Oregon History: Cayuse Indian War

Cold winds swept across the Columbia Plateau. In November, 1847, they heralded the onset of the winter of discontent. Too long had the Cayuse Indians suffered from new diseases and the failed ministrations of Dr. Marcus Whitman. In their culture a shaman or curer who failed was subject to death. This doctor, a strapping, determined white man had come into their lands uninvited. The mission he and his wife established worked like a magnet to draw emigrants. Each year the wagon trains descended the Blue Mountains and, like the grasshoppers that swept across the countryside, they heralded discomforting changes. Smallpox, measles, fevers, death, and mourning came in their wake.
drawing of Whitman massacre
An illustration of "the Assassination of Marcus Whitman" from Marcus Whitman M.D.: Pioneer and Martyr by Clifford Merrill Drury, 1937.

photograph of Peter Skene Ogden
Peter Skene Ogden wanted to ransom the hostages taken by the Cayuse. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
On November 29, 1847, a band of Cayuse men, fed by fear and resentment, fell upon the missionary station. In a matter of hours they murdered Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and a dozen others. Two more died subsequently of exposure and 47, many orphaned children of emigrants, were taken captive. The Spaldings fled Lapwai and skirted the Cayuse homeland in their dash to safety. Panic swept through the Willamette settlements. Initially the settlers thought the tribes of the Columbia Plateau might drive through the Gorge and attempt to murder them, too.
The Provisional Legislature faced its greatest test. While Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company was rushing east with 16 men to try to ransom the hostages, Governor Abernethy called for "immediate and prompt action." The legislature authorized raising companies of volunteers to go to war against the Cayuse Tribe. It entrusted command to Colonel Cornelius Gilliam and named a committee to negotiate with the Hudson's Bay Company for loans of arms, ammunition, and supplies to mount the campaign. The government wrestled with two approaches: one, to send peace commissioners to try to persuade the Cayuse to turn over the perpetrators; and, two, to wage a war of retribution. In short order it did both. Governor Abernethy appointed a peace commission--Joel Palmer, Henry A.G. Lee, and Robert Newell. Gilliam, who did not approve of the commission, set out in January, 1848 with more than 500 volunteers.
The Cayuse War became, at times, a war of nerves. The peace commissioners and friendly Indians tried to end hostilities and get the Cayuse to turn over the killers of those at the Whitman station. Gilliam and his forces, eager for action, provoked conflicts with both friendly and hostile Indians. In March, having persuaded the Cayuse to surrender five men, the military brought them to Oregon City. They were charged, tried, and hanged in 1850. The guilt of the five Indians and the jurisdiction of the court were not fully established. Controversy swirled for decades after this trial--the first culminating in capital punishment following legal proceedings in the Oregon Territory.