Discovering the Region: Commentary

10. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, Letters

Like explorers and fur traders, missionaries constituted another group of observers who acquainted eastern audiences with the Pacific Northwest. Both Protestant and Catholic missions came to the region in the 1830s and 1840s for the express purpose of converting Native Americans to Christianity. They sent both private and public messages back home about their work, partly to attract greater support for it, and in the process described and promoted the Pacific Northwest to outsiders. In short, they represented another kind of discoverer with their own framework for viewing the resources and natives of the region. Narcissa Whitman was of particular importance because, along with Eliza Spalding, she became the first non-native woman to make her home in the Northwest upon her arrival in 1836.  For a full biography, see Jeffrey (1991).

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman became the best known of the nineteenth-century missionaries to the Pacific Northwest, no doubt in large part because in 1847 they were killed by the Cayuse Indians whose souls they hoped to save. The letters included here suggest the range of their experiences between the time of their arrival and their deaths in 1847, and the way that their attitudes toward Indians and their own reasons for being in the Northwest changed over time. Narcissa Whitman’s letters initially expressed optimism about the missionaries’ ability to convert Indians to Christianity, but over time that confidence waned. Missionaries’ efforts—especially those of Protestants—met substantial resistance among Northwest natives. Moreover, as time passed the number of overland migrants coming from the United States to the region increased greatly, and the Whitmans increasingly turned their attention to serving the newcomers’ needs rather than tending to Indians’ souls. Marcus Whitman acknowledged this shift in focus: "It does not concern me so much what is to become of any particular set of Indians, as to give them the offer of salvation through the gospel and the opportunity of civilization. . . . I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country and help to found its religious institutions." He also tried to explain why natives would be unable to resist the influx of white settlers that he expected to serve: "For the Command is multiply & replenish the Earth, neither of which the Indians obey. Their indolence, violence & bloodshed prevent the first & indolence & improvidence the second. How then can they stand in the way of others who will do both?" (Cited in Meinig 1968: 140).

Marcus Whitman was referring, of course, to well-known passages from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, which in fuller and more modern versions read as follows: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ . . . Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’ The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. . . . As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Genesis 1:28, 9:1-3, 7).

Two aspects of these words deserve attention. First, they help to explain the self-assurance of different kinds of colonizers—explorers, fur traders, missionaries, settlers—as they observed and occupied the Northwest. These discoverers assumed all the while that their designs took priority over the needs of the Indians who had lived there for centuries; the fact that Northwest Indians were just then declining precipitously in number from waves of epidemic disease only gave the Biblical passage greater force. The newcomers also assumed that it was within their rights to occupy and remake the land as they saw fit for their needs; expecting dominion over nature, they saw no need to set any part of it aside for preservation. Second, Whitman’s words remind us that the greatest literary influence imported in colonizers’ cultural baggage was, and long remained, the Bible.

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