Shortly after the wedding of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Marcus dropped the little bombshell on Narcissa that they wouldn’t be making their home in New York but would be heading west — way west — to Walla Walla, Washington west. Except that it wasn’t Walla Walla yet, since it was 1836 and there weren’t any towns or cities, just a few forts and missions.
The Whitmans were accompanied on their outing by close friends Eliza and Henry Spalding. It took them a half year of travel by canal barge, river sternwheeler, sleigh, wagon, horseback and foot. When they crossed the Continental Divide during the summer, Narcissa and Eliza became the first Anglo-American women to travel west of the Rocky Mountains. Shortly afterward, the two couples split up; the Spaldings remaining in Idaho, the Whitmans pushing on to the Oregon Territory. They arrived at Fort Walla Walla on September 1, 1836.
This long journey was not just an extended honeymoon for the Whitmans. No, they were there to convert the “benighted ones living in the thick darkness of heathenism to Christianity.” The “benighted ones” were, of course Native Americans — the Cayuse and Nez Perce, to be exact — who found this white woman somewhat of a novelty and a bit of a pain in the ass.
Nevertheless, the Whitmans’ missionary work went reasonably well for 11 years, and they did succeed in converting many of the Cayuse to Christianity. But then in 1847, a nasty measles epidemic swept through the area, killing mostly the Cayuse, who had no immunity to the disease, while leaving most of the white people unharmed. The Cayuse became convinced that the missionaries had connived with their god to curse them with this plague. So the Cayuse did what folks often do when cursed by evil missionaries and their gods: they attacked the mission and killed anyone who didn’t have measles, including Marcus and Narcissa.
So in addition to becoming the first white woman to live in the Far West, Narcissa became the first white woman to die there.
September 1, 1850
Just a few years later, another woman embarked on a journey throughout the country, thanks to that wild and crazy entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum. Known for bringing audiences such high-brow entertainers as Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid, and Zip the Pinhead, Barnum went all respectable with the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. Without even hearing her sing, Barnum booked her for an American tour at an amazing $1,000 per performance for 150 performances.
Crazy like a fox. Her tour was such a rousing success that, after just a handful of performances, Barnum renegotiated her contract, paying her even more, and he still cleared close to a half million dollars himself. Jenny Lind’s performances also established opera as a lasting form of entertainment in the U.S.