The 1847 murders of frontier missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman near the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers brought the Oregon Territory under tighter U.S. control and set off a chain of events that forced the Indians from the Columbia Plateau to establish reservations. Waiilatpu, also known as the Whitman Mission, was a key outpost on the Oregon Trail, and the Whitmans were pioneers.
marcus whitman was a physician, and he and his wife narcissa were missionaries sent west from new england by the presbyterian, congregational, and dutch reformed american board of commissioners for foreign missions (abcfm). the couple provided agricultural and medical advice while preaching to local indigenous people. The Whitmans were frustrated by their mission’s increasing reliance on the Indians for supplies; but for the cayuses, the construction of waiilatpu on their land, especially given the relative opulence of their cabins and furniture, forced the couple to share goods.
The first fur traders had threatened the natives with infectious diseases, so when measles spread to the mission in the mid-1840s and decimated the nearby cayuses, the Indians understandably blamed Whitman. Plateau Indians generally did not kill shamans for failing to cure patients, but they believed that excessive amounts of spiritual power could inspire murderous intent. Relations with the Whitmans had already degenerated due to Cayus opposition to American expansion, missionary inflexibility, the demise of the fur trade, a language barrier, and missionary suspicions that rival Catholics were conspiring. against them.
On November 29, 1847, several men, secretly carrying axes and pistols, visited Whitman under the pretense of a medical visit. In the ensuing attack, sixty Cayuses and Umatillas killed the Whitmans and eleven or twelve other people at the mission and took fifty-three people hostage. the killings were brutal, according to the testimonies of some of the surviving children, as the assailants used their tomahawks to release the evil spirits that dwelt within the targets. marcus whitman was beaten beyond recognition, and narcissa whitman was shot.
At the time, Oregon was under a provisional government, following the Anglo-American partition of the territory in 1846. The murders conveniently played into the hands of Northerners who wanted to counter Southern expansion, i.e. slaveholding, into the mexican cession, and president james polk signed a bill in 1848 making oregon the first country of the united states. territory west of the rocky mountains.
The hostages were freed during the ensuing Cayuse War of 1848-1850, but that war intensified as white immigration increased. Americans lacked enough money or people for all-out war, but they used what became known as the Whitman massacre to justify the raids and bring the perpetrators to trial in Oregon City in 1850.
after an alliance between tribes collapsed, the cayuses ended up on the umatilla reservation east of pendleton in 1855. in 1853, washington territory was separated from oregon, and isaac stevens, its first governor, forced the remaining Plateau Indians to remain on reservations. The Yakamas and others held out, and their 1856 war merged with conflicts on Puget Sound and Oregon’s Rogue River, which lasted until 1858. Northwestern expansion would have occurred independently of the Whitmans, but their martyrdom accelerated and helped sanction the American settlement.