Cultural Differences Proved Fatal to Whitmans

Dan Graves, MSL
Cultural Differences Proved Fatal to Whitmans

In 1847, the Cayuse Indians of Oregon were unhappy. Great numbers of white people were coming over the mountains from the east. Not only did the invaders grab land, they brought diseases new to the Indians, including the measles that were killing many of them.

Marcus Whitman, a doctor who had settled among them to teach them about Christ, seemed to be at the root of many of the problems. Had he not guided a large party of the white invaders to the land himself? Did not the white people visit his home continually and receive any help they needed from his hands and the hands of his wife, Narcissa?

As for Narcissa, although she had crossed the entire continent to bring the gospel to Oregon's Indians (becoming one of the first white women to cross the Rockies), she disliked the Cayuse. She did not want them in her house and both of the Whitmans considered the tribal ritual of gift giving to be extortion. The Cayuse practice of killing unwanted babies tore at Narcissa's heart--already broken with the accidental drowning of her only child.

The sad truth is that Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, while teaching about Christ and giving medical help to the Indians out of love and concern for them, never studied the Indian culture with an eye to presenting the truth in terms the Cayuse could understand. Their ideas of Christianity were culture-bound. The Cayuse must adopt the ways of civilized New England to be Christian. Christianity could not be adapted to them.

Perhaps the final straw came when Marcus Whitman attempted to inoculate the Indians against measles. Many who received the inoculations not only took the disease but died of it, whereas most of the white children he treated lived. This suggested treachery. By tribal law, he must pay with his life.

On this day, November 29, 1847, eleven Cayuse braves attacked the Whitman station at Walla Walla. They butchered Marcus, Narcissa and twelve others. This led to a war with the whites in which the Cayuse came out badly.

Two years after the massacre, five of its leaders voluntarily gave themselves up, in order to end further retribution against their tribe. Their leader, Tiloukaikt, said on the gallows, "Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people."


  1. Dennis, James S. Christian Missions and Social Progress. NewYork: Fleming H. Revell, 1909. Source of the portrait.
  2. Nixon, Oliver W. How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon: a true romance of patriotic heroism, Christian devotion and final martyrdom, with sketches of life on the plains and mountains in pioneer days. Chicago: Star Publishing Co., 1895.
  3. No Turning Back. (Video account of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.)
  4. "Whitman, Marcus." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958 - 1964.

Last updated April, 2007.

Originally published April 28, 2010.