Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman
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.