Marcus Whitman

Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) was an American physician, missionary, and pioneer whose death, at his medical and agricultural mission, was instrumental in passage of the act to make Oregon a Federal territory.

Born at Rushville, N.Y., on Sept. 4, 1802, Marcus Whitman was educated in Plainfield, Mass., and then studied medicine with a doctor at Rushville. After receiving his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, he practiced as a doctor for eight years: four years in Canada and four years at Wheeler, N.Y.

In 1835 Whitman applied for a missionary position as "physician, teacher, or agriculturist" with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and was sent to Oregon with the Reverend Samuel Parker. At the Green River rendezvous they met several Indian tribes who so fervently requested missionary help that the two men returned east to ready men to go west.

In 1836 Whitman married Narcissa Prentiss in New York. Then, in company with the Reverend and Mrs. Henry H. Spaulding, they departed for Oregon. On this overland trip, Whitman drove a light cart from Ft. Hall to Ft. Boise, thereby opening a portion of the Oregon Trail to wagon traffic. Mrs. Whitman and Mrs. Spaulding were the first American women to cross the Rockies overland.

Whitman established his mission at Waiilatpu in the Walla Walla Valley, teaching irrigated farming, ranching, home construction, and other aspects of civilization to the Indians. A dynamic, vigorous, resourceful, even stubborn man, he was often overly optimistic. When the board threatened to close his mission because of scant results, he made a dramatic 3,000-mile ride east in the winter of 1842/1843 to plead to keep it open (not to save Oregon from British domination, as was later stated).

Successful, Whitman returned to Oregon in 1843 with a large wagon train. His work at Waiilatpu was hampered in the next years by the excesses of renegade whites, unruly half-breeds, and denominational quarrels. Then in 1847 a wagon train brought measles to Oregon. Whitman's medicine kept white children alive, but the Indian young had no resistance and could not be saved. The Cayuse Indians believed that he was poisoning their children. On Nov. 29, 1847, they killed Whitman, his wife, and 12 others at Waiilatpu, triggering a long, savage war between Indians and whites in Oregon.

Joe Meek carried news of this war to Washington, pleading for protection so eloquently that Congress created the territory of Oregon and sent troops to it—just at the time the American Board for Foreign Missions was abandoning the region.

Further Reading on Marcus Whitman

For Whitman's surviving correspondence see A. B. and D. P. Hulbert, eds., Marcus Whitman, Crusader (3 vols., 1936-1941). Myron Eells, Marcus Whitman (1909), is eulogistic but contains the letters and journals of Narcissa Whitman. The best biography is Clifford M. Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D. (1937).

Additional Biography Sources

Sager, Catherine, Across the plains in 1844, Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1989.

Whitman, Marcus, More about the Whitmans: four hitherto unpublished letters of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Tacoma, Wash.: Washington State Historical Society, 1979.