Students listen to background on the lives, work, and deaths of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and her husband Marcus Whitman, and learn how these key individuals influenced the decision to make Oregon a United States territory. They then write a paragraph about the difficulty of traveling to—and living in—the Pacific Northwest during the early days of settlement.
This lesson is part of "Great States: Oregon | Unit 5: The Oregon Trail and Settling Oregon". Oregon’s unique role as the ultimate destination of the heavily traveled Oregon Trail will be considered in this unit.
4.2: Explain how key individuals and events influenced the early growth and changes in Oregon.
- Video: Narcissa Prentiss House
- An interactive whiteboard, projector, or another type of screen to show videos to the class
- Notebooks or loose-leaf paper
- Provide the following background: Marcus (a physician) and Narcissa (née Prentiss) Whitman were missionaries sent from New England to what would become the Oregon Territory (which was later split into the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho). Traveling along what would become the Oregon Trail, the Whitmans arrived near Walla Walla in 1836 (becoming some of the earliest settlers in Oregon). Here, they built a mission to evangelize to members of the Cayuse. Initially, the Cayuse interacted favorably with the Whitmans, who provided medical care and trade. However, the Native Peoples were not interested in the missionaries’ attempts to convert them, and the mission nearly failed.
- The American Missionary Board decided to close the Whitmans’ mission, but Marcus traveled back East to convince the board to reverse their decision. To bring more settlers to Northwest and save the mission, Marcus Whitman led a 1000–person wagon train along the Oregon Trail in 1843. Soon, the mission was a success, and became a popular stop for many other emigrants coming to Oregon along the Oregon Trail. Marcus Whitman was hailed as a leader who brought Americans to Oregon. His commitment to settling Oregon attracted many of the earliest pioneers to the state. His story spurred the idea of manifest destiny—of Americans settling and ruling the continent from coast to coast.
- The Native Peoples in the area, who were already leery of the Whitmans’ evangelization, became increasingly alarmed at the number of pioneers coming to the mission and onto their lands. Tensions, already high due to language barriers and strains on resources, continued to rise. Then, the Cayuse became sick from the measles, a disease carried by pioneers. Marcus Whitman couldn’t cure the disease, and tragically, half of the tribe died. The Cayuse blamed the Whitmans for bringing the disease to their lands. In November of 1847, a group of Cayuse men killed the Whitmans and about a dozen other missionaries. The Whitman Massacre was the first in a string of violent events known as the Cayuse War. In 1850, five Cayuse members were brought to Oregon City for trial, where they were found guilty of the murder and hanged.
- Not only were the Whitmans some of the earliest settlers in Oregon (with Narcissa being one of the two first white women to cross the Rockies), but their belief in the potential of Oregon for American settlement brought the first large waves of emigrants to the region. Even their murders changed the history of the region and its relationship to the United States: their deaths possibly prompted tighter control of Oregon by the US government, and likely influenced the decision to make it an official US Territory just a year later in 1848.
- Tell students they will be watching a video about Narcissa Whitman’s home in New York, which houses artifacts about her family and the work she did out West. Instruct students to take notes while watching the video.
- Play the video, Narcissa Prentiss House. [1:14]
- Ask students: “What can you find at Narcissa’s childhood home, and what can these tell us about her life?” [Artifacts from her family and other settlers at the time, 0:58].
- Have students write a paragraph answering the question, “What does Narcissa Prentiss Whitman’s experience tell us about relationships between Native Peoples and early settlers from the eastern United States?”
It was difficult to be a settler in the early days. The Native Peoples were already established, and settlers and missionaries were taking away their land. There were times of mutual respect, and both groups benefited from these relationships, and also times of tension that could lead to violence.
For further background information, see:
- Whitman Mission National Historic Site [Source: National Park Service]
- Whitman Massacre [Source: The Oregon Encyclopedia]
(Note for teachers: the article is not grade-level appropriate, but provides more detail on the event.)