Dark Past

The Walla Walla tragedy that resulted in Oregon’s statehood

Narcissa Whitman tending to a sick Cayuse Native American at the Whitman Mission.##Stock Image

By Michele Francisco, OWP Editor

In the beginning, I planned to write a love letter to Oregon (and our wine). This idea seemed appropriate, considering our state was officially accepted into the United States on February 14, 1859. While doing some research, I learned about a devastating event that prompted Congress to prioritize statehood and led me to change course.

Long before White settlers struck out west on the Oregon Trail, diverse tribes of Indigenous Peoples called our lands home. The Cayuse community consisted of several villages dotting the Walla Walla Valley. They are now part of the federally recognized Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, inhabiting much of the Umatilla River watershed near Pendleton.

In 1836, newlywed Protestant missionaries Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with three others, settled in the area. To add some context, Narcissa and Eliza Hart Spaulding (also recently married) became the first White American women to travel overland to the Pacific Northwest. Today, a Walla Walla college and hotel bear the Whitman name.

Narcissa is also credited with giving birth to the first child of White Americans in Oregon Country. Sadly, her young daughter’s life was brief; at two years old, she drowned in the Walla Walla River.

Rarely harmonious, relations between the missionaries and Native Peoples grew increasingly contentious. Over the years, a lack of familiarity between the cultures caused mistrust and resentment. Repeatedly, promises were broken. By 1847, troubles intensified with a measles outbreak. Marcus Whitman, a physician, attempted to treat the sickened Cayuse. Lacking any immunity to the disease, tribal members died by the hundreds. The Whitman family, along with other White settlers, were also infected– yet survived.

Recognizing the disparity, the Cayuse believed the doctor intentionally poisoned their people.

On November 29, 1847, a group attacked the mission, killing thirteen people, including the Whitmans. Once referred to as the Whitman Massacre, it is now known as the Tragedy at Waiilatpu. Two years later, after the news reached Washington, D.C., Congress focused its efforts on “protecting the White settlers,” immediately adopting Oregon as the 33rd state in the union.

While I’m proud to call myself an Oregonian, I felt obligated to share this tragedy, especially since it compelled our government to approve Oregon’s statehood. When celebrating this year, please don’t forget the devastation experienced by the Cayuse and other Native Peoples upon our arrival to their lands.

Michele Francisco spent her childhood reading and writing, eventually graduating from UCLA with an English degree. She attended graphic design school and began a career in design and marketing. After moving to Oregon in 2010, Michele studied wine at Chemeketa Community College and began Winerabble, a Northwest-focused wine blog. She has been a cheerleader for Oregon wine since her arrival.

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