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 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.

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]


During 1835, Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman journeyed through out the Pacific Northwest, in the modern states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, to locate potential mission locations. Parker hired a translator from manager of the Hudson's Bay Company trading post Fort Nez Percés, Pierre-Chrysologue Pambrun, to consult with Liksiyu (Cayuse) and Niimíipu (Nez Perce) nobility to use particular areas for Christian proselytising. During specific negotiations over what became the Waiilatpu Mission, only six miles from the site of the present day city of Walla Walla, Washington, Parker told the assembled Cayuse men that:

"I do not intend to take your lands for nothing. After the Doctor [Whitman] is come, there will come every year a big ship, load with goods to be divided among the Indians. Those goods will not be sold, but given to you. The missionaries will bring you plows and hoes, to teach you how to cultivate the land, and they will not set, but give them to you."[4]

The next year, Marcus returned over the Rockies with his wife Narcissa and Missionary couple Rev. Henry Spalding and Eliza Hart Spalding; the women holding the distinction of being the first white American women in the Pacific Northwest. HBC Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin advised against the missionaries residing on the Columbia Plateau, but offered material support for their venture regardless. The Cayuse allowed construction of the mission, still assuming the promises of Parker were valid.[4]

Rising tensions[edit]

During the summer of 1837 Cayuse nobleman Umtippe, the owner of the surrounding land, came to collect payment previously agreed upon. Whitman balked at his demands and refused to fulfill the agreement. During the subsequent winter Umtippe returned to again demand material compensation, along with medical attention for his sick wife. He informed Whitman that "Doctor, you have come here to give us bad medicines; you come to kill us, and you steal our lands. You had promised to pay me every year, and you have given me nothing. You had better go away; if wife dies, you shall die also."[4] Cayuse men continued to complain to HBC traders of Marcus Whitman's refusal to pay for using their land and of his preferential treatment of incoming white colonists.[5] A common complaint was that Whitman sold wheat to settlers, while giving none to the Cayuse land holders, and demanding payment for using his grist mill.[5]

The Cayuse and Umatilla involved in the incident had previously lived at the Waiilatpu mission. 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[6][7] or that someone from the Hudson Bay Co. had injected strychnine into the medicine after Marcus had given it to the tribe.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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 Mary Ann Bridger (the young daughter of mountain man Jim Bridger), a lodger of the mission and eyewitness to the event, the men knocked on the Whitmans' kitchen door and demanded medicine. Mary Ann recounted that Marcus brought the medicine, and began a conversation with Tiloukaikt. While Whitman was distracted, Tomahas struck him twice in the head with a hatchet from behind and another man shot him in the neck.[11] The men then rushed outside, to set upon the men and boys who were working outdoors. Narcissa found Marcus fatally wounded; yet he lived for several hours after the attack, sometimes responding to her anxious reassurances. Catherine Sager, who had been with Narcissa in another room when the attack occurred, later wrote in her reminiscences that "Tiloukaikt chopped the doctor's face so badly that his features could not be recognized."[11]

Narcissa later went to get a view through the window in the door, getting shot by a Cayuse man. She died later from a volley of gunshots after she had been coaxed to leave the house.[12] 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.[13][14] 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.[14] 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. An observer of the executions recalled that "We have read of heroes of all times, never did we read of, or believe, that such heroism as these Indians exhibited could exist. They knew that to be accused was to be condemned, and that they would be executed in the civilized town of Oregon city..."[15]

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.[16] The Pageant was directed by Percy Jewett Burrell.

"The pageant of today is the Drama of our Democracy!"[17] 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.[18] 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."[19] 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."[20] 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.[21]


  1. ^ Mann, Barbara Alice (2009). The Tainted Gift: The Disease Method of Frontier Expansion. ABC Clio. 
  2. ^ Drury, Clifford M. "Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon." Volume 1, Chapter 8. Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, 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. ^ a b c Brouillet, J. B. A. Authentic Account of the Murder of Dr. Whitman and Other Missionaries, by the Cayuse Indians of Oregon, in 1847, and the Causes Which Led to That Horrible Catastrophe. 2nd ed. Portland, OR.: S.J. McCormick, 1869. pp. 23-24.
  5. ^ a b Brouillet (1869), p. 27.
  6. ^ Mann (2009).
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Hurtado 1988
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b Drury (2005) Vol. 2, pp. 250-252.
  12. ^ Drury (2005) Vol. 2, pp. 256, 261-262.
  13. ^ "The Whitman Massacre Trial: An indictment is issued". Oregon State Archives. Retrieved March 3, 2008. 
  14. ^ a b "The Whitman Massacre Trial: A Verdict is Reached". Oregon State Archives. Retrieved February 18, 2008. 
  15. ^ A parallel for the Utes. The United States Army and Navy Journal, and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces. Vol. 17. New York: Publication Office, No. 39 Park Row, 1880. 242.
  16. ^ Stephen Penrose, How the West was Won: A Pioneer Pageant, Walla Walla, Washington, 1923, Introduction
  17. ^ Stephen Penrose, How the West was Won: A Pioneer Pageant, Walla Walla, Washington, 1923, To the People of the Pageant (Director's Introduction)
  18. ^ The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999
  19. ^ Seattle Times, Seattle to Join Sister City in Big Celebration, May 18, 1924
  20. ^ Ibid, May 18, 1924
  21. ^ Walla Walla Union Bulletin, Visitors Crowd Into this City to View Pageant, May 29, 1924
  • 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).

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