Sunday, July 8, 2012

Waiilatpu Mission, Summer to Fall 1847

In my book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson's Journeys in the West, I wrote a little of the measles epidemic at Fort Alexandria, and then said:
"Anderson believed those reports [of deaths at Fort Colvile and Kamloops] were exaggerated. They were not. The measles epidemic had begun months earlier in the Columbia district, and the results had severe implications for all the posts west of the mountains.

"A few Natives who visited the Waiilatpu Mission, near Fort Nez Perce, died of a particularly malignant mix of measles and dysentery. Although the missionary treated the sick with whatever medicines he had available, the patients continued to die. A Cayuse chief set a test for the missionary, demanding he treat a boy who lay sick. The boy died, and the Cayuse attacked the mission house with guns and axes, murdering 14 residents and taking many hostages....."

Here I will write the story behind the story, or at least the first part of the story.
Just so you know it cannot be the full story -- it is simply toooooo large.
So, here goes:

In summer 1847, a skiff of dread settled over the territory the Americans called Oregon Territory, although no one but the fur traders at Fort Vancouver could have foreseen the disaster that would erupt in the dry, dusty desert that surrounded old Fort Nez Perces.
Many fur traders who travelled the Columbia River to and from Fort Vancouver warned the Presbyterian missionary, Dr. Marcus Whitman, that his life was in danger, but he refused to listen to them and took no precautions for his own safety.
Because of his stubborn refusal to listen to the many warnings and abandon his long-failed mission, Dr. Whitman put himself and many others in danger.
The Cayuse warriors he had ignored and infuriated swarmed into his mission house and slaughtered him and his wife, and a dozen other innocent people.
The bloody massacre shocked the population of the Oregon district and spurred hundreds of American settlers into a blood-thirsty war of revenge; it closed the Columbia River to safe travel and forced the fur traders west of the Rocky Mountains to abandon their old route down the river to their headquarters at Fort Vancouver.
Their furs must come to the coast, however; they were forced to carry them out over freshly explored but unproven trails via Fort Langley, to Fort Victoria.
The massacre and resulting wars forced change on everyone who lived and worked west of the Rocky Mountains -- missionaries, American settlers, and fur traders alike.

This is a big story, and I cannot tell you the whole story.
It is not only the Presbyterian missionaries' story I will tell here, nor the fur traders'.
It is also the story of the Cayuse people who lived near the Waiilatpu Mission; it is the story of the Catholics' infiltration of Oregon Territory; it is the story of disease and death and poisonous rumours spread to frightened and superstitious Natives whose traditions demanded revenge.
It is the story of inevitable disaster.

The missionaries' story will be the first part; the second part belongs to the Natives that the missionaries settled amongst, and who they tried, unsuccessfully, to change.
The third part belongs to two mixed breed men, both strangers in the territory, but men who carried tremendous influence among the Cayuse Indians who lived around Waiilatpu.
The first man was Tom Hill, a Delaware half-blood who came from the eastern United States to settle among the Cayuse tribes that lived, still free, on their lands. 
The second, Joe Lewis, was a Creole/French Canadian mixed-breed from Maine who whispered poisonous rumours to the Cayuse and set them on the course that killed the missionaries and destroyed the tribe.

To begin with the missionaries: the first entered the Columbia district as early as 1831 and established their missions west of the Cascade Mountains, for the most part close to fur trade forts where they were protected by the HBC fur traders.
Later arrivals came in 1836 to establish missions east of the mountains.
The missionaries who established the Waiilatpu Mission, some twenty five miles east of the HBC's Fort Nez Perces, were Dr. Marcus Whitman and his golden-haired wife, Narcissa.
They lived among the proud and independent Cayuse Indians -- a small tribe of hunters and traders who lived on the Walla Walla River and who controlled their territory with a strong hand and fierce resolution.
The Cayuse were warriors and traders rather than harvesters or fishermen, and they decorated their hair, clothing, and horses with feathers, porcupine quills, and paint.
They ranged far and wide in their hunts and trading expeditions, travelling as far as buffalo country on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, or west to Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound.
On occasion they rode south to California Territory to trade for the cattle they desired, and the horses they always needed more of.

These men were horsemen, and though they were not numerous, each of the four hundred or so men of their tribe, who lived in three separate settlements, owned thousands of horses that grazed on the grasslands surrounding their villages.
All the land along the Walla Walla River belonged to the Cayuse people, and they exacted tribute from every man, whether Native or white, that travelled over their land or down their river.
They especially owned the river, and if travelers failed to pause at the ford to pay their tribute, the Cayuse men waded into the stream and hauled boats and passengers ashore where they were stalled until tribute was collected.

Though the Cayuse were not numerous, they were proud and fearless warriors and hunters who counted their wealth in the thousands of horses each of them owned, the buffalo robes and salmon they traded, the richness of the land they occupied and fiercely protected.
They may have tried to control the missionaries, too, but found them too stubborn to understand or listen to their demands and to even consider giving in to Cayuse traditions.

By the summer of 1847 these missionaries had been in the territory for a full eleven years.
At Waiilatpu, Whitman's T-shaped mission house now contained a hospital and an Indian school, a church and a shared mission house that was residence for missionaries, staff, and guests.
There were also a number of other houses around the mission house -- a carpenters' shop, for example, a sewing room and a mill.  
Kind-hearted Narcissa Whitman took in abandoned children from the emigrants' wagon trains and raised them, becoming their second mother, while the Doctor fenced and ploughed Cayuse land and planted fields of grains and potatoes.

In more ways than one, the Cayuse found these missionaries different from the fur traders and mountain men they had dealt with over the years.
The HBC men at Fort Nez Perces, twenty five miles to the west, always offered to pay for what they received from the Cayuse.
The first missionary in the territory had talked to Cayuse warriors and promised rent for the lands they used, but the Whitman's were either ignorant of the agreement, or refused to honor it.
The missionaries offered no rent for the lands they built on, nor did they ask for permission to occupy more Cayuse acreage when they expanded their operations.
Dr. Whitman fenced Cayuse-owned land and planted corn crops, expecting Cayuse warriors to work the crops without offering to reward them for their labour.
He built up flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and horses on land that the Cayuse claimed as theirs, and on which the missionaries did not offer to pay rent.
Finally, the missionaries sold their crops grown on Cayuse lands to the thousands of incoming settlers who travelled the Oregon Trail past the mission, without sharing any of the profits with the Cayuse peoples whose rich earth had grown the crops.
The offended Cayuse considered the Whitmans stingy occupiers of Cayuse land who took what they desired without offering payment.

By the summer of 1847, the Whitmans' Waiilatpu Mission was a green oasis in the middle of a dry, brown country.
The prosperous looking white-washed mission house stood near the banks of the Walla Walla River about three miles from the Cayuse settlement that stood near the ford.
The Cayuse could not understand the Whitmans' cheapness, but the Whitmans also failed to understand the Cayuse and made no effort to learn their language or to understand their traditions and culture.
The Whitmans wanted to turn arrogant and proud Cayuse warriors and horsemen into farmers who worked the mission lands for no benefit other than the pleasure of adopting the missionaries' inflexible and vengeful religion.
They could not understand why the Cayuse would not agree to their loss of freedom and status.
They blamed the Cayuse for their own inability to change them, and called them heathens and beggars.
On occasion the missionaries even whipped their more devout (and tolerant) Cayuse.
But more than that, the missionaries were absolutely unable to understand that the Cayuse warriors witnessed the constant round of squabbling and discourtesies that existed between the different missionaries in the area.
They both understood the missionaries could not get along, and disrespected the missionaries for their never-ending quarrels.

Long before the summer of 1847, the 45-year old missionary, Dr. Whitman, had recognized that few Cayuse would accept his teachings for long; most were already abandoning his church and pulling their children out of his school.
He changed the focus of his mission, and instead of attempting to change the Indians' beliefs, he began to encourage and support the emigrants who now made their way west along the Oregon Trail from eastern United States.
He hoped that some would settle near his mission house, but even here he was disappointed.
Without exception, all emigrants continued their journey west.

In part, Dr. Whitman's character was the reason he did not abandon his mission when he recognized he was unsuccessful in changing the Indians' culture -- his original reason for establishing the mission.
The man was amiable and generous to a fault, and incapable of harbouring a grudge though entirely willing to argue his point with all his neighbouring missionaries.
But he was so stubborn he refused to understand that his teachings and actions offended the Cayuse.
He refused to give up his work at the mission; almost every fur trader and traveller that passed the mission told him of his danger, but he refused to listen to their warnings, and to understand his offences.
Yet, it appears, he understood that the Indians might kill him; in spite of that awareness, he took no precautions.

Narcissa, his wife, was even more oblivious to her danger than her husband was.
She had come from a wealthy, cultured New York family and by the summer of 1847 was almost forty years old.
She was still beautiful, with a ring of golden-red hair she proudly wrapped around her head like a halo.
She had a commanding presence, a beautiful singing voice, and an inflexible determination of right and wrong with no tolerance for differences of opinion.
She considered the Cayuse savages and called them mortal beggars.
The Cayuse were the people she had come west determined to change; but they refused to change for her.

From early days, the Whitmans had problems with the Cayuse peoples, and for good reason.
In part it was a clash of cultures.
The Cayuse lived in large houses shared among many families, and they were used to entering any house in their village without announcing themselves or asking permission.
The mission houses stood on Cayuse-owned lands, but when the Cayuse walked into the houses without knocking, they offended and frightened the missionaries, who offending them by scolding them.
The Cayuse men allowed their horses to range freely over the lands they owned, including the corn fields and gardens the missionaries thought they owned and on which they paid no rent.
Over time, the Cayuse dislike of the missionaries grew into disrespect and eventually, hatred.
On one notable occasion the headman, Tilokait, showed his loathing of the missionary by striking him.
In a later argument Tilokait pulled Dr. Whitman's ears and threw his hat into the water -- an incident which caused Archibald McKinlay, then in charge at Fort Nez Perces, to tell the Cayuse men they had acted like dogs.
As a direct result of this insult some Cayuse men broke into Whitman mission house and threatened the missionary himself; Whitman stood up to them and they backed off, but this incident alone should have frightened the missionary very badly.
It did not.
He refused to give up his mission, and he remained at Waiilatpu.

The situation as it now stood at the Whitman mission was probably not enough to cause the bloody massacre of November 1847, but over the last number of years several new ingredients had been added to the worrying mix of cultures, beliefs, and stubbornness.
The most recent ingredient -- and the one that most worried the Presbyterians -- was the presence of Catholics in the area close to Fort Nez Perces.
These Catholics taught a simplified religion that did not try to change the Native characters, and so they took many of the more religious away from Dr. Whitman's mission.
What made Whitman's presence in the neighbourhood even more precarious, however, was a Cayuse chief's promise that Whitman would not long be in the area.
He even offered the Catholic fathers Whitman's mission house as their new home, but the Catholics refused it.
I wonder if they considered the possibility that Whitman might be murdered? It appears they did not.

But long before the Catholics' entry into the area around Fort Nez Perces, another man's arguments changed Cayuse attitudes towards the missionaries at Waiilatpu.
Tom Hill, a tall and handsome half-blood Delaware Indian, whose long black hair fell down his back to his knees, had come west as early as 1844 to live with his Cayuse wife in the village at the ford.
Hill had seen what had happened to his own people in the east when they were pushed off their lands by American settlers; he warned the Cayuse that the white men were coming west to take over their lands, too.
He told the Cayuse they had given up their buffalo hunts in exchange for growing potatoes; that in worrying over their newly discovered Presbyterian souls they feared the missionaries' fiery Hell.
He told them that white man's religion was nonsense, and the Cayuse listened.
He said the missionaries cheated them by not paying rent on the lands they used, and the Cayuse agreed.
He warned them that the missionaries were bringing more white men west to settle their lands, and that Indians would soon die of white man's diseases.
The Cayuse had watched Dr. Whitman encourage to Oregon Trail emigrants to settle near the mission and they understood.
To the Cayuse men, Tom Hill was the voice of freedom, and the Cayuse listened.
But Tom Hill preached resistance; he did not advise them to go to war.

But Tom Hill's presence in the area frightened and angered the missionaries.
To their relief, however, Tom Hill left the area with Walla Walla chief Peu-peu-mox-mox and his men, on a cattle trading expedition to California in January 1846.
When the Natives returned home a year or more later, Tom Hill did not return with them (I will tell his story later).
But Peu-peu-mox-mox and his men returned with something else far more dangerous to the missionaries at Waiilatpu.
A rampant measles infection had sickened many who lived in or around Sutter's Fort (Sacramento) where Peu-peu-mox-mox's horse and cattle traders had spent their spring.
As the Walla Walla Natives began their ride home, the deadly epidemic spread through their camp and sickened the entire party.
Peu-peu-mox-mox's son returned home ahead of the trading party to tell of the Natives' sufferings, and as he named the victims one by one, the women began to tear their hair and wail.
His statement occupied a full three hours and by the end of it he told of thirty deaths.
Shocked Native messengers mounted horses and rode in every direction, and some carried the virus with them.
Soon the disease was everywhere, and by early September large numbers of Indians were dying of measles and dysentery.
The measles hit the Cayuse at Waiilatpu particularly hard, and half the male population died over the next few months.

For the missionaries at Waiilatpu it was a perfect storm, and one they never saw coming.
First: their treatment of the Cayuse people had encouraged their contempt, and later their hatred.
Secondly: the half breed Delaware Indian Tom Hill had encouraged Cayuse warriors to take back their freedom and culture, and to ignore the missionaries.
Thirdly: the gentle Catholics inadvertently put the Whitman's mission in danger when they moved into Presbyterian territory.
Fourth: Measles spread through the territory and the Cayuse died in large numbers.
These four merging storms might have been enough to cause the massacre of November 1847.
But one more man ensured it would occur.

A second man had assumed Tom Hill's place as advisor to the Cayuse, and like Hill he preached resistance.
His name was Joe Lewis, and he was a mixed-breed French-Canadian/Creole from eastern United States.
He had come west in the wagon trains of 1847 and remained at Waiilatpu, but Dr. Whitman did not trust him and called him a troublemaker.
There was no doubt of that --  he was a troublemaker.
Unlike Tom Hill, Lewis appeared to have an unreasonable and undying hatred of white people.
He made the mission house his home but whispered in Cayuse ears that Whitman plotted to take their lands by killing off the tribe.
 He told them that Whitman spread poison through the air and the Cayuse believed him; they already knew that Americans on the east side of the Rocky Mountains had intentionally introduced smallpox into the Indian tribes who lived there.
Unfortunately, Dr. Whitman gave Lewis ammunition for his whisperings; he was known to be careless with his poisons.
He poisoned meat to kill wild animals that preyed on his flocks and in doing so, poisoned Cayuse dogs.
He poisoned melons to make the Natives that stole them sick.

Joe Lewis lacked the integrity and strength of character that the Delaware, Tom Hill had displayed.
When the measles made its appearance in the neighbourhood, Lewis told the Cayuse men that he overheard Dr. Whitman telling another missionary he was plotting to poison the Indians so he could take their lands more quickly.
Finally, Lewis asked the chiefs: did not most of the Cayuse men Dr. Whitman treated die?
In fact, it appears to be the truth: it is possible that Dr. Whitman might have, unintentionally, spread the virus among the Natives he treated.
It might have appeared that way to the fur traders, too -- one fur trader reported that though "the worthy doctor had been most constant in his attendance on the sufferers... his efforts for their relief were vain; the mortality increased, rather than diminished."

Certainly, to the Cayuse warriors it appeared that Dr. Whitman was spreading death amongst them.
Some set a test for the doctor, to determine the truth.
They called Whitman to their village to treat three of their members, and Fort Nez Perces' William McBean reported of the three patients that "two ... were really sick, but the third only feigning illness, and that the three were corpses the next morning."
Joe Lewis' claims appeared to be confirmed.

It was November 27, 1847.
In less than two days, Marcus Whitman and his beautiful wife, Narcissa, would be dead.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing these stories Ms. Anderson.
    I appreciate the way you keep a neutral opinion and allow the facts to present the events.
    No blame - just history.