We Who Survived -13 Poison Theory and Mrs. Saunders
I know I am rather going all around the houses with these notes, but I need to put things down, and the order is often not clear, as so many things intersect. I want to talk about the poison theory and why the Indians felt that Dr. Whitman might be trying to kill them. My sources for this information, however, are not very reliable.
In '41 a man called William Gray worked as a carpenter for Dr. Whitman. According to hearsay, (mainly from John Munson, one of the half breed Indians who were allowed to leave the Mission), one
day William Gray injected a strong emetic (antimony potassium tartrate) into watermelons to keep the natives from stealing them. Dr. Whitman got the blame and this was part of the reasoning behind
the idea that Whitman was trying to poison them. “Gray used to tell us all about this,” said Munson, reminiscing about them as a comic occurrence. "We did not put in enough to kill them, and only in
the biggest melons, but only to make them sick. And we told them that some of the melons were poisoned and they must not take them."
A far more serious reason which made the Indians feel that Dr. Whitman was attacking them arose from poisoning animals which preyed on their sheep. John Munson said, "I spent the winter of '46 in Dr. Whitman's employment. I generally worked at the sawmill. During the time I was there, I observed that he had the habit of poisoning the wolves. Two young men from his house were
poisoning meat and putting it near places where wolves often came, a short distance around the Doctor's house. He once gave me some arsenic to kill the wolves around the sawmill. By his
order I poisoned some pieces of meat which I fixed at the end of short sticks about 1/4 mile from the sawmill Some Indians who happened to pass there took the meat, ate it and were near dying. The
doctor told me, laughing, that they would have certainly died if they had not drunk a great quantities of water to excite vomiting. "I had told them very often," he said "not to eat of that meat which we distributed for the wolves, that it would kill them; they will take care now, I suppose."
Joe Lewis is pointed out by nearly every one as being the scoundrel who spread the rumours about poisoning to the Indians.
Mr. Josiah Osborne, Oscar's father, wrote me this, "One day Joe Lewis was at work for an Indian named Tamsucky, harrowing in wheat and told him that the Dr. and Mrs. Whitman were scattering
poison into the air and would kill them all off. He then proposed that he would help them kill the doctor and his wife."
Regarding the custom of killing unsuccessful te-wats, McKinley wrote, “They shot seven of their own medicine men by the fort during my five years' stay there, and probably over three times that number altogether.” Both Dr. Whitman and Mrs. Whitman were aware of this practice. Sometimes Marcus would refrain from giving treatment when he felt the patient was near death and he would be
blamed if he died. They thought of Whitman as a te-wat, had the ability to cast a magic spell, and other supernatural powers. In The Dalles in September, '47, Dr. Whitman was passing through on his
return from the Willamette Valley and confronted some Cayuse and Walla Walla Indians who had been involved in an altercation with some immigrants which resulted in the deathof a man by the name of Shepherd. Whitman refused to shake hands with the Indian who had taken part in this. That night, the Indian choked on a piece of dried buffalo meat and died. Many thought Whitman had cast a spell which had caused the Indian's death, and therefore he was more to be feared than the
I have now heard from Mrs. Mary Saunders, who took a lead role in helping the children after the massacre.
December 10, 1880
Dear Mr. Young,
How nice to hear from you after all these years. I hope you and your family have fared well. I look forward to hearing more about you. I'm glad you were able to meet up with Oscar and Albert
I will tell you a bit of what I remember about those awful days. I won't repeat it all, as you know doubt have had the gist of it from Catherine Pringle and her sisters.
The afternoon of the massacre, I saw old Chief Beardy coming in great haste on horseback. Knowing him to be a member of Dr. Whitman’s church, I called to him repeatedly. He turned his head and looked at me, but did not slacken his pace until he reached the Mission, where the Indians were destroying the doors and windows. Going to Mrs. Hall’s door, I heard him talking in a very loud voice to the Indians as if scolding them.
I knew that the boys had been taken from my husband’s school and feared that the rest of us were going to be killed. It seemed to me as though someone said to me: “Go to their chief and beg for your lives.” I went to my bedroom, where were Mrs. Canfield and Mr. Gilliland and my children, and told them that God had told me to go and beg for our lives and that I was going to the Chief’s lodge.
First I went alone to the lodge of Nicholas Finley. I was surrounded by fierce men, who were talking and brandishing their weapons. Mrs. Finley, her sister and several other Indian women were standing by and some Walla Walla Indian men. The women seemed friendly. An Indian woman made signs to me that the Indians wanted to cut off my head.
From about 400 ft. away from the lodge was a hill that had three Indians on it, looking over the plains. One of these rode down trying to kill me but Mrs. Finley spoke to him and he rode off. Then
Chief Tiloukaikt rode down shaking his hatchet over my head and threatened me with it, but again Mrs. Finley urged him to desist and he rode off.
Then Edward, oldest son of the chief, rode down very rapidly, shaking his tomahawk over my head with fury. I had sunk down on a pile of matting in front of the lodge. But the Indian women shamed him and talked to him - then he rode off. I again saw Beardy, on a horse at Dr. Whitman's house, talking and gesticulating for some time. He rode toward me, and I saw that he was weeping. I made
motions for him to come to me. He went to the lodge with me.
John Manson was at the lodge when I arrived. I knelt down and begged him to interpret for me to the Chiefs as I did not understand the language of the natives. He said, "Tell them that if the doctor and men were bad, you did not know it. Your heart is good and you want to live. If they will spare your life, you will make caps, coats and pantaloons for them."
He interpreted for me, as I pleaded with the chief for the lives of my husband and for the women and children. They talked together about it.
Afterwards, the chief Tiloukaikt who had assisted at the murder said, "It is enough, No more blood must be shed. The Doctor is dead and the men are dead. These women and children have
not hurt us. They must not be hurt."
I was told I could go to the emigrant house. I then asked John, “Please won't you come home with me.”
"I do not dare to go, but I will ask."
The Chief then told Joe Stanfield to take me back to my quarters and to gather some meat. Then I rose from my knees and went with him The Chiefs and all the natives then left the lodge. They
went to Dr. Whitman's house. Very soon, several shots were fired there. Mrs. Finley came and told us that three more had been killed - Mrs. Whitman, Mr. Rodgers and Frank."
We managed to move the rest of the children over to the Mansion house. I said
to Catherine, "Your dear mother is dead. I will be as a mother to you now."
I was often in tears and afterwards heard that the Indians called me Mrs. Cry. They hate tears and I tried to hide my feelings, for they could have killed me if they wished; but they always treated me with decency and respect.
The next day Chief Beardy rode up to my door, calling for me. Eliza Spalding came out with me to interpret. Beardy said that he had heard me calling to him on the day of the massacre, but that Doctor Whitman was his friend and he was hurrying to reach the Mission before the Doctor had come to any harm, but alas, he had been too late. He also told me that he had saved our lives in the council; that when the Cayuses had refused to let Dr. Whitman’s body be buried, he had drawn his pistol and said that he would fight if he could not bury his friend.
Mr. McBean from Fort Walla Walla sent his interpreter called Bushman on Tuesday morning to make inquiry. I sent a note with Joe Stanfield and the half breed boys listing the names of eleven I
thought killed, unaware that the Osbornes and Mr. Canfield had escaped. When Bushman arrived he was so frightened that he came only to the door and as soon as they assured him that it had happened, he left.
Louise Sager died of the measles on Sunday evening. Helen Meek, 11, died Wednesday the 8th, and the Hays infant died on the 9th. Joe Stanfield dug the graves.
The Indians now had nobody to grind their wheat and corn as none of them had ever been taught how to do it. So Chief Tiloukaikt sent your brother Daniel to the sawmill to bring you and the Smiths back. Within a few days you had arrived and were quartered at the Emigrant house.
Timothy (pictured above) and Jason, the two Nez Percé Indians Mrs. Spalding had sent to Waiilatpu to get her daughter Eliza arrived the first part of that next week. Eliza wept for joy when she saw Timothy. He clasped the little girl in his arms and mingled his tears with hers. “Poor Eliza, don't cry. You will see your mother.”
The Cayuse Indians refused to let her go. Timothy planned to kidnap her, but the Cayuse said if he did so, they would kill her, so they returned home without her. The Indians needed her as an interpreter, as she was the only one who understood the native language.
Perhaps I could add a bit about what happened after we were rescued. I know you were there at the time, but we will have seen it from different viewpoints.
We were told we could leave for the fort on Wednesday the 29th, and when I asked if we could take our belongings, Tiloukaikt said, "Yes. Take all and heaps of food for the long journey." On the five days we had in hand, the five men butchered seven oxen and ground 16 bags of flour to take with us.
Catherine searched through the debris and found Dr. Whitman's original commission from the American Board and she took this and other items with her.
Once everyone was safe within the fort, Mr. Ogden paid the ransom and the Indians celebrated with a dance inside the fort yard. Mr. Ogden insisted that the women and children remain in locked
rooms with guards on the doors. After the dance the only ones allowed in were the old ones and those known to be friendly, and even these had to leave at sundown. A large band of Cayuses were camped just outside the fort. The Indians were very worried that there were American forces, come to avenge the murders. But Mr. Ogden said he knew nothing of this, and didn't think it was true. The Americans would not send the volunteers until the captives had been released. But he knew there was no time to lose. If they wanted to, the Indians could have burned the fort down with its wooden palisade. If the Americans attacked before the captives were safe, there would be a general massacre of all the captives.
Mr. Ogden said that if Rev. Spalding and the people from Nez Percé mission had not arrived by Saturday, January 1st, he would start without them. On Saturday noon, an Indian scout reached the
fort and said they were approaching. Canfield was reunited with his family and the Spaldings with their daughter. Mrs. Spalding found her daughter much changed from the healthy girl who had left her a month before. She was thin as a skeleton.
Early in the day Tamsucky came with his gun in his hand intending to kill Rev. Spalding. He waited by the side of the gate. Rev. Spalding came right in to see his daughter who had stayed in the
house. He kept his eyes on Tamsucky as he passed by. As there were so many Nez Percé who were armed, Tamsucky became alarmed and left by the opposite gate.
The ransom for the safe arrival of the Spalding party was paid. Mr. Ogden said, that it was his firm conviction that had not the women and children been given up, we would all have been murdered. So 67 of us made preparations to leave for Ft. Vancouver on the following morning. Much of the baggage had to be left behind and stored at the fort. David Malin Cortez who had been with the Whitmans
since March '42 was left behind with the priests - as nobody wanted to take responsibility for him.
I hope this has been of some use to you.
Mrs. Mary Saunders