The Whitman Massacre on November 29,
1847 instigated the Cayuse War which would last for seven bloody years
between the Cayuse people and the United States Government and local white
In 1836, missionary couple,
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman founded the Whitman or Waiilatpu Mission about seven
miles west of present-day Walla Walla,
Washington. Though development of
the mission was slow, it would eventually include a large adobe mission
house, several residences, a shelter for emigrants, a gristmill; and a
blacksmith shop. In addition to the primary role of attempting to convert
the Cayuse to Christianity, the mission began to serve as a way station
and landmark along the
Whitmans' energy and
devotion, progress in educating and converting the Cayuse was slow, as the
vast majority of them rejected the idea of farming, continuing their
nomadic way of life, and were indifferent to their preachings. Tensions
between the white settlers and the
Indians were also increased by
quarrelling among the various missions, the increasing number of white
settlers, and numerous cultural misunderstandings. As tensions increased,
the Whitmans began to devote more and more time to caring for emigrants
and less to the Cayuse.
Worse, the new settlers brought
diseases with them and in 1847 a measles epidemic spread from the wagon
trains to their villages and within two months killed about half of them.
When Marcus Whitman, a practicing physician, was unable to check the
epidemic, the Cayuse came to believe he was poisoning them to make way for
Seeking revenge, Cayuse tribesmen
attacked the Whitman Mission on November 29, 1847, killing fourteen
settlers, including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and destroying most of
the buildings. Afterwards, the
Indians held 53 women and children captive
for ransom before eventually being released.
This event, which became known as the
Whitman Massacre, started the Cayuse War. The following year, a force of
over 500 militiamen, led by fundamentalist clergyman Cornelius Gilliam and
supported by the United States Army, marched against the Cayuse and other
native inhabitants of central
Oregon, demanding the surrender of the
warriors responsible for the Whitman Massacre.
But, the Cayuse refused to make peace
and began to raid isolated settlements. US troops and militiamen were then
called in to suppress the Cayuse. In 1850, five Cayuse warriors were
captured by the military and tried for the murder of the
five were convicted by a military commission and hanged on June 3, 1850.
However, this did not end the
conflict, as bloodshed continued in the area until the Cayuse were finally
defeated in 1855. With their numbers significantly reduced by the war, the Cayuse were placed on a reservation with the
and their tribal lands were confiscated.
The war had significant long-term
consequences for the region, opening up the Cayuse territories to white
settlement, but wrecking relations between whites and the native tribes
and setting the scene for a series of fresh wars over the following 40
of America, updated December, 2012.