonalities include a large number of actor/participants, multiple stage/tableaux settings, and the propagation of ideological concerns. For the Pageant, this meant the creation of a narrative promulgating the divine providence of the success of European settlers in the conquest of western lands over Native Americans.

Situated 250 miles east of Seattle and Portland in Eastern Washington, Walla Walla was not an easy location to access in 1923-24. But local businesses worked with the Chamber of Commerce to provide special train service to the area which included "sleeping car accommodations for all who wish to join the party" for a round trip fare of $24.38. Furthermore, arrangements were made for the train to park near the amphitheater until the morning after the final performance, "thus giving the excursionists a hotel on wheels during their stay."[17] Additionally, the Automobile Club of Western Washington encouraged motorists to take the drive over Snoqualmie Pass because of good road conditions. "We have been informed the maintenance department of the State Highway Commission is arranging to put scraper crews on all the gravel road stretches of the route next week and put a brand new surface on the road for the special benefit of the pageant tourists."[18] The Pageant brought 10,000 tourists to Walla Walla each year, including regional dignitarites such as Oregon Governor Walter E. Pierce and Washington Governor Louis F. Hart.[19]


  1. ^ Mann, Barbara Alice (2009). The Tainted Gift: The Disease Method of Frontier Expansion. ABC Clio. 
  2. ^ "Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon," Clifford M. Drury (Northwest Interpretive Association; 1986, 1994, 2005)
  3. ^ a b "Defendants Request, Whitman Massacre Trial, 1851 (Transcript of original document)". Echoes of Oregon History Learning Guide. Oregon State Archives. Retrieved May 13, 2012. 
  4. ^ Mann (2009).
  5. ^ Mowry, William Augustus (1901). Marcus Whitman and the Early Days of Oregon. Silver, Burdett. p. 320. That person (Rogers) then told the Indians that the doctor intended to poison them. 
  6. ^ Cameron Addis. The Whitman Massacre: Religion and Manifest Destiny on the Columbia Plateau, 1809-1858. Journal of the Early Republic 25.2 (2005): 221-258.
  7. ^ Hurtado 1988
  8. ^ Robert Boyd. The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774-1874. 1999. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, pp.146-148.
  9. ^ Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, 1985 ed., Vol. 1:252
  10. ^ Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, 1985 ed., Vol 2:252
  11. ^ Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, 1985 ed. Vol. 1:256, 262
  12. ^ "The Whitman Massacre Trial: An indictment is issued". Oregon State Archives. Retrieved March 3, 2008. 
  13. ^ a b "The Whitman Massacre Trial: A Verdict is Reached". Oregon State Archives. Retrieved February 18, 2008. 
  14. ^ Stephen Penrose, How the West was Won: A Pioneer Pageant, Walla Walla, Washington, 1923, Introduction
  15. ^ Stephen Penrose, How the West was Won: A Pioneer Pageant, Walla Walla, Washington, 1923, To the People of the Pageant (Director's Introduction)
  16. ^ The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999
  17. ^ Seattle Times, Seattle to Join Sister City in Big Celebration, May 18, 1924
  18. ^ Ibid, May 18, 1924
  19. ^ Walla Walla Union Bulletin, Visitors Crowd Into this City to View Pageant, May 29, 1924
  • "Sequel to the Walla Walla Massacre", Army and Navy Journal November 1, 1879, cited on p. 407 of Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor, 1887, LCCN 02-15270.
  • William Henry Gray, A History of Oregon, 1792–1849, drawn from personal observation and authentic information..., Harris and Holman: 1870, pp. 464, MOA
  • Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (Yale Western Americana Series), Vail-Ballou Press: 1988, p. 71 (ISBN 0-300-04798-3).

External links[edit]