Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, part 9


Over the prairie they came roaring. Their weapons were held aloft in clutched fists above their shaggy heads. Their war whoops filled the alkali dust-choked air. The tails of their ponies were either tied up as if for war or trailed out level with the force of the mob as it surged forward; bent on overtaking and surrounding the caravan that wound its slow way across the sagebrush flats. Blood-curdling yelps rose above the prairie.

Then suddenly there was only silence.

This hell-bent mob reined their ponies back on sweaty haunches not ten yards from where the two white women rode. One of the women was as bright and golden as the prairie sun: the other as dark as a night devoid of stars.

Pearl-white teeth, as well as old tobacco stained chompers framed in scraggly whiskers, showed in profusion as these men, some buckskin-clad and others near necked Indian-fashion, pulled off what various head gear they possessed and grinned broadly at the amazing sight before them.

Amongst the motley mob, the white headscarf Old Joe Meek had bound to the barrel of his gun as a sign of peace now hung gritty-limp in the heat of that July summer of 1836.

No doubt there was a hearty round of welcomes for this unique site for sore eyes of white women at the mountain man rendezvous there beside the upper Green River at the mouth of Horse Creek. The missionaries had arrived at rendezvous.

Amongst those who may have done some of the greeting to Mrs. Narcissa Whitman and Mrs. Eliza Spalding was Old Joe Meek. Meek wasnt really old, just referred to as such as a title of honor for being a man any fellow would be glad to have watching his backside along the icy beaver streams of the Rocky Mountains.

The jovial mountain men werent the only ones there to greet the missionary party. Here, the Whitmans and Spaldings were treated to the magnificent horsemanship of the Nez Perces.

Later that night in camp, the missionaries spread an oilcloth on the ground and invited some of their new native friends to dine with them. The menu included venison and buffalo roast somewhat well seasoned with salt, sand, and some dirt. But no matter, their guests, who included Chief Rotten Belly, surely paid no notice considering the wonder of this first site of white women.

Some years later Osborne Russell, one of the mountain men present at this rendezvous, recorded that the two women were gazed upon with wonder and astonishment by the rude Savages.

The missionaries other Nez Perce guest was a younger man by the name of Lawyer; it was a name that would be long remembered in the history of settling the northwest.

It wasnt just the Indians who had an extreme interest in Narcissa and Eliza. For some unknown reason the mountain men had a sudden intent interest in religion. Their interest was so overwhelming that they took time out from their whiskey drinking, gambling, general carousing and fringed buckskin skirt chasing to attend the daily religious services being held. And they welcomed the Bibles that the two ladies handed out freely.

Narcissa and Elizas biscuit baking efforts made a big impression on the men, white and red, as well. So impressed was Joe Meek by the biscuits that he devised a clever scheme to obtain a hefty share of the golden-brown morsels. To his credit, Joe proved hed paid a bit more attention to those Sunday school lessons back in his Virginia boyhood than he probably admitted to.

First off, Joe observed that Mrs. Whitman was handing out biscuits to any of her newly acquired Nez Perce Bible students who could reasonably well repeat Bible verses per her instructions. Joe then got friendly with one young Nez Perce lad who had picked up just enough English somewhere to make him self understood. Taking the Indian lad off into the bushes, Joe would recite a Bible verse until the lad could repeat it. Then Joe would send the boy to recite the verse to Narcissa who would give the boy a biscuit. Somehow, Joe had convinced the Indian boy to bring him back the biscuit each time. We can only hope that Old Joe shared those earned treats with the lad.

Meek and the Indians werent the only ones who fell victim to Narcissas various golden charms. Also succumbing to Narcissas charisma was Sir William Drummond Stewart. This Scottish nobleman, who was a British Army captain on half-pay, was attending his third rendezvous. Stewart, with Joshua Pilcher, stayed near the two missionary women as the Indians crowded close, paying a rowdy homage to them. The attentions of the two men were surely welcomed as hundreds of Nez Perces, Flatheads, Bannocks, and Shoshones crowded together near the missionaries tents.

Soon the gathering was joined by a brigade of the Hudsons Bay Company, captained by John McLeod and Thomas McKay, who were escorting Nathaniel Wyeth eastward. Wyeth, who had come west and built Fort Hall, was headed home since his western business had become a contrived shambles. But the one person the group of missionaries would have welcomed the most was absent from the rendezvous gathering.

The Reverend Samuel Parker, whom Whitman had made his first journey westward with, was not present as he had promised to be. The missionaries had expected to find Parker there and to be led westward by the reverend. Now they were in despair as what to do. This last stretch of their long journey westward was known to be the hardest of all. Out there, beyond Fort Hall (present-day Idaho) rose a range of mountains more treacherous to cross than the Rockies would ever be. That range, called the Blue Mountains, was the last major barrier between the missionaries and their unknown future.