Two rivers; two Western tales of hubris

The child billed in history books as the first Caucasian born in the Western frontier died by drowning. On June 23, 1839, a scant three months and nine days after her second birthday, the little girl scooted out the back door of her house, away from her preoccupied parents; she walked a few yards to the edge of the Walla Walla River, intending to dip water for the family's evening meal with silver cups clasped in each hand, and she fell in. Her name was Alice Clarissa Whitman. She was the daughter of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, a couple who'd traveled from upstate New York to help “transform the West”—to, in their words, “convert heathen souls”—and who themselves were killed in 1847 by a group of men from the Cayuse tribe, the very people they'd come to save. The death of the Whitmans' only child, two years after their arrival in current-day Washington State, was just one in a string of major blows that led to the bloody demise of the Northwest's first Protestant mission.

I once fell into a legendary river of the West, the Salmon River in Idaho. This was back when I was a young woman on a family raft trip. The raft was occupied by nearly my entire generation: all siblings but one (our youngest brother was off with our mother, who was divorced from our father), and all cousins except our uncle's two-year-old daughter. My young husband and my sister's husband were along as well. Our uncle was at the oars of our raft; he was long-experienced on the Salmon River, the middlefork and the main. But this time, despite years of managing fast currents and treacherous conditions, he slammed our raft into a downed cottonwood tree. We'd screamed toward that fallen tree for at least a mile, but there was no veering away despite our uncle's frantic rowing. We hit it straight on. The raft hopped backward as if taking one deep breath and collided again with the half-submerged trunk. That's when my sisters, brother, cousins, all of us lost our hold, our footing, and were within seconds plunged in the river, our shoes and buckets and six-packs of beer crashing in with us, and for the brief pulse—which I can hardly bear to re-create in my mind even these decades later—I was convinced that my life would end under the cold and racing water. I was twenty-four, the mother of two babies, a fifth-generation Idahoan, and I was certain the river of my youth was about to end everything.

Alice Whitman drowned in 1839, while my near-drowning happened on the Fourth of July some hundred and fifty years later. I don't know about her final minutes, of course, but I recall that after the clench of death swept through my body, I simply gave into the river's current and let it carry me along. Maybe she did the same. I remember the very second I chose to stop fighting to get to the surface—my arms quiet, waving with the river's ripples, my legs flopping with the swirling water. But I was lucky: before I could make sense of what was happening, I was somehow free of the whirlpool I'd been caught in and my head popped up into fresh, bright air—my body pinched between logs in a jam, in deadfall, my head above water only because of the buoyancy of a life jacket. Even then, even stuck as I was and howling in the direction of a bushy island, calling to my sister and uncle who I could see on the patch of land, I realized I would live to tell the story of my survival.

But in 1839, Alice's foot gave way on the muddy bank, she rolled into the water, and she never had a single chance to get herself back out.

I've been thinking how these two episodes, Alice's drowning and my dunk in the Salmon, might illustrate a kind of hubris that seems to be at the heart of some western ventures, large and small. Ours is easy to pin down: the river was high that year. It was in flood stage, which had caused authorities to shut the Salmon down to recreation even though it was a holiday weekend: no swimming, no rafts, no boats allowed. Precisely the kind of government dictate my family eschews, and not just ignores but defies. My uncle knew the river, my father and grandfather in a second raft knew the river. No one was going to tell us when to get off, and when to stay on. But flooded rivers yank plants and trees clean from muddy banks—the resulting massive detritus is often impossible to avoid, especially when traveling on fast water. Despite experience, knowledge, and a hundred years of fierce family rootedness to this one place, we were nearly done in by a single toppled tree.

Studying the Whitmans from a vantage of a century and a half, it's easy to judge a similar attitude writ large. The two felt they knew best when it came to their new place, better than anyone, and would not be told they didn't. Narcissa and Marcus arrived with an entitlement that allowed them to take what they wanted in the name of God and progress. Without negotiating with the Cayuse (the tribe had inhabited this region for some millennia), the couple settled on tribal lands, eventually inviting in thousands of Anglo families, most who were simply passing through and needed a brief respite, though a few stayed on for months or years—and many of whom spread disease and later co-opted former hunting land for new farms. The Whitmans were the first to build a compound, plant acreage, plow and irrigate fields, and in so doing, were also the first to destroy vast swaths of the reeds and grasses the Cayuse depended on for clothing, baskets, and lodges. I doubt it occurred to either Marcus or Narcissa that they were doing anything but the right thing. They came with hearts brimming with purpose and intention, and somehow managed to ignore the long human history of culture clashes that inevitably lead to doom. In fact, like others before them, it was the very certainty of their stance that drove the mission, that would not allow them to relent. What the Whitmans saw was land—seemingly open and free—and what they possessed was a self-assurance that they had come of their own will and God's to make things better for the native people. Never mind that most Cayuse dismissed both the Whitman's religious message and their presence, and grew more hostile toward the couple as each year passed. This was not a rejection that those carrying the mantle of Manifest Destiny could even begin to accept.

Alice Clarissa Whitman emerged into the world on a cool spring day, her mother's birthday, March 14, the first white baby of the frontier, and the only biological child of Narcissa and Marcus. Even before her birth, the couple was famous among those in the East who dreamed of a life in the West. Narcissa and Marcus were the first white woman and white man to establish a home in Oregon Territory, as far into the frontier as any such couple had ventured, along with their co-travelers and co-missionaries, Henry and Eliza Spalding. (The Spaldings opted to establish a mission in current-day Idaho, while the Whitmans settled near the Blue Mountains in current-day Washington.) On the Fourth of July, 1836, the four (with a sizeable entourage of help) crossed the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide. They did so with a wagon of household goods: a trunk of clothing, a few chairs, a set of dishes, a pretty piano. This was news that men in Missouri, in Virginia, in New Hampshire—those hankering for adventure, anyway—delivered to reluctant wives: we can get there in a wagon, a big wooden wheeled vat of furniture and bolts of cloth, flour and sugar in case there's none of that in the distant land. You won't have to leave behind a thing was the new promise. Furthermore, if dainty Narcissa, she of the strawberry blonde hair, delicate skin, singing voice like an angel's, could travel thousands of miles while pregnant, then who couldn't?

Though I'm sure she didn't intend to wield such influence, Narcissa, with her small wagon of household goods, helped launch the nation's most massive migration: the Oregon Trail that brought tens of thousands of people west. A tremendous displacement of native people and a populating of the Western frontier by white settlers and the children they brought along or gave birth to, starting with Alice Clarissa.

Since age eleven, when she was swept up in religious passion after an especially stirring evening of guest sermons at her Plattsburgh, New York, church, Narcissa's one aim was to spread the gospel to distant natives who had not yet heard of Jesus Christ. By twenty-six she'd flicked off several men who'd come with offers of marriage—Henry Spalding, her soon-to-be co-traveler and co-missionary, was one, and he spent the next couple of decades despising the girl who'd spurned him, at least until she died horribly, violently, and then he presented himself in newspapers as her dearest companion.

By the time Narcissa married Marcus at age twenty-six, she was considered an old maid in her little town, though a delightful and desirable one. She gave into marriage only after church board members told her they'd decline her application for mission life otherwise: they sent only Christian couples out to live among the savages, not single men and certainly never single women. Some historians say Narcissa had met Marcus briefly somewhere in their growing up years in geographically snug upstate New York villages in the 1820s and '30s, that they'd at least brushed by one other; other books say she found him (or vice versa) somewhere around 1835, purely out of a mutual fervor to serve God, and the two got themselves in front of a preacher after one brief conversation. Narcissa and Marcus hopped aboard a horse-drawn buggy headed for St. Louis as soon as the ceremony ended, strangers setting out for an even stranger land known as Oregon.

After her death at age thirty-nine, Narcissa left plenty of herself behind in the form of pages and pages of diaries and many crinkled pages of letters home. In her writings, she rarely let herself waver from embracing, repeatedly, her religious calling, her need to save the native people from the eternal fires of hell. What choice did she have but to be this certain, this rigid, this judgmental of ways other than her own once the decision was made to move west? She'd left the cushiness of her lovely home, sisters, brother, parents who doted on her; she'd walked away from the church where she was adored—she could have easily married a plump New Englander, settled on a farm or in a town where she would teach girls at the local school to be as devoted and devotional as she.

Instead, because she believed God wanted her to, Narcissa stomped through brush and slept in the mud through endless rain showers, washed her clothes only twice on the entire journey from St. Louis to Oregon Territory, and cooked each night with an apron full of gathered buffalo chips—the only fuel for much of the trip—while eating a lifetime's worth of dried game. She arrived in Oregon Territory after seven months of travel, after she was stared at and followed by Flathead, Nez Perce, and women of other tribes who'd never seen one of their sex with such alabaster skin, and then had to wait around for Marcus to construct a little sod house, which soon flooded. And flooded again: he'd built it too close to the river in which their child would later drown. Marcus erected a nicer home for his family, and Narcissa spent the next ten years keeping local Indians out of her relatively fine dwelling—she couldn't bear their dirty feet and lice-filled hair—and into this home after Alice's death (“The only child I ever bore is buried yonder,” she told a man who once asked her if she had room for children in her home) she brought straggling orphans and the so-called half-breed daughters of the West's toughest mountain men, Joe Meek and Jim Bridger, to tend to as her own and to instruct in the strictest of Christian ways.

In these diaries and letters, Narcissa rationalizes her behavior, as well as Marcus's: injecting just enough poison in melons at the edge of the massive garden to make the Cayuse retch, not die, a lesson in leaving alone the Whitman crops; punishing the Cayuse for using the grist mill without permission; unbinding babies from papoose boards and cursing mothers for carrying their infants in this manner. These were actions they both justified as service to God's will and toward a goal they both truly believed in: if they could teach the Cayuse to farm, to give up their nomadic ways, to attend church and speak English, then the tribe would survive the onslaught of white migration.

That first child of this Anglo repopulation of the West drowned on a gorgeous June day at suppertime. It was a Sunday, and Narcissa later wrote home that the girl (difficult to believe because of her age) had requested “Rock of Ages” be sung at the morning's service and her favorite scripture read. The story goes that Marcus and Narcissa were in the sitting room after services, each intent on a book. After a while, Narcissa began to wonder about her daughter. She asked the girl who was serving at the time as kitchen help if she'd seen Alice. Narcissa walked around outside calling the baby's name. Later, she wrote: “By the time I got to the river's brink, it flashed across my mind like a dream, that I had had a glimpse of her, while sitting and reading, entering the house and on seeing the table set for supper, she exclaimed with her usual animation, ‘Mamma, supper is almost ready; let Alice get some water.' She went up to the table and took two cups.”

Narcissa called to Marcus and to all who were nearby, and the lot of them began a frantic search along the river. “We thought if we could find her immediately she would not be dead entirely, so but that we could bring her to again. We ran down on the brink of the river ... we saw an old Indian preparing to enter the river where she fell in. ... [He] took her from the water and exclaimed, ‘She is found.' ”

In many ways, Narcissa shut down after Alice's death, a calcified woman: squabbling with the Indians around her and with the other missionaries who'd moved west, the vexing Henry Spalding chief among those who pricked her skin and tried her patience during his frequent visits. Yet, she didn't go home. She didn't give up, even when it became clear that the attempt to convert this tribe was a failure: not a single Cayuse had been baptized into the Whitmans' church. Still, Narcissa continued to profess her faith, to do the work she had come to do, up to the day of her bloody death, when the Cayuse attacked the mission and killed fourteen people, Marcus and Narcissa among them, as children witnessed the violence and mayhem. Her death instantly cast her as one of the central icons of the West, as the angel of mercy of the outermost frontier.

I have visited the Presbyterian mission Waiilatpu, located a few miles from Walla Walla, Washington, several times, walking the lush, green site of the mission. Buildings erected by Marcus Whitman—their house, the school, the blacksmith shop, and others—were burned the day of the massacre and are now represented by white lines of paint in the grass, eerily reminiscent of the marks around dead bodies in old murder-mystery films. Alice's grave is snugged into the hillside, just off the path and squeezed by trees that have grown huge over time—she is interred a good stretch away from her parents' grave in a small meadow. Marcus and Narcissa are buried with the dozen others killed with them on November 27, 1847. It's a beautiful setting, bucolic, peaceful-yet-subdued, made more lovely with the orchard planted by Marcus, by his ingenious system of irrigation canals. Even after all this time, it's easy to recognize the improvements made by the Whitmans, to see their efforts at domesticating a people who did not welcome such notions, and their attempts to bring protestant religion to a tribe nearly decimated by disease during the Whitmans tenure. The Cayuse, who were almost completely destroyed in the years subsequent to the killings at Waiilatpu, after the nascent Oregon Territory government declared war on them and any tribe that helped them.

History books note that this missionary couple did much to pave the way for migrating families determined to settle in the frontier. My family was among those. One of my ancestors arrived in what would become Idaho about fifteen years after the killings, and he appeared with many of the same attitudes—though not the religious fervor—that the Whitmans carried west. He and other relatives set about making lives the Whitmans had dreamed of: developing farms and ranches, building hotels and mercantiles. Loving their land, investing in a place that was now theirs, the place where they most belonged.

It was partly due to this staunchly held attitude, still strong after six generations—this place is ours—that I climbed into the raft that day in 1982, despite warnings by officials, despite the knowledge that the river was much too high. I recall being nervous from the beginning, but it didn't occur to me to question the men in my family who had traveled the river for decades, as had the men before them. I hushed my own doubts, and believed instead that our connection to this region, and our investment in what our corner of the west stood for, would protect us as we traveled the river of our home place.

In the early 2000s, I was back in Salmon with family members and we fell into a recounting of the raft accident, as we tended to when we were together—every minute of that day now cast into family lore, with the astonishment that we all got out alive as fresh as it was on that day long ago. On this particular visit, my uncle convinced me to return to the river for the day, my first raft trip on any river since the accident. The water was calm, fairly low, practically no risk or danger, he assured me. Two of my four daughters agreed to come along to help ease my anxiety. I asked my oldest daughter, who by then was the mother of a two-year-old boy, if she wanted to join us. She stared at me for a long beat, then shook her head. This young woman, who would have been left with no parents if my then-husband and I had drowned that day, refused to take even the small risk of leaving her child. Her determined jaw made me think that she felt I should have done the same many years ago—stayed behind with her, two years old then, and her six-month-old sister—rather than choose a trip on the river in defiance of the laws of both humans and nature.

Because, of course, the river didn't care about my family's legacy, our experience, any more than the Walla Walla River might have measured the Whitmans' intentions or beliefs before snatching away their child. The river knows only one power, and that is its own.


History, Land, Oregon, Religion


1 comments have been posted.

Thanks for the story and history

Wayne Kigerl | November 2018 |

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