Whitman Mission attack and the lost graves of the ‘Cayuse Five’

Nov 29, 2022, 7:14 AM | Updated: 7:30 am

NOTE: This story was originally broadcast and published on November 29, 2017.

November 29 marks the 175th anniversary of one of the darkest days in Pacific Northwest history, when Presbyterian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 12 others who lived with them at their mission near what’s now Walla Walla died in an attack by Cayuse Indians.

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Among the dead were Andrew Rogers, Jacob Hoffman, L. W. Saunders, Walter Marsh, John Sager, Francis Sager, Nathan Kimball, Isaac Gilliland, James Young, Crocket Bewley, and Amos Sales.

After the brutal attack, more than 50 survivors from the mission were held captive by the Cayuse for several weeks. During this time, more died from illness, and some women and young girls were sexually assaulted. In mid-December, the Hudson’s Bay Company paid for their ransom and escorted the group down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. In the aftermath, American settlers and the US Army launched a series of attacks that came to be known as the Cayuse War. Soon after that, Congress acted and created Oregon Territory after a long delay.

In 1850, five Natives Americans surrendered for the Whitman murders, and were convicted and hanged at the old territorial capital of Oregon City, south of Portland.

It’s a violent and complicated story, and nearly 200 years later there are no clear cut heroes or villains.

Throughout much of the 1840s, American settlers were coming to the old Oregon Country and Native Americans were getting pushed off of lands they had occupied for millennia. The missionary work of the Whitmans had begun in 1836, but hadn’t really taken with the Cayuse. Meanwhile, the mission had become more of a rest stop on the Oregon Trail, and outbreaks of infectious disease unwittingly introduced by settlers had become commonplace and especially deadly to Native Americans.

During the autumn of 1847, a particularly lethal strain of measles killed many Cayuse. Marcus Whitman was a physician and tended to settlers and to Natives, and, through tribal custom, came to be viewed by some Natives as culpable for the deaths.

But despite the tragedy of 170 years ago, the good news is that in the past few decades, community members in that part of Washington and Oregon have made incredible strides toward reconciliation of the area’s violent past. Key groups are working together to right old wrongs and to more fairly and accurately interpret a shared history. Public agencies and tribal members are actively participating in the evolution of how a complex history can be commemorated and presented in the 21st century.

For about 150 years, the events of November 29, 1847 were commonly called the “Whitman Massacre.” And while this term can still be found many places in print and online, Park Ranger Stephanie Martin of the Whitman Mission Historical Site, where the Whitmans and the other victims are buried in a mass grave, explained earlier this month why the National Park Service doesn’t use this word anymore.

“Because it’s always that if Indians killed people it’s a ‘massacre,’ and if the white settlers killed Indians, it was a ‘battle,’ and that’s just the old wording from when the history was told from the side of the victor,” Martin said. “And so we’ve tried to be sensitive to the tribes’ comments on that, and so we just don’t use the word ‘massacre.’”

And it’s not just the words that are changing. The National Park Service is in the midst of a decades-long transformation of the entire interpretation – the publications, the signage, the film at the visitor center – of the complex history symbolized by the Whitman Mission site.

“What we’re doing right now is tribal consultation to redo our brochure and redo our waysides, and then eventually [redo] our museum, because we’re 81 years old now and when we hit 100 years that will be the big focus, and we want to have this site updated and better well rounded history presented here,” Martin said, of what will be a long process. “To get the money and to get the installations done it will take us the next 20 years, so that’s what’s going on right now.”

Martin also envisions telling a broader narrative at site, beyond the events of Nov. 29, 1847.

“We don’t really want to feature just that one day when the deaths happened,” Martin said. “We like to feature the Walla Walla corridor and what was going on here at the time, and represent all sides of the story.”

The National Park Service has partnered with residents of the local French-Canadian community, whose Hudson Bay Company ancestors have been in the area since at least the 1830s, and with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and nearby Whitman College.

Stephanie Martin says the timing is somehow right to address the area’s complex history.

“It’s just like with Holocaust survivors. They always talk about how the first and second generations don’t talk about it. The third generation realizes there’s something bad that’s happened. And it takes the fourth and fifth generations to learn about it and to heal from it,” Martin said. “That’s where the Native people in this region are at. They’re finally at those generations where they’re looking at what happened here and saying it’s time for us to admit what happened, forgive what happened, and start to heal for our next generation. It’s not right to carry this burden on.”

Charles Sams III is communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in nearby Pendleton, Oregon, which includes the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes.

Sams and other tribal members and staff are actively engaged in the work Stephanie Martin described. He and others are particularly concerned with the fate of the “Cayuse Five,” the Native Americans who were hanged in June 1850 for the Whitman Mission attack.

“Some [of the Cayuse Five] are believed to be members who participated in the killing of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and several of their ranch hands and capturing of about 50 prisoners, but some of them are also believed to not have participated in the raid,” Sams said earlier this week. “What happened is these five came together and decided that they would turn themselves in. Matter of fact, one of the quotes from, I believe, Tomahas was, ‘Much like your savior Jesus Christ gave himself up for you, we are giving ourselves up for our people in order to stop the Cayuse War,’ that had promulgated because of the death of the Whitmans.”

Charles Sams says that the tribes’ interpretation of what led to the violence at the Whitman Mission was that Marcus Whitman was responsible for the huge influx of settlers, and that he failed as a doctor to prevent the deaths of too many Cayuse.

“He’d promised not to bring over settlers across the Oregon Trail and, in fact, he went and hired himself out to be a guide,” Sams said. Further, Sams says, failing to make an ill person well had dire consequences in tribal culture. “Just like any malpractice that happens today, doctors at that time were punished,” Sams said, “and under Indian law, your punishment if you had malpractice would include up to your life.”

Just as the National Park Service is evolving in how it tells the story of the Walla Walla corridor, the tribe, too, has been shifting in its emphasis and methods of sharing its history, says Charles Sams.

“We have been telling our story amongst ourselves and trying to get our story out for 150 years, and now that we’ve grown into a modern and more mature government, we’re able to do that,” Sams said. “We’re able to connect to multimedia to get that story out, and there’s been a strong interest throughout the Pacific Northwest, across the United States, and, in fact, across the world about what our version of our history is from ourselves.”

And part of the evolution of telling the story, according to Charles Sams, is renewing efforts to search for the Cayuse Five.

“We have oral histories that tell us of one of our elders, the late Lucy Minthorn, as a small girl, going to the actual gravesites in the early 1900s,” Sams said. “And we know through oral history and some writings in the 1950s [that] there was an effort to refind the burial sites to try and get the bodies moved here, and then it didn’t pick up steam again until the 1990s.”

Sams says that for now, the search is mostly about chasing a paper trail.

“Sometime after the 1900s, the exact location of the burial site seems to be lost. We know that the records must exist somewhere, because there [is] anecdotal evidence that people have seen it, and know these burial sites [are] demarcated somewhere on a plat map,” Sams said. “And so we’re hoping that by working with local governments, we’ll actually be able to locate the site.”

And if they do locate the Cayuse Five, what would this accomplish?

“What we would like to see is to have the Cayuse Five returned back home, back to the plateau region, back to their homelands so that they can be buried and laid to rest in full peace and recognize the sacrifices that they attempted to make in order to bring a sense of closure to that incident,” Sams said.

Jennifer Karson Engum is a cultural anthropologist for the tribe. She edited the tribal history that was published a few years ago, and she works closely with the National Park Service and with other agencies and groups. She’s also taking part in the search for the Cayuse Five.

“The Cayuse Five were [named] Clokomas, Kiamasumkin, Isiaasheluckas, Tomahas and Telokite,” Karson Engum said. “They were hung in Oregon City and they were taken off in a cart and they were put either in an unmarked grave or in a mass grave, and at this point, there’s ideas that they may be under a parking lot somewhere in Oregon City or in some not necessarily unknown cemetery.”

Karson Engum says that it was commemorations of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in 2003 and the sesquicentennial of the Treaty of 1855 that helped spur deeper conversations about tribal history within the tribe as well as with the broader community. For the renewed search for the Cayuse Five, she credits something called the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a public effort to build a “Riverwalk” next to Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

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Karson Engum says that the public agencies involved – Oregon City, Clackamas County and Tri-County Metro – are cooperating with the tribe to pore through old records and maps, and even use ground-penetrating radar, to try and locate where the Cayuse Five are buried. If and when a potential site is located, the search would likely require a full-scale anthropological investigation and archaeological excavation.

Why expend the effort and resources in 2017 to find graves that have been lost for more than a century?

“There’s not like a mystical answer to that,” said Jennifer Karson Engum. “It’s very much part of the same reason you would seek the remains of POWs and do that kind of search and bring them home … to give them a proper burial [with] the same rites and traditions a tribal burial would have here.”

Charles Sams agrees, and partly for personal reasons.

“I have a strong personal connection,” Sams said. “My sixth-generation great-grandmother, who was married to a non-Indian, was the godmother to the Cayuse Five. She was a Cayuse woman living in Oregon City at the time, and the Archbishop for the Oregon Territory [who baptized the five men as Catholics] had asked her and her husband to be their godparents.”

Sams also sees the tribe’s effort to find the Cayuse Five as a key step toward the men’s ultimate exoneration, since he says (and other legal scholars agree) that Oregon Territory had no legal jurisdiction over what had happened at Whitman Mission. The attack took place in November 1847, and Oregon Territory wasn’t created by the federal government until June 1848.

“By having them returned home and buried here, that at least rights a partial wrong that was done to the Cayuse Five and to the Cayuse people themselves,” Sams said. “And my hope is one day that the governor of the state of Oregon will exonerate the Cayuse Five in recognition that the state had no jurisdiction over the incident that happened at the settlement.”

For Charles Sams, the work of the tribe and the other groups with a stake in the area’s history has value far beyond the Cayuse Five, beyond those who died at Whitman Mission and even beyond the Walla Walla corridor.

“Getting both sides of what happened and having that clearly stated I think allows people a broader perspective of history,” Sams said, “and they can learn empathy, and they can learn from the mistakes of their past so they don’t repeat them in the future.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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