Discovering the Region: Texts

13. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, Letters

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, The Letters of Narcissa Whitman, 1836-1847 (Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1996),
49-50, 57-59, 74, 101-102, 108, 136-37, 157, 207, 224-25.


March 30, 1837

Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters:

. . . . May 3 - There has been much sickness, both at Vancouver, Walla Walla, and here, and some deaths. The Indians here had but just begun to break ground for planting, when many of them were taken sick with an inflammation of the lungs. This was severe upon them, and threw then in great consternation. The old chief Umtippe’s wife was quite sick, and came near dying. For a season they were satisfied with my husband’s attention, and were doing well; but when they would over eat themselves, or go into a relapse from unnecessary exposure, then they must have their te-wat doctors; say that the medicine was bad, and all was bad. Their te-wat is in the same species of juggling aspracticed by the Pawnees, which Mr. Dunbar describes—playing the fool over them, and giving no medicine. They employed them over and over again, but they remained the same. Soon they became weary of these, and must have a more noted one. Umtippe got in a rage about his wife, and told my husband, while she was under his care, that if his wife died that night he should kill him. The contest has been sharp between him and the Indians, and husband was nearly sick with the excitement and care of them. The chief sent for the great Walla Walla te-wat for his wife, at last, who came, and after going through several incantations, and receiving a horse and a blanket or two, pronounced her well; but the next day she was the same again. Now his rage was against the te-wat—said he was bad, and ought to be killed. When the te-wats were called, husband had nothing more to do with them. Their

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sickness commenced about the first of April, and, through the great mercy of God to us, none of them died to whom medicine was administered. Near the last of April, the old chief was taken sick, and, notwithstanding all his villainy, he came to my husband to be doctored. He was very sick, and we thought he would die; but the medicine given him soon relieved him. Last Saturday the war chief died at Walla Walla. He was a Cayuse, and a relative of Umtippe; was sick but six days; employed the same Walla Walla te-wat Umtippe sent for, but he died in his hands. The same day Ye-he-kis-kis, a younger brother of Umtippe, went to Walla Walla, arrived about twilight, and shot the te-wat dead. Thus they were avenged. Both Umtippe and his brother went from our house on the morning of the same day. It is but a few of the oldest men who are filled with so much war and bloodshed. If they should all die, a new character would at once be given the whole tribe. The younger ones naturally possess a different disposition, and manifest an eager desire to adopt the manners and customs of civilized life; but they are ruled by the chiefs, and feel themselves obliged to bow in subjection to them. . . .

Plurality of wives exists among all the tribes here. Their excuse is, with many wives they have plenty to eat, but where they have but one they have nothing. The women are slaves to their husbands here, as well as in other heathen countries. The system of head-flattening exists among their people in a degree, but not to excess. The girls’ heads only are flattened. They consider it a peculiar mark of beauty, and it makes them more acceptable in sight of the men as wives. They raise but a few of their children. Great numbers of them die. Those that live suffer a great deal from neglect, etc. I am often asked why I do not put my dear babe in a te-cash (this is the name of their cradle), and think it very strange that she should sleep with me without being tied up, so that I should not kill her. . . .

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Wieletpoo, Walla Walla River, Oregon Territory

April 11, 1838

My Dear Parents:

. . . . The Indians are not easily satisfied. They are so impressed with the idea that all who work are slaves and inferior persons, that the moment they hear of their children doing the least thing they are panic-stricken and make trouble. We have had a school for them for about four months past, and much of the time our kitchen has been crowded, and all seem very much attached. We shall soon commence teaching them to read their own pages, which Mr. Spalding intends to send to the Sandwich Islands, to get it printed, by the next ship that leaves Vancouver. We appear to have every encouragement missionaries could possibly expect, for the short time we have been here. We see a very great improvement in them, even in the short space of one year. That old chief, Umtippe, who threatened my husband’s life last spring, is especially changed, particularly in his deportment to us, and about the house. And, besides, we are becoming familiar with their language, so that husband is able to give them a greater amount of truth with the satisfaction that they understand what is said to them; and we have every evidence to believe that they feel the force of divine truth upon their minds. For several Sabbaths past, our worship with them has been very interesting. All seem to manifest a deep interest in the instruction given them. Some feel almost to blame us for telling them about eternal realities. One said it was good when they knew nothing but to hunt, eat, drink and sleep; now it was bad. We long to have them know of a Saviour’s pardoning love. The most interesting exercise is the Sabbath School in which we assemble—the youth and children at five o’clock P.M. The aged ones appear to be as much interested as the children. We have been teaching them the Ten Commandments, with which they are very much pleased. There are many very

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interesting children, both among the Nez Perces and Cayuses. We have generally given names to those that have attended school. One boy about ten years old we have given the name of Edward—a bright, active boy, and loves his book. He has a brother, a young man whom we call David, who is very promising; he has been to school steadily all winter, and is remarkably sedate and sober—very different from all other young men of the tribe. He, with his father, is making a large quantity of land ready for planting. He is the Indian Teloukike, that gave our baby the name of Cayuse tenni, spoken of in a former letter. His little daughter we call Jane. She attends school, also—all very good looking children, and quite handsome. . . .

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May 10 - Under date April 11th, I spoke of old Umtippe’s appearance. He seems to be declining fast. Last Saturday he came here, he said on purpose to spend the Sabbath. Said he had had recently three fainting turns, and felt that he should not live a great while. He had been very wicked, and did not know where his soul would go when he died—was lost about it. Sabbath noon, after the morning worship (Mr. Lee was here and preached, and husband interpreted), he said “The truth never appeared so clear to him before. Always, when he had attended worship, his mind had been on those about him, but now it had been on what was said to him. Before he came to meeting would not eat but very little, so that his mind might be clear to hear good.” Never can a person manifest a greater change. That selfish, wicked, cunning and troublesome old chief, now so still and quiet, so attentive to the truth, and grateful for favors now given! Surely, naught but the spirit of God has done this. We are not yet satisfied how much he understands of the atonement, or whether he has any correct views of salvation through Jesus Christ. But this we do know, that God is able by his spirit to take what little truth we are able to give, and impress it upon the hearts and consciences of the most benighted minds. . . .

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Feb. 18, 1839

My Dear Sister:

. . . . You wished me to write something about my little girl. I do not know what to tell you than to say she is a large, healthy and strong child, two years old the 14th of this month. She talks both Nez Perces and English quite fluently, and is much inclined to read her book with the children of the family, and sings all our Nez Perces hymns and several in English. Her name is Alice Clarissa. You dreamed of seeing her you say. I hope it will be a reality soon, for I am very anxious to see young Henry Johnson, too. I am glad he learns to bear the yoke so well, not in his youth, but in his infancy. Exposures in journeyings in this country appear to be a benefit rather than an injury to our children. I have taken several with Alice, and they have generally been in the winter. When she was nine months old we went to Brother Spalding’s to attend upon our sister at the birth of their child. It was in November, and we returned in December by way of Snake river, in a canoe. It was a tedious voyage, but we neither of us received any injury.

We intend to be very free from worldly cares this season, and apply ourselves entirely to the missionary work of studying the language and teaching. After our successful trial of last winter’s encamping with the Indians, husband feels that he has no excuse for not taking me again and again, and I can make no objection, notwithstanding it would be far easier for me to stay at home with my child, and perhaps better for her; but the roving habits of the Indians make it necessary for us either to do so, or else spend the greater part of our time alone, during their absence from the Station. . . .

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Waiilatpu, W. W. River, Oregon Territory

Oct. 10th, 1840

My Dear Father:

[October 19] . . . . a message arrived and took my husband away as in a moment. It was from our Brother Smith, about a hundred and eighty miles from here. We wrote that the Indians were asking him to give them property and food, and wishing him to pay for the land he occupied. He told them he could not say anything about it; they became very angry and told him to move off to-morrow; he said he could not, but they still insisted upon it with great insolence, until he was obliged to tell them he would go. Sister Smith writes me that they are afraid for their lives and they ask for help immediately to come and remove them. Husband has gone and expects to be obliged to bring them away here. What the result will be the Lord only knows. The two

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principal instigators are brothers to the Indian who went to the United States for some one to come and teach them, that we read about as the first news west of the Rocky mountains. How transient is the missionaries’ home. I believe we most of [often?] feel that “we have no abiding city here.”

. . . . I began to write about the state of the people. Of late my heart yearns over them more than usual. They feel so bad, disappointed, and some of them angry because husband tells them that none of them are Christians; that they are all of them in the broad road to destruction, and that worshipping will not save them. They try to persuade him not to talk such a bad talk to them, as they say, but talk good talk, or tell some story, or history, so that they may have some Scripture names to learn. Some threaten to whip him and to destroy our crops, and for a long time their cattle were turned into our potato field every night to see if they could not compel him to change his course of instruction with them.

These things did not intimidate us; it only drove us to a throne of grace with greater earnestness to plead for blessings to descend upon them. . . .

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Wieletpoo, Oregon Territory

October 1, 1841

My Dear Jane:

. . . . Now we have Catholics on both sides of us, and, we may say, right in our midst, for Mr. Pambrun, while he was alive, failed not to secure one of the principal Indians of this tribe to that religion, and had his family baptized. He acts upon his band, and holds from us many who would be glad to come and hear us. And then, the Indians are acted upon constantly through the servants of the [Hudson’s Bay] Company, who are all, scarcely without exception, Catholics.

We feel no disposition to retreat from our work, but hope to stand our ground, if such a thing is possible. . . .

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August 23, 1842

Rev. Mr. And Mrs. Allen, Cuba, My Dear Christian Friends:

. . . . The Kayuses, Nez Perces, Spokans, and all the adjacent tribes need your prayers, for they are a dark-minded, wandering people, having hearts, but understand not the truth. I will give you the language of one of them in a talk made three Sabbaths ago. After listening to an exposition of the truth in Proverbs, 5th chapter, he said: “Your instruction is good, the wise and discreet appreciate it; for the mass of us, we hear it, but it falls powerless upon our hearts, and we remain the same still.” I felt it deeply as a reproof for our unbelief, and want of faithful, earnest prayer in their behalf. The present is the harvest time with them. We know not how soon ardent spirits will be introduced into the country to distract and impede our work. Settlers are beginning to come around us, and their influence will not be the most congenial, as they are mostly men living with native women, who have for many years been wandering in the deep recesses of the mountains, indulging themselves in every species of vice and wickedness until, as one of them frankly confessed to me a short time since, they were wickeder than the Indians around them. Perhaps most of them have received the elements of a Christian education in their childhood years, and some have Christian parents. These, also, are eminently a subject for your prayers.

Romanism stalks abroad on our right hand and on our left, and with daring effrontery boasts that she is to prevail and possess the land. I ask, must it be so? Does it not remain for the people of God in this and Christian lands to say whether it shall be so or not? “Is not the Lord on our side?” “If He is for us, who can be against us?” The zeal and energy of her prients [priests] are without a parallel, and many, both white men and Indians, wander after the beasts. Two are in the country below us, and two far above in the mountains. One of the latter is to return this fall to Canada, the States and the eastern world for a large reinforcement. How true—“while men slept, the enemy came and sowed

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tares.” Had a pious, devoted minister, a man of talent, come into the country when we did and established himself at Vancouver, to human appearance the moral aspect of this country would not be the same as it is now; at least, we think Papacy would not have gained such a footing. But the past cannot be retrieved. It remains for us to redeem the time; to stand in our lines and fight manfully the battles of the Lord. . . .

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March 31, 1843

My Dear Brother:

. . . . Recently, intelligence has come to us from above that the Indians are talking and making preparations for war. The visit of the government’s agent last fall has caused considerable excitement. All decisive measures and language used to them they construe into threats, and say war is declared and they intend to be prepared. They have heard many unwise remarks which have been made by designing persons, especially a half-breed that came up with the agent last fall. Such as troops are coming into the river this spring and are coming up with Dr. White to fight them. It is the Kaiuses that cause all trouble. There are no tribes in all the country but what are more quiet and peaceable to live with then they are. If any mischief is going ahead they originate and carry forward. They are more difficult to labour among than the Nez Perces. They are rich, especially in horses, and consequently haughty and insolent. A large assemblage is expected in less than a month to meet in the valley of Walla Walla. What the result of it will be, time will determine. From the excitement and talk that has been going on all winter we have reason to fear that it will not be a very quiet time. . . .

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July 17th, 1846

My Dear Mrs. Brewer:

. . . . The Indians are very quiet now and never more friendly. There has been some deaths among them of the most important Indians, the past winter and spring, and we are not without hope that some of them have gone to be with the Saviour. So far as the Indians are concerned our prospects of permanently remaining among them were never more favourable than the present. I feel distressed sometimes to think I am making so little personal effort for their benefit, when so much ought to be done, but perhaps I could not do more than I am through the family. It is a great pleasure to them to see so many children growing up in their midst. Perrin, the eldest, is able to read Nez Perces to them and when husband is gone, takes his place and holds meetings with them. This delights them very much. I have much to write you, but I am still waiting, hoping to see you. But I will give you a specimen of my eligible situation for writing. I have six girls sewing around me, or rather five—for one is reading, and the same time my baby is asking to go and bathe—she is two years the last of May, and her uneasiness and talk does not help me to many very profitable ideas. Now another comes with her work for me to fix. So it is from morning until evening; I must be with them or else they will be doing something they should not, or else not spending their time profitably. I could get along some easier if I could bring my mind to have them spend their time in play, but this I cannot. Now all the girls have gone to bathe and this will give me a few moments to close my letter in peace; they are very good girls and soon will be more help to me than they are now, although at present they do considerable work. . . .

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Wailatpu, Oregon Territory

July 4th, 1847

My Dear Mother:

[August 23] . . . . For the last two weeks immigrants have been passing, probably 80 or 100 wagons have already passed and 1,000 are said to be on the road, besides the Mormons. . . .

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. . . . It is difficult to imagine what kind of a winter we shall have this winter, for it will not be possible for so many to all pass through the Cascade mountains into the Willamette this fall, even if they should succeed in getting through the Blue Mountains as far as here. From the Dalls on to the Willamette is considered the worst part of the route from the States to the end, that is, to the Willamette valley. We are not likely to be as well off for provisions this season as usual—our crops are not as abundant.

Poor people—those that are not able to get one, or pay for what they need—are those that will most likely wish to stop here, judging from the past; and connected with this, is a disposition not to work, at any rate, not more than they can help. The poor Indians are amazed at the overwhelming numbers of Americans coming into the country. They seem not to know what to make of it. Very many of the principal ones are dying, and some have been killed by other Indians, in going south into the region of California. The remaining ones seem attached to us, and cling to us the closer; cultivate their farms quite extensively, and do not wish to see any Sniapus (Americans) settle among them here; they are willing to have them spend the winter here, but in the spring they must all go on. They would be willing to have more missionaries stop and those devoted to their good. They expect that eventually this country will be settled by them, but they wish to see the Willamette filled up first. . . .

. . . . May the richest of heaven’s blessings ever rest upon my beloved father and mother.

From your ever affectionate daughter


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