17: Woman as a Missionary to the Indians—(Continued)
<< 16: Woman as Missionary to the Indians || 18: Woman in the Army >>
Of all that devout and heroic bands of men and women who have undertaken to
bear the hardships and face the dangers of our American wilderness, for the
special purpose of carrying the Gospel of peace, love, and brotherhood to
the benighted denizen of our American forests, none have exhibited more
signal courage, patience, and devotion than the companies which first
selected Oregon as their special field of labor.
In order to properly estimate the appliances and dangers of this
enterprise, the Oregon field must be surveyed, not from our present point
of view, when steam locomotive power on land and water has brought that
distant region within comparatively easy reach; when the hands of the State
and National Government have grown strong to defend, and can be stretched a
thousand leagues in an hour to punish, if the lightning brings tidings of
wrong; when a multitude of well-ordered communities have power and lawful
authority to protect their citizens; and when peace and comfort are the
accompaniments, and a competency is the reward of industry.
How different was the view of Oregon presented to the eye in 1834! A vast
tract of wilderness, covering an area of more than three hundred thousand
square miles, composed of sterile wastes, unbroken forests, and almost
impassable ranges of mountains, presenting a constant succession of awful
precipices, rugged crags, and yawning chasms, and traversed by rapid
torrents, emptying into rivers full of perils to the navigator. This mighty
expanse was roamed by more than thirty different Indian tribes; the only
white inhabitants being at the few posts and settlements of the Hudson Bay
Company. The different routes by which this region could be reached
presented to the traveler a dilemma, either side of which was full of
The water route was nearly twenty thousand miles in length, and involved a
long and perilous voyage round Cape Horn. The land route was across the
continent, through the gorges and over the precipices of the Rocky
Mountains, up and down the dangerous rivers, and among numerous
bloodthirsty tribes. Such was the opening prospect offered to the eye of
religious enterprise, when the question of the mission to Oregon was first
It is something more than forty years since the "Macedonian Cry" was heard
from the dark mountains and savage plains of that far country, startling
the Christian church in America. The thrill of the appeal made by the
delegation of Flathead Indians, was electric, and fired the churches of all
the principal denominations with a spirit of noble emulation.
Dr. Marcus Whitman, and Mrs. Whitman, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Spaulding,
were among the earliest to respond to the appeal. In 1836 they crossed the
continent, scaled the Rocky Mountains, and penetrated to the heart of the
wild region which was to be the scene of their heroic labors, crowned at
length by a martyr's death.
Mrs. Whitman and Mrs. Spaulding, it should be remembered, were the first
white women that ever crossed that mighty range which nature seems to have
intended as a barrier against the aggressive westward march of the
Strong indeed must have been the impelling motive which carried these two
weak women over that rugged barrier!
Mr. and Mrs. Gray, Mr. and Mrs. Clark, Mr. and Mrs. Littlejohn, Mr. and
Mrs. Smith, and the Lees came next, pursuing their toilsome march over the
same mountain ranges, and closely behind them came Mr. and Mrs. Griffin and
Mr. and Mrs. Munger.
The story of the adventures and difficulties passed through by these
missionary bands in forcing their way over the mountains, would fill
volumes. Their way lay sometimes over almost inaccessible crags, and at
others, through gloomy and tangled forests, and as they descended, the snow
increased in depth, and they felt the effects of the increasing cold very
keenly. The only living things which they saw were a few mountain goats.
Sometimes chasms yawned at their feet, and they were forced to go out of
their course twenty miles before they could cross. Once one of the ladies
wandered from the party in search of mountain ferns. She was soon missed,
and one of the guides was sent back to search for her. After a short quest
they found her tracks in the snow, which they followed till they came to a
crevasse, through which she had slipped and fallen sixty feet into a
monstrous drift, where she was floundering and shouting feebly for help.
With some difficulty she was extricated unhurt from this perilous
When their day's journey was ended, they had also to encamp on the snow,
beating down the selected spot previously, till it would bear a man on the
surface without sinking. The fire was kindled on logs of green timber, and
the beds were made of pine-branches. All alike laid on the snow.
One of the peculiar dangers to which they were exposed, were the mountain
torrents, which in that region were impassable often for the stoutest
swimmer; and this danger became magnified when they reached the upper
Columbia River, which they were obliged to navigate in boats. At one
particular spot in the course of their voyage they narrowly escaped a
The Columbia is, at the spot alluded to, contracted into a passage of one
hundred and fifty yards, by lofty rocks on either side, through which it
rushes with tremendous violence, forming whirlpools in its passage capable
of engulphing the largest forest trees, which are afterwards disgorged with
great force. This is one of the most dangerous places that boats have to
pass. In going up the river the boats are all emptied, and the freight has
to be carried about half a mile over the tops of the high and rugged rocks.
In coming down, all remain in the boats; and the guides, in this perilous
pass, display the greatest courage and presence of mind, at moments when
the slightest error in managing their frail bark would hurl its occupants
to certain destruction. On arriving at the head of the rapids, the guide
gets out on the rocks and surveys the whirlpools. If they are filtering
in—or "making," as they term it—the men rest on their paddles until they
commence throwing off, when the guides instantly reembark, and shove off
the boat and shoot through this dread portal with the speed of lightning.
Sometimes the boats are whirled round in the vortex with such awful
rapidity that renders all management of the vessel impossible, and the boat
and its hapless crew are swallowed up in the abyss. One of the party had
got out of the boat, preparing to walk, when looking back he saw one of the
other boats containing two of the ladies, in a dangerous situation, having
struck, in the midst of the rapids, upon the rocks, which had stove in her
The conduct of the men in this instance, evinced great presence of mind.
The instant the boat struck they had sprung on the gunwale next the rock,
and by their united weight kept her lying upon it. The water foamed and
raged round them with fearful violence. Had she slipped off, they must all
have been dashed to pieces amongst the rocks and rapids below; as it was,
they managed to maintain their position until the crew of the other boat,
which had run the rapids safely, had unloaded and dragged the empty boat up
the rapids again. They then succeeded in throwing a line to their hapless
companions. But there was still great danger to be encountered, lest in
hauling the empty boat towards them they might pull themselves off the
rock. They, at length, however, succeeded by cautious management in getting
the boat alongside, and in embarking in safety. A moment afterwards their
own boat slipped from the rock, and was dashed to pieces. Everything that
floated they picked up afterwards.
The same noble spirit which carried Mrs. Whitman, Mrs. Spaulding, Mrs.
Gray, Mrs. Littlejohn, Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Munger, Mrs. Griffin,
and their coadjutors across our continent on their lofty errand, also
inspired another band of gospel messengers to move in the same great
Dr. White of New York, and his wife, were prominent in this latter
movement. Their immediate company consisted of thirteen individuals, five
of whom were women, viz.: Mrs. White, Mrs. Beers, Miss Downing, Miss
Johnson, and Miss Pitman. These ladies were all admirably fitted both
physically and mentally for the enterprise in which they were embarked.
Mrs. White was a lady in whom were blended quiet resolution, a high sense
of duty, and great sensibility. When her husband informed her one cold
night, in the winter of 1836, that there was a call for them from Oregon;
that the Board of Missions advertised for a clergyman, physician, etc.,
etc., and as he could act in the capacity of doctor, he thought it might
be well to respond thereto. She did not immediately answer; and looking up,
he was surprised to find her weeping. This seemed to him singular, as her
disposition was so unusually cheerful, and it was seldom there was a trace
of tears to be found upon her cheek, especially, as he thought, for so
trivial a cause. In some confusion and mortification, he begged her not to
allow his words to cause her uneasiness. Still she wept in silence, till,
after a pause of several moments, she struggled for composure seated
herself by his side, extended her hand for the paper, and twice looking
over the notice, remarked, that if he could so arrange his affairs as to
render it consistent for him to go to Oregon, she would place no obstacle
in his way, and with her mother's consent would willingly accompany him.
Dr. White offered his services to the Board of Missions, they were
accepted, and he was requested to be in readiness to sail in a few weeks,
from Boston via the Sandwich Islands, to Oregon. Mrs. White still retained
her determination to accompany her husband, though till she saw the
appointment and its publication, she scarcely realized the possibility of a
necessity for her doing so. The thought that they were now to leave,
probably for ever, their dear home, and dearer friends, was a sad one, and
she shed tears of regret though not of reluctance to go. She pictured to
herself her mother's anguish, at what must be very like consigning her only
daughter to the grave.
The anticipated separation from that mother, who had nursed her so tenderly
and loved her with that tireless, changeless affection which the maternal
heart only knows, filled her with sorrow. However, by a fortunate
coincidence they were spared the painful scene they had feared, and
obtained her consent with little difficulty. When they visited her, for
that purpose, she had just been reading for the first time the life of Mrs.
Judson; and the example of this excellent lady had so interested her that
when the project was laid before her she listened with comparative
calmness, and, though somewhat astonished, was willing they should go where
duty led them. This in some measure relieved Mrs. White, and with a
lightened heart and more composure she set about the necessary
In a short time all was in readiness, the last farewell wept, rather than
spoken, the last yearning look lingered on cherished objects, and they were
on their way to Oregon.
On the day that their eldest son was one year old, they embarked from
That their adieus were sorrowful may not be doubted, indeed this or any
other word in our language is inadequate to describe the emotions of the
party. As the pilot-boat dropped at the stern of the vessel, its occupants
waved their handkerchiefs and simultaneously began singing a farewell
"Missionary Hymn." The effect was electric; some rushed to the side in
agony as though they would recall the departed ones and return with them to
their native land. Others covered their faces, and tears streamed through
their trembling fingers, and sobs shook the frames of even strong men. They
thought not of formalities in that hour; it was not a shame for the sterner
sex to weep. The forms of their friends fast lessened in the distance, and
at last their boat looked like a speck on the wave, and the sweet cadences
of that beautiful song faintly rolling along to their hearing, like the
sigh of an angel, were the last sounds that reached them, from the home of
With hushed respiration, bowed heads, and straining ears, they listened to
its low breathings now wafted gently and soothingly to them on the breeze,
then dying away, and finally lost in the whisperings of wind and waves.
For weeks did it haunt their slumbers while tossing upon the treacherous
deep. And it came not alone; for with it were fair visions of parents,
home, brothers, and sisters, joyous childhood and youth, and everything
they had known at home floated in vivid pictures before them touching them
as by the fairy pencil of the dream-angel.
The voyage was a protracted one. But the close relationship into which they
were brought served to knit together the bonds of Christian fellowship, and
inspire them with a oneness of purpose in carrying out their noble
enterprise. Immediately on arriving at their field of labor they entered on
their first work, viz.: that of establishing communities. In that
almost unbroken wilderness, cabins were erected, the ground prepared for
tillage, and steps were taken towards the building of a saw and grist-mill.
The Indians were conciliated, and a mission-school for their instruction
was established. The party received constant accessions to their numbers as
the months rolled away, and opened communication with the other
mission-colonies in the territory.
During the summer the ladies divided their labors; the school of Indians
was taught by Miss Johnson; Miss Downing (now Mrs. Shepherd) attended to
the cutting, making, and repairing of the clothing for the young Indians,
as well as these for the children of the missionaries; Mrs. White and Miss
Pitman (now Mrs. Jason Lee) superintended the domestic matters of the
In September, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie, three daughters, and Mr. Perkins the
fiancé of Miss Johnson, joined them. The family was now enlarged to
sixty members. Dr. and Mrs. White removed into their new cabin—a mile
distant. Here ensued a repetition of trials, privations, and hardships,
such as they had already endured in their former habitation.
Their cabin was a rude affair, scarcely more than a shanty, without a
chimney, and with only roof enough to cover a bed; a few loose boards
served for a floor; one side of the house was entirely unenclosed, and all
their cooking had to be done in the open air, in the few utensils which
they had at hand.
One by one these deficiencies, with much toil and difficulty, were
supplied; a tolerably close roof and walls shielded them measurably from
the autumn tempests; a new chimney carried up about half the smoke
generated from the green fuel with which the fireplace was filled; the
hearth, made of clay and wood-ashes, was, however, a standing eyesore to
Mrs. White, who appears to have been a notable housewife, as it did not
admit of washing, and had to be renewed every two or three months.
These were discomforts indeed, but nothing compared with another annoyance
to which they were nightly subject—that part of the territory where they
lived being infested by black wolves of the fiercest species. Their
situation was so lonely, and Doctor White's absences were so frequent, that
Mrs. White was greatly terrified every night by the frightful howlings of
these ferocious marauders.
One night Doctor White left home to visit Mr. Shepherd, who was ill, and
some of the sick mission children. Mrs. White, while awaiting his return,
suddenly heard a burst of prolonged howling from the depths of the forest
through which the Doctor would have to pass on his return homeward. The
howls were continued with all the eagerness which showed that the brutes
were close upon their prey. She flew to the yard, and in the greatest
terror, besought the two hired men to fly to her husband's rescue.
They laughed at her fears, and endeavored to reason her into composure. But
the horrid din continued. Through the wild chorus she fancied she heard a
human voice faintly calling for help. Unable longer to restrain her excited
feelings, she snatched up a long pair of cooper's compasses—the first
weapon that offered itself—and sallied out into the woods, accompanied by
the men, armed with rifles.
They ran swiftly, the diapason of the howls guiding them in the proper
course, and in a few moments they came to a large tree, round which a pack
of hungry monsters had collected, and were baying in full chorus, jumping
up and snapping their jaws at a man who was seated among the branches.
The cowardly brutes, catching sight of the party, sneaked off with howls of
baffled rage, and were soon beyond hearing. The doctor descended from his
retreat, quite panic-stricken at his narrow escape. He informed them that
on first starting from the mission, he had picked up a club, to defend
himself from the wolves, should they make their appearance; but when one of
the animals came within six feet of him, and by its call, gathered others
to the pursuit, his valiant resolutions vanished—he dropped his stick and
plied his heels, with admirable dexterity, till the tree offered its
friendly aid, when he hallooed for help with all the power of his lungs;
but for Mrs. White's appreciation of the danger, and her speedy appearance
upon the scene, Dr. White's term of usefulness in the Oregon mission would
have been greatly abridged.
The necessities of their missionary life compelled different members of
their little band to make frequent journeys both by land and water. It was
on one of these journeys, and while passing down the Columbia River in a
canoe, that Mrs. White met with an accident that plunged the whole mission
Mrs. White, with her babe, and Mr. Leslie, had embarked in a canoe on the
river where the current was extremely rapid, and as they reached the middle
of the stream, the canoe began to quiver and sway from side to side. The
sense of her danger came upon Mrs. W., as with a presentiment of coming
disaster. She trembled like a leaf as she remarked, "How very helpless is a
female with an infant." At the instant that her voice ceased to echo from
the rocky shores, and as if a spirit of evil stood ready to prove the truth
of her exclamation, the canoe, which was heavily laden, gave a slight
swing, and striking a rock began to fill with water, and, in a few seconds,
went down. As the water came up round them, the child started convulsively
in its mother's arms and gave a piercing shriek, Mr. Leslie at the same
time exclaiming, "Oh, God! we're lost!"
When the canoe rose, it was free from its burthen, and bottom upwards; and
Mrs. White found herself directly beneath it, painfully endeavoring to
extricate herself, enduring dreadful agony in her struggle for breath.
Despairingly she felt herself again sinking, and, coming in contact with
the limbs of a person in the water, the reflection flitted across her
brain, "I have done with my labors for these poor Indians. Well, all will
be over in a moment; but how will my poor mother feel when she learns my
awful fate?" Mr. Leslie afterwards stated that he had no recollection till
he rose, and strove to keep above water, but again sank, utterly hopeless
He rose again just as the canoe passed around a large rock, and its prow
was thrown within his reach. He clutched it with eager joy, and supported
himself a moment, gasping for breath, when he suddenly thought of his
fellow-passenger, and the exclamation ran through his mind,—"What will the
doctor do?" He instantly lowered himself in the water as far as possible,
and, still clinging with one hand, groped about as well as he was able,
when, providentially, he grasped her dress, and succeeded in raising her to
the surface. By this time the Indians—expert swimmers—had reached the
canoe; and, with their assistance, he supported his insensible burden, and
placed her head upon the bottom with her face just out of water. After a
few moments, she gasped feebly, and, opening her eyes, her first words
were, "Oh, Mr. Leslie, I've lost my child!"
"Pray, do dismiss the thought," said he, "and let us try to save
They were wafted a long way down the river, no prospect offering for their
relief. At length they espied, far ahead, the two canoes which had entered
the river before them, occupied, as it proved, by an Indian chief and his
attendants. Mr. Leslie hallooed to them with all his remaining strength,
and they hastened towards them, first stopping to pick up the trunks and a
few other things which had floated down stream.
When, at last, they reached the sufferers, finding them so much exhausted,
the chief cautioned them to retain their hold, without in the least
changing their position, while he towed them gently and carefully to the
shore. Here they rested, draining the water from their clothes, and Mr.
Leslie from his head and stomach,—for he had swallowed a vast quantity. In
half an hour the Indians righted the canoe, which had been drawn on shore,
and, to their amazement, and almost terror, they found beneath it the dead
babe, wrapped in its cloak, having been kept in its place by the
Mr. Leslie was now uncertain what course to pursue, and asked his
companion's advice. She told them she was desirous of proceeding
immediately to Fort Vancouver, as they had nothing to eat, no fire, and, in
short, had lost so many of their effects, that they had nothing wherewith
to make themselves comfortable, if they remained there till even the next
Their canoe was a large one, being about twenty feet in length and four in
breadth, and was laden with a bed, bedding, mats, two large trunks of
clothing, kettles, and dishes, and provisions to last the crew throughout
the journey, and also articles of traffic with the natives, and they lost
all but their trunks, the contents of which were now thoroughly soaked.
They seated themselves in the canoe, and the chief threw his only blanket
over Mrs. W———'s shoulders, both himself and men exerting themselves to
render their charges comfortable during the thirty-six miles they were
obliged to travel before reaching the fort, which was late in the evening.
They were met by Mr. Douglas, who was greatly shocked at the narrative, and
whose first words were, "My God! what a miracle! Why, it is only a short
time since, in the same place, we lost a canoe, with seven men, all good
The following morning, the bereaved mother was quite composed. They started
at eight o'clock, and with the little coffin, provided by Mr. Douglas, at
their feet, traveled rapidly all day, and camped at night just above the
falls of the Willamette. They took supper, the men pitched their borrowed
tents, and, after a day of great fatigue, they lay quietly down to rest.
In a short time, however, they were disturbed by a loud paddling, and
voices; and looking out, beheld about thirty Indians, men, women, and
children, in canoes, who landed and camped very near them.
Their arrival filled Mrs. White with new apprehension. She feared now that
she might be robbed of her dead treasure, and perhaps lose her own life,
before she could consign it to its last resting-place. All through that
restless, dreary night, she kept her vigils, with bursting heart, beside
the corpse of her babe. The noises of the Indian camp, the guttural voices
of the men, the chattering of the squaws, rang in her ears, while the cries
and prattling of the children, by reminding her of the lost one, served to
enhance the poignancy of her grief. What a situation for the desolate
mother! All alone with death, far from her mother, husband, home, and
friends, surrounded by a troop of barbarous, noisy savages weighed down
with grief, tearless from its very weight, not knowing what next would
befall her. What agony did she endure through that night's dreary vigils!
She felt as though she were draining the cup of sorrow to its dregs,
without the strength to pray that it might pass from her.
They set off as soon as it was light, that they might, if possible, reach
the Mission before putrescency had discolored the body of the infant. They
arrived at McKoy's about one o'clock, where, while they were dining, horses
were prepared, and they went on without delay. It is impossible to describe
the emotions of the doctor when he met them about twelve miles from the
Mission, as, excepting a floating rumor among the natives, which he hardly
credited, he had had no intimation of the accident. The sad presentiment
was realized. Death had entered their circle and robbed them of their fair
child! As he looked into the face of his wife, he comprehended in part her
Amid these and similar sad experiences, this heroic band of Christian women
abated not their zeal or efforts in the work to which they had put their
In other parts of the territory, separate missionary establishments were
superintended by the Whitmans, the Spauldings, and others. The blessings of
civilization and religion were thus extended by these devoted men and women
to the benighted red man.
For a period of eight years Dr. and Mrs. Whitman resided on the banks of
the Walla-Walla River, doing all in their power to benefit the Indians.
Such labors as theirs deserved a peaceful old age, and the enduring
gratitude of their tawny protégés. Alas! that we have to record that such
was not their lot! Melancholy indeed was the fate of that devoted band upon
The measels had broken out among the Indians and spread with frightful
rapidity through the neighboring tribes. Dr. Whitman did all he could to
stay its progress, but great numbers of them died.
The Indians supposed that the doctor could have stayed the course of the
malady if he had wished it, and accordingly concocted a plan to destroy him
and his whole family. With this object in view about sixty of them armed
themselves and came to his house.
The inmates, having no suspicion of any hostile intentions, were totally
unprepared for resistance or flight. Dr. and Mrs. Whitman and their
nephew—a youth of about seventeen or eighteen years of age—were sitting
in the parlor in the afternoon, when Sil-aw-kite, the chief, and To-ma-kus,
entered the room and addressing the doctor told him very coolly they had
come to kill him. The doctor, not believing it possible that they could
entertain any hostile intentions towards him, told him as much; but whilst
in the act of speaking, To-ma-kus drew a tomahawk from under his robe and
buried it deep in his brain. The unfortunate man fell dead in his chair.
Mrs. Whitman and the nephew fled up stairs and locked themselves into an
In the meantime Sil-aw-kite gave the war-whoop, as a signal to his party
outside, to proceed in the work of destruction, which they did with the
ferocity and yells of so many fiends. Mrs. Whitman, hearing the shrieks and
groans of the dying, looked out of the window and was shot through the
breast by a son of the chief, but not mortally wounded. A party then rushed
up stairs and dispatched the niece on the spot, dragged her down by the
hair of her head and taking her to the front of the house, mutilated her in
a shocking manner with their knives and tomahawks.
There was one man who had a wife bedridden. On the commencement of the
affray he ran to her room, and, taking her up in his arms, carried her
unperceived by the Indians to the thick bushes that skirted the river, and
hurried on with his burden in the direction of Fort Walla-Walla. Having
reached a distance of fifteen miles, he became so exhausted that, unable to
carry her further, he concealed her in a thick clump of bushes on the
margin of the river, and hastened to the Fort for assistance.
On his arrival, Mr. McBain immediately sent out men with him, and brought
her in. She had fortunately suffered nothing more than fright. The number
killed, (including Dr. and Mrs. Whitman,) amounted to fourteen. The other
females and children were carried off by the Indians, and two of them were
forthwith taken as wives by Sil-aw-kite's son and another. A man employed
in the little mill, forming a part of the establishment, was spared to work
the mill for the Indians. The day following the awful tragedy, a Catholic
priest, who had not heard of the massacre, stopped on seeing the mangled
corpses strewn round the house, and requested permission to bury them,
which was readily granted.
On the priest leaving the place, he met, at a distance of five or six
miles, a brother missionary of the deceased, Mr. Spaulding, the field of
whose labors lay about a hundred miles off, at a place on the river
Coldwater. He communicated to him the melancholy fate of his friends, and
advised him to fly as fast as possible, or, in all probability, he would be
another victim. He gave him a share of his provisions, and Mr. Spaulding
hurried homeward, full of apprehensions for the safety of his own family;
but, unfortunately, his horse escaped from him in the night, and after a
six days' toilsome march on foot, having lost his way, he at length reached
the banks of the river, but on the opposite side to his own home.
In the dead of the night, in a state of starvation, having eaten nothing
for three days, everything seeming to be quiet about his own place, he
cautiously embarked in a small canoe, and paddled across the river. But he
had no sooner landed than an Indian seized him, and dragged him to his own
house, where he found all his family prisoners, and the Indians in full
possession. These Indians were not of the same tribe with those who had
destroyed Dr. Whitman's family, nor had they at all participated in the
outrage; but having heard of it, and fearing the white man would include
them in their vengeance, they had seized on the family of Mr. Spaulding for
the purpose of holding them as hostages for their own safety. The family
were uninjured; and he was overjoyed to find things no worse.
Notwithstanding this awful tragedy the heroic women remained at their posts
in the different missionary stations in the territory, and long afterwards
pursued those useful labors which, by establishing pioneer-settlements in
the wilderness, and by civilizing and christianizing the wild tribes,
prepared the way for the army of emigrants which is now converting that
vast wilderness into a great and flourishing state.
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