Today, it takes thirty-nine hours to drive from Eliza Hart Spalding’s hometown in east New York State to Walla Walla, Washington. In 1836, when she and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman became the first white women to cross the Rockies, it was a seven-month ordeal to reach what was then known as Oregon Territory; Mary Richardson Walker made the same long journey in 1838. All three women were part of an evangelical faith and missionary calling that inspired them to leave their large families and networks in the East and turn to the West. While many missionaries journeyed as far afield as South Africa, Burma, and China, the fields of Oregon, if physically closer, were just as strange compared to the familiar world of the East coast. Different languages, a new climate, and novel peoples were what awaited the women as they trekked West.
They carried with them not just an ingrained drive to convert and Christianize but also a distinct sense of what part they would play in the world of the mission. Along with their husbands, these three women carved a missionary niche in Early Oregon. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was in the business of saving souls and believed that a wife was as essential as a Bible to the male missionaries they appointed. The American Board had clear notions of what it meant to be a model female missionary and the women of Early Oregon found varied success in adhering to these expectations. Largely acting within worlds of home and family, Spalding, Whitman, and Walker were dedicated to their purpose of saving souls and growing the number of Christian believers among the Cayuse, Nez Perce, and Spokane Indians. Closely linked to this battle for the souls of the native peoples were the small-scale battles against the indigenous medicine men and their practices. The women of the Oregon mission stepped out of their designated roles to administer medical treatment to their charges. The same sphere, though, impacted their ability to act out their assigned roles—issues of health and access to medical care were prominent in the lives of these isolated women and often left them bedridden, unable to be the mothers and domestics that the A.B.C.F.M. intended them to be. The spheres of health and medicine served both to limit and expand the domestic worlds of early missionary women in the Oregon territory. This article argues that their own often-fragile health served as a constraint on their abilities to fulfill their designated and gendered missionary role, while the provision of medicine to the Native Americans they administered allowed them to expand their service outside of the role of domestic paragon.
The lives of the early missionary women in Oregon are not neglected in the historiography of westward expansion, Oregon history, or analyses of the female missionary in the nineteenth century. Authors as diverse as relatives of the women to academics to historical organizations have compiled their writings into collections with commentary on what occurred. In addition, online databases teem with their writings, and it is in using these two treasure chests in tandem that we can tease out the fullest picture of female life in early Oregon. These women were not alone in their missionary endeavors—the letters and diaries of women stationed around the globe provide insight into their lives and how they shaped their roles as missionary women. The desire for a missionary career brought many couples together, and in these marriages each member took on specific roles in caring for both the souls of the populations they served as well as the souls of their family.
Narcissa Prentiss, born on March 14, 1808 in the state of New York, is the best known of the three women this article examines. Educated at local but strong schools, Narcissa then trained as a teacher and married Dr. Marcus Whitman in February of 1836. Her religious inclinations were closely connected with her musical ability as a singer, and she found the music of the church spiritually compelling. She turned twenty-seven before she married, a surprisingly old age for the eldest daughter in a family at the time, though her late marriage was not for want of suitors. Her marriage was largely arranged for convenience and mutual benefit—Marcus Whitman had received his appointment to head westward, and Samuel Parker, with whom he was set to travel, knew that Narcissa had volunteered to serve in Oregon. Her exposure to the new field of mission work came primarily through the official publications of the American Board, though the materials circulated from 1820-1836 have notably little to say about work with Native Americans. In 1830, a revival came to Narcissa’s church in Prattsburgh, New York, and she became known for how her musical talents, a talent that would fascinate the Indians of Oregon. Her engagement to Marcus strengthened her application to the American Board of Foreign missions, who approved her application and appointed her on March 18, 1835.
Narcissa was not the only woman on that trek across the Rockies to Oregon: Eliza Hart Spalding was another woman heading across continental America in 1836. Born in Connecticut on August 11, 1807, her family moved to a farm in Holland Patent, New York when she was thirteen. Her deeply religious and spiritual nature found a home in the Presbyterian Church of Holland Patent and she gave her life in “complete surrender to what she thought to be the will of Christ.” Her courtship with Henry Harmon Spalding began in 1830 via letter until they met in mid-1831 when he moved to attend Hamilton College near Eliza. He transferred away to attend college in Ohio, to return to Holland in 1833 to ask Eliza Hart to marry him. With her new husband, Eliza traveled to Ohio and set up a boarding house to help support him through the remainder of his studies. Eliza availed herself of academic opportunities when she had time beyond her household work and attended lectures on theology and language. It was here that her desire to feed the “earnest desire of the heathen for the gospel” and turn to mission work to “exert [her] powers and spend [her] strength.” After much waiting and an initial appointment among the Osages of Missouri, Henry Spalding signed on as an associate to Marcus Whitman’s party headed to Oregon. Thus in 1836, Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, both educated and devout, became the first two white women to traverse the Rocky Mountains. Their eventual experiences among the Native Americans of the Northwest differed significantly, as Spalding became much endeared to the Nez Perce amongst whom she worked, while dissatisfaction and discomfort ruled Narcissa’s life.
Mary Richardson, born on April 1, 1811, was not one of the first white women to cross the Continental Divide, but she followed closely on the heels of Whitman and Spalding and crossed the Rockies in 1838 as part of the second round of missionaries to head to Oregon. Her inclusion in this study is due to the compelling and fascinating nature of her writing, as well as her similarities in upbringing and experience that render her kin enough to Spalding and Whitman to be comparable. Mary was the eldest of her parent’s eight surviving children and her family attended the Congregational church in their hometown of Baldwin, Maine. Religious fervour first touched her life during her education at Maine Wesleyan Seminary, though she would later proclaim her flirtation with Methodism “exceedingly humiliating” and returned to her Congregational community when she went home to Baldwin. The desire to explore her prospects as a missionary arose in 1836 prior to her meeting Elkanah Walker, her eventual husband. Her recommenders to the A.B.C.F.M. spoke of her as “well qualified and specially apt to teach; in domestic economy, she very much excels.” She was an “upstanding product of nineteenth century New England” as an educated, devout, and domestic woman. Her marriage with Elkanah was born of their mutual desire to serve as missionaries and their shared anxieties about doing so as single individuals. Married only forty-eight hours after they first met, Mary Richardson Walker and her husband would become enamored with one another over the years, as their later letters attest. Initially the pair was destined for South Africa but the financial difficulties the A.B.C.F.M experienced in 1837 changed that plan. The slight rejuvenation of the Board’s finances in late 1837 and letters from the Pacific Northwest gave enough of a positive impression that on December 5, 1837, the Board assigned Mary and Elkanah Walker to head West.
The three missionary women found themselves stationed at isolated mission stations in the Oregon territory, worlds apart from the close kin networks of their Eastern homes. Until 1843, when Marcus Whitman led a train of about two hundred wagons to Oregon, these women and their families represented a significant portion of the white population living outside for formal settlements in the Oregon territory. Narcissa Whitman made her home with the Cayus people at Waiilatpu where “rivers are barely skirted with timber…beyond them as far as the eye can reach plains and mountains appear.” The Spaldings took up residence among the Nez Perce in the Lapwai Valley at the base of Thunder Mountain, a manageable but substantial journey from the Whitman house. Mary and Elkanah Walker built their lives together at Tshimakain with the Eeels couple, and lived contentedly among the Spokanes as they built up their log structures and cultivated their garden. The homes these women arrived at were often little more than lean-tos, and were devoid of furniture—Narcissa arrived at a structure with “no windows or door except for blankets…neither straw bedstead nor table.” Later sketches of Waiilatpu, Lapwai, and Tshimakain drawn by travellers who passed through are a testament to the amount that changed from those first encounters with their Oregon homes. These women, their partners, and laborers drawn from among the Indian populations built furniture, planted gardens, and cultivated crops to establish the missions as increasingly permanent parts of the landscape.
For Narcissa Whitman, Eliza Spalding, and Mary Walker, the homes they built in the verdant vales of Oregon became the centers of their universe and their role as mothers and wives loomed large within that sphere. It was not until the 1860s that single women were recruited as independent missionaries, and during the first half of the nineteenth century, women entered into the field via marriage. The process of populating and then raising a family unit so far from the familial support structures, education, and health systems that the women had known in their childhood posed a challenge to them. Yet missionary women were not always confined to the domestic and maternal sphere; the early vision of the female missionary included their evangelizing to women inaccessible to men, and they were initially encouraged to spread their beliefs in a manner similar to that of their husbands. The literature around the subject of female missionary roles paints a picture of shift and change rather than one of stasis.
Along with wifehood, motherhood became a pillar of female missionary life. The lack of any form of reproductive control other than abstinence meant that childbearing and rearing dominated women’s lives during their fertile years. Motherhood was a fraught endeavor for the missionary women, as they believed that their foreign and “heathen” worlds posed significant physical and spiritual threats to their offspring. Letters from women in the Sandwich Islands demonstrate anxiety about the need to “have a constant watch over our children here as soon as they begin to walk and talk” and desperation to protect their children from the perceived heathenism of the indigenous people. The women in Oregon were prone to this anxiety as well, so much so that they formed a maternal association in 1838 to provide a forum for their anxieties and a body through which they governed their understanding of their maternal position.
Sensible of the evils that beset the young mind in a heathen land, and confident that no arm but God’s can secure our children or those committed to our care from the dangers that surround them and bring them early into the fold of Christ and fit them for usefulness here and glory hereafter, we, the subscribers, agree to form ourselves into an association for the purpose of adopting such rules as are best calculated to assist us in the right performance of our maternal duties.
–The Columbia Maternal Association
The anxiety about childrearing in a “heathen land” and the according fear that corruption by such influences could impact their children’s earthly bodies and eternal souls was a communal concern. While these women lived their lives largely in isolation both from one another and other white individuals, the formation of an organization focused on the “right performance” of maternal duties highlights the centrality of motherhood to their individual and common understandings of their duties. The preamble also intimates a broader sense of maternalism towards not just their children but “those committed to [their] care.” Indeed, adoption was a common occurrence in early Oregon—Narcissa Whitman became mother to eleven children whose parents had died making their way to Oregon. While their roles as mothers served to confine them to the domestic space, it was the process of childbearing and birth that demonstrates most clearly how their health impacted their ability to move in and out of their defined roles.
It is vital to understand the realities of childbirth in the early nineteenth century. Childbirth was becoming an increasingly formal medical process from 1800 onwards as women started to call upon physicians rather than midwives to assist them in the birthing process. While this change primarily occurred in urban areas of the eastern United States, the limited options to women like Narcissa Whitman and Mary Walker meant that they relied upon any available help. This meant that, in general, Dr. Whitman attended their births though his presence was not one of preference but rather of necessity. Obstetrics was still a young field and the rise of men in the delivery of children was not a process without challenges. Yet such luxuries of embarrassment were not available to the women of Oregon, and their process of childbirth was generally one of practicality. The private nature of the missionaries’ deliveries mirrors the shift to birth as a more private process than an open ceremony, though it is important to note that the reasons were not ideological or social but instead a product of the limitations of their location.
The process of childbirth among the missionary women often severely limited their physical abilities and their ability to carry out their domestic roles. Dr. Whitman describes the difficulty of the birth of Eliza Spalding’s child in his March 1838 letter to Reverend David Greene, Secretary of the A.B.C.F.M. This episode’s inclusion in the letter back to Reverend Greene highlights the importance of growing the white missionary population in Oregon as part of the mission project that placed its demands specifically upon women’s bodies and their health. Given that her first pregnancy ended with the birth of a stillborn daughter, Spalding was certainly no stranger to the suffering of childbearing. Dr. Whitman describes the reception of a letter from Mr. Spalding “urging [him and Narcissa] on as soon as possible on account of Mrs. Spaldings health,” and thus they hasten the twelve miles to the Spaldings’ aid. Dr. Whitman notes that, in spite of their fast and sudden journey, the trip occurred “with no ill consequences to Mrs Whitman or the babe.” The continued concern from the male missionaries for their wives’ reproductive health highlights its centrality both to the male productive role in growing a pious white population in Oregon, male anxiety about reproduction, and, to a variable extent, a genuine concern about their wives’ well-being.
The child that the Whitmans journeyed to deliver had a harsh physical impact on Eliza Spalding’s health. After her the birth of her child on the fifteenth of November, she was unable to leave her bed and did not regain her strength until the second of December when she was “able to attend in some measure to the domestick [sic] duties.” Through what she refers to as “the astonishing mercy of God,” she was able to return to her role as housewife and mother to her eight adopted Native American children. That the rubric for Eliza Spalding’s good health was her ability to fulfil her “domestick” role denotes the centrality of that position in her missionary sphere. Eliza’s troubles with her babe were not through, for after only a handful of weeks her newborn daughter came down with severe diarrhea. The immense burden that pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing placed on Spalding took a toll on her health and served as an impediment to her personal health as well as her capacity to fulfil her missionary role.
Not all episodes of childbirth were so debilitating—Mary Walker, who gave birth to eight children in Oregon, did not suffer nearly to the same extent. Take, for instance, the birth of her second child and only daughter. Her diary entry from May 24, 1840 simply states, “before eight was delivered of a fine daughter. The morning was pleasant; in the afternoon fine showers. The babe is very quiet.” The birth of her third child, Marcus Whitman, was similarly unremarkable, and she writes again, “Got my house work done about nine. Baked six loaves of bread. Made a kettle of mush and have now a suet pudding and beef boiling. My girl has ironed and I have managed to put my clothes away and set my house in order. May the merciful be with me through the unexpected scene. Nine o’clock PM was delivered of another son. While Walker successfully underwent the process of childbirth, she found herself unable to “hold the babe to [her] breast herself” and had to hire an Indian wet nurse due to the pains and “paroxisms [sic]” she experienced. Her fascination with her own condition lead her to explore if the same condition occurred among Native American women as well. Childbirth in and of itself for Walker did not have nearly as much of an impact on her physical health as it did for Eliza Spalding, and she treated it in her writings as another part of her life’s progress and her maternal role. Perhaps the most difficult part of Walker’s experience giving birth was the “grim reality” of doing so in a strange land without the support of female family members.The vicissitudes of childbirth only heightened the lack of control that these women had over both their reproductive capabilities and their broader lives on the frontier. That these women often repeatedly underwent the process of childbearing and birth, some with significant negative impacts to their health, is a testament to the centrality of motherhood and domesticity in their lives.
The medical problems that faced the women in Oregon went beyond the body, though, and often crept into the mind. Loneliness defined much of their tenure in Oregon as their missionary husbands traveled for various A.B.C.F.M affairs and general proselytizing. Dr. Whitman was often away notably often, leaving Narcissa alone in a household left painfully empty by the death of her child—she reports how his absence, when “added to the death of [her] precious Alice has almost overcome [her].” Her isolation continued, and in 1843 she writes to Jane Prentiss of how “the nine months past that [she has] been separated from my precious husband…in this dreary land of heathenish darkness.” This isolation, coupled with the fact that Narcissa was slowly going blind during her time in Oregon, rendered her increasingly limited in her missionary capacities. Her decline is in sharp contrast with her reputation as a “vivacious and popular” young woman in her hometown. Mary Walker endured similar periods of separation from Elkanah, but her ability to continue her maternal duties when her wifely ones were not needed comforted her. She wrote to Elkanah that she is “half as lonely as you for beside the good company of the family, I have the dear little son to cheer me & so I am not as sad as I used to be when you are gone.” The presence of a family and the ability to fulfill her maternal role buoyed Walker’s mental health while the lack of children or husband dragged Whitman into deep loneliness and frustration.
As missionaries gave medical assistance to the indigenous populations, they were entering into a world of customary expectations and practices that could have dire consequences. The Cayuses and the Nez Perces had similar systems of medicine that revolved around their te-wats. These healers were of both genders and used a host of medical techniques to heal their charges. The Spokanes also had medicine men that were responsible not just for medical services but also served as spiritual leaders and advisors to their people. They lead seasonal ceremonies associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering as well as ceremonies to ensure success in war. The medicine men of these groups did not treat illness but also engaged in preventative measures as they endeavored to stop foreign spirits from infecting those of their people. While medicine men held great power, they were subject to customs that made their work one of both intensive training and hazard. Among all three groups it was common practice that if a medicine man failed to heal an individual who then died, it was the right of their relative’s to kill the medicine man as compensation both for their payment to him and the loss of their kin. The only option for shamans who faced such repercussions was to flee and hope to find another band of his people to take them in.
The missionaries were subject to this custom as well, and it made their practice of medicine on Indian bodies a fraught endeavor. In May 1837, Dr. Whitman was treating the wife of the prominent chief Umtippe who threatened him with this consequence. Dissatisfied with his wife’s care under Dr. Whitman, Umtippe turned instead to one of the primary te-wats in the area, becoming incensed with the te-wat as well when the traditional methods failed. While the te-wat escaped death in that instance, he was later killed when he failed to heal a war chief related to Umtippe. The option of flight from the community was not open to the missionaries and so their practice of medicine became not only a battleground for souls but for their own lives. Narcissa’s writings on the events with Umtippe indicate to us that the missionary women were aware of the custom and yet still provided care to the Indians. Interestingly, the Indians that the missions served would realize that they could have it both ways, and female missionaries often took on more concrete roles in the care and provision of care to the Native Americans than they did in any other form of interaction with them. Whitman was particularly party to the administration of care to the Indians of Oregon Territory, as her husband was a trained medical doctor, though he seems to rarely have practiced medicine among the Native Americans if the scant reference to any such exercise in his letters is to be believed. Shortly after the stressful episode with Umtippe’s wife, another Indian by the name of Stickus arrived seeking medical care, and Whitman sat up late into the night caring for him. After his eventual cure, he became a close friend of the Whitman’s during their tenure in Oregon. Again, the importance of curing him was on the minds of both Whitman and her husband because of the pressing threat of death if they failed. The women’s diaries and their husbands’ papers express both concern and annoyance at this practice, and increasingly saw the quest for the souls of the Native Americans as tied to the care and healing of their bodies.
Mary Walker was often drawn out of her home and sphere to confront the medicine men whose chants and rites floated in the Oregon breeze to forbid her rest or repose. With her husband away, Walker had little choice: she had to either confront the medicine men about their practices or endure more sleepless nights and restless days. Her distaste for indigenous rituals is clear amidst her description of their practices, as she consistently refers to how they “play” medicine. Walker’s interactions with medicine men and her administration of medicine to those Nez Perce who sought her treatment mark notable steps outside of her traditional role of missionary wife and woman.
Walker’s confrontation with the medicine men stands out in her writings about her time at Tshimakain—there are few instances were she intervened in the happenings of the Spokane people, and her stand against the ceremonies of the medicine men marks a step outside her otherwise confined roles. Walker, unless illness impaired her, was a model missionary woman who built a strong marriage with her husband and raised a family in the woods of Oregon. She otherwise avoided direct skirmishing over medical practice, adhering to her opinion that “it is not best to assail their superstitions directly…it seems useless to convince them of their error unless their mind is occupied with something else.” So strong were her sentiments against the medicine men and their routines that she expanded her scope of influence beyond being an exemplar of Christian womanhood. Her intervention for the souls, as she saw it, of the Native Americans on this matter was both a product of personal frustration and evangelical commitment.
The isolation of missionary women often led to health difficulties of their own, and their own physical failings limited their ability to perform their assigned duties. Indeed, their physical fitness was so tied to their roles that their ability to carry out domestic tasks or care for their children became the barometers of their well-being. The physically stressful process of childbearing and birth that their service as wives and mothers entailed simultaneously allowed them to expand and take on the role of Christian mother but often at serious cost to their health. Their access to medicine and the support systems, both male and female, which normally accompanied womanhood at the time, meant that these women had to carry both the weight of family raising, housekeeping, and soul saving largely at the mercy of their health and fitness. Battling illnesses physical and mental, personal and external, the women of early Oregon navigated the spheres of health and healing and often pushed the boundaries of their allotted spheres by taking on increasing responsibility for the physical health of the converted and non-converted Indians.
The light of faith led the Whitmans, Walkers, Spaldings, and others like them across the Rockies and around the world. Committed to converting the so-called heathens and instilling a Christian spirit of family and self in their selected charges, these missionaries faced battles both spiritual and physical in their Christianizing quest. Husbands and wives navigated the mission spaces as a unit but also as individuals with appointed roles and expectations. Mary Walker, Narcissa Whitman, and Eliza Spalding were sent to Oregon to serve not in that capacity, but in the more conservative capacities of mothers, wives, and domestics. Told that their purpose was to lead by example, they committed themselves to the task of building homes and families amidst cultures whose practices they feared all the while battling the severe isolation of frontier life. The missions became multi-purpose spaces where ideology mingled with practicality, and women’s roles became necessarily elastic in the face of such challenges, allowing them to shape and reshape the lives they were expected to lead.