The Souvenir of Western Women/Narcissa Prentiss Whitman

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman


THE subject of this sketch was born in Plattsburg, N. Y., March 14, 1808. Her parents were Presbyterians. They trained their ten children with a strictness of discipline which accorded with the extreme orthodoxy of that time, but which is unknown in this day. Her father, Judge Prentiss, was a fine singer, and instructed his children in this accomplishment. Narcissa being the eldest, was the object of special training, and developed a voice of great compass and sweetness. She was also skilled in housewifely arts. At the age of 10 she was converted; at 11 years she was received into membership in the church, and ever after remained faithful to her church vows.

Early in life Narcissa read the history of Harriette Boardman, a missionary to India. Through this book she was inspired to become a missionary. Dr. Whitman also possessed the missionary spirit, and when the Indians of the West made a call for the "White Man's Book of Heaven" and for teachers, he was among the first to respond. Miss Prentiss had been mentioned to him as a suitable life companion, and he sought to cultivate her acquaintance. Upon his first visit to the home of Judge Prentiss she was absent, and he was much attracted toward her sister Jane. Later, however, he met Narcissa in a neighboring town, where she was taking part in a revival meeting. A. mutual attachment was formed, which led to an engagement between them; but before their marriage day arrived, the wife of a man who was to accompany them to their distant field of labor died, and as it was not thought best for one woman alone to go to that unknown country, the wedding was postponed, and it was decided that Dr. Whitman should go in company with Dr. Samuel Parker on an exploring trip. Accordingly they started in the spring of 1835, and proceeded in company as far as Green river, the rendezvous of the American Fur Company. At this point they met the principal tribes of natives. Here it was decided that Dr. Whitman should return East to secure other helpers, and come out the following season. Dr. Parker was to go on to Oregon, and return to the East by way of the Sandwich Islands. Two Nez Perce chiefs each entrusted a son to Dr. Whitman as surety of his return.

Arriving at home late Saturday night. Dr. Whitman surprised the congregation the next morning when he walked into the church accompanied by his Indian boys. His old mother was so much startled at his appearance that she called right out in meeting, "Why, there's Marcus." Every one supposed him to be thousands of miles away.

In February, 1836, Dr. Whitman and Miss Prentiss were married. She was a refined, educated woman, and one of deep piety, who could enter fully into the sentiments and sympathies of her husband. With a devotion and courage never excelled, she journeyed with him to his distant field of labor.

Dr. Whitman found a suitable location on the banks of the Walla Walla river, named by the Indians Wie-lat-pu, or Wail-lat-pu, where he erected his cabin. Early in November, 1836, Mrs. Whitman took possession of her new home. She was much pleased to find so comfortable a place, though but a log cabin. Now began her missionary life with its peculiar hardships. One trial was the absence of those of her own sex. She was thousands of miles from her friends and kindred, hearing from them at intervals of two and three years, living upon meager diet, even to the flesh of horses, and surrounded continually by natives. To comprehend her isolation is impossible.

March 14, 1837 (her birthday) little Alice came to them. Maternal anguish was not soothed by the presence of a loving mother or kind friends of her own race. Her husband and an Indian woman performed the necessary service. The Indians cordially welcomed the new baby, and called it "Little White Cayuse." Much land was promised little Alice. For a little more than two years she was the light and joy of her parents. Then the cruel waters claimed her, and left their home desolate. Going alone to the stream near by, she fell in, and when her body was recovered life was gone. The loss of her owti little one opened the mother's heart to all children. No child appealed to her in vain. Her home was theirs so long as its shelter was needed.

In the fall of '42 Dr. Whitman decided to attempt a winter trip across the mountains, Washington and Boston being the objective points. When he took leave of his wife she felt that it was a last adieu. Desolate as was her home, she bravely determined to remain at her post. However, her friends at the Hudson's Bay Company fort sent for her and insisted upon her quitting the mission during the doctor's absence. With reluctance she consented. Owing to her failing health she went to Fort Vancouver for medical treatment. Later she spent some time visiting among the women of the Methodist mission. It finally became necessary for her to go back to her own mission for a time.

When Dr. Whitman returned, after a year's absence, he found his wife at The Dalles, very ill, and for months afterward her recovery was almost despaired of. At this time she had in charge three half-breed children, and her husband brought a nephew with him, aged 13.

In the fall of '44 a family of seven children, whose parents had died on the plains, were brought to her. Her heart opened to the little orphans. A home for the winter was all that was asked, but they were all adopted. Added to this family of eleven children were others from surrounding missions who were sent there to attend school.

The year of '47 the emigrants brought the measles into the country, and the disease soon spread among the Indians. Owing to their method of treatment it proved fatal in many cases. This, with other causes, made the Indians restless, and they began to murmur against their teachers. The storm of their wrath broke in fury on the 29th of November, when Dr. and Mrs. Whitman and many others fell victims to their fiendish hands.

Thus ended the life work of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman.