Waiilatpu Massacre

The Columbia River, where the ships that stopped at Fort Vancouver anchored

The bank of the mighty Columbia River off Fort Vancouver, where the ships anchored

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and the Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade, will be published by Ronsdale Press in May, 2024. You may order or pre-order the book here: 

From my first book, The Pathfinder, I post the brief introduction to the 1847 measles epidemic in the Columbia district and New Caledonia [British Columbia], that eventually resulted in the massacre of the missionaries at Waiilatpu, near Fort Nez Perces. This is an incident that changed history in many different ways: British Columbia’s history as well as that of old Oregon Territory.

Measles began to sicken a few Dakelh around the fort [Fort Alexandria], and Anderson took the precaution of teaching the chiefs how to treat the illness. In January 1848, a few women and children inside the fort took to their beds, and two weeks later the houses were crowded with the sick. By the end of the month, everyone at Fort Alexandria had recovered, but all around the fort the Dakelh succumbed to the virulent epidemic that spread rapidly.

In mid-February, Anderson learned that every man at Kamloops had been laid low by the measles, and 35 Natives had died. At Fort Colvile, 100 Natives were dead, but Anderson believed these reports were exaggerated. They were not. The measles epidemic had begun months earlier in the Columbia district, and the results had severe implications for all the posts west of the Rocky Mountains.

The measles arrived in the Columbia district with Walla Walla chief’s Peu-Peu-Mox-Mox’s trading expedition, which returned from Sutter’s Fort, California, in summer 1847. Dysentery appeared at about the same time, introduced by the American emigrants who traveled in via the Oregon Trail. The two diseases spread through the district and thousands of Indians were sickened and killed by measles, or dysentery, or a combination of the two.

For more information on this infestation, see: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/measles-1847/

On his return home with the York Factory Express in October 1847, Thomas Lowe saw the effects of the diseases, but he did not know what the end result would be. Here are some excerpts from his journals. I begin with his arrival at Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla, WA].

Sunday 14th Novr. 1847. Arrived at Fort Nez Perces after breakfast, and Mr. [William] McBean gave us a salute of 7 guns. Here we found the Measles very prevalent, the Indians were dying in great numbers…

Wednesday 17th. Reached the Chutes early this morning, and succeeded in getting the boats and pieces across with our eight men & only about a dozen Indians, most of them being sick…

Friday 19th. Reached the Cascades in time for breakfast. Found about 70 waggons of American Immigrants there…

Saturday 20th November. Started from the Saw Mill two hours after daylight, and reached [Fort] Vancouver about 10 am. Found all well. The Fort fired a salute of 7 guns. The measles now raging much in the upper country have not yet reached this…

Friday 26th Novr. Fine mild weather. The measles has broken out amongst our men. It has been prevailing to a great extent for some time past amongst the Indians up the River…

Friday 3rd December. Measles is become very prevalent amongst the men outside, and several cases have already occurred within the Fort, but nothing dangerous as yet.

6th, Monday. In the evening, [Edouard] Beauchemin arrived from Walla Walla with the startling intelligence that Dr. [Marcus] Whitman and his Lady, beside 9 other Americans have been massacred by the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu. Most of the women and children have been spared…

Beauchemin’s story was true! The Cayuse were an independent and powerful tribe who lived close to the Whitman’s Waiilatpu Mission, twenty-five miles from Fort Nez Perces. Whitman made many errors in dealing with these proud people, and some Cayuse chiefs had grown to hate him. Rightly or wrongly, they blamed Whitman for the many deaths among their people. A small group of Cayuse invaded the mission house and shot Whitman and his wife: others attacked and killed several American men who were butchering a cow near the grist mill.  Two men escaped the massacre and fled to the protection of fur trade posts, bringing the news to the attention of the HBC. Beauchemin, who was employed at Fort Nez Perces, rode to the mission to confirm the news, and quickly escaped after checking that the women were still alive. He arrived at Fort Vancouver with the information a few days later, and Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden set off up the Columbia River with a strongly armed party of voyageurs. His goal was to rescue the American women who had been parceled out among the Indian chiefs as wives. James Douglas remained behind at Fort Vancouver to deal with the Americans in the territory that surrounded them — no small challenge in itself.

Ogden was the perfect man for this job, and no one else could have successfully extracted these women from the hands of the chiefs. Ogden knew at any time they could have been slaughtered, and so his negotiations were delicate, but firm. He told the Cayuse he could not protect them from the wrath of the American Armies that were coming to kill them, and that to save their own lives they must bring the women into the fort. He purchased them with HBC blankets and clothing [which ransom the Americans never repaid, in spite of their many promises], Only a few days after the rescue was completed, and while Ogden was waiting for the arrival of other missionaries in the territory, the Cayuse learned the Americans were coming upriver to fight them. Ogden said their excitement was such that if the women had still been in their hands, they would have been murdered.

Here is Ogden’s departure from Fort Vancouver, and the continuing measles epidemic, as written in Thomas Lowe’s Fort Vancouver journal:

7th, Tuesday [December 1847] Rainy weather. In consequence of the massacre at Waiilatpu Mr. Ogden started for Walla Walla late this afternoon with a boat and 16 men, taking Mr. [John] Charles along with him. Mr. McBean writes that the Fort is threatened by the Indians, but this is not supposed to be the case, and the principal object of Mr. Ogden’s trip is to rescue the surviving women and children and to prevent further outrage…

8th, Wednesday. Raining most of the day. Almost all our working hands are laid up with the measles, and it is only the white who are able to work.

There were many deaths from measles at Fort Vancouver, almost always half-breed or Kanaka [Hawaiian] employees, or Native wives of white employees — people who had no immunity to the disease. There was news of skirmishes between the Indians and the American Army, with the Cayuse generally winning these first battles. The volunteer Army camped in front of the fort [That is an interesting story in itself, that will not be told in the York Factory Express book].

In January 1848, Ogden returned to Fort Vancouver:

8th, Saturday. In the forenoon Mr. Ogden arrived from Walla Walla with 3 boats, bringing all the women and children who survived the massacre at Waiilatpu, as as also the whole of those at Mr. Spaulding’s station [another mission], amounting in all to 61 souls. There were also the following passengers, Mr. Charles who went up with Mr. Ogden, Mr. [John Mix] Stanley an American artist, Bishop [Norbert] Blanchette and two other Priests. Mr. Ogden had to purchase the women and children from the Indians giving them 62 blankets, 62 shirts, 12 guns and some ammunition for them, telling them at the same time that the HB Co. were not to interfere in the quarrel, that it must be settled between the Americans and themselves. Had to find quarters for all these people until Monday, when Mr. Ogden intends taking them all up to Oregon City.

10th, Monday. In the afternoon Mr. Ogden started for Oregon City with all the passengers he brought down from Walla Walla, in two batteaux. He is to transfer them to the Governor, and leave him to dispose of them.

17th, Monday. Mr. Ogden returned in the afternoon from the Wallamette. On his way up he was saluted both at Portland and Oregon City.

The whole of Oregon Territory fell into a state of war, and continued so for months. The effects of the measles also continued: on February 23, Thomas Lowe reported the death of the York Factory Express guide, probably from the after effect of measles:

Joe Tayentas died of inflammation of the lungs, after an illness of only 4 days. He was guide to York Factory for 8 years running, and was one of the most efficient men in the Columbia. His loss will be much felt.

Measles destroys the immune system for a full year, allowing other diseases to take over and kill. It is probable that Tayentas and many other men and women in this district died from tuberculosis after an attack of measles. Thomas Lowe’s own wife, LaRose Birnie, would succumb to tuberculosis after measles a year or two later.

The 1848 York Factory Express would leave Fort Vancouver in March, and Thomas Lowe was again deputed to take it out, through the war-torn Columbia District. On Friday March 17th, Lowe “had the three boats gummed to day which are to start on Monday with the York Factory Express.” On Saturday, he was “Getting all the pieces laid out for the Express Boats.” On Monday he wrote:

Memo. 20th March 1848. Started from Fort Vancouver in charge of the Overland Express to York Factory, Hudson’s Bay.

Thomas Lowe would not use the traditional York Factory Express route in 1848, but a different route used more commonly by the New Caledonia brigades. He made it in safety to Fort Colvile in April, and learned that:

The Revd Mssrs Walker & Eels with their families have likewise been here for the last 6 weeks, having been obliged to abandon their Mission at Tchimakain on account of the Indians who were threatening to murder them, as they had done Dr. Whitman & his people.

Traveling upriver with Thomas Lowe were nine clerks and men who were going to take the Fort Colvile brigades out on horseback by the newly explored trail west of Kamloops and Nicola Valley to the banks of the Fraser River. They had never taken out their furs by horse brigade before, generally coming downriver in their boats. But this year was different!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Waiilatpu Massacre

  1. Beth Camp

    Although the events unfolding here occur just after my own work in progress (fiction), I love reading the way you bring to life these events of so long ago and the intrepid people who went about their days with courage and conviction. I’m noticing the reappearance of Mr. Charles once again . . . as well as the address (Mr.). Looking forward to that next book of yours. Best, Beth

  2. Tom Holloway

    It’s good to have another perspective on these troubled times! Your sources lead me to ask whether Thomas Lowe’s journals have ever been published, and if not, why not? From the bits I’ve seen they are a rich source.
    For more on the boats used in these trips up and down the Columbia, see the latest posting on my blog:

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Tom, I need to tell my followers about your blog!! Will do it soon. Thomas Lowe’s journals have never been published. I may just do it. (But his York Factory Express journals will be in the next book).

      1. Tom Holloway

        Thanks very much. I’ve heard tell than David Hansen, former Curator at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, has (had?) plans to publish Lowe’s journals, but as far as I know that has not happened.