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Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman

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Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, were pioneer missionaries to the Cayuse Indians in Oregon Territory.  Narcissa grew up in western New York State, her values and attitudes carefully shaped by her mother. Very much a child of the Second Great Awakening, she eagerly embraced the burgeoning evangelical missionary movement. Following her marriage to Marcus Whitman, sh Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, were pioneer missionaries to the Cayuse Indians in Oregon Territory.  Narcissa grew up in western New York State, her values and attitudes carefully shaped by her mother. Very much a child of the Second Great Awakening, she eagerly embraced the burgeoning evangelical missionary movement. Following her marriage to Marcus Whitman, she spent most of 1836 traveling overland with him to Oregon. Narcissa enthusiastically began service as a missionary there, hoping to see many “benighted” Indians adopt her message of salvation through Christ. But not one Indian ever did. Cultural barriers that Narcissa never grasped effectively kept her at arm’s length from the Cayuse. Gradually abandoning her efforts with the Indians, Narcissa developed a more satisfying ministry. She taught and counseled whites on the mission compound, much as she had done in her own church circles in New York. Meanwhile, the growing number of eastern emigrants streaming into the territory posed an increasing threat to the Indians. The Cayuse ultimately took murderous action against the Whitmans, the most visible whites, thus ending dramatically Narcissa’s eleven-year effort to be a faithful Christian missionary as well as a devoted wife and loving mother. In this moving biography, Julie Roy Jeffrey brings the controversial Narcissa Whitman to life, revealing not only white assumptions and imperatives but the perspective of the Cayuse tribe as well. Jeffrey draws on a rich assortment of primary and secondary materials, blending narration and interpretation in her account. She clearly traces the motivations and relationships, the opportunities and constraints that structured Narcissa Whitman’s life as a nineteenth-century American evangelical woman.


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Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, were pioneer missionaries to the Cayuse Indians in Oregon Territory.  Narcissa grew up in western New York State, her values and attitudes carefully shaped by her mother. Very much a child of the Second Great Awakening, she eagerly embraced the burgeoning evangelical missionary movement. Following her marriage to Marcus Whitman, sh Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, were pioneer missionaries to the Cayuse Indians in Oregon Territory.  Narcissa grew up in western New York State, her values and attitudes carefully shaped by her mother. Very much a child of the Second Great Awakening, she eagerly embraced the burgeoning evangelical missionary movement. Following her marriage to Marcus Whitman, she spent most of 1836 traveling overland with him to Oregon. Narcissa enthusiastically began service as a missionary there, hoping to see many “benighted” Indians adopt her message of salvation through Christ. But not one Indian ever did. Cultural barriers that Narcissa never grasped effectively kept her at arm’s length from the Cayuse. Gradually abandoning her efforts with the Indians, Narcissa developed a more satisfying ministry. She taught and counseled whites on the mission compound, much as she had done in her own church circles in New York. Meanwhile, the growing number of eastern emigrants streaming into the territory posed an increasing threat to the Indians. The Cayuse ultimately took murderous action against the Whitmans, the most visible whites, thus ending dramatically Narcissa’s eleven-year effort to be a faithful Christian missionary as well as a devoted wife and loving mother. In this moving biography, Julie Roy Jeffrey brings the controversial Narcissa Whitman to life, revealing not only white assumptions and imperatives but the perspective of the Cayuse tribe as well. Jeffrey draws on a rich assortment of primary and secondary materials, blending narration and interpretation in her account. She clearly traces the motivations and relationships, the opportunities and constraints that structured Narcissa Whitman’s life as a nineteenth-century American evangelical woman.

30 review for Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Despite making up half the population, I think it’s fair to say that women don’t quite get their due when it comes to their place in history. Sure, there are famous women, and books about them. Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria and Catherine the Great jump to mind. But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Most history books are about men, by men. That’s mainly true in my favorite corner of history: the 19th century American West. Again, there are exceptions. But the interesting thing about Despite making up half the population, I think it’s fair to say that women don’t quite get their due when it comes to their place in history. Sure, there are famous women, and books about them. Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria and Catherine the Great jump to mind. But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Most history books are about men, by men. That’s mainly true in my favorite corner of history: the 19th century American West. Again, there are exceptions. But the interesting thing about women in this time period is how they shaped the myths that came from the West. Take, for instance, Frances Grummond Carrington and Margaret Carrington, both married to Colonel Henry Carrington (though not at the same time), who both wrote memoirs that molded the truth to protect their husband’s professional reputation. (One wonders at this; what inspires such devotion?) Take as well Elizabeth Bacon Custer, who spent the long years of her widowhood burnishing the reputation of her beloved husband George, famously killed with five companies of the 7th Cavalry in 1876. Unlike Frances, Margaret, or Libbie, Narcissa Whitman has escaped the shadows of history as a fully formed person, with agency of her own. She was a missionary who, with her husband Marcus, traveled west to present-day Oregon in 1836. I first came across the ghost of her presence while dragging my then-girlfriend (now-wife) across the Continental Divide. As is my wont, I generally stop at all roadside markers. One of these markers was dedicated to Narcissa, and claimed she was the first white woman across the Divide. Whether or not this is true, she certainly made the journey, and did it pregnant, which is a feat in and of itself. I recently became interested in her life after reading Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri, which devotes extended passages to Narcissa’s westward journey, and her murder at the hands of Cayuse Indians at her Waiilatpu Mission. DeVoto was enamored of Narcissa (he writes of her almost as though he were in love) and it got me interested in her life and times. Julie Roy Jeffrey’s Converting the West is the most up-to-date biography on Narcissa I could find. For two thirds of its 222 pages, it is quite good. Narcissa was born Prattsburg, New York. At a young age, she had a conversion experience and became a member of the Congregational Church. She grew inspired by the work of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), and tried to become a missionary. Jeffrey does a very good job in the sections on Narcissa’s early life in piecing together her story from the documentary scraps that still survive. In doing so, she deftly notes the allure of the evangelical movement for 19th century women: [M]any…women during the Second Great Awakening…found evangelicalism enormously appealing. The belief that because women were naturally moral and pious they were especially suited to doing the Lord’s work encouraged women to seize new opportunities to influence their families and communities. In a period of social fluidity, evangelical work was a means of asserting middle-class status. The ABCFM was not ignorant of the unique abilities women brought to missionary work, but were loath to send young, single women out into the wilderness primeval. (There were legitimate concerns, but mainly they were terrified by female sexuality unrestrained by the bonds of marriage). In order to achieve her dreams of a missionary life, Narcissa entered into marriage with the missionary and doctor Marcus Whitman. As marriages go, this is somewhere between an arranged marriage and a mail-order bride, with romantic love entirely out of the picture. Together with other missionaries, they set out for the Oregon Country. Narcissa conceived a child on this journey, a moment lost to history but that must have been un-private, uncomfortable, and a little awkward. The Whitmans founded the Waiilatpu Mission along the Walla Walla River. From there, they ministered to the Cayuse and Nez Percé. Thanks to Narcissa’s prodigious letter writing, we have a good idea of her time spent among the Indians (in an inversion of the usual course of things, Marcus sort of gets lost to history). In short, in Jeffrey’s estimation, she was a person for whom the idea of missionary work was much more appealing than the reality. She did not, when all is said and done, really like working with Indians. Despite her years of picturing herself as a missionary laboring among the heathen, despite her earnest desire to bring the Cayuse to Christ, Narcissa was making the terrible discovery, if not admitting it, that she was not really suited for missionary life. The mismatch between her talents and the reality of her work with the Indians was not surprising, given the casual methods of recruiting female missionaries. In fact, despite the heroic tales Narcissa had read about Protestant missionaries, very few were able to cross what one historian has called the “vast cultural gap” separating them from the heathen they had come to save. This does not diminish the fact that she stuck with the job for eleven years (and suffered the loss of her only child, Alice, to a tragic drowning accident). However, her personality – her impossibly judgmental attitude – made for a lot of friction at the mission (and not just with the Indians). The best part about Converting the West is Jeffrey’s carefully constructed interpretation of Narcissa. She left behind a lot of writing, but at the end of the day, she is a non-world-historical figure who died 168 years ago. There are a lot of holes in her life story. Jeffrey fills some of them with careful speculation that provides a coherent, believable characterization. I appreciated Jeffrey’s willingness to do this. Too many historians are afraid of making speculative leaps because they think that history is something set in stone tablets, and to stray from the stone tablets is a kind of heresy. I found Jeffrey’s extrapolations to be careful and sober, and helped bring Narcissa to life. Unfortunately, it is at Narcissa’s death that this book disappoints. On November 29, 1847, the Whitmans were both killed (along with other members of the mission) by Cayuse Indians. The exact cause is hard to pinpoint after nearly two centuries, but a deadly measles epidemic played a part, along with the frictional undercurrent that always accompanies a clash of cultures. Jeffrey hurries through this section almost as an afterthought. This is surprising, after she carefully captured life at the mission so well in prior chapters. It’s as though she came up against a deadline or word count and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible. The account given of the “Whitman Massacre” is uneven and at times nonsensical, but whereas Jeffrey had earlier stepped in to interpret the evidence, here she remains passive. The ending is disappointing as surely Narcissa herself would agree, but does not entirely detract from what is otherwise an excellent look at a woman who occupies her own unique niche in American history, and on American roadside markers.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Krista the Krazy Kataloguer

    This woman from Central New York took a big chance marrying someone she hardly knew to become a missionary out in Oregon territory. A tragic tale of misguided good intentions and misunderstandings.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jane Considine

    I've had this book for several years, and finally picked it up earlier this week. It is a great study in the clash of cultures: young, sheltered and naive Narcissa goes with with her new husband with the goal of converting the "benighted" Native Americans in Oregon. Not surprisingly, all did not go as she expected.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Autumn

    Fascinating biography of a woman from Western New York who was one of the first white women to cross the Rockies. Not a likable person, but the product of her upbringing and the times. Lots of insight into the American missionary movement and Native American life in Oregon.

  5. 4 out of 5

    sheree whiting

  6. 4 out of 5

    Henry Matthews

  7. 5 out of 5

    Carla

  8. 5 out of 5

    Shannon Olsen

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andy

  10. 4 out of 5

    Steve

  11. 4 out of 5

    SandyL

  12. 4 out of 5

    Brianna

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jasmine Smith

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

  15. 5 out of 5

    Abilene Hagee

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kari

  17. 5 out of 5

    Heather

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  19. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  20. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Jean

  21. 5 out of 5

    Geoffrey Kabaservice

  22. 5 out of 5

    Carrie Kitzmiller

  23. 4 out of 5

    Elaine Jensen

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alice

  25. 5 out of 5

    Janeen

  26. 5 out of 5

    Meg

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mecque

  28. 5 out of 5

    Amber Myrick

  29. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Wright

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris Barraclough

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