In the 1830s, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries began to travel west to Oregon Country, eager to bring Christianity to the American Indians.
Stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the area consisted of present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and portions of Montana and Wyoming. In 1836, Presbyterian missionaries Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847) and Eliza Hart Spalding (1807-1851) became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide, traveling with their missionary husbands, Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874). The Whitmans settled among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu and the Spaldings among the Nez Perce at Lapwai.
In 1839, the Lapwai mission site received the first printing press to reach Oregon Country, donated by the First Native Church of Honolulu.
Henry and Eliza Spalding used it to print primers, hymn books, Bible stories, and the Gospel of Matthew, which Henry Spalding translated into the Nez Perce language.
Accidental deaths and illness were prevalent around the mission. The Whitmans’ daughter, Alice, tragically drowned in 1839 at the age of two. Eliza Spalding’s letters home to her family reveal the growing tensions between the missionaries and Indians. Conflicts intensified as white settlers continued to arrive in Oregon Country, bringing with them diseases to which the Indians had no immunity.
As both a doctor and missionary, Marcus Whitman’s position among the Cayuse was always somewhat precarious. Although Whitman ministered to all afflicted children equally, many of the white children recovered, while the Indian children died. Taking revenge for what they perceived as Whitman’s sorcery, several Cayuse massacred the Whitmans and twelve members of their mission on November 29, 1847. The remaining members, mostly women and children, were held captive but eventually released.