The Whitman Massacre

oregonpioneers.com
Compiled by Stephenie Flora
copyright 2004



The  morning of November 29th, 1847 was shrouded in fog and pierced by a near freezing rain.  A blanket of eery silence hung over the area.

A little after four o'clock in the morning two early risers moved about in the mission house.  Dr. Whitman was fully awake and preparing for his day.  John Sager was writing by candlelight in his room.  Every morning for months he had been rising early to write on papers that he then locked in a cabinet.  The end result of his labors were never to be seen.  In less than twelve hours they would be plastered to the floor of his room with blood.

Matilda Sager was up early as well.  She was playing quietly with the doll that Mother Whitman had made for her.  After about an hour she began to hear the familiar morning noises of more than two dozen people beginning the day.  Puzzled to not hear the voice of Mother Whitman, Matilda ventured into the kitchen.  Father Whitman was cooking himself breakfast.  Mother Whitman had shut herself in the parlor.  She refused the offer of breakfast and it was whispered that she had been crying.  Dr. Whitman had been very blunt the night before as he advised her of the danger he perceived all around them.

Dr. Whitman, instead of heading outside to work, selected a book from the shelf and sat down to read.  Marsh was at the gristmill grinding grain for the Cayuse.  Hall and Osborn were busy working on the addition at the end of the house.  Canfield was starting up his forge as Isaac Gilliland worked in the mansion house on a new set of clothes for Dr. Whitman.  Saunders was preparing for the reopening of the school after a week of closure due to the illness at the mission.  At the sawmill in the Blue Mountains two thousand feet of lumber was being turned out each day.  Another load was to be delivered to the mission the next day.  In the mission yard, fifteen year old Francis Sager shot a beef so that it could be butchered to supply the week's meat.  Kimball, Hoffman and Joe Stanfield were preparing to start the process.

Spalding's hired man, Jackson, was packing up his mules for the long trip back to Lapwai.  Wanting an early start, he was having problems and cursed the mules, the weather and life in general.  It would not be long before he was to consider himself the luckiest man in Oregon.

Andrew Rodgers passed the sitting room on his way to tend to the garden.  Dr. Whitman detained him, and according to the memory of Catherine Sager who overheard parts of the conversation, he advised Rodgers that he expected trouble soon; probably against himself.  The doctor stated that when the Bishop of Walla Walla arrived early in the week the doctor planned on asking the Cayuse permission to leave in the spring.  As Narcissa's clock struck twelve the discussion came to an end and Rodgers took up his coat and hat.  As he was leaving Whitman cautioned him to show no alarm and go about his business as always.  

John Sager came into the sitting room to wind twine for brooms while Mary Ann Bridger came in to dust.  In the kitchen, Mrs. Hayes was preparing the noonday meal while Joe Stanfield stood by.  Stanfield had proposed marriage and had been smartly turned down.  She had an intense dislike for him, partially brought on by the fact that he was baptized as a Catholic and was too friendly with Nicholas Finley and Joe Lewis, who she considered troublemakers.

As Mary Ann Bridger and Catherine Sager were setting the table for the midday meal there was a knock at the outside door.  Whitman answered the door to find Green Cap standing in the cold drizzle, hunched up under his blanket.  "A son of Tilaukait is dead," he said.  "He is being taken to the burial grounds now."  Whitman must have received the news with dread.  Tilaukait had already lost two young sons to measles and dysentry and the loss of another was troubling news.  The doctor picked up his well worn bible, put on his coat and hat and accompanied Green Cap into the returning fog.

As Mrs. Hays began bringing in the food from the kitchen to the living room, Narcissa appeared from the parlor.  Her presence brought comfort to the children as she smiled at each of them on her way to check on Helen Mar Meek.  Helen was unresponsive and it was clear that she would probably not live.   

Meanwhile, at the funeral for Chief Tilaukait's latest dead son, only the relatives attended, but no other Cayuse.  Some had stood apart in groups, barely visible in the thickening fog.  This was an unusual occurence.  On the way from the burial ground Whitman had stopped by to see Mrs. Saunders at the mansion house. Green Cap had followed him inside, taking a chair in the Saunders' home. Then he had shadowed Whitman through the fog as far as the mission house. There had been a time when the doctor would have told him to be about some useful business. But not now.

By the time the doctor reached home and finished the midday dinner it was almost two o'clock. He had been told that Lorinda Bewley had been asking for him.  He then climbed the steep stairs to check on her and found that she was deeply troubled by a presentiment of evil to come. Unable to comfort her, he returned downstairs to get her some milk and a prescription that was probably a mild sedative.   As the doctor went to the medicine cabinet, Narcissa went to the pantry to get a cup of milk for Elizabeth.  Mary Ann was washing dishes in the kitchen and John had moved into the kitchen with his broom twine.  

As Narcissa returned to the kitchen she came face to face with Tilaukait and Tomahas, the Murderer.  Startled, she dropped the cup of milk, moved quickly into the sitting room, driving home the bolt of the adjoining door.  She told the doctor that he was wanted by Tilaukait and Tomahas.  As he moved into the kitchen, Whitman blocked the entrance with his body and closed the door firmly behind him.  Narcissa once again bolted the door.

As he entered the kitchen he was engaged in a brief parley with Tilaukait. While his attention was diverted, Tomahas dropped his blanket that had been concealing a tomahawk and brought it down upon the head of the unsuspecting doctor. Mary Ann Bridger, still in the kitchen, ran outdoors.  John Sager leaped for a loaded pistol on the wall but was shot by Tilaukait before he could reach it.  Sager fell to the floor, arms sprawled out, face upward.  Calmly Tilaukait drew a kife and slit the boy's throat.

In his struggle to escape the Murderer's tomahawk, Whitman managed to reach and open the outside kitchen door.  Once again the tomahawk found its mark and he fell to his knees in the mud.  At that point, one of his attackers pressed the muzzle of their rifle to the base of Marcus Whitman's throat and fired.  As Whitman pitched forward into the mud the bloodshed continued all around the mission.  Marsh fell in his tracks as he ran from the mill.  Gilliland was attacked, tumbled to the floor, crawled to his bed and died quickly.  Hoffman, still at the butchering derrick, took up an ax and made a stand.  At the first opportunity he raced for the mission house but was cut down by mounted Cayuse.

In the ensuing chaos three of the men escaped.  Peter Hall slid down from the roof of the new addition and kept moving until he reached Fort Walla Walla the next morning.  With the attention focused on the ax swinging Hoffman, Canfield reached a clump of willows and hid until night, when he made his escape towards Lapwai.  As the attack was underway, Josiah Osborn gathered his family and pulled up the new floor he was working on and hid beneath the boards with them.  As the Indians broke into the room searching for them, a trembling Mrs. Osborn held her hands over the mouth of her two-year-old child.

Mr. Saunders had commenced school at one o'clock.  Hearing the explosion in the kitchen, he ran down to see what caused it.  Mrs. Whitman saw him just as he got to the door and motioned him to go back.  He ran to go back, and had just got to the stairway leading up to the school, when an Indian seized him.  Being an active man, the Indian could not overtake him.  They struggled and when the Indian threw him to the ground he would bound to his feet again.  Another joined the fray and Mr. Saunders wrestled for his life with the ruthless murderers as they, with their butcher knives, kept trying to cut his throat.  He finally broke loose from them and had almost got to his door, several hundred yards, before he was overpowered.  From a window, through the fog, Mrs. Saunders saw an Indian hacking at a man trying to climb a rail fence.  She did not know the man was her husband.  But from the school room his daughter, Helen, saw it more clearly; two Cayuse held Saunders' head and shoulders over the top rail while the third worked with tomahawk and knife.  Francis Sager pulled the screaming fourteen-year-old girl from the window, bolted the doors of the schoolroom and moved the children into the rafters.

Belatedly, old Chief Beardy rode up from the village, protesting vigorously.  He was one of "Doctor Whitman's Indians" and had not been made aware of the intended plot.  The younger Cayuse drove him away with catcalls and whips.

Tilaukait, Tomahas, Tamsucky and Joe Lewis were now organizing their mob for the next phase of the attack.  Other Cayuse were stationed at posts which commanded a view of every door.  One stood atop a frost crusted haystack.  He had been called Ish-al-hal before he was taught to pray and sing.  Now he was known as Frank Escaloom.  He was very good with a rifle.  He watched the door and windows on the east side of the main section of the house.  Escaloom knew all the remaining targets by sight, and that one of them was a woman.

At the first gunshot Narcissa started gathering the children.  In a panic, Elizabeth had ran outside.  Narcissa rushed to the door and called Elizabeth back.  Crowding through the doorway at the same time was Mary Ann Bridger, breathless and white faced.  She ran to Mother Whitman crying "They're killing Father!"  Narcissa rushed out and succeeded in dragging the doctor into the kitchen.  At almost the same moment the women from the mansion house and Mrs. Canfield from the blacksmith shop burst in with the smaller children.  Mrs. Hays and Mrs. Hall helped Narcissa move Whitman to the sitting room and lift him onto a settee.  He was a ghastly sight, but he was not dead.  She asked him if he knew her and he replied, "Yes".  With a wet towel and ashes from the fireplace she tried to stop the blood flow from the gunshot wound at the throat.  She asked, "Can I do anything to stop this blood from flowing?" and he replied "No".  Her final question was, "Is your mind at peace?" and he replied "Yes".

 At the incessant yells of the attackers, Narcissa suddenly remembered the unlocked outside doors and hurried to bolt them.  As she went to bolt the sitting room door, Kimball burst through.  He was a giant of a man.  His arm was hanging limp and bloody.  He dropped to the floor, demanding water.  It was Narcissa who set a half-filled pitcher on the floor beside him.

Now the door whe had just locked behind Kimball was struck with such force the glass pane shattered.  Narcissa ran across the room and looked out.  Fleeing from the garden, Andrew Rodgers had run into it in blind fear.  Narcissa let him in and rebolted the door.  Rodger's slight frame was shaking as from a chill.  His hat was gone and a tomahawk or club had struck him a glancing blow on the back of the head.  

Now unable to take his eyes of of Whitman, Rodgers asked, "Is he dead?"  From the settee, Whitman answered in an eerily strong and natura voicel, "No".  Narcissa, standing by the door with the broken pane, turned with a startled glance toward her husband.  Atop the haystack, Frank Escaloom took careful aim and fired.  Narcissa shrieked and sank to the floor clutching the wound to her breast.  Catherine ran to hold her as Narcissa began to pray over and over "Lord, save these little ones".

Now the sound of splitting doors filled the air.  The women screamed and began pushing the children toward the stairway.  Mary Ann and Catherine carried Helen and Louise upstairs.  There Lorinda Bewley sat on her bed, wrapped in a blanket, mouthing words without sound.  Kimball regained his feet and followed with the pitcher of water as Andrew Rodgers lifted Narcissa to her feet and moved her toward the stairway.  In the crowded room upstairs Rodgers fell to his knees and began to pray.

Below, the war cries and destruction fell into ominous silence and were replaced by a pounding at the stairway door.  Kimball took a broken gun stock from a corner and shover the barrel beyond the landing of the steep stairway.  As the door broke upen there was a pause at the sight of the gun barrel.  Tamsucky, who the Whitmans had long trusted, had been chosen to parley.  He asked for Rodgers.  "I am your friend", he called.  "We are going to burn the house, and I want to lead you all to Finley's lodge."  Rodgers was reluctant, but Narcissa asked him to talk in the hopes of saving them all, or at least the children.  Rodgers removed the gun barrel and joined Tamsucky in the sitting room to talk.  As he looked around at the destruction his gaze fell on the mutilated face of Doctor Whitman.  All the other Cayuse were gone.  It is hard to know what was said between them, what promises or threats were made.  It was later stated by Tamsucky that he had asked if it was true that the Whitmans were poisoning the Cayuse and that Rodgers had said that it was true.

Kimball, not believing Tamsucky hid behind Lorinda Bewley's bed.  Catherine was convinced that Tamsucky was the Indian who she had seen murdering her teacher.  When she related her suspicions to Narcissa she was told, "You are mistaken.  God has raised us up a friend."   It was decided that the adults were to leave first with the promise that some of the women from the village would come for the children.  Lorinda and Rodgers helped Narcissa down the stairs.  When she reached the bottom and saw the hatcheted face of her husband she collapsed and was helped to the settee.  Impatiently Tamsucky ordered that she be carried to the lodge of Finley.  Joe Lewis, who was standing in the doorway, stepped into the room and took the front end of the settee as if to help.  Rodgers picked up the other end and started through the doorway.  Once outside the house, Joe Lewis dropped his end and stepped aside.  Narcissa and Rodgers were shot down by a dozen rifles flashing in the dusk.

Beneath the floor in the addition the Osborns heard Rodgers moan, "Sweet Jesus, come quickly now".  There was no sound from Narcissa.  Frank Escaloom, once again known as Ish-al-hal moved out of the crowd, grabbed Narcissa by the hair and lifted her up to her full height.  He then viciously whipped her face with a riding whip.

Joe Lewis, accompanied by several Cayuse battered open the door of the schoolroom and found the children hiding in a shallow half-loft in the rafters of the room.  Joe Lewis ordered them down and lined up.  Unnoticed by Lewis, Francis Sager stayed hidden in a corner of the loft.  When the children were threatened he came down to comfort his terrified sisters.  The children were herded them into the kitchen of the mansion house.  There, with Eliza Spalding interpreting, the fate of the children was discussed.  The two Manson boys were released and sent to the fort.  Francis Sager, had been held outside by Joe Lewis.  Inflicting a final humiliation on the boy he held him by the nose and put the pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

As night fell a few younger Cayuse were posted as guards on the women and children who had been moved to the mansion house.  Tilaukait and his followers went to the village to hold council.  We were weeping over the slain when Joe Stanfield came in.  He told us to stop that noise; that they were dead and it would do them no good, and if the Indians saw us crying they would be mad.  We must never show that we cared.  He took up his evening chores.  He fed and watered the stock, milked the cows and carried the milk to the pantry where he poured it into Mrs. Whitman's separator pans, just as always.  One will probably never know what Joe Stanfield's part was in this uprising, nor what he was thinking at this point in time.  The survivors were certain he was a conspirator.  As a French-Canadian he was relatively safe but beyond that it is hard to know what his actual status was.  Were his habits simply habit, was he a conspirator, or was he reacting to his own trauma over the events that had taken place?

Crockett Bewley and Amos Sales were still bedridden but alive. They had been so sick on the day of the attack that they lay both helpless.  Crockett Bewley lay in another part of the house, not able to help himself.  During that day or next, his sister went over and got him.  The men remained unmolested.  Thirteen of the 72 individuals at the mission were killed that first day. These included: Narcissa Whitman, Andrew Rogers, Jacob Hoffman, the schoolmaster L.W. Sanders, Mr. Marsh, John Sager, Francis Sager, Nathan Kimball, Isaac Gilliland, and Young Jr.  Peter Hall, who had also escaped the original massacre, later disappeared and was never seen again.

The Aftermath

Roster of Victims of the Massacre

The Trial

Pictures

Sources

Whitman Massacre Links

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