The mission established by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman near present-day Walla Walla, Washington was a way station for overland immigrants to Oregon. An outbreak of measles in 1847 ravaged the Cayuse tribe living
near the mission. Although Doctor Whitman gave medicines to the Indians fatalities among the tribe grew. On Nov. 29, 1847 the mission was attacked by the Cayuse and Doctor Whitman, his wife Narcissa and 12 other whites were killed.
An Indictment is Issued
In 1850, 29 months after the murders, Joseph Lane, newly appointed Governor of Oregon Territory, secured the surrender of 5 members of the Cayuse tribe. The defendants were brought more than 200 miles from their homes east of the Cascades to Oregon City where they were tried in U.S. District Court. The trial records show
one of the earliest and most documented murder trials in the Oregon Territory.
As preparations for a trial proceeded, summons to testify were issued:
The defendants' legal counsel filed a motion challenging the court's authority to hear the case, since the crime had been committed in "Indian Territory" and before Oregon Territory had been created. The defense attorneys based their arguments on the traditional Cayuse practice of killing ineffective medicine men.
The Trial Proceeds
Testimony from defense witnesses, Chief
Stikus and Dr. John McLoughlin, reinforced the defense contention that tribal custom
was to kill medicine men whose patients died.
Stikus's testimony was unusual, since existing
law in Oregon said
an "Indian shall not be a
witness in any court, or in any case against a white person." The fact that he was testifying against the government rather than a white man apparently
allowed his testimony.
A Verdict is Reached
After hearing 4 days of testimony the jurors returned a verdict of guilty. The 5 defendants, Telokite, Tomahas, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas and Kiamasumkin were publicly executed June 3, 1850.
Verdict in Whitman Massacre Trial
(Clackamas Co. U.S. District Court Records, U.S. vs. Telakite et al: Verdict - #57)
After the verdict, the defense attorneys filed a motion asking for a new trial based on a number of exceptions to rulings by the judge. Particularly noteworthy was Judge O.C. Pratt's instruction to the jury that the surrender of the defendants by the Cayuse nation, "the nation knowing best who those murderers were," could be viewed by the jury as evidence of the identity of the accused. Pratt had clearly pressed the jury for a guilty verdict.
Motion for new trial
(Clackamas Co. U.S. District Court Records, U.S. vs. Telakite et al: Motion by defendants - #59 & #60)