And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)
Truly Narcissa Prentiss Whitman was a woman who sacrificed much for Christ. Since girlhood Narcissa dreamed of going on the mission field and spreading the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to those who were lost in darkness. She was willing to sacrifice the comforts of a middle class life in New York in order to show others the way to peace and happiness. She would ultimately pay with her own life.
Narcissa Prentiss (1808 – 1847) was born in Prattsburg, Steuben County, New York. She was the third child of nine born to Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss. She was the eldest daughter and helped her mother raise her younger siblings.
At a revival in 1819, Narcissa, at the age of 11, had a conversion experience and was received as a member of the Prattsburg Congregational Church. After her conversion, Narcissa dreamed of becoming a missionary. At age fifteen she pledged herself to missionary work.
How she was to become a missionary was not clear to her. She decided to do voluntary work at her church in the meantime in order to get prepared. She trusted God to find a way to send her on the missionary field when she was ready.
In the 1820’s there were many women’s benevolent societies. These voluntary associations were seen as a way for women to be involved in evangelism and charitable works. The one that Narcissa became involved with was the Female Mite Society. She visited families that were less fortunate than she was and helped to provide them with their spiritual and material needs.
Besides doing benevolent work, Narcissa was getting prepared to teach on the mission field by attending Prattsburg’s Franklin Academy. After this she attended a female seminary or ‘normal’ school in Troy, New York.
Narcissa received a proposal from an ardent missionary-bound student at Franklin Academy – Henry Spalding. In the early nineteenth century, missionary boards preferred to send out married couples and Henry sensed Narcissa’s desire to be a missionary was as strong as his. He asked Narcissa to marry him and accompany him on the field, but she turned him down. Henry Spalding later married Eliza Hart and the two of them eventually accompanied Narcissa and her husband Marcus Whitman to the Oregon Country.
In the 1830’s Narcissa’s family moved to Amity, New York. Here she heard the famed Reverend Samuel Parker speak of the need for missionaries. She was very willing to go and asked Rev. Parker if the mission would take single women. In 1834, he helped her to apply to the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM). At that time, ABCFM was reluctant to send out single women, especially to the Western frontier. It was too dangerous. It was felt that the pagan culture would not be protective of unaccompanied females.
On the other hand though, the Board saw a real need for married women on the field. Wives would be a good example to the natives of Christian family life. They could also teach the natives to read and write. They would provide much help and stability to their husbands’ ministries. So, men and women sought marriage before going into missionary work.
About two months later, Marcus Whitman came into Narcissa’s life. He was a doctor who felt called to serve as a medical missionary and he proposed to Narcissa. Marcus encouraged Narcissa to apply formally as a missionary for herself. She did and received her appointment in March 1835. Eleven months later the couple was married.
Then began their journey west. Narcissa would never see her family again. Along the way to the Oregon Country Narcissa got pregnant. Her only natural child, Alice Clarissa Whitman was born March 14, 1837. Marcus and Narcissa settled in Waiilaptu in the Oregon Country. Her life there was very lonely, but busy.
Sadly, only a little over two years later Alice’s life would be tragically cut short. She drowned accidently in the Walla Walla River on June 23, 1839. Narcissa was devasted and became depressed.
While mourning for her daughter, Narcissa spent many hours in her room writing letters to family back home. She encouraged several of her siblings to come West. She missed her family dearly, but never wavered from her resolve to work among the Indians.
Narcissa would write many letters to her family over the eleven years of her service. From these prolific writings we know a lot about the missionary work in the Oregon Country. Narcissa not only revealed the dry details of daily life, but she poured out her heart to her family telling of her dreams and her feelings.
Narcissa came out of her depression when God blessed her with a large adopted family. The Sager family was traveling to the West and the parents died along the way leaving seven children orphaned. Narcissa and Marcus gladly took them in. The Whitman’s had also adopted several half-Indian orphans and now had a full and cheery home.
The Sager children enjoyed the blessing of these parents for about three years and then were tragically orphaned again. Marcus and Narcissa were attacked in their home and killed by the Cayuse Indians. What was the cause? Several Indians had traveled to California where they contracted measles. When they came back to Oregon Country the measles spread among a population that was not immune. Unfortunately while at least thirty Indians succumbed to the measles, only one white boy died. The Indians blamed Doctor Marcus saying he spread evil medicine.
On November 29, 1847, two Cayuse attacked Marcus with tomahawks in his kitchen. He stumbled to their sitting room where Narcissa tried to stop the bleeding but there was nothing she could do. She heard more commotion outside and went to the door. She was shot and later died of her wounds. Her last thoughts were of the children and her mother back home. While the Whitman’s lay dying the Indians destroyed their home, killed several other settlers, and herded more than forty residents of the mission into a house where they were held captive for nearly a month. Many were sick; several children would die of the measles. The dead were unburied; some women were raped.
Not all of the Cayuse were in favor of the massacre. The murderers were brought to justice. They received a fair trial and the leaders were put to death.
The Sager children would remember Narcissa as a loving but firm mother. They remembered her love of nature, her sense of humor, and her beautiful singing voice.
Narcissa is also remembered as one of the first of two white women to cross the continent overland. She had the first child born to American parents in the Oregon Country. Her journey proved that it was possible for women to go West. The great wagon trains would start in the next decade. Several generations of women would be inspired by her courage as they read her published letters.
We don’t know if Narcissa ever dreamed that she would be a martyr as she dreamed about missionary work as a child. She often said that she knew it would be a sacrifice. She lost her house and left brothers and sisters and father and mother, and lost her only child for Jesus’ name’s sake. And God did bless her with many times as much when He gave her the Sager orphans and a number of Indian orphans. Eventually she paid the ultimate price when she lost her own life.
Narcissa’s memory is preserved at Walla Walla, near the place of her last home. She is also remembered at her childhood home in Prattsburg, New York.
Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones. Psalm 116:15