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Narcissa Prentiss (1808-1847)

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The following text was borrowed from appendix 2 of "Warren Prentice, 1827-1916, Sailor, Soldier, Early Settler," by Willard J. Prentice.

The Henry Prentice mentioned in the introduction (page 1) came to Massachusetts from England before Thomas Prentice, probably in 1639 or 1640. There is no evidence that the two were related,, Henry Prentice, "The Planter," as he was known, was a land owner, a freeman, and a person of considerable importance in Cambridge and the entire Bay Colony. He and second wife Joan had six children and their descendants, some of whom spell their name Prentiss, include many prominent people. One of these was the martyred pioneer woman, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808- 1847), whose life is entwined in the early history of Oregon Territory.

Narcissa Prentiss was born at Prattsburg, New York, where she attended Franklin Academy and became a school teacher. She taught a variety of subjects from kindergarten to high school physics in several schools in central New York State. She was very much interested in church affairs and had dreams of becoming a Protestant missionary. About 1834 she met Dr. Marcus Whitman, a physician, who was also interested in missionary work. They decided to get married and become missionaries to the Indians in what would later become Oregon Territory. They were married on 18 February 1836. The next day Narcissa said goodbye to her family that she would never see again, and they headed west.

They traveled by way of Ithaca and Elmira, New York, and Williamsport and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, partly by sleigh, partly by barge, and thence down the Ohio by river boat. They were joined enroute by others including the Reverend Henry Spalding and wife Eliza, W. H. Gray, and two Indians whom Marcus had met earlier. Narcissa and Eliza were about to do what no other white women had ever done--travel the Oregon Trail.

They reached St. Louis on March 19 and hoped to find mail from home, but there was none. They boarded another steamboat, the Chariton, for the trip up the Missouri River. Narcissa commented in her diary that she was feeling well, in spite of drinking the river water, and that she weighed 136 pounds. Mrs Spalding, she said, didn't look quite healthy enough for the trip, but "possessed much fortitude."

After reaching the head of navigation, they began the long overland journey. By day the two women rode either in the wagons or on horseback (side saddle, of course, as was the custom for white women at the time). At night they slept in a conical tent made of bedticking and supported by a center pole, which housed the five whites and two Indians that made up the party. They had 2 wagons, 14 horses, 6 mules, and 15 head of cattle, which they had acquired, probably in Missouri. This group was part of a larger caravan of fur traders consisting of 70 men and nearly 400 animals, which gave them greater protection against Indian raids and other dangers of the trail.

As they crossed the prarie, they depended on hunters in the party to bring them buffalo meat, which was their main source of food, together with milk from their cows. Dried buffalo dung was also their only source of fuel for cooking as there was no wood on the prarie.

By July they reached the mountains, and travel became more difficult. First one wagon, then the other had to be abandoned. Here there were no buffalo. Instead they found antelope and fish to sustain them.

On August 19 they reached Snake Fort (Boise, Idaho). Here Narcissa wrote "Last night I put my clothes in water, and this morning finished washing ... this is the third time I have washed since I left home" in February. Near here they had to ford the Snake River at several locations. Narcissa dreaded the crossings at first but later wrote, "I can now cross the most difficult stream without fear."

As they neared their destination, they found some of the most rugged part of the trail, On August 29 Narcissa wrote, "Before noon we began to descend one of the most terrible mountains for steepness and length I have yet seen. It is like winding stairs in its descent, and in some places almost perpendicular. The horses appeared to dread the hill as much as we did. They would turn and wind around in a zigzag manner all the way down..." On Sept, 1 they reached Fort Walla Walla, but it was December 10 before a cabin could be built and Narcissa and Marcus moved into their new home and mission, which was located six miles west of the present city of Walla Walla, Washington.

At first the Indians welcomed them. Narcissa's school was popular having at times as many as 50 Indians in attendance. Dr. Whitman also taught the Indians how to farm, and he supplied them with seed. As more help arrived at the mission, additional buildings were constructed. A printing press, a mill, and other facilities were added. This went on for eleven years, but Dr, Whitman, in his letters homes noted that he detected a degree of resentment on the part of the Indians. Also they grew more demanding, asking for pay for their timber and land. When some of his Indian patients died during an epidemic of measles and dysentery, the doctor was accused of giving poison medicine.

On 29 Nov. 1847 the Indians struck. Dr, Whitman was first killed with a tomahawk. Narcissa was shot. In all 14 persons were killed, a few escaped. A few days later a French priest and his interpreter passing through the area found the bodies and buried them.

While it might seem that the sacrifices of the Whitmans had been wasted, their journey had demonstrated the feasibility of overland travel to the far West, and increased the interest in Congress and the East in securing the northwest as a U. S. territory. The following year, 1848, Congress passed a bill creating the Oregon Territory. In 1897 a monument to the Whitmans was erected at the mission site, and in 1936 some 45 acres comprising the mission area was established as a national monument.

A pamphlet describing the monument and giving a history of the mission can be obtained from the National Park Service.

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