Marcus Whitman, Surgeon to the Mountain Man

marcuswhitmanIn 1835, two Protestant missionaries traveling to the Oregon Country stopped at the Green River Rendezvous. Before volunteering for missionary service, Marcus Whitman had been a doctor who had practiced medicine in Canada. His training came in handy at the rendezvous.

steamboatWhitman and Parker met in St. Louis in early April 1835 and traveled together via steamboat to Liberty, Missouri, where they joined the American Fur Company’s caravan to the annual Rocky Mountain rendezvous in western Wyoming. The caravan included about 50 rough-edged, hard-drinking, unchurched fur traders and voyageurs. The missionaries disapproved of their intemperate habits, and the men, in turn, resented the presence of the missionaries. “Very evident tokens gave us to understand that our company was not agreeable, such as the throwing of rotten eggs at me,” Whitman wrote to David Greene (May 10, 1839, ABCFM Collection).

choleraWhitman gained a measure of respect after an outbreak of cholera forced the caravan to halt for about three weeks near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. More than a dozen men, including the caravan’s commander, were sickened, and three eventually died. Whitman had had no direct experience treating the disease — a severe infection of the intestines, spread by contaminated food or water — but he had learned enough to associate it with lack of cleanliness. He recommended that the men be moved from a camp in a low-lying area adjacent to the Missouri River to “a clean and healthy situation” on a nearby bluff. In a letter to Narcissa, his wife, he attributed the outbreak to the traders’ consumption of alcohol and dirty water. “It is not strange that they should have the cholera, because of their intemperance, their sunken and filthy situation,” he wrote (June 21, 1835, cited in Mowry, 60).

jimbridger

Jim Bridger asked Whitman if he would extract an arrowhead lodged in his back. Three years earlier, Bridger and Thomas ‘Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick had led a party of trappers to the Madison River. TF-FitzpatrickHere, they encountered a band of Blackfeet Indians and, in the skirmish that followed, Bridger received two arrows in his back. After the battle Fitzpatrick dug one arrowhead out with his knife, but could not remove the second.

arrow

The report on Dr. Whitman’s removal of the arrowhead explains why Fitzpatrick could not pull it out. “It was a difficult operation, because the arrowhead was hooked at the point by striking a large bone.” The three years following the injury, a “cartilaginous substance had grown around it. The Doctor pursued the operation with great self-possession and perseverance; and his patient manifested equal firmness.” A large audience, including many Indians, looked on in awe as Whitman successfully extracted an iron arrowhead three inches in length from Bridger’s back. Afterwards, another trapper asked Whitman to remove an arrowhead that had been stuck in his shoulder for two and a half years.

missionThe caravan reached the rendezvous site on August 12, 1835. News that a doctor had arrived spread quickly. “Calls for medical and surgical aid were almost incessant,” Parker wrote (Journal, 80) as Whitman’s reputation as a surgeon quickly spread throughout the camps at the rendezvous. Both Jim Bridger and another mountain man, Joseph L. Meek (1810-1875) would later send their young, mixed-race daughters to school at the Whitman Mission.

Whitman and Parker were encouraged by the reception received at the rendezvous. They decided that Whitman would return with the fur company to the East, to organize a missionary party to travel to Oregon Country the next year, while Parker would continue westward with Nez Perce guides to locate mission sites.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s