Cayuse attack mission, in what becomes known as the Whitman Massacre, on November 29, 1847.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 9/24/2014
  • Essay 5192

On November 29, 1847, a small group of Cayuse Indians attack the Whitman Mission near Walla Walla in what will become known as the Whitman Massacre. Dr. Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), his wife Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847), nine other men, and two teenage boys are killed during several days of bloodshed, most of them on the first day. Another man escapes to Fort Walla Walla but is believed to have drowned shortly thereafter; he is counted as a 14th victim. About 50 survivors are held hostage for a month and then ransomed by the Hudson's Bay Company. The attack, a pivotal event in Northwest history, will lead to a war of retaliation against the Cayuse and the extension of federal control over the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

Initial Cordiality

The Whitmans established a Protestant mission on Cayuse land next to the Walla Walla River at Waiilatpu (pronounced Why-ee-lat-poo, meaning "Place of the Rye Grass") in 1836, under the sponsorship of the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Relations between the couple and their hosts were initially cordial. The Cayuses helped cultivate land, plant and harvest crops, and build structures for the mission. The missionaries supplemented their diet with horsemeat provided by the Indians until they could raise enough food of their own. Tribal members celebrated the birth of the couple's first and only child, Alice Clarissa, in 1837. "The little stranger is visited daily by the chiefs and principal men in camp, and the women throng the house continually waiting an opportunity to see her," Narcissa wrote to her parents. Among those who came to pay homage was a headman named Tiloukaikt, "a kind, friendly Indian," who welcomed the baby as a "Cayuse te-mi" (Cayuse girl), because she was born on Cayuse land. "The whole tribe are highly pleased because we allow her to be called a Cayuse girl" (Letters, March 30, 1837).

However, disappointment and disillusionment built up over time, on both sides. The Whitmans expected the Cayuses to be eager to take up farming, convert to Christianity, and live like white people. The Indians were interested in some aspects of the newcomers' culture and religion, but only to supplement, not replace, their traditional way of life. Cultural misunderstandings contributed to the tension. The Whitmans' ideas about privacy conflicted with Indian standards of community and shared space. Gift-giving was an essential part of social and political interaction in Cayuse life; the Whitmans regarded the practice as extortion. When the Cayuses adopted Euro-American notions about private property and demanded payment for their land and resources, the missionaries were offended and refused.

An important link between the Whitmans and the Cayuses was broken in June 1839, when 2-year-old Alice Clarissa toddled into the river behind the mission and drowned. Narcissa sank into a depression that never fully lifted. Whitman turned his focus away from "the benighted Indians" and concentrated instead on attracting and supporting white settlers. He became an ardent advocate of American expansion into "Oregon Country," which was not yet a part of the United States (a boundary dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain would not be settled until 1846). "He wanted to see the country settled," wrote Reverend Henry K. Perkins (1812-1884), a Methodist missionary who knew him well. "The beautiful valley of the Walla Walla he wanted to see teeming with a busy, bustling white population" (Perkins to Jane Prentiss, October 19, 1849, reprinted in Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D., 459).

Whitman enthusiastically greeted a group of former mountain men and their families who arrived at Waiilatpu in the fall of 1840 with three wagons -- the first to be driven over what would become the Oregon Trail. Whitman himself had tried to bring a wagon to Oregon four years earlier but had been forced to leave it behind at a fort in present-day Idaho. "[Y]ou have broken the ice," he reportedly told Robert Newell (1807-1869) and Joseph L. "Joe" Meek (1810-1875), the leaders of the party. "[W]hen others see that wagons have passed, they too, will pass and in a few years the valley will be full of our people" (Snowden, 25). A group of 24 emigrants from Missouri reached Waiilatpu the next year. "Doubtless every year will bring more and more into this country," Narcissa wrote. "Our little place is a resting spot for many a weary, way-worn traveler and will be as long as we live here" (Letters, October 2, 1841).

By that point, the American Board was sponsoring four missions in Oregon Country, located hundreds of miles apart, staffed by missionaries who incessantly quarreled among themselves. The board became increasingly exasperated by the stream of complaining letters from Oregon and by the missionaries' lack of progress in converting Indians. In February 1842, it ordered the closure of Waiilatpu and two other stations, recalled two of the most troublesome missionaries, and assigned Whitman to the remaining station, near Spokane.

Whitman received the news seven months later. With the consent of his fellow missionaries, he made a dangerous mid-winter ride back to Boston to protest the board's decision. He argued that Waiilatpu was a strategic rest stop and supply station for travelers to Oregon and that "Papists" (Catholics) would take it over if the Protestants abandoned it. The board reluctantly rescinded its order. Whitman returned in the fall of 1843 at the head of a wagon train of more than 800 emigrants. "I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country," he wrote to Narcissa's parents. "The Indians have in no case obeyed the command to multiply and replenish the earth, and they cannot stand in the way of others doing so" (Letters, May 16, 1844).

"The Indians Are Roused"

The Cayuse watched with alarm as more and more emigrants traveled through their country, using up scarce firewood, depleting grasses on land used to graze Indian horses and cattle, and killing game without permission. About 1,500 arrived in 1844; twice that number came the next year. Many exhausted families wintered at the mission before continuing on to the Willamette Valley in the spring. More outbuildings were added to the mission complex; more fields fenced in. "The Indians are roused a good deal at seeing so many emigrants," Narcissa wrote (Letters, May 20, 1844).

Tribal leaders made several efforts to get the Whitmans to leave, to the point of physical confrontation. Whitman was shoved and hit on the chest on one occasion. He was cuffed and had his ears pulled another time. "When Marcus Whitman returned east to protest the proposal to close Waiiletpu Mission and, on the return trip, when he brought more people to settle the Oregon Country, the Cayuse leaders warned him that what he was doing was not the understanding they had with him," Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, wrote in a tribal history. "His expressed purpose for being with the Cayuse was to teach them about the Christian religion. But he brought more people, developed more land, and brought sickness that killed many Cayuse" ("Wars, Treaties, ...," 64).

More than 4,000 settlers reached Oregon Country in 1847. Their arrival coincided with a virulent epidemic of measles among the Cayuses, who had no natural immunity to the infectious diseases introduced by Euro-Americans. The source of the outbreak is not clear: possibly one of the emigrant wagon trains, possibly a Cayuse-Walla Walla cattle-trading party that had recently returned from California. In any case, the effects were devastating. According to some estimates, nearly half the Indians living near the Whitman Mission died. More than a dozen white people at the mission also were sickened by measles but only one -- a six-year-old from an emigrant family -- died. Noting that Whitman's white patients usually recovered while his Indian patients did not, some Indians began to suspect him of deliberately killing Cayuses in order to take their land.

In Cayuse tradition, a healer or shaman ("te-wat") whose patients died could be considered guilty of misusing his spirit power and put to death himself. Whitman, a medical doctor who had been introduced to the Cayuses as "a sorcerer of great power," was well aware of his vulnerability. Just months after settling in at Waiilatpu, he had been called to treat the wife of a Cayuse head chief. The chief told Whitman he would kill him if his wife died. That patient survived, but others did not. In a letter to the American Board in 1845, Whitman noted that he had recently been accused of causing two deaths -- one a young man who "died of apoplexy;" the other, a chief. The chief's son "came to me as he was dying and in a passion told me I had killed his Father and that it would not be a difficult matter for me to be killed" (ABCFM Collection, April 8, 1845).

Attack on the Mission

More than 60 people were at the Whitman Mission on the morning of November 29, 1847, including eight newly arrived emigrant families, a school teacher, a tailor who had been hired to make a new Sunday suit for Whitman, half a dozen laborers, and 10 children who had been taken in by the Whitmans over the years (among them seven orphans whose parents -- Henry and Naomi Sager -- had died on the Oregon Trail in 1844). Two other families were living in a cabin at the mission's sawmill in the Blue Mountains, some 20 miles away. It was a cold and foggy day. After the noontime meal, several of the men began butchering a steer. Some of the children went to the schoolroom, on the second floor of the main Mission House, with their teacher. Narcissa gave two of the Sager girls a bath downstairs. Whitman sat down in the living room to read.

Sometime after 1 p.m., a small group of Cayuses -- 14 to 18, by most estimates -- armed themselves with clubs, tomahawks, and guns; covered the weapons with blankets, and went to the mission complex. Two Indians pushed their way into the kitchen at the Mission House and demanded medicine. Roused by the noise, Whitman went to the kitchen. Mary Ann Bridger, 12-year-old mixed-race daughter of mountain man James F. "Jim" Bridger (1804-1881), who had spent half her life with the Whitmans, was the only eyewitness to what happened next. She said later that when Whitman turned toward a cupboard, presumably to get some medicine, one of the Indians plunged a tomahawk into the back of his head. Tribal historians speculate that the assailant may have been trying to release the evil spirits he thought lay within.

By sunset, some four hours later, nine people were dead, including both Whitmans. Narcissa, the only woman to be attacked, was shot. Two men managed to escape. One of them, a carpenter named Peter D. Hall, reached the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Walla Walla, 25 miles west of the mission, on the morning of November 30, bringing the first news of the attack to the outside world. He is believed to have drowned while trying to travel on by boat to Fort Vancouver. An emigrant family of five hid under floorboards in the Mission House and eventually also escaped to Fort Walla Walla. Two other men were killed the day after the initial attack. One of them, a 24-year-old who had been working at the sawmill, was shot as he approached the mission with a load of lumber. He was buried where he lay by a French Canadian named Joseph Stanfield, one of the Whitmans' hired hands. Stanfield then began digging a mass grave for the other victims. He was preparing bodies for burial on the morning of December 1, 1847, when Father J. B. A. Brouillet (1813-1884) arrived. Brouillet, a Catholic priest who had established a mission on the Umatilla River about 25 miles south of Waiilatpu just a few days earlier, described what he saw in a letter to officials at Fort Walla Walla:

"Ten dead bodies lying here and there, covered with blood and bearing the marks of the most atrocious cruelty -- some pierced with balls, others more or less gashed by the hatchet. Dr. Whitman had received three gashes on the face. Three others had their skulls crushed so that their brains were oozing out" (March 2, 1848, reprinted in Brouillet, 50).

The survivors watched and wept as Brouillet and Stanfield put the dead in a wagon -- "all piled up like dead animals," one of the Sager girls recalled -- and then buried them in a long, shallow trench (Delaney, 22). Two of the Whitmans' wards -- Louise Sager, age 6, and Helen Mar Meek, 10 (mixed-race daughter of mountain man Joe Meek) -- died of measles a few days later. Shortly after that, two young emigrant men, both in their 20s and ill with measles, were dragged from their beds and bludgeoned to death, in a final flurry of violence at the Whitman Mission.


The survivors -- mostly women and children -- were held as hostages for a month and then ransomed by Peter Skene Ogden (1780-1854), a Hudson's Bay Company official from Fort Vancouver. Shortly after Odgen and his men left, to escort the former captives to Fort Vancouver, the Indians learned that settlers in the Willamette Valley had destroyed Cayuse villages and property on the upper Deschutes River. Angered, they returned to the mission; piled wagons and other property into the buildings, and burned them.

The settlers' reactions to the "horrid massacre" at Waiilatpu were reflected in the pages of the Oregon Spectator, published in Oregon City. One editorial demanded that "the barbarian murderers ... be pursued with unrelenting hostility, until their lifeblood has atoned for their infamous deeds; let them be hunted as beasts of prey" (January 20, 1848). George Abernethy (1807-1877), recently elected as the provisional governor, called for "immediate and prompt action" to punish the perpetrators. A volunteer militia of about 500, led by Colonel Cornelius Gilliam (1798-1848), set out to do that in January 1848.

Meanwhile, Joe Meek, who had settled near Oregon City and become a member of the provisional legislature, was commissioned to take news of the attack to Washington, D.C. He arrived in May 1848 with petitions demanding federal protection for the settlers. Congress responded by passing a long-delayed bill to establish Oregon Territory as a federal entity. The bill had been stalled for two years by a debate over whether slavery would be permitted in the new territory (in the end, it was not). President James K. Polk (1795-1849) signed the measure in August 1848. He then appointed the first slate of territorial officers, including Joseph Lane (1801-1881), a Mexican War veteran from Indiana, as territorial governor, and Meek as U.S. Marshal.

Lane arrived in Oregon City in March 1849. By then, the Cayuses and their neighbors, the Walla Wallas and the Nez Perce, had been subject to more than a year of harassment by volunteer militiamen. Lane arranged a meeting with tribal leaders at The Dalles in April, offering peace if those who were guilty of killing the whites at Waiilatpu were given up. If not, he promised the Cayuses a war "which would lead to their total destruction," because "we could not discriminate between the innocent and guilty" (Lane). The tribe still held out for another year. Finally, an elder known as Young Chief (Tauitau, sometimes spelled Tawatoe or Tawatoy) arranged for the tribe to surrender five men for trial on charges of murder in connection with the attack. Among them was Tiloukaikt, the "kind, friendly Indian" who had christened the Whitmans' infant daughter as a "Cayuse te-mi" when she was born.

The five prisoners were brought to Oregon City, tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on June 3, 1850, by Marshal Joe Meek.


Narcissa Whitman, The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1986); Antone Minthorn, "Wars, Treaties, and the Beginning of Reservation Life," in As Days Go By: Our History, Our Land, and Our People: The Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla ed. by Jennifer Karson (Pendleton: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute and Oregon Historical Society Press, 2006), 64-65; Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington, Vol. 2 (New York: The Century History Company, 1909); American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) Collection, North American Missions Records (ABC 18.5.5), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; J. B. A. Brouillet, Authentic Account of the Murder of Dr. Whitman and Other Missionaries, by the Cayuse Indians of Oregon in 1847, 2nd edition (Portland, Oregon: S.J. McCormick, 1869), copy available at Internet Archive website (; Matilda J. Sager Delaney, A Survivor's Recollections of the Whitman Massacre (Spokane: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1920); Clifford M. Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D. (Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1937); Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, Vol. 2 (Seattle: Northwest Interpretive Association, [1986], 1994); "The Massacre at Waiilatpu," Oregon Spectator, January 20, 1848, p. 1; Joseph Lane, "Legislative Message, 1850," Oregon Secretary of State website accessed September 7, 2014 (
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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