Missionaries, measles, and manuscripts: revisiting the Whitman tragedy

Melanie J. Norton, John Booss


The missionaries Marcus Whitman, a doctor, and Narcissa Whitman, his wife, and twelve other members of the Waiilatpu Mission were murdered in November 1847 by a small contingent of the Cayuse Indians in the Oregon Territory. The murders became known as the “Whitman Massacre.” The authors examine the historical record, including archived correspondence held at the Yale University Libraries, for evidence of what motivated the killings and demonstrate that there were two valid perspectives, Cayuse and white. Hence, the event is better termed the “Whitman Tragedy.” The crucial component, a highly lethal measles epidemic, has been called the spark that lit the fuse of the tragedy.


Measles; Disease; Epidemics; Missionaries; American Indians

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Drury CM. The Whitman massacre. In: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the opening of old Oregon. Glendale CA: Arthur H. Clark; 1973. p. 205–65, 476, 435.

Crosby AW. Virgin soil epidemics as a factor in the aboriginal depopulation in America. William Mary Q. 1976 Apr;33(2):289–99. [cited 7 Jul 2018]. .

Whitman M. Whitman family papers, 1838–1847. (Yale University, Beinecke Library, Gift of William Robertson Coe).

Boyd R. The Pacific Northwest measles epidemic of 1847–1848. Oregon Hist Q. 1994 Spring;95(1):6–47.

Jeffrey JR. Converting the West: a biography of Narcissa Whitman. University of Oklahoma Press; 1991.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/jmla.2019.538


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