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The Gathering Storm

One of the results of the increasing number of emigrants on the Oregon Trail was the Cayuse's conviction that their way of life was in danger. Although the emigrants, up to now, had continued on to the rich Willamette Valley, the Indians feared the day when the settlers would stop on Cayuse land. The Cayuse were quick to identify the Whitmans with the tide of settlers. Tom Hill, a Delaware Indian living among the nearby Nez Percé, contributed to this conviction. He told the Cayuse that before long the emigrants would be taking their lands. This, after all, was what had happened to his own people. He also said that the Whitmans were becoming rich from the sale of their produce to the travelers, and he argued that this wealth should be used in helping the Indians.

The Cayuse's concerns were intensified by the increasing interest Dr. Whitman was showing in the emigrants. The doctor himself foresaw that the Indians' mode of living would not be able to withstand the encroachments of the aggressive settlers for very long. It seemed obvious to him that the future of Oregon belonged to the whites. As Whitman turned his attention more and more to the problems of emigration, which he was forced to do by the very presence of the travelers, there was naturally a decrease in the time and effort he could devote to the Indians. Furthermore, the results of more than 10 years labor among the Cayuse offered little encouragement, and he feared that the future would be little better. The Cayuse were quick to sense this change. When they did, they lost their faith in the purpose of the mission and in the missionaries themselves.

These growing resentments and suspicions were heightened in the autumn of 1847 when a measles epidemic spread from that year's wagon train to Cayuse villages. This was a new disease for the Cayuse, and their bodies had little resistance to it. The effect of the disease in the lodges was disastrous. Within 2 months about half the Cayuse tribe died from measles or from the accompanying dysentery, though the Whitmans tried desperately to relieve the suffering. Panic stricken, the Cayuse lost completely their faith in Whitman's medicine and turned to their traditional treatments. A sweat bath, followed by a plunge into the cold river, practically assured their immediate death.

With the wagons of 1847, a half-breed named Joe Lewis had arrived at Waiilatpu. Whitman soon learned that Lewis was a troublemaker, but had no success in getting rid of him. When the epidemic struck, Lewis told the Cayuse that Whitman was spreading poison in the air to kill off the tribe. He said that when all the Indians were dead, Whitman was going to take their lands for himself. The more desperate of the Indians believed Lewis and decided to rid themselves of the doctor who now seemed a man of evil design. In this belief, they were encouraged by Nicholas Finley, another half-breed living near the mission. His lodge, a few hundred feet from the mission house, became a headquarters for the malcontents.

In the minds of these Cayuse there was no question of their right to dispose of Dr. Whitman. One of the practices of the tribe for generations was that if a patient of a medicine man, or tewat, should die, the sick person's relative could seek revenge by killing the tewat. Since measles was a white man's disease and since Whitman, a white doctor, surely knew the cure, they believed that he was deliberately withholding that cure from them. Their people were dying, and revenge should be extracted from tewat Whitman.

The Whitmans had long been aware of the dangers that faced them because of the Indians' attitude toward medicine. But, with their high sense of obligation and responsibility, they had threaded their way through the maze of superstitions, sometimes at great risks, but always with success—until 1847.

Although the majority of the Cayuse had become concerned with the events of that autumn, only a few extremists took part in planning an attack on the mission. As November 1847 drew to a close both the whites at the mission and the Cayuse leaders knew that a crisis was at hand. This crisis grew out of a conflict between two groups holding opposing ideas, each believing itself to be right. The Whitmans believed they were fulfilling a destiny that God had determined for them. The Cayuse believed they were doing what was necessary to defend and preserve their land and their way of life.


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Last Modified: Sat, Sep 28 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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