Marcus Whitman was born in Rushville, New York on September 4, 1802. After studying under a local doctor, he received his degree in 1832 from the medical college at Fairfield, New York. Whitman practiced medicine for four years in Canada before returning to New York where he became an elder of the Presbyterian church. After volunteering with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the umbrella group for Protestant missions to Indian peoples, he scouted potential mission sites in 1835.
Narcissa Prentiss was born in Prattsburg, New York on March 14, 1808 into a devout Presbyterian family. A fervently religious child, she pledged her life to missionary work at the age of sixteen. After she completed her own education, she taught primary school in Prattsburg. In 1834 she moved with her family to Belmont, New York and later also volunteered with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. However, the Board resisted sending an unmarried woman as a missionary. The solution came with her marriage to Marcus.
The Whitmans traveled to Oregon in 1836 with another missionary couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding, and with a prospective missionary named William H. Gray. Along the way, Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. The Whitmans reached the Walla Walla River and founded a mission to the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu. The Spaldings founded a mission to the Nez Percé at Lapwai in present-day Idaho.
The couple began their missionary service strongly optimistic. Marcus held church services, practiced medicine, and constructed buildings while Narcissa ran their household, assisted in the religious ceremonies, and taught in the mission school. But over time misunderstandings and tensions arose over cultural and religious differences with the Cayuse. When the Whitman's superiors in the East decided to close the mission because of a lack of results in 1842, Marcus traveled through the winter to reach them and win a reversal of their decision. On his return trip in 1843 he guided the "Great Migration" of settlers, some 1000 strong, to the Oregon Country. Soon, the Whitmans were spending more time on the needs of the growing number of immigrants than they were ministering to the Cayuse.
Increasingly frustrated, Marcus intended to move his family but a measles epidemic quickly changed his plans. The epidemic struck both white and Indian children. But while the white children recovered, the Indian children, lacking immunity, died in large numbers. Many of the Cayuse saw this as a plot designed to remove them to make way for white settlers. On Nov. 29, 1847, a group of Indians attacked, killing 14 whites, including the Whitmans; kidnapping 53 women and children; and burning the mission buildings.
The attack caused outrage in the white settlements of Oregon and led directly to the Cayuse War that lasted until 1850. In the aftermath, five Cayuse men were eventually surrendered, convicted, and hanged in Oregon City. The massacre drew national attention to the problems faced by settlers in the West and led to early passage of a bill to organize the Oregon Territory in 1848.
(Sources: End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Museum | New Perspectives on the West | Encyclopædia Britannica | Dictionary of Oregon History)