SPRINGWATER — The journey out west would prove to be fatal for a local group of missionaries.
“Narcissa Prentiss: Pioneer, Missionary, and Teacher” was presented at the Springwater American Legion on March 27 by Sandra Conley,The Committee to Preserve the Narcissa Prentiss House president.
Narcissa Prentiss Whitman’s life came to a tragic end in 1847 when a small group of Cayuse Indians massacred she, her husband Marcus, and 11 other men. They took several women and children at the mission hostage as well.
Conley told of this iconic woman and the story that she left behind over a century ago.
“This story is very important to me,” she said. “Narcissa is one of the best known and most loved characters of the Pacific Northwest. She was among the first settlers in Prattsburgh. She was a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed, pale skinned girl who had a great sense of humor. She was very religious and musical as well.”
Prattsburgh native Narcissa Prentiss was born in 1808 and raised in a family which honored faith and education. In the summer of 1824 at a revival held at the Prattsburgh Presbyterian Church, the young female’s story would take shape.
It was at this time she felt the call to be a missionary. She attended the Franklin Academy and Collegiate Institute in Prattsburgh and taught there and in Bath.
Just over a decade later she would hear Rev. Samuel Parker in Amity (now Belmont) talk about the importance and growing need of missionaries out west.
“Narcissa asked if single women would be allowed to be missionaries, and Samuel Parker told her she would need to be married,” Conley said. “Samuel Parker went on to tell the young Marcus Whitman about Narcissa and her dream to be a missionary. By February 1835 the two became engaged with the intention of going west in 1836.”
Narcissa and Marcus were married in the sleepy town of Angelica.
“Marcus was a very religious man who wanted to be a minister. However, his family could not afford it, so he became a doctor instead,” Conley said. “He was told by some Indians about the need for missionaries in the Pacific Northwest.”
The Whitman’s would not be the only ones to embark on this adventure. Rev. Henry H. Spalding and his wife, Eliza, also went on the trip.
“Henry was angry that Narcissa had denied his engagement, so there was some tension between him and Marcus,” Conley said. “In 1836 Narcissa and Marcus married in Angelica, and the song Missionary Farewell brought tears to everyone’s eyes. They were all so overcome by emotion that Narcissa was the last one singing by the end of the song.”
Together these explorers traveled across rugged terrain on a six month journey to the western shores. The miles on steamboat, horseback, and wagon were 3,000 in total.
The most significant part of this trip came in the form of the first two non-Indian women to travel such a distance that had only been taken on by hardy explorers and trappers.
The Whitman Mission is one of the most documented tragedies of the time period, and made more tragic in that it could’ve been avoided.
With Marcus as a doctor and Narcissa as a school teacher, they surrounded the Cayuse Indians with faith, love, and understanding. They tended to the Indians as well as white travelers who needed rest.
Narcissa’s letters of her faith-filled journey were published in many newspapers, making her a sensation among young girls who grew in her shadow.
“Narcissa and Eliza both recorded their travels in journals, but Narcissa’s are more well known,” Conley said. “There are monuments in place all over the country in honor of the mission. They go from Ithaca to Walla Walla, Washington.”
Tragedy came to Narcissa and Marcus when they lost their only child, Alice Clarissa Whitman, at the tender age of two. The toddler drowned when she took her cup down to get a drink as her parents read.
“She had no other children of her own. She fostered 16 children including Indians,” Conley said. “She adopted six siblings who had lost their parents on the trail. Two of those children would be killed in the massacre. The others were taken hostage by the Cayuse Indians.”
The Narcissa Prentiss House talks about the Whitman Mission, early days, and the Pratts family who founded Prattsburgh.
“We have just put on a new roof and gutters, so the house looks really great,” Conley said. “In 1936 the shabby house was taken by the mission and turned into a museum in Narcissa’s memory. There are a lot of great artifacts from that time period at the house.”
The Whitman Mission itself may be gone but their faith will never be forgotten. It is etched on the hearts and minds of all who make the journey and hear their story.
The Narcissa Prentiss House is open for guided hour tours in July and August on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment. You can call 607-522-3542 or 607-566-8358 to make an appointment. It is located at 7226 County Route 75, Prattsburgh. Donations to the house can be made out to The Narcissa Prentiss House and mailed to 7226 County Rt. 75, P.O. Box 201, Prattsburgh NY 14873. The committee is always asking for volunteers, and for that you can call the numbers above. For more information visit www.narcissaprentisshouse.com