Whitman, Dr. Marcus
b. 1802-09-04
d. 1847-11-29
Dr. Marcus Whitman was born on 4 September 1802 in Rushville, United States. Whitman is famously labeled as a “frontier missionary” for his religious, medicinal, and settling work; he is commonly remembered for his murder, and the murder of his wife and others, by the Cayuse Tribe in Waiilatpu (the Walla Walla Valley).1
As a young boy, Whitman was sent to live with his uncle and grand father from whom his religious education blossomed, Whitman fondly described them both as pious and that they gave me constant religious instruction and care.2 However, as a man, Whitman was unable to afford training as a minister, instead in 1832 he attended Fairfield Medical College where he received his medical degree.3
In the early 1830s, after obtaining his degree, Whitman worked as a doctor in both Canada and New York until he and his wife Narcissa decided to volunteer for the Presbyterian Congregational and Dutch Reformed American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).4 In 1835, Whitman was sent on a preliminary trip to Oregon Territory to collect information about the Indigenous tribes and their openness to missionary work -- according to Whitman the Indigneous People accepted.5 In September of 1836, prior to the Whitman’s formal establishment of their mission in Waiilatpu in the Walla Walla Valley, they landed in Fort Vancouver. Upon arrival Whitman was warned that setting up a mission in the Cayuse region may cause problems for him due to the Cayuses’ temperament,6 ignoring these opinions the Whitmans continued to their destination.
When in Waiilatpu, Whitman’s theological work was limited to reading bible stories and preaching from the knowledge he gained from Sunday school, as he had no formal theological training and could not baptize.7 It is acknowledged that the Cayuses did not mind these informal teachings but were strongly against Whitman’s unwavering Calvinism. However, Whitman continued to encourage this faith and further American expansion.8 Unfortunately for Whitman, by the 1840s his work with the Cayuse people was not improving. Instead of continuing his work with the Indigenous People, Whitman turned his focus on helping nearly 1000 Christian settlers settle on the Cayuses' land -- creating a rightful worry for the tribe about their possible displacement.9
The new settlements, mixed with the existing problems of missionary inflexibility and an ongoing language barrier, created a divide in the Whitmans and the Cayuse tribe, which was further disrupted by the outbreak of measles in the mid 1840s.10 The measles epidemic caused a large number of Cayuse deaths, while simultaneously not affecting the settler population to any large extent. The Cayuse people increasingly grew suspicious that Whiman was practicing witchcraft in order to kill the Indigenous population and only heal the settlers -- a practice in Indigenous culture that merits the killing of the medicine man, a practice that Whitman was aware of.11
By 29 November 1847, the problems had grown too large to repair and a couple members of the Cayuse tribe decided to take matters into their own hands. They murdered the Whitmans, plus 11 or 12 others, and took 53 people hostage, by the end, Marcus Whitman was said to have been battered beyond recognition.12 The Whitman Massacre led to the onset of the Cayuse War (1848-1850) and later gave the Whitmans the label of “martyrs” which in turn hastened and helped sanction American settlement in the West.13 Although the Whitmans are still commemorated for their work and their martyrdom, it should be noted that there are two sides to this history, and that the Indigenous perspectives should be taken into consideration when evaluating these tragic events.
  • 1. Cameron Addis, Whitman Massacre, The Oregon Encyclopedia.
  • 2. Cassandra Tate, Whitman, Marcus: 1802-1847, History Link.
  • 3. G. Thomas Edwards, Marcus Whitman, The Oregon Encyclopedia.
  • 4. Addis, Whitman Massacre.
  • 5. Edwards, Marcus Whitman.
  • 6. Tate, Whitman, Marcus.
  • 7. Edwards, Marcus Whitman.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Addis, Whitman Massacre.
  • 11. Tate, Whitman, Marcus.
  • 12. Addis, Whitman Massacre.
  • 13. Ibid.
Mentions of this person in the documents
The Colonial Despatches Team. Whitman, Dr. Marcus. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/whitman_m.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)