September 1

This Day in History

Old West

Sep 1, 1836:

First Anglo women settle west of the Rockies

On this day in 1836, Narcissa Whitman arrives in Walla Walla, Washington, becoming one of the first Anglo women to settle west of the Rocky Mountains.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, along with their close friends Eliza and Henry Spalding, had departed from New York earlier that year on the long overland journey to the far western edge of the continent. The two couples were missionaries, and Narcissa wrote that they were determined to convert the "benighted ones" living in "the thick darkness of heathenism" to Christianity. That summer when they crossed the continental divide at South Pass, Narcissa and Eliza became the first Anglo-American women in history to travel west of the Rocky Mountains. Toward the end of their difficult 1,800-mile overland journey, the two couples split up, with the Spaldings heading for Idaho while Narcissa and her husband traveled to a settlement near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, where they established a mission for the Cayuse Indians. For 11 years the couples' missionary work went well, and they succeeded in converting many of the Cayuse to Christianity. But in 1847, a devastating measles epidemic swept through the area, killing many of the Cayuse, who had no immunity to the disease, while leaving most of the white people at the mission suspiciously unharmed. Convinced that the missionaries or their god had cursed them with an evil plague, in November of 1847, a band of Cayuse attacked the mission and killed 14 people, including Narcissa and her husband. Narcissa Whitman thus became not only one of the first white women to live in the Far West, but also one of the first white women to die there.

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