From the Desk of Marlys Rudeen
Pulled by religious fervor, men and women left homes and families to come West, intending to bring their faith to the “heathen”. They were often well-meaning but unprepared for life on the frontier and for interacting with people of another culture. They strove faithfully, endured hardships and grief among people whose responses to their teachings ran the gamut from acceptance to violence. Two of our Classics in Washington History describe the lives of Protestant women in western missions.
In Memoirs of the West: the Spaldings, Eliza Spalding, the daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Spalding, looks back at an idyllic childhood at Lapwai, the Spaldings mission. She helps her mother, travels with her father, and grows up among the Nez Perce Indians. She often stays with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at their mission for months at a time in order to attend school with other mission and immigrant children. And she is there on Nov. 29, 1847 when the Whitman mission is attacked by the Cayuse Indians. Her account is harrowing, as the 10-year-old child witnesses death and terror, and then serves as interpreter between the Indians and their captives. The book also includes excerpts from her mother’s diary and some of her father’s letters that speak of the unrelenting labor that he and his wife undertake.
You can also look through three fascinating collections of letters by Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, gathered and published in the late nineteenth century by the Oregon Pioneer Association. The first covers their journey across the country to the Oregon Territory in 1836. The others include Narcissa’s letters to her family back east and correspondence with other missionaries in the West. They can be found in Classics in Washington History as Journey across the plains in 1836.
The letters reveal a woman who is determined to live up to her religious ideals. She accepts the loss of home and her extended family. She accepts her husband’s frequent absences and the physical hardships of frontier living. Yet, she continually begs her family to write more often, and is without any letters from home for up to two years due to long distances. She is never quite at home with the Indians and has difficulty learning the language. There are hints in her narratives about the tensions among the missionaries and the discouragement when few others arrive to join the mission effort.
Narcissa bears a child at Waiilatpu, Alice Clarissa, that is the light of her life until she drowns at the age of “two years, three months, and nine days.” At the same time she takes on the care of children in need, having as many as eleven children in her home at once and writes, “I am sometimes about ready to sink under the weight of responsibility resting on me…” The letters, though relentlessly optimistic, create a portrait of an intensely social and conventional woman laboring in isolation and surrounded by a culture that remains foreign to her.
For an overview of the Whitmans and Spaldings you might try Waiilatpu : its rise and fall, 1836-1847 : a story of pioneer days in the Pacific Northwest based entirely upon historical research by Miles Cannon. Cannon interviews many of the survivors of the mission as well as dealing with its early years.