The Whitman Massacre—a Truer History

Some days I just want to shout at Alvin—Is this what you meant?
After a few years wrestling with his writing and remembered conversations, poking through the books and journals he left to the Josephy Library—the Oregon Historical Quarterlies are gold mines!—and reading “new” historians Crosby and Mann, I might be getting a grasp on what Alvin meant by “leaving the Indians out of American History.”
They are, Alvin said, always a “sideshow,” helpers and combatants in first European colonization of the “new” (to Europeans) world, allies and enemies in early confrontations with British settlers, obstacles to be overcome on the path to settling the North American Continent, and always, by some Euro-Americans, people to be looked after, cared for as children on their way to civilization as their own cultures naturally vanished. Indians have rarely been treated as primary actors in the historical narrative, agents on their own behalf and/or cooperators in five centuries of European settlement of the hemisphere.
One can pick up the thread of Alvin’s argument at many points on the historical grid, and the standard narrative changes, becomes richer, and, finally, helps explain the incredible resilience of tribal peoples. Here’s one. The Spring 1994 edition of the OHQfeatures a long article on “The Pacific Northwest Measles Epidemic of 1847-48” by anthropologist Robert Boyd. I’ll try to unravel briefly.
We know the story of the Whitman Massacre, how some Cayuse Indians, thinking that missionary Marcus Whitman was out to murder them and take their land, killed Marcus and Narcissa and eleven others. And we might remember that it was a measles epidemic that precipitated it all. Maybe remember that measles must have been carried to the Whitman Mission by Oregon Trail emigrants.
I’ll not distill Boyd’s entire article, but mention a few points to paint a broader historical picture of Walla Walla, the Cayuse and related Columbia Plateau tribes, and a more general view of white settlement and Indian-white relationships across the region.
First, Boyd provides background on white diseases in the now-Northwest. How smallpox arrived in the 1770s on the Coast and traveled into the interior precipitating a first big die-off of Indians. The pox probably arrived by Spanish ship, but might have come across the Rocky Mountains with Indians riding European horses –they got the horse about 1730. A second smallpox epidemic in 1801-02 definitely came via “Indian horsemen returning from the Great Plains.” There is discussion of other European diseases hitting the region, and of the peculiar habits of measles.
Measles were epidemic throughout much of Europe and North America in 1846-47. But Boyd argues that measles were not brought to the mission by white emigrants, but with Walla Walla and “Kye-use” Indians returning from a long sojourn in Northern California. The mobility provided by the horse had given tribal people the means to travel to the plains for buffalo, and to California for cattle!
And in 1847, just an incubation period ahead of the measles breakout at Walla Walla, a messenger at the head of some 200 Indians came back from California with sad news—documented by artist Paul Kane, of the failure of their mission and the terrible deaths of more than 30. The names of the dead were announced in a long ceremony at Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla) and then messengers were sent in every direction to spread the sad news.
And, most likely, the disease. According to Boyd, at this point the white emigrants picked it up and carried it to the Willamette Valley, and from there traders and trappers and emigrants distributed measles all the way to Sitka, Alaska.
Back in Walla Walla, the Indians’ remedies—gathering together in sweats and drinking cold water—exacerbated the situation. Dr. Whitman’s medicines were “tested” by the Indians: two sick Indians and one who was not sick visited him for his treatment—and all died. Among the Cayuse, situated in three major bands but totaling only about 500 souls, over 200 are thought to have died with measles.
The test they had given Whitman—the Indian who was not sick having died, and the insistence of an insider, one Joe Lewis, that Whitman’s medicine was poison, led the Cayuse chiefs to order Whitman’s execution.
Further north, at the Hudson Bay’s Fort Colville, among Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, and some Nez Perce, the missionaries Elkanah and Mary Walker kept sick Indians dry and warm, and fed them cayenne pepper tea and Nitre. Although many died—especially children—more survived, and the Walkers were given some credit.
So now we have a much richer story, one that tells us more about Indians—tribal complexities, chiefs and bands–and horses, cattle, the fur trade and trade routes. We learn about religious views—Christian and Indian—on diseases, and their spread before theories of contagion were fully known. It’s as if the Whitman Massacre and its standard narrative have cheated us of our true history.
# # #