Missionaries in the nineteenth century, Marcus Whitman, M.D., and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, as well as Reverend Henry Harmon Spalding and a few others, arrived in the Walla Walla valley. Their mission was to teach the Indians the gospel in the Presbyterian fashion and teach them the “arts of civilization.” Marcus Whitman was the first medical missionary on the Pacific Coast, a graduate Fairfield Medical College at Fairfield, N.Y. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Rev. Spalding’s wife, Eliza Hart Spalding, made the journey with their husbands across the continent in 1837. Marcus and Narcissa were married only two weeks before departing from New York for Walla Walla. They had one daughter, Alice Clarissa, who drowned in the mill pond near their mission home at the age of 2.
Marcus and Narcissa were successful at teaching the Indians their curriculum and establishing a strong friendship. The Indians were fascinated by the missionaries’ techniques, though it did take some time to fully adjust. Dr. Whitman intended and tried to make the mission self-supporting, and was fairly successful for some years.
In 1842, the American Board opted to discontinue the mission at Waiilatpu, transferring Dr. Whitman to the mission at Lapwai. Before the order could be carried out, the recalcitrant missionaries voluntarily left, and the stalwart ones remained and demanded Waiilatpu be maintained, not only because of the value of its work among the Indians, but because of its strategic location on the immigrant route from the east. Dr. Whitman decided to go back east to meet with the committee about the decision and encourage them to keep the Waiilatpu Mission. Unfortunately, there are no written records about what happened in Washington D.C., but it is now an unquestioned fact that he went there before he went to Boston and the inference is reasonable that his patriotic objective took precedence over his missionary objective.
The first wagon train of immigrants assembled in Missouri and went to Walla Walla in the spring of 1843. It is disputed whether Dr. Whitman had a hand in gathering that wagon train. From then on, the Oregon Territory became the popular immigration destination, and in 1846 the line was drawn at the 49th parallel. Triumphant, Marcus Whitman finally returned home to Waiilatpu. But change was in the air. As American settlers poured into Oregon, the Indians became restless and suspicious. They were afraid of being invaded, and knew the culprits to blame: the first missionaries that showed up less than a decade earlier.
Measles broke out at Waiilatpu in the fall of 1847, and decimated the Indians. Dr. Whitman treated both Indians and white settlers, and when so many Indians died despite treatment, Indian custom dictated revenge upon the medicine man. Thus the Whitmans were massacred, as well-meaning as they had been.