Narcissa Whitman Analysis
by Jeanette Eaton

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Narcissa Whitman Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Eaton’s presentation of the settling of Oregon in Narcissa Whitman is convincing and believable. She does not support either the whites or the Native Americans, instead presenting the facts and the plight of both sides. The differing tribes and individual members are not stereotyped but are portrayed like the whites, as good and bad. Although Eaton shows both whites and Native Americans suffering disease, death, and hardships, however, the concept of Manifest Destiny is evident, disguised somewhat in patriotism and philanthropy. It is ironic that the Whitmans initially wanted to help the Cayuse, teaching agriculture and trying to Christianize them, while simultaneously leading more and more emigrants to Oregon. As Marcus Whitman stated, “Oregon isn’t going to remain neutral long. It will be settled by Americans and belong to us.” The Whitmans came to Oregon as missionaries, but they soon became patriots. The local tribes were patient for many years until they saw the end of their way of life. By then it was too late, however, because the whites, who had an entire nation behind them, believed that “no portion of the human race can ask exclusive ownership of vast territories just to roam in.” The publicity of the Waiilatpu massacre slowed the settling of Oregon somewhat, but it hastened the Native Americans’ demise by advancing the United States Calvary westward. The Cayuse turned over those involved in the massacre—many of them chiefs, who were hanged—but this action did not help them.

Admittedly, Eaton includes some biased terms, but these seem to reveal the prejudices of the day rather than her own. She cites an Indian agent, quoted in the Methodist Christian Advocate, who told a touching story of Native Americans who walked a thousand miles to find the white person’s God, begging teachers to bring religion to their people. The text states that the Cayuse are “proud, grasping, haughty” and “the trickiest and cruelest of all tribes in the Northwest.” To steal, hunt, and fight were their “savage delights.”

Some events during the adventure, especially at the beginning as the group traveled west, are romanticized, with naïve hopes and dreams of nature’s paradise with childlike, friendly tribes begging for the whites’ help. These expectations are balanced, however, with the Cayuse’s independence and self-sufficiency and with illness, lack of food, loneliness, and conflicts among other missionaries, even other Methodist missionaries. The Whitmans’ only child drowned while under the care of a Native American woman, and a carpenter working at the settlement went insane and committed suicide. Of the two Nez Perces who befriended the Whitmans during their trip and later in their settlement, Richard, described as lazy and of little help, returned to his tribe, while John stayed as a helpful friend. There were converts among the Nez Perces and Spokanes, but very few from the Cayuse; some thought that the Native Americans were confused...

(The entire section is 724 words.)