Whitman Massacre Trial

Illustration of 1847 Cayuse Indian attack on Marcus Whitman. Marcus sits in a chair with Indian coming up behind him with
The 1847 Cayuse Indian attack on missionary Marcus Whitman. (Illustration from Marcus Whitman M.D.: Pioneer and Martyr by Clifford Merrill Drury, 1937.)
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.

Indictment in the Whitman Trial (Clakamas Co. U.S. District Court Records, U.S. vs. Telakite et al: Indictment- #16)

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"Drawing of the Whitman Mission, 1884" from Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, vol. 1, by Clifford M. Drury, 1973.
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.

Demurrer (objection) challenging the court's authority (Clackamas Co. U.S. District Court Records, U.S. vs. Telakite et al: Motion - #40 & 41)

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.
Handwritten note on old paper shows bill of costs for whitman trial to be a total of 31.25.
Bill of costs shows the total expense for the trial to be $31.25. Despite attention received by the case, costs remained modest. (Enlarge image)

Testimony of Indian Chief Stikus (Clackamas Co. U.S. District Court Records, U.S. vs. Telakite et al: Testimony of Stikus #54)
Testimony of Dr. John McLoughlin (Clackamas Co. U.S. District Court Reords, U.S. vs. Telakite et al: Testimony of McLoughlin #56)

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)