Where Wagons Could Go: Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spauldingby Clifford Merrill Drury
Pub. Date: 02/01/1997
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, went to Oregon as missionaries in 1836, accompanied by the Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife, Eliza. It was, as Narcissa wrote, “an unheard of journey for females.” Narcissa Whitman kept a diary during the long trip from New York and continued to write about her rigorous and amazing life at the Protestant mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Her words convey her complex humanity and devotion to the Christian conversion and welfare of the Indians. Clifford Drury sketches in the circumstances that, for the Whitmans, resulted in tragedy. Eliza Spalding, equally devout and also artistic, relates her experiences in a pioneering venture. Drury also includes the diary of Mary Augusta Dix Gray and a biographical sketch of Sarah Gilbert White Smith, later arrivals at the Whitman mission.
- University of Nebraska Press
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" Narcissa Whitman, who with her companion Eliza Spalding, were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains, as well as the first women many of the mountain men had seen in many years; the first the western Native American tribes had ever seen. As a still unmarried woman, Narcissa Prentiss had petitioned the American Board of Foreign Missions to go among the Nez Percés to teach the gospel, where she became one of the best-known figures of the historic push to the Pacific Northwest. This is due not only to the distinction of her gender and race, but also in part to the many detailed letters and diaries she has left us that impart the exhilaration of the westward migration. There is also the famously grim end she and her husband met among the Cayuse Indians. There is much conjecture that Narcissa's marriage was a rushed and unromantic to realize her desire of becoming a missionary to the heathen-at that time no unmarried women were recommended as missionaries on the frontier. The reply to her application to the American Board, dated December 17, 1834, from one Secretary Greene, stated: "I don't think we have missions among the Indians where unmarried females are valuable just now." Resolute in her choice, she learned that Marcus Whitman, who had already secured approval from the board, was interested in marrying her and taking her to Oregon with him. When he proposed, she took little time to accept the offer and on February 23, 1835, she applied a second time to the American Board, this time providing the information that she and Marcus Whitman were engaged. This time the Prudential Committee of the Board approved her appointment on March 18, 1835. At the same time Henry and Eliza Spalding were securing permission to live as missionaries among the Osage Indians. Throughout most of the journey, Narcissa and Eliza rode side-saddle. No favors could be expected, even for missionary women: they ventured forth at their own risk. At St. Paul they "thanked God and took courage." And courage is what they could ill afford to be without, for on that same day they came in contact with a Pawnee village where Narcissa and Eliza experienced for the first time the sensation of being objects of great curiosity by the Pawnee women. They were no doubt the first white women that most if not all the Pawnee had ever seen. Narcissa wrote: "We especially were visited by them both at noon and night. We ladies were such a curiosity to them, they would come and stand around our tent-peep in and grin in astonishment to see such looking objects. Eliza Spalding, meanwhile, kept both keenly observant of what belonged to God and possessed an untimely concern for the peoples and ecology effected by white emigration. When after having traveled several days on the plains of the Platte, on June 4th she entered in her diary: "We have met with but few Indians. It appears that the natives who once roamed over these vast and delightful plains are fast fading away as is the Buffalo and other game which once in vast herds ranged throughout this country." Her religious convictions aside, the fact that a white American so young and making her first sojourn across the prairie could have held such an informed opinion a decade before the great Western migrations began indicates that either she was uncommonly sympathetic or we today underestimate to what extent the emigrants understood they were altering the continent.