I am Espowyes, although I will am also called Richard. Mr. Whitman was the one who changed it because he found my Nez Perce name to hard to say. I was a boy when Marcus came to our village.
Marcus took my friend Allahkoliken and me back east. He would get married and return to the Cayuse tribe. Allahkoliken was renamed John. We thought it was funny that this white man had such trouble with the Nez Perce language. Maybe it was because we were so young, but we learned to speak English very well on the way back to New York.
For eleven years Marcus and Narcissa worked among the Cayuse and Nez Perce people. Mr. Whitman told us stories of the difficulties he faced in becoming a missionary doctor. Both nations considered Mr. Whitman a medicine man. He performed surgery on Jim Bridger once during one of his early trips west and had helped many of our sick get better.
Both tribes thought highly of Marcus and he helped our nations. Marcus was not my family, yet he became a father to me.
I remember the day when Marcus was sad. I remember because it was not like Marcus to be sad. He told me that the mission board was going to close one of the missions. He had spent so much of his life among the Cayuse and Nez Perce he didn’t want to see the mission closed. He knew how much the people depended on the help he gave so Marcus volunteered to return to New York to plead with his people to allow the mission to remain open.
I was sad to see Marcus leave, but he promised to return. Four seasons would pass before he returned.
We were all surprised to see more white men returning with Marcus, but our medicine man had returned and the Cayuse and Nez Perce welcomed him back.
But Marcus had brought death to the camp. Those who came with him were weak, their noses ran and they coughed, red spots began to appear on their skin and soon the Cayuse people also became sick. Marcus told me to go back to the Nez Perce and wait until the sickness he called ‘measles’ was over. I waited many days before I retuned to visit my ‘father’.
It was so quiet when I returned to see Marcus and Narcissa. Mr. Whitman’s horse was tethered and thin. I called out, but my ‘father’ did not answer.
Marcus volunteered to help in saving one of the missions, but could not stop the Cayuse. Over half of the Cayuse died from the measles and some no longer considered him a medicine man because he could not stop the Cayuse from dying.
A small band of Cayuse killed Marcus, Narcissa and eleven others. Marcus lived and died at Waiilatpu where he served two nations. I will miss my ‘father’, but there come a time when I will see him one more. He showed me in the words God wrote – and I believe them to be true.
I hope Mr. Whitman does not mind, but I will no longer be known as Richard. There is new meaning to my Nez Perce name, Espowyes – light on the mountain.
Author’s Note: Marcus Whitman was a medical missionary to the Cayuse and Nez Perce Indian tribes of Washington state in the 1830’s and 1840’s. He fought for the missions there and volunteered to make a cross-country trip to assure the ongoing work. While he succeeded in keeping the mission open he had no idea he would be bringing back measles that would decimate an Indian nation.
As to the presence of Richard and John, Whitman did take two Nez Perce boys with him when he returned to marry Narcissa and it is the fictional voice of Richard that I used to convey a little known story of a brave medical missionary who inspired an unusual tolerance. His life has inspired a school, historical sites, and memorials to his memory and work in both Washington and his native New York.
Marcus Whitman was not viewed as an ideal missionary candidate. It was his persistence that caused the mission board to review his case on more than one occasion and ultimately sent him to the Indian tribes of the Northwest Pacific region – and yes, Whitman did perform surgery on the famous fur trapping legend, Jim Bridger among many others on his way west.
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