Monday, February 12, 2007

What Would Narcissa Think?

When I was a little girl growing up in Walla Walla, almost every spring our grade school would visit the Whitman Mission or "Waiilatpu" as it was sometimes called from the Native Cayuse name for "the place of the rye grass." Our teachers hoped our little craniums would absorb some knowledge of local history, but in truth the chance to breathe fresh country air was enough to get us all running out of our stale classrooms. But back then, we were taught that the Indians were the "bad guys" who killed our beloved Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. I suppose in the 1950 and '60s this was fairly typical: I mean, look at all those John Wayne movies where cowboys were the heroes and the Natives were savages. But times change and knowledge -- and the knowledge of history -- improves. Eventually, I came to understand the clash of cultures. Each side does what they think is the right thing.

In 1836 Marcus Whitman, a Presbyterian elder trained as a physician who also operated a lumber mill, and his wife, Narcissa Prentiss, lived at Waiilatpu on the Walla Walla River near Fort Walla Walla. The missionaries converted a few Indians to Christianity, but the mission served mostly as an important rest stop for pioneers on the Oregon Trail, though Whitman’s refusal to supply alcohol initially made relations with trappers and traders difficult.

Narcissa was one of the first two white women to cross the continent. She also birthed the first child born of white American parents in the Oregon Country. As women, we can admire Narcissa very much, because it was her journey that proved that it was possible for women to cross the country on foot, opening the way for more pioneer women. Converted at a religious revival at the age of 11, Narcissa decided she wanted to become a missionary. History tells us she was a loving woman with a sense of humor, but she was also a firm disciplinarian. She loved nature, and during picnics she would look at various plants and flowers. The Native Americans were kind to her.

But the clash of cultures proved to be too strong, in the end. In the beginning the local Natives thought the missionaries were okay, because they distributed valuable goods. However, the distribution was usually made in the name of Jesus, and eventually, the goods quit coming. A Cayuse tribe member complained "God is stingy." And baptism, as far as the Native Americans were concerned, had not improved their hunting. The missionaries' descriptions of heaven and hell also puzzled the locals -- the visions of hell especially depressed them. A Walla Walla Chief questioned: "Where are these laws from? Are they from God or from the earth?... I think they are from the earth, because, from what I know of white men, they do not honor these laws."

Over the summer and fall of 1847 the Natives began to view Marcus Whitman as an evil shaman using measles to kill them. And Dr. Whitman's measles treatment proved useless, because the Cayuse people lacked any immunity to the disease. On November 29, Dr. Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and 12 others at the mission were massacred by members of the the Cayuse and Umatilla tribes.

Our Walla Walla Valley is rich in history, and we have honored many of those who came here before us. I wonder, sometimes, what would Narcissa and her husband think about the new wine community that's sprung up on the land on which they once tried to convert Natives to a life of Christian temperance. Our largest landmark in Walla Walla, a hotel, is the home to visitors from all over the United States who visit Walla Walla to taste and buy our world-famous wines. A local winery carries the doctor's surname, another wine label bears the first name of his wife, and one of our best-known wineries is named for the original owners of this now-prolific wine land - Cayuse. Oh, and the name of the hotel? The Marcus Whitman.

Our intentions are honorable. We intend these names as a tribute. But I still wonder sometimes: what would Narcissa really think?

(Dates and facts from:


Sue said...

I think she would love it. The name is rich in history and the wine is very good. She would be proud.

Catie said...

Hi Sue,

Thanks for your comment. One thing that is clear, we have several women winemakers that are very much the pioneers like Narcissa.


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