The mother of women’s migration West was a beautiful, golden-haired missionary with a lovely soprano voice, but a heart that could never learn to love the “heathens” she came to save. She’d die a martyr’s death and her grave would be molested by wolves—a horrible end to a woman who has a prime place in western history.
Narcissa Whitman—namesake for Whitman College that stands on the site of her mission home in Oregon—came west to do missionary work with her husband, Marcus, in 1836. She gave birth to the first white child born west of the Rocky Mountains the next year. But her darling Alice drowned at age two, sending Narcissa to the brink of madness. She tried to replace the girl with other children, but never the boys and girls of the Nez Perce tribe that had invited the missionaries to teach their children. One historian says she found the natives “alien and inferior” and had no interest in teaching or ministering to them. By 1847, white migration into Oregon was intense, and with the new people came measles that hit the Indians particularly hard. Marcus Whitman was blamed and on Nov. 29, 1847, Indians attacked the mission, killing both Marcus and Narcissa—her body was shot and whipped. She became a martyred figure in Oregon and the massacre was an impetus for its eventual statehood.