On the first day of class this semester, Kristine Leier, a senior majoring in history and anthropology, returned one of the more macabre items owned by the WSU Libraries: a lock of hair from the murdered missionary, Narcissa Whitman.
Hair is not something we at WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections still collect. And how it came to be here, and where it has been for the last half century, turned out to be an intriguing story.
Narcissa Whitman’s name is familiar to many in the Northwest. She and her husband, Marcus, established their mission to the Cayuse Indians near Walla Walla in 1836. However, they made poor missionaries. The Whitmans misunderstood Cayuse culture, never learned their language, and over time stopped their missionary work. After years of increasing tension, on November 29, 1847, a group of Cayuse murdered the Whitmans and eleven others.
Some of the Cayuse were angry at the Whitmans for turning their mission compound into a hotel of sorts for thousands of settlers immigrating into the region and blamed them for the spread of a devastating measles epidemic that killed an estimated half of the tribe. After an inconclusive military campaign to find the perpetrators, five Cayuse surrendered to the Oregon Territorial Government and were summarily tried and executed. The surviving Cayuse were forced on to a reservation near Pendleton, Oregon. Assessments of Narcissa Whitman among historians range from heroic martyr to intolerant invader.
As head of MASC, I first came across a surprising reference to Narcissa’s hair at WSU while researching the early development of the WSU archives. In 1935, President E. O. Holland hired Clifford Drury, a pastor at the Frist Presbyterian Church in Moscow, Idaho, to collect sources relating to the early Protestant missionaries to the Northwest. In a report later that year to WSU Librarian W. W. Foote, Drury wrote that he bought a lock of Narcissa’s hair for $5.
It struck me as strange that WSU would collect hair. And if the school did, what happened to it? I am aware of some unusual artifacts associated with our manuscript collections: a Spanish sword from the 1880s, chamber pots from the Multnomah Hotel, to name a few. But a lock of hair from a murdered missionary?
As I searched other archives, I found a startling number of collections of her hair elsewhere: a lock displayed in the “history room” in the village hall of Rushville, New York; six separate donations of Narcissa’s hair (of varying colors) at Whitman College; her hair woven into a cross on display at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland; a hair wreath at Pacific University; and a framed lock at the Washington State Historical Society with the ominous caption “this lock of Narcissa Whitman’s hair was taken after the massacre in 1847 by one of the survivors.”
There are two sources for all of this hair: gifts from Narcissa to family and friends and, more troubling, hair gathered at the site of her murder. According to one survivor’s account, wolves disturbed the shallow grave of the victims, scattering bones and “strands of Mrs. Whitman’s beautiful, long golden hair.”
Though the bodies were reburied immediately, it took the Oregon militia nearly three months to muster and travel to the Whitman mission. According to Perrin Whitman, the nephew of Marcus Whitman, “the soldiers found a considerable portion of Mrs. Whitman’s golden hair, from which locks were cut by several members of the expedition.” Perrin Whitman himself gathered some of the hair, which is now in the Whitman College collections. Catherine Sager Delaney, who was twelve at the time of the Whitman murders, wrote that “some of Mrs. Whitman’s hair was picked up a mile from the grave.”
In saving this hair, these individuals took home a very tangible, intimate historical memento. While the gathering of hair from a murder site seems grotesque today, the keeping of tokens or relics of the dead in the nineteenth century was more common. Once Narcissa became famous, individuals who had saved her hair donated it to archival repositories.
The preservation and donation of Narcissa’s hair is more than a nineteenth-century curiosity. As late as 2007, Whitman College received a single strand of it. The relic was from a lock that Narcissa gave to a girlfriend prior to her departure in 1836 for Oregon. Until 1970, the lock was on display at Rushville Central High School, New York, in a frame with Marcus Whitman’s 1826 license to practice medicine. Apparently one strand came loose, was saved, and then divided into three pieces, one of which was sent across the country to Walla Walla, where individuals still keep memories of its owner.
In a typed list of contents of the WSU Whitman collection, I found a reference noting that on March 15, 1961, WSU archivist Mary Avery sent a lock of Narcissa’s hair, some stationary, two small floral paintings, and a bonnet to the Whitman Mission National Historic Site on “indefinite loan.” I visited the Whitman Mission last summer and met with park officials, who decided that as the objects were no longer displayed, they should be returned to the University. So as part of her summer internship at the historic site, Kristine Leier delivered the artifacts to my office. After fifty-four years on loan, the curl of Narcissa Whitman’s hair under glass, the stationary, flower paintings, and bonnet all returned to the Pullman campus. These objects remind us of how early collectors, such as Holland and Drury, decided what should be preserved in archives. Since little survives from the mid-nineteenth-century Northwest, those sources that remain in archives, libraries, and museums continue to influence how we understand the past.