The Mission of Narcissa Prentiss

Prattsburgh is the birthplace of Narcissa Prentiss. Photo by Sandra Conley
by Ray Levato

How often have we driven by an historical sign alongside the highway and didn’t see it in time to stop safely to read it?

Every historic marker tells a story. One rustic old marker in the Finger Lakes gives us no more than a name – Narcissa Prentiss Highway, the road between Naples and Prattsburgh.

Narcissa Prentiss was born in Prattsburgh in 1808. She married Dr. Marcus Whitman – an historic figure in his own right – and together their missionary zeal would take them far from home and into the pages of American history.

In the 1800s, this part of the country became known as the “Burned-Over District,” symbolizing the religious fervor that swept over the land and its people like a wildfire. Sermons of the time were likewise fiery, focused on sin and salvation. 

A revival at the Prattsburgh Presbyterian Church in 1819 stirred something inside 11-year-old Narcissa, the third of nine children brought up in the religious Prentiss family. She wrote in an 1835 account found in the records of The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that by the time she was 16, she had decided to “consecrate myself without reserve” and some day “go to the heathen” as a missionary. Marcus Whitman, born in Rushville in 1802, sought the blessing of the board to be a medical missionary to the Cayuse Indians in Oregon Country. He had apprenticed himself to a local doctor for two years and studied a 16-week term at a medical school, then the standard to practice as a physician.

Whitman had made acquaintance of the Prentiss family years earlier and had been informed of Narcissa’s interest in answering a call for volunteers to go to Oregon. But foreign missionary organizations at the time frowned on single men, and unmarried females also were discouraged from missionary work.

So, on February 18, 1836, in a Presbyterian Church, Whitman took Narcissa as his wife. He was 33.; she was 27. “It was a marriage of convenience, but she did love him, saying in a letter home that she had the most wonderful husband,” explains Sandra Conley, president of the Committee to Preserve the Narcissa Prentiss House in Prattsburgh.One day after being married, the Whitmans left on an arduous, seven-month journey across the country. Much of the first half the 3,000-mile trip was in the relative comfort of river steamboats, but after that they rode in wagons and on horses over the rugged mountains. For safety along the land route, the Whitmans joined a caravan of about 70 fur traders with the American Fur Company.

Much is known about the expedition from Narcissa’s letters and journals. She was in good spirits when, on April 7, 1836, she wrote near St. Louis: “I think I shall endure the journey well – perhaps better than any of the rest of us.”  

Sometime in June, in present-day Wyoming, Narcissa came pregnant. Conley marvels that “she rode a horse, in a dress, side saddle and was in her first trimester. I think she was amazing. And according to her letters, she really enjoyed the trip.”

The Whitmans traveled with another missionary couple, ordained Presbyterian minister Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza. Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. “They opened the west to women and families, where before non-Native American women were thought too fragile for the journey and wouldn’t survive,” says Conley. 

In September 1836, the group arrived at Fort Walla Walla, a trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Their sparse, mostly buffalo-meat diet improved significantly.  

The Spaldings chose to establish their mission among the Nez Perce. The Whitmans established their mission among the Cayuse, despite warnings they were not as easily influenced to accept Christianity. Narcissa had taught school back in Prattsburgh, and so supervised the mission school. She had a lovely singing voice and taught hymns.

On March 14, 1837 – her 29th birthday – Narcissa gave birth to a daughter, Alice Clarissa, the first white child born in Oregon Country. She was the center of Narcissa’s life. The Cayuse were very fond of the fair-skinned child, but tragedy would strike. In June 1839, the two year old wandered off and drowned in the river behind the mission.

Narcissa went into a deep depression. Guilt, isolation and loneliness took their toll. She became disenchanted with the Cayuse, especially their habit of entering the Whitmans’ house at any time.

Tensions with the Cayuse grew over the next few years as wagon trains brought thousands more white settlers. The Whitmans’ mission soon became more of a trading post.

Narcissa compensated for the loss of her child by taking in three foster children of mixed Indian and European heritage. In 1844, the Whitmans took in seven children whose parents had died on the Oregon Trail.

In the fall of 1847, a measles outbreak – for which the Cayuse had no immunity –  brought death to many Indian children. They blamed Dr. Whitman for “poisoning” the children to benefit the white settlers.

The morning of November 29, a small band of Cayuse sought revenge. Seventy-four people were living at the mission, including the Whitmans, their 10 adopted children, 8 emigrant families, a teacher at the mission school and others. Historical first-person accounts from survivors recounted what happened. Dr. Whitman was the first to die, struck by a tomahawk to the head. Narcissa was shot.

Henry Spalding wrote to Narcissa’s parents about her death, even though he did not witness the attack: “Sister Whitman in anguish now bending over her dying husband and now over the sick, now comforting the flying, screaming children, was passing by the window, when she received the first shot in her right breast and fell to the floor. She immediately rose and kneeled by the settee on which lay her bleeding husband, and in humble prayer she commended her soul to God.” Narcissa was the only woman among the 11 who were killed.

The Cayuse held about 50 captives for a month – mostly women and children – before they were eventually ransomed. The tribe then surrendered five Indians to officials and, after a four-day trial, paid for their misdeeds by hanging. One of them is said to have accepted Catholic baptism just before his death.

One of the repercussions of what became known as the Whitman Massacre was the decision by the federal government to declare the Oregon frontier a U.S. territory in order to protect settlers.

The Whitmans are buried with other victims of the massacre in The Great Grave near the mission site in Walla Walla.  

Although Prentiss eventually questioned her suitability for missionary work, Conley notes that “she was well-educated for a girl and enjoyed singing and teaching. It was a tragic ending, but not a tragic life.”

The Narcissa Prentiss House in Prattsburgh, now a museum, is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in July and August from 1 to 4 p.m., and by appointment.

Ray Levato is a retired news reporter/anchor with WHEC-TV Ch. 10 in Rochester.

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