When you know the story of Narcissa Whitman, the new bronze statue which stands in the local Our Park takes on a greater significance. Given to the City of Glendive by artist and sculptor, Pamela Harr, the life-sized statue has the power to make the passer-by stop and take another look. Doing just a little research on Narcissa, her life and times speak powerfully to people and genders of all ages. Born in early America in 1808, she was the third of nine children. Helping her mother tend to her younger siblings, Narcissa did find time to attend a female academy where she received training as a school teacher. Both she and her later husband Marcus Whitman, were strongly influenced by the Great Awakening, a highly spiritual religious fervor that covered much of New England and the Atlantic states. At an early age she wanted to become a missionary and in time wrote to the American Missionary Board to see if a single woman would be allowed to travel to the mission field, in this case India or the American West. It was around this time in 1834-36 she met and married Marcus Whitman and agreed to journey with him to the far reaches of the Oregon Territory near Walla Walla, Washington.
In being accepted for this work, Narcissa along with another woman, became the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. The trip took eleven months, covering what today would be five states. She never saw her home nor her family again, but she kept detailed diaries and wrote many letters which described her everyday life. The Walla Walla Mission, near a Hudson’s Bay Fur trading fort, became an important post on the Oregon Trail and the odyssey of the Whitman’s proved that wagons could navigate South Pass in Wyoming which took the pioneers across the Rockies on the Oregon Trail. Later, in a misunderstanding with the natives in the area, at the time of a measles’ epidemic, Narcissa, Marcus and eleven others at the mission were killed in 1847.
Alice Clarissa was the first American child born west of the Rocky Mountains and the Whitmans only natural child. She was only two years old when she drowned in the Walla Walla River. After her death, Narcissa fell into a deep depression which lasted for many months and only began to lift when she took on raising seven children from one family who had lost their parents. What we see in the statue is the moment Narcissa was handed the body of her little daughter. The anguish and terrible grief are evident.
Our statue evokes a particular period in our nation’s history — the pushing back of the frontier further and further west to the Pacific Coast and we see in one brief, horrific moment the cost of such bravery. In the life of a woman of great courage, faith, and personal strength, a moment has been mirrored in the lives of women for all generations, the death of a child.
But our statue has other dimensions. In our small, rural communities we stand together in times of great grief. We cry together, we rejoice together. Glendive has always been a caring community in times of crisis. The statue is also a reminder to never, ever minimize the grief one person feels at a time of tragedy. For Narcissa Whitman it took the arrival of seven parentless children to show her she still had purpose.
And, of course, she stands as a symbol of the pioneer spirit we value so highly in this country — a sense of adventure for men and women alike, knowing there will be hard times, but moving ahead because it just is what we do and certainly there is something better out there. Narcissa Whitman is a good example for our children to study. Her story is a slice of history that has faded to our loss. We all come from men and women of courage and spirit. If your great-grandparents were homesteaders or immigrants or people who just plain survived hard times, ask the questions and you will be proud of the people from whom you come and you will stand a little taller as a result.