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Marcus Whitman was born in Federal Hollow (now Rushville), New York, on September 4, 1802. His father died when he was seven years old, and he was sent to live with an uncle in Massachusetts. Educated at a Congregational school in Plainfield, Massachusetts, he developed an interest in the ministry. Returning to Rushville in 1820, he spent the next three years working in his stepfather's tannery and shoe business. Unable to save enough money to attend seminary school, Whitman ultimately apprenticed himself to a local doctor. He then studied medicine at Fairfield Medical College, which was, ironically, cheaper than studying for the ministry. After graduating in 1825, he practiced in Canada for four years before returning to New York, where he became active in the Presbyterian Church. He returned to Fairfield for his Medical Doctor degree in 1832, was elected trustee of Wheeler Presbyterian Church in 1832 and 1833, and ordained elder of the church in 1834.
In 1835, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which was responsible for sending Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries to Native American tribes, authorized Whitman to accompany Samuel Parker on a mission to scout suitable missionary sites in Oregon Territory. Both men initially had difficulty getting along with the trappers and traders they traveled with due to their religious convictions, but Whitman was able to smooth things over by using his medical skills to treat their various ailments. The men completed their mission and returned to New York in early 1836.
It is not known exactly when Marcus Whitman first met Narcissa Prentiss, but the two were married on February 18, 1836. Like Marcus, Narcissa had aspirations of becoming a minister, but her sex, not money, had stood in her way. It is commonly believed that the marriage of Marcus and Narcissa was, therefore, more a way for Narcissa to enter the missionary service than one of true love. Such "missionary marriages" were actually fairly common at the time, as they provided proper companions for the men chosen to minister in remote areas while also allowing the women to fulfill their missionary aspirations.
In the spring of 1836, the ABCFM commissioned the Rev. Henry H. Spalding (and his wife Eliza) to found a mission for Native Americans in the Oregon country. Because he had already been to the region, Marcus (along with Narcissa) joined the expedition as a medical missionary. The party reached the Walla Walla River Valley in September, and Eliza and Narcissa became the first women of European descent to cross the Rocky Mountains along the way. The Spaldings established a mission at Lapwai in present-day Idaho, while Marcus chose a site southwest of present-day Walla Walla, Washington.
Marcus had chosen his mission site because of its proximity to the Cayuse tribe and to the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Walla Walla. Although the Cayuse took advantage of the medical care Whitman provided at his mission, they were not interested in being converted to Christianity. Whitman's cause was not helped by his refusal to respect Cayuse traditions and customs, or by his wife's refusal to allow them into their home unless absolutely necessary. In 1839, their two-year-old daughter drowned, and Narcissa's health began to decline, and in 1842 the ABCFM decided to end its support of the mission. Despite the difficulties he had already faced, Whitman was not ready to give up his missionary work, however, and he traveled back east to plead with the Board to reconsider its decision. His trip was rewarded with success, and in 1843 he and about 1,000 settlers traveled back west on the newly-established Oregon Trail.
Although the official purpose of the Whitman mission remained the conversion of the Cayuse, the Whitmans began putting the majority of their efforts into assisting travelers on the Oregon Trail, and even adopted the children of many who died on their way to Oregon Territory. Marcus continued to provide medical care for the Cayuse, but when a measles outbreak struck in 1847 the Cayuse blamed it on Marcus, whom they accused of intentionally infecting them. On November 29, 1847, Cayuse killed the Whitmans and twelve others, leading to a war between the Cayuse and settlers lasting seven years.
This page was last updated on January 23, 2017.