The Whitman Mission at Walla Walla

In 1847 , Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with other dedicated settlers who had gone West with him, were massacred at the Congregationalist Whitman waystation on the Oregon Trail, at what was to become the start of the Measles War.


They were the first settlers to set out for the Pacific Northwest in 1836 and were the first pioneers to cross the Rockies. The trailblazers settled seven miles west of present-day Walla Walla, Washington at Waiilatpu.

Fred MacMurray stars in this flick.

Whitman himself was not a missionary, not having the money for Congregational divinity school, but had apprenticed as a doctor.  Still he felt call very strongly and told his intended, Narcissa Prentiss, a Presbyterian, that he felt he could marry the two West.  She was ecstatic at such an intimation, and was eager to join him in his journey.  They married in upstate New York in February 1836, shortly before setting.

Whitman had also recruited Reverend Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Eliza  whose purpose was to provide ministerial care to the settlers, help him in his studies,  and convert the natives. There were also few others who had more practical skills, all of whom helped round out the first set of seven wagons on the trail across the West.

He had researched the trip and decided to used the South Pass adventurer Jedediah Smith had mapped; this was to become the standard way West.  But it is important to remember as the map above shows, Oregon was still disputed territory and the British Crown and the Hudson Bay Company was slow to relinquish such profitable lands. 

Thus the treaty of 1846 between the United States and Great Britain read:  “From the point on the 49th parallel to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island and thence southerly through the middle of said channel and of the Fuca Straits, to the Pacific Ocean, provided, however, that the navigation of such channel and straits south of the latitude 49 degrees remain free and open to both parties.”


A picture of Jedediah Smith’s South Pass through the Rockies.  While fairly nondescript open prairie, in remote Fremont County, Wyoming, it is historically quite a significant,  for this is South Pass, a natural crossing point of the Rocky Mountains.  This quickly became the route of choice for emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails West during the 19th century. Shot by Carol M. Highsmith for the Library of Congress.

                                         Westward HO

Whitman’s original destination was Idaho, but for whatever reason, the troop ploughed onto Washington and put in stakes there finally settling at Walla Walla.  They founded a settlement, called it Whitman’s mission, and began work.  Development though was also slow because of lack of material, and they had to work with the material at hand, namely adobe, a non-fire cured brick. 


While adobe is no complicated work, for this is what the Hebrew slaves made in Exodus 5:18 and perhaps was the inspiration for their application, but whether it was appropriate for the rainy northwest was another question; in reality it was all they had. 


wedding portrait of Mrs. Narcissa Whitman
wedding portrait of  Dr. Marcus Whitman
Once settled, they scouted for better materials like stone and wood, and from their mission house they expanded to several residences, a shelter for new emigrants to the territory, a gristmill for grinding cereal grain into flour, and the all important blacksmith shop.


With time, their Whitman Mission, became an important stop on the Oregon Trail, though it was never mentioned in Francis J. Parkman jr.s famous twenty-one stories in New York’s Knickerbocker Magazine by that same title.

The Measles War

After settling down, and getting permission from the officials of the Hudson Bay Company in Vancouver, the Whitman’s began working with the native tribe the Cayuse teaching them the rudiments of education, reading writing and arithmetic and also farming, tilling the land.  Narcissa Whitman also taught them to sing hymns, which they did like, Eliza Spalding learnt the local tribal language and translated key Bible verses into it for them while her husband provided the sermons,  which bored them, and became increasingly a source of tension as Roman Catholic priests moved into the area and introduced them to the rituals of the Catholic mass.

But the real problem was more and more Cayuse braves felt that agriculture was beneath them and resented the dull ploughing and tillage; they wanted to return to the excitement of spear fishing and hunting.  They were also shrewd traders and did well with their wares with the Hudson Bay Company. 

This friction irked many as while they did see that agriculture brought more food, it was not anything they liked:  they preferred the taste of wild meat, salmon and the occasional eel and trout not bread and corn and they could not sell it.  To many in the tribe, this seemed like a bad trade.

Thus relationships continue to sour and the Whitman settlers turned their attention more more to building up the waystation than educating the Cayuse, but Dr. Whitman worried about the first battle was between the schoolhouse and civilization, and the tepee and savagery. He resolved to do everything possible for the Indian before it began.

In a letter to his father-in-law, dated May 16, 1844, from Wailatpui, he says: 

 “It does not concern me so much what is to become of any particular set of Indians, as much as to give them the offer of salvation through the Gospel, and the opportunity of civilization, and then I am content to do good to all men as I have opportunity.

“I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country and help to found its religious institutions. Providence has its full share in all those events.

“Although the Indians have made, and are making rapid advance in religious knowledge and civilization, yet it cannot be hoped that time will be allowed to mature the work of Christianization or civilization before white settlers will demand the soil and the removal both of the Indians and the Mission in an increasing secularization of the land.”

Despite that letter, by late 1847, the Whitmans had decided to abandon the mission and go south as they sensed they could be caught into the first battle between them and the Cayuse.

Cayuse Warriors c. 1910

But then a measles epidemic spread through the communities. It had the misfortune of killing more Cayuse children than any other group and when Marcus Whitman, a practicing physician, could not check the epidemic, and their traditional herbals could do neither, the Cayuse believed he was a witch casting a spell upon them and causing their demise.

Whitman Massacre
An old litho of the Whitman Massacre

Seeking revenge, Cayuse tribesmen attacked the Whitman Mission on November 29,  1847, killing fourteen settlers, including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and destroying most of the buildings. The Cayuse held 53 women and children captive for ransom before eventually being released. Congress later repatriated the money.


The Chart for Reprisal

This chart is filled with asteroids as they give some colour and understanding to the complete horror.

Starting at the first house cusp and going around the wheel counterclockwise, we have Mercury and the Sun quite close to one another, perhaps suggesting a blindness to what was happening as fears (Neptune in the fourth) for their homeland, threatened them.

Then in the second house, Bienor at 20 Sagittarius 18 is conjunct Hidalgo, suggesting that the warrior in the Cayuse tribe convinced everyone that this must stop i.e. the killing of their children. Represented as Niobe at 13 Aquarius 24 and only twenty degrees away in a vigintile, the aspect is akin to having their seed corn being destroyed.

Farmers, Doctors & Grave Diggers

Thus, the part of fortune in the third house is the message. Lying at 11 Aquarius 03, it is Charubel’s “sexton driving a grave” and is a potent symbol for what was the Cayuse sole reason to the Massacre — they must stop him and so stop their children from dying too.

In the fourth house, asteroid Panacea lies near Neptune and their hope, their belief this would help their tribe and families. But Saturn follows shortly afterward, opposite the Moon in the tenth house in Virgo suggesting this dream was just a fantasy. That they did not fully understand the causes and cures of disease was a part of the massacre — asteroid Askalaphus at 20 Virgo 4 — but there is also fear of the doctor (Askalaphus) cum farmer (Ceres).

Going on, the sixth house of health and service, depicts the killing of the pioneers despite their former help — asteroid Minerva at 06 Scorpio 34 — towards them and their children; asteroid Child at 02 Scorpio 34 gets nowhere: there is no T-Square.

But there is something lurking on the chart that really cannot be ignored:  Jupiter in the ninth and probably pointing to the instigation of the British Crown in the affair.  How much Hudson Bay Company, who had good relationships with the Cayuse and other tribes in the area, affected this rampage, can only be guessed by they being opposite the warring braves and a T-Square to the South Node in the fifth house of children and offspring.  Were they the carriers of measles and not the new settlers?  

In the end, Reverend Cushing Eells created the first college in the territory in the Whitman’s honour, but the Cayuse refused all treaties and continued their war with the settlers for another 40 years.

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