Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (March 14, 1808 – November 29, 1847) was an American missionary in the Oregon Country of what would become the state of Washington. Along with Eliza Hart Spalding (wife of Henry Spalding), she was the first European-American woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in 1836 on her way to found the Protestant Whitman Mission with husband Dr. Marcus Whitman near modern day Walla Walla, Washington.
Narcissa Prentiss was born in Prattsburgh, New York, on March 14, 1808. She was the third of nine children of Judge Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss. She was the oldest of the five girls, followed by Clarissa, Mary Ann, Jane, and Harriet. She also had four brothers. Like many young women of the era, she became caught up in the Second Great Awakening. She decided that her true calling was to become a missionary, and was accepted for missionary service in March 1835. Narcissa was educated at the Franklin Academy in Prattsburgh before her marriage to Dr. Marcus Whitman on February 18, 1836 in Angelica, New York. Her birthplace in Prattsburgh is open to the public as the Narcissa Prentiss House.
Shortly after their wedding, Narcissa and Marcus, along with the also recently married Henry and Eliza Spalding, headed west for the Oregon Country in March 1836 to begin their missionary activities amongst the natives. The journey was by sleigh, canal barge, wagon, river sternwheeler, horseback, and foot. The founder of Ogden, Utah, Miles Goodyear, traveled with them until Fort Hall. On September 1, 1836, they arrived at Fort Walla Walla, a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost near present day Walla Walla, Washington. They then traveled on to Fort Vancouver where they were hosted by Dr. John McLoughlin before returning to the Walla Walla area to build their mission. Narcissa was one of the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains and live in the area. She was something of a novel addition to the community for the local Native Americans, the Cayuse.
The Whitman Mission began to take shape in 1837, eventually growing into a major stopping point along the Oregon Trail. Methodist missionary Jason Lee would stop off in 1838 at the mission on his way east to gather reinforcements in the United States for his mission in the Willamette Valley. Then, in 1840, mountain man Joseph Meek, whom the Whitmans met on their journey to the area, stopped off on his way to the Willamette Valley.
Built at Waiilatpu, the settlement was about six miles (10 km) from Fort Walla Walla and along the Walla Walla River. At the mission, Narcissa gave Bible classes to the native population, as well as teaching them Western domestic chores that were unknown to the Native Americans. Besides the missionary goals of converting the natives, she also ran the household. Her daily activities included cooking, washing and ironing clothes, churning butter, making candles and soap, and baking.
On March 14, 1837, on her twenty-ninth birthday, Narcissa gave birth to the first white American born in Oregon Country. She named her Alice Clarissa after her two grandmothers, and she would be their only natural child. Unfortunately, she drowned in the Walla Walla River on June 23, 1839. Unattended for only a few moments, she had gone down to the river bank to fill her cup with water and fell in. Though her body was found shortly after, all attempts to revive her failed. However, other children came to the mission, including the seven Sager orphans, to whom Narcissa became a second mother.
Just before winter, in late 1842, Marcus traveled back east to recruit more missionaries for the mission. During the time he was away, Narcissa traveled west and visited other outposts in the territory including Fort Vancouver, Jason Lee’s Methodist Mission near present day Salem, Oregon, and another mission near Astoria, Oregon. Marcus returned with his nephew Perrin from his trip East in 1843.
Throughout their time in Oregon Country, Narcissa and Marcus encountered trouble with the native tribes. The Cayuse and the Nez Percé tribes were suspicious of the activities and the encouragement of the Americans. As early as 1841, Tiloukaikt had tried to force them to leave Waiilatpu and the ancestral homeland.
In 1847, a measles epidemic broke out among the native population. Spread to the natives by contact with whites, the native population lacked immunity to the disease and it spread quickly. The American populations had some limited immunity to measles which meant a lower mortality rate than the natives. This discrepancy stirred discontent among the natives who felt Marcus was only curing the white people while letting Indian children die. The resentment concerning all the different issues boiled over on November 29, 1847 when Tiloukaikt and others attacked the mission killing both Marcus and Narcissa. This event would be remembered as the Whitman Massacre, in which eleven others were killed and many more taken hostage.