By Anna Kathryn Lanier
On July 4, 1836, the 60th anniversary of America’s independence, a group of trappers, Native Americans and missionaries traversed the Continental Divide. Though by this time many white men had made this journey, this caravan had two special people with them: Eliza Spaulding and Narcissa Whitman, the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. The women accompanied their husbands, Henry Spaulding and Marcus Whitman, missionaries who were on their way West to spread the Word of God to the Natives.
As the caravan made its way down the side of the mountain, they were beset upon by fifteen or so riders on horseback, whooping and hollering and shooting off their rifles. The travelers scrambled in fright to defend themselves, but soon realized it was not a raiding party, but a greeting party. Word had been sent ahead of their arrival and the trappers who had gathered for great rendezvous had sent out the group to escort the caravan, and its two females, to the gathering.
Word of the arrival of the white women spread quickly and mountain men and Indian alike surrounded the women in awe. Narcissa preferred to spend her time in the company of the trappers, laughing, talking and visiting. Eliza was more on the quiet side and spent her free time with the Nez Perce, learning their language. Both women found the hospitality, warmth and kindness of the Indians impressive.
From the great rendezvous point, in what is now southeastern Wyoming, the two couples planned to make their way to Oregon. The fur company that had gotten them this far would return East, the trappers would return to the mountains and the missionaries would be on their own. Consultations were held with the Indians and a route that followed the Snake River was chosen. The Nez Perce offered to take them part of the way, but in the end a group of fur traders from the British Hudson’s Bay Company arrived and offered to escort them the full length of the journey.
The Hudson’s Bay Company controlled this area of the Northwest even more so than Great Britain or the United States, both of whom laid claim to the Oregon country. Dr. John McLoughlin, who oversaw the business, was likely the most powerful individual in the territory. He, however, realized very quickly what the arrival of two white women meant. More white women, with families, would follow and soon enough, the Americans would come to control the land where once only trappers and Indians had lived.
As it turned out, less than a year later, Narcissa proved him right by giving birth to the first white child born west of the Rockies, Alice Clarissa. Tragedy struck just two years later, however, when Alice drowned in the Walla Walla River. Marcus believed in the work of the mission and the couple stayed at the Whitman Mission to serve and guide the influx of settlers who arrived in the territory over the next few years. They gave food, shelter, supplies and medical attention to those just arriving from the hard cross-country journey. They even took in orphans, including the seven Sager children after both parents died while traveling from Missouri. (Learn about the Sager Orphans HERE and HERE).
In 1847, a measles epidemic affected the nearby Cayuse Indian tribe, as well as many of the white settlers. Half the tribe died from the disease and the Cayuse blamed Marcus for the deaths. Warriors attacked the mission on November 29, 1847, killing 14 people, including Marcus and Narcissa.
Even in their deaths, however, the Whitmans encouraged further settlement. Joe Meek, mountain man, persuaded Congress to establish the Oregon Territory to protect the settlers and capture Whitmans’ murderers. By 1850, just three years later, more than 12,000 whites lived in Oregon and all because two women were brave enough to accompany their husbands on a journey of a lifetime.
TRUE TALES OF THE WILD WEST by Paul Robert Walker
Anna Kathryn Lanier