Biography of Marcus Whitman, M.D.

MARCUS WHITMAN, M.D. – A volume might be written in regard to the life and death of this man. Hence, in the brief space here given to him, only a synopsis of his life can be given. He was born at Rushville, New York, September 4, 1802, and was the son of Beza and Alice (Green) Whitman. His father having died in 1810, he was brought up by his paternal grandfather, at Plainfield, Massachusetts. There he was converted in 1819; and in January, 1824, he joined the Congregational church at his native place, of which he remained a member until 1833, when he united with the Presbyterian church at Wheeler, New York, of which he was elected a ruling elder. In 1838 he was one of the original members of, and the elder in, the Presbyterian church at Walla Walla, the first church of that denomination on the Pacific coast.

He studied medicine under Doctor Ira Bryant, of Rushville, receiving his diploma in 1824. He practiced four years in Canada, and afterwards in Wheeler, where in the winter of 1834-35, he became interested in Oregon, through Reverend Samuel Parker. He started the next spring with Mr. Parker, and went as far as the rendezvous of the American Fur Company on Green river, when it was thought best for the Doctor to return for more missionaries, while Mr. Parker should proceed and explore. On his journey he performed some very important surgical operations on some of the mountain men, which gave him a reputation that was of great service to him afterwards. On his return he took with him two Indian boys, who went to school that winter, and returned to Oregon with him the next year. That winter he was married to Miss Narcissa Prentiss, a daughter of Judge S. Prentiss. She was born in Prattsburg, New York, March 14, 1808.

Having procured Rev. H.H. Spalding and wife and Mr. W.H. Gray, as co-laborers, in1836 he again started for Oregon. Mrs. Whitman, with Mrs. Spalding, made this journey mainly on horseback, the first white women to cross the continent, an event which proved to be of very great importance to Oregon, as far as homes and settlements were concerned. The Doctor, with great difficulty and with no little opposition from others, but with great perseverance, took a wagon as far as Fort Boise, an event which likewise greatly affected the destinies of Oregon.

On the 2d of September they reached Fort Walla Walla one day in advance of Mr. Spalding, and were received with great demonstrations of joy. Having visited Fort Vancouver, in order to consult with Doctor McLoughlin, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, he returned to Walla Walla and settled among the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu on the Walla Walla river, six miles from the present city of Walla Walla.

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There Alice Clarissa Whitman, the only child they ever had, was born, March 4, 1837, believed to be the first white child born on the Northwest coast; but she lived to be but little more than two years old, when, June 23, 1839, she was accidentally drowned in the Walla Walla river.

That was their home until the time of their death. They labored earnestly and faithfully to teach agriculture, civilization, morals and the christian religion; and although but few if any of the Indians united with the church, and some of them helped in the massacre, yet subsequent events have shown that some of those Cayuses were true Christians; and the seed then sown is still growing in the Protestant church on the Umatilla reservation.

In the winter of 1842-43 Doctor Whitman made his famous winter journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Eastern states, with Hon. A.L. Lovejoy, amid great sufferings and hardships. There has been much discussion in regard to his reasons for doing so, the editor-in-chief of this work, Colonel Elwood Evans, taking one view, and the writer another. This is not the place for much discussion of the subject; but perhaps the writer may be permitted to say that to his mind and to that of many others, the evidence is such as to induce the belief that he had at least four objects in view:

1. To induce the American Board to rescind the order which they had given in 1842 to abandon the stations of Doctor Whitman and Mr. Spalding.

2. To induce christian lay families to come and settle in the regions of the missions, as a nucleus for further settlements, and as a support to the missions;

3. To induce emigrants of all kinds to come to Oregon;

4. And to do what he could to convey such information to the authorities at Washington that they should know of the value of Oregon, and not tradeoff any part of it to Great Britain.

In the first of these objects he succeeded; in the second he failed. According to almost universal testimony, he did very much to aid the immigration of 1843, the first with wagons to come successfully through; and, in regard to the fourth, opinions differ.

After his return his work went on until suddenly, November 29, 1847, at his station, the massacre occurred, in which he and his wife were killed by the Indians. On that day, and a little later, twelve others lost their lives; and the missions of the American Board in Oregon were broken up.

A wide discussion has taken place as to the causes of this massacre; but this is not the place to consider them. They fell at their post, died a martyr’s death, have been honored with a martyr’s memory in this world, and a martyr’s crown in heaven.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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