Narcissa Whitman


Narcissa Whitman came west as a missionary for the Protestant American Board of Missions the only way the board would allow - as a married woman. Following an arranged marriage to the expedition's leader, Marcus Whitman, Narcissa joined the first wagon train to travel across what was to become the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1836. Narcissa and Eliza Spaulding, the wife of groups's other leader, were the first European women to make the cross country trek. Whitman's journal was maintained almost daily and as the following excerpts eloquently reveal, this former teacher from upstate New York reflected a romantic bias towards her natural surroundings common to her time and place.

August 28, 1836 – This morning lingered with husband on the top of the hill that overlooks the Grande Ronde, at the foot of which is a beautiful cluster of pitch and spruce pine trees, but no white pine like that I have been accustomed to see at home. Grande Ronde is indeed a beautiful place. It is a circular plain, surrounded by lofty mountains, and has a beautiful stream coursing through it, skirted with quite large timber. The scenery while passing through it is quite delightful in some places and the soil rich; in other places we find the white sand and sedge, as usual, so common to this country. We nooned upon Grande Ronde river.

The camas grows here in abundance, and it is the principal resort of the Cayuses and many other tribes, to obtain it, as they are very fond of it. It resembles an onion in shape and color, when cooked is very sweet and tastes like a fig. Their manner of cooking them is very curious: They dig a hole in the ground, throw in a heap of stones, heat them to a red heat, cover them with green grass, upon which they put the camas, and cover the whole with earth. When taken out it is black. This is the chief food of many tribes during winter.  After dinner we left the plain and ascended the Blue Mountains. Here a new and pleasing scene presented itself-mountains covered with timber, through which we rode all the afternoon; a very agreeable change. The scenery reminded me of the hills in my native country of Steuben.

August 29, 1836   - Had a combination of the same scenery as yesterday afternoon. Rode over many logs and obstructions that we had not found since we left the states. Here I frequently met old acquaintances in the trees and flowers, and was not a little delighted; indeed, I do not know as I was ever so much affected with any scenery in my life. The singing of birds, the echo of voices of my fellow travelers, as they were scattered through the woods, all had a strong resemblance to bygone days. But this scenery was of short duration-only one day.

Before noon we began to descend one of the most terrible mountains for steepness and length I have yet seen. It was like winding stairs in its descent, and in some places almost perpendicular. The horses appeared to dread the hill as much as we did. They would turn and wind around in a zigzag manner all the way down. The men usually walked, but I could not get permission to, neither did I desire it much.  We had no sooner gained the foot of this mountain than another more steep and dreadful was before us. After dinner and rest we descended it. Mount Pleasant, in Prattsburg, would not compare with these Mount Terribles. Our ride this afternoon exceeded anything we have had yet, and what rendered it the more aggravating was the fact that the path all the way was very stony, resembling a newly macadamized road. Our horses' feet were very tender, all unshod, so that we could not make the progress we wished. The mountain in many places was covered with this black broken basalt. We were very late in making camp tonight. After ascending the mountain we kept upon the main divide until sunset, looking in vain for water and a camping place. While upon this elevation we had a view of the Valley of the Columbia River. It was beautiful. Just as we gained the highest elevation and began to descend the sun was dipping his disk behind the western horizon. Beyond the valley we could see two distinct mountains - Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. These lofty peaks were of a conical form, separated from each other by a considerable distance. Behind the former the sun was hiding part of his rays, which gave us a more distinct view of this gigantic cone. The beauty of this extensive valley contrasted well with the rolling mountains behind us, and at this hour of twilight was enchanting and quite diverted my mind from the fatigue under which I was laboring....

Narcissa Whitman, The Journal of Narcissa Whitman, as found in Eells, Myron, Marcus Whitman, Pathfinder and Patriot, Seattle: Alice Hariman Company, 1909.

Last modified in August, 2019 by Rick Thomas