By Debra Gwartney

The River of No Return

True Story, Issue #14

Two young mothers grapple with isolation and unforgiving terrain in this braided narrative of the American West. Trailblazing 19th century missionary Narcissa Whitman’s efforts to build a home end in tragedy, and more than a hundred years later, fifth-generation Idahoan Debra Gwartney ignores her best instincts and joins her family on an ill-advised Fourth of July rafting trip.

The Walla Walla River gurgles with snowmelt, sunshine dashing across its molten surface, dazzling anyone glancing that way—including a two-year-old child standing at the door of her family’s home on a bright June Sunday in 1839.

The small house, constructed by the girl’s father shortly before her birth, is made of rough-hewn logs and patted-down mud. It’s part of a missionary compound set on a grassy plain in the Columbia Basin in what’s now eastern Washington State. The house was built too close to the river, and the foundation is crumbling; a new dwelling is required, one that doesn’t miserably flood during hard rains—but not quite yet. First, the girl’s father, Marcus Whitman, and mother, Narcissa Whitman, must establish themselves as the spiritual authorities of this region. They are a united moral force, having arrived from the East to bring a message of Providence to their neighbors, members of the Cayuse tribe—people who have lived on this land for centuries, people whom, in her letters home, Narcissa Whitman refers to as savages.

The girl staring into the water is Alice Clarissa, the Whitmans’ only child. When she was born, the Cayuse gave her a name: Temi, tribal girl. The tribe’s people have a name for Alice’s mother, too—their word for haughty. The Cayuse are already weary of Narcissa’s threats of eternal punishment and insistence that only her version of God can save a soul from the fires of hell. Marcus, too, has fallen out of favor. When the Whitmans first arrived in the fall of 1836, he was bestowed with the honorific of Tewat. Medicine Man. The Cayuse waited for him to heal in ways they’d never seen, as this doctor had promised he could. But he offered no relief against the illness that spread like a forest fire every time a wagon train passed through; by 1839, traditional Cayuse burial grounds were heaped with the bodies of grandmothers and children unable to withstand the white man’s pathogens. Too, there was grumbling about the land Marcus had claimed for himself without offering any recompense to those who lived there. The Whitmans had traveled three thousand miles toward native people they’d been told would welcome them and celebrate their message of God, but instead the wary Cayuse met them with suspicion.

• • •

When I learned about the Whitmans as a fourth-grade student in Idaho, the missionaries were presented to me and my classmates as Western heroes, martyrs, with Narcissa in particular celebrated as an “angel of mercy.” Recently, though, I decided to probe the notion of this “first woman of the West”—Lewis and Clark’s West, that is, and my family’s home for five generations. I wasn’t curious because I agree with Narcissa’s zealotry; I don’t. But there’s something about her time here, the ideals and values she brought with her, that drew me to her, as if by understanding this icon of the West I might be able to understand myself, both my deep affinity with this region of the country and my rub against it, a contradiction that has swirled in me since I was a child.

I like to believe that on some days, Marcus and Narcissa were aware of their own contradictions, the troubles they’d brought to the Cayuse, though they’d promised the tribe ease and support. Maybe now and again they even recognized their role in the burgeoning tensions, which would end tragically for both sides. For a while, it may have simply been a tenderness the Cayuse people felt for two-year-old Alice, who’d learned the language and played among their children and ate from their steaming pots, that allowed the mission to remain unmolested.

And here she is, Alice, stepping off the porch and heading toward the river with tin cups in her hands. She’s pulled the bent containers off a table set for Sunday supper. The hired girl, daughter of the commander of a nearby fort, had laid out the cutlery and plates and returned to the cookstove to stir soup and gaze out at nothing. Like the Whitman couple, the kitchen helper doesn’t hear Alice when she raises the cups over her head and announces that she’ll slide down the slick rye grasses on her bottom to the banks of the Walla Walla and dip water for the meal from the shallows. Narcissa and Marcus, consumed by the Bibles on their laps, might intentionally ignore her—a reminder that she isn’t to disturb her parents on God’s sacred afternoon.

• • •

The Whitmans set out from upstate New York in late spring of 1836. Traveling with another missionary couple and an entourage of guides, they covered three thousand miles in five months, sleeping night after night on hard ground, gathering buffalo chips to fuel their cook fires, and managing to shove a cobbled-together wagon over the Continental Divide. It was this trek—women making it across the Rockies with a wagon of domestic goods—that helped spark the largest migration in our nation’s history, three hundred thousand settlers traversing the Oregon Trail.

The Whitmans and their co-missionaries, Henry and Eliza Spalding (who moved on to current-day Idaho to live among the Nez Perce), were hired by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The two couples must have realized they were acting as emissaries for the great national cause—the American settlement of the West—though it was primarily God’s work on their minds. They were certain they’d come to save the native people from decimation; only full assimilation would rescue the tribes of the West from the fate of the tribes of the East. The sales pitch to the natives, in short, was this: quit your nomadic ways, give up your language, believe in our God, and you just may survive the explosion of white settlers destined to show up in droves.

Alice was born in the mud house in March of 1837, scant months after her parents’ arrival and on her mother’s twenty-ninth birthday. A whiff of hope was still alive in Narcissa at that point. Some Cayuse seemed curious enough to wander into the compound to hear a sermon against the wages of sin or a lesson on everlasting life, although others were wary of the white woman who didn’t hold back on advice about child-rearing, cooking, the constrictions around the life of the spirit, or even what songs they should sing while washing clothes on a sunny day at the river. Yet Narcissa was also capable now and then of conviviality. She agreed to let certain Cayuse, ones she’d deemed friendly, into the house when Alice was just a few days old, and curious tribespeople lined up at the door. “The Little Stranger is visited daily by the Chiefs & principal men in camp & the women throng the house continually waiting an opportunity to look at her,” Narcissa wrote her mother. “Her whole appearance is so new to them. Her complexion, her size & dress, etc., all excite a deal of wonder . . .”

• • •

At some point, Narcissa realizes Alice is not in the house. She sends the help-girl and a hired man to look for the child. The hired man soon returns to say that he has not located the child, but did see two cups on the banks of the river.

“How did they come there?” Narcissa says. Marcus suggests leaving the cups until the next day; no work should be done on the Sabbath. But Narcissa, nervous now, rushes outside, with Marcus following.

“By the time I got to the river’s brink,” Narcissa later wrote her parents,

it flashed across my mind like a dream that I had had a glimpse of her while sitting and reading. On seeing the table set for supper, she exclaimed with her usual animation, “Mamma, super is almost ready; let Alice get some water.”

We thought if we could find her immediately she would not be dead entirely, so that we could bring her to again. We ran down on the brink of the river. We saw an old Indian preparing to enter where she had fallen in. He took her from the water and exclaimed, “She is found.”

• • •

I once fell into the river of my own childhood, though I wasn’t a girl at the time—not a child still new to the world. I was twenty-four years old, a mother of two daughters, one about Alice Whitman’s age and the other a baby of six months. I went on the river despite my better judgment, and, against all odds, I got back out. For thirty-some years I’ve been trying to sort out why.

I’ve lived in no other region of the country but the West, and even as a child I picked up on a tacit agreement: this rugged place, with its restless spirit and refusal to be fully settled, demands our loyalty, and in return it will be fiercely loyal to us. My family has sunk its all here. We have fastened ourselves in, tight as bolts, to our mountainous corner of Idaho, counting on an alliance between family and place that began when my paternal great-great-great grandparents moved here in the 1860s, about twenty years after the Whitmans died at their mission.

And yet I couldn’t help but feel troubled one Fourth of July morning in the early 1980s when I sat with a smattering of my family at the breakfast table in my grandparents’ dusty house. I held my nursing baby to my breast, one arm resting on my grandmother’s vinyl tablecloth, sticky with maple syrup and grease from the elk sausage crackling on the stove. We planned to go rafting down the nearby Salmon River later that morning, though we had just heard on the radio that the river was at flood stage, and thus was closed to all manner of craft.

The high water was nothing to worry about, my uncle was saying. Not for people who’d lived near the river for decades, for nearly a century, as a matter of fact, especially those who’d negotiated the river often enough to know it well—my grandfather, my uncle, my brother among them. I wanted to believe that was the case, that we’d be safe merely because of our bond with Salmon, Idaho, but it was easy to poke holes in such maverick logic. Still, my uncle went on, grumbling about the Forest Service’s decision to prohibit rafting on the most popular holiday of the year—no cause for it. Just tell folks to be careful, and if they’re not careful enough then to hell with them for their lack of care. Grandpa Bob tapped his coffee cup against the edge of the table, annoyed too, while my uncle expounded on the goddamn government’s insistence on controlling a river they knew goddamn little about, and Grandma Lois huffed back and forth from the stove with platters of meat and hotcakes.

I sat between my sister and brother, not saying a word. I’d agreed to the trip—my first on this river that I was born next to—but I was rattled with misgivings. I kept quiet about that, though, squeezing my baby tighter to my chest as if her warm nugget of a body would keep doubt from spurting out of me. I knew how it was in my family. Misgivings equaled disloyalty. Misgivings signaled weakness. And we were going on the river, no matter what. At least, those who were tough enough were going. The tough ones wouldn’t be stopped. The not-so-tough ones? They’d be left behind like so much detritus.

So, they went—and I went with them. We launched at 10 a.m. The first raft off on the smooth water, manned by both our Grandpa Bob and my father, was yellow. My aunt and her husband were on board, as was my father’s new wife. Into the second raft, which was blue, climbed nearly my entire generation: my brother, my two sisters, and our aunt’s two children. Also, my young husband and my sister Cindy’s young husband.  Nine passengers total, counting my uncle and me, in a happy mood on this sunny day, off on a cold river we thought of as ours.

My uncle was at the oars. He’d been a guide for more than a decade, working on the Middle Fork and the Main. This day was a big nothing for him compared to the extended trips he led deep into the wilderness. We’d encounter no class-four rapids, not even class three. Just a sail through familiar canyons, rock walls lumpy with swallow nests, fireweed, and glacier lily blooming from cracks in the soil. Blue sky overhead. A few hours on an easy stream, that was it.

He sat back and relaxed into the day. By noon, he’d finished a six-pack; by one, he’d polished off another. I counted the cans at his feet. I told myself that maybe his full concentration wasn’t required for the short ride. In at ten and out at three. No later than three, I reminded him when we got on. I’d left two bottles of pumped breast milk and a few jars of food with my grandmother, who was watching my daughters, but by late afternoon the baby would be howling. Not from hunger—she’d have enough food—but because our habit was an hour of cuddling and nursing in the late afternoon, her hand entwined in my hair with her two-year-old sister nearby, bumping against my thigh and rubbing her face into my unbuttoned shirt as if she, too, was hungry for the smell of me.

Before we left the house, Cindy and I had hunted down a couple of ratty orange life jackets in our grandpa’s barn. My uncle watched us put them on and waved a hand at us. My brother laughed. Jesus, you two, settle down! You won’t even get your feet wet! But we both kept the jackets on, even when, an hour or so into the trip, our younger sister and our girl cousin stripped to bikini tops—hey, toss me a beer—and splashed cold water on their bare arms and long necks. The boys stripped off clothes, too, shoved T-shirts into bags and passed around cocoa oil until they were slick and shiny and smelled like the tropics—a warm smell that engulfed the usual Salmon River redolence, a blend of rainbow trout and sun-baked granite. I clicked the latch on my worn-out vest and wondered why I’d come.

My grandmother, whom I called Mamie, had told me that morning, point-blank, that I shouldn’t go. The only wise course was to stay in town. Those people know what they’re doing, she’d said of the Forest Service. I waved her off. My mother’s mother was someone, I’m ashamed to admit now, whose opinions we tended to dismiss. She was overly solicitous when it came to authorities, for one thing. She’d probably already called to report us and then phoned my mother in Boise to complain about the law-breaking and my father’s bullheaded family and the hours I was going to be away from my kids.

Five hours, I’d told her. No more. We’d be home in time for me to change diapers and cuddle with my daughters and then I’d help her frost a chocolate cake for a picnic that night, the end of Salmon River Days. Fireworks and a bluegrass band. We’d eat potato salad and burgers off the grill. But before all that, I wanted just a half day of fun away from the kids, please.

Even as I pleaded to go, deep down I knew she was right.

• • •

Decades after our day on the Salmon River, and having by then read several accounts of Alice Whitman’s death by drowning, I found I had formed a grudge against Narcissa, who’d invaded my thoughts and imagination since the mid-1990s, when I wrote an article about her for a local magazine. After reading a dozen books and visiting the mission where she died, I began to judge Narcissa harshly for putting Sunday religious etiquette before the safety of her child. I pictured her sitting in her chair, staring at her book, while her toddler sailed down the wet grass and into the water to her death, and I seethed.

It was so easy to pick on her many mistakes, and I did so, determined to reject all things Narcissa—and probably so I could forgive myself for opposing my conservative Western family. Like the Whitmans, it seemed to me that those related to me had believed from the beginning that the land was ours to take, ours to do with whatever we wanted.

Nor was I like my family in temperament. Every one of them brimmed with a sense of adventure, while I had practically none to speak of.

 I could have skipped the raft trip. I could have taken my daughters to Wally’s Café for huckleberry pie and foamy milk, to McPherson’s to buy them moccasins made by Shoshone women from over at Fort Hall. I might have strolled over to my great-grandfather’s house, where he’d greet us with a cry of “Tucempuck!” a word I now understand was his made-up term of endearment that he liked to offer the youngest in the family. He’d offer us cold biscuits that his daughter, my Aunt Janice, had baked for him and cold bacon he called “hog teat” that he’d suggest I give the baby to teeth on, and then he’d insist I fish out a dollar to wager at cribbage.

Except, if I remained behind to indulge in my same old nostalgia, I’d be admitting to the rest of the family that I was scared, too frightened to go along on even a mild river adventure. I was sick of that lifelong tendency to give in to fear, which caused me to be dismissed by my father and grandfather—that one, spooked by her own shadow. It would be many years until I understood that only by being true to myself would I earn their respect. Back then, I swallowed the intuition that told me it was crazy to leave my kids behind and head off on one of mightiest rivers of the West. I shut out the story we’d heard about a local teenager who drove off the road in her Volkswagen Beetle, flying through the air over cottonwood trees, over scrappy alder and pine, to plunge into the Salmon River. At least that’s what her skid marks suggested. After days of searching, neither she nor her car could be found, so deep was the water in mid-summer and so treacherous the current.

Fourth of July. Grandmothers and ancient aunts stood on the front porch, waving us off to a day worthy of native Idahoans prepared to show mettle and defiance. I climbed into the shuttle truck. I got in the raft. I put on that itchy life jacket that shed clumps of mouse shit on my bare legs. I cinched it tight enough that milk dripped out of me, hot on my skin—a sticky reminder of my real obligation, waiting in Mamie’s trailer.

• • •

Grandpa Bob had welded both raft frames himself; he was known as the finest welder of river equipment in the state. My brother, Ron, told me about working in the shop with our grandfather back in the 1970s when river rafting first caught on, a tourist rage no one had seen coming, really. Salmon soon established itself as one of the best launching sites. Our grandfather was set on being an innovator. He used old tires, Ron said, to mold a particular bend in the steel, his welding torch hot on the metal until he found the shape and heft he was after. He invented a frame that could support an inflatable raft yet remain light enough to maneuver in shifting currents, and I’ve heard from other guides over the years that he fabricated ingenious oarlocks, too. State of the art, at least until aluminum frames came along and made his obsolete.

The bar I hung onto on the side of our blue raft, fused by my grandfather’s hands, calmed me down. I searched for his energy in the steel—nothing he made, ever, was shoddy—and I told myself we’d be fine as long as we were wrapped in Grandpa’s skill and ingenuity. We’d be home in a few hours, dry and warm and recounting memories of the day over a beer I’d finally let myself gulp in a couple of swallows. I thought about the safe finish and gave in to the loveliness of the day, a shadow the Lemhi Mountains cast over us, swallows pecking at the surface of the water and wheeling away again. We’d lost sight of the other raft some time earlier. We saw no one on the river in either direction. Somewhere below us was a dead girl, trapped in the current, sturgeon nibbling at her bloated face, but otherwise we were alone.

• • •

When I mentioned to people in Spokane, where I lived with my husband and children, that I was originally from Salmon, Idaho, they assumed I’d gone down the river enough times that my initials were carved in some dinosaur-sized boulder along with the scratches of actual regulars. I didn’t correct them, letting friends imagine me gathering wood for a fire while our tied-up rafts bobbed in the water. Or picture me slicing open the belly of a steelhead I’d caught that afternoon to sluice out its guts, threading it through a stick to hold over the flames for dinner. Our tent would be set up with bags, one for me, which I’d slip into, exhausted and exhilarated, each night. I couldn’t explain to my friends, or to myself, why I’d done none of that. Maybe my grandmothers cautioned me against going, though I don’t remember such an admonition. Sometimes I rode with Grandma Lois when she was the shuttle driver, which got me to the edge of the river to help pull out rafts and gather oars and equipment, overhearing fragments of stories about one rousing trip after another that I’d missed out on. Did my mother and father forbid me from the river? I doubt it. They weren’t the types to care one way or another. If I’d wanted to jump on a raft, if I’d packed a suit and towel and stuck a bottle of cocoa butter in my pack, grabbed a sleeping bag and a jug of water, I would have been welcome to tag along. I wanted badly to have been on the Salmon—or on any river, actually— and yet most of my life I hid when the chance to do came up.

Now, finally, I was on that water. Achievement enough, it seemed at the time. I was too young still to decipher what I actually longed for—which was to discover the river on my own terms and in my own time. I pulled my knees to my chest, chasing away the buzz of reluctance, and tried to enjoy the breeze on my face. If this day trip went well, I decided, a week on the Middle Fork could be next, and then a ride down the Main. Maybe then I would earn the badge of legitimate woman of the West, though I wonder now who I believed would be the one to award such a distinction.

• • •

By 1 p.m., our uncle’s shoulders had turned a brilliant pink on top of his berry-brown tan. He’d been at the oars the whole time, insisting he was best at handling the fast current, refusing my brother’s offer to give him a break. He kept rowing, while my siblings and cousins drew beers from bags tied to the frame, floating along with us and clinking a tinny song. We stretched our long legs over the sides to put our toes in the water.

My nine-year-old cousin, bored, made a game of climbing over the rest of us to balance on the stern, legs spread, and pee out the Cokes he’d been drinking. I sat at the bow, where I could keep track of our movement. I was vigilant about hint of trouble, yet trouble seemed distant. Lulled into the rhythm of our ride, I tipped my head back, letting the sun baste my face.

After a while, our uncle seemed to become impatient with the placid day. He set down the oars with a clunk to lean over for another beer. The raft veered left, chugging through a mass of uprooted bushes. Ahead of us, maybe a hundred yards in the distance, was a snag, a dead cottonwood that had been yanked from the banks by the high stream and had fallen across a small island.

“How many strokes do you think I need to get around that?” our uncle said to Ron, who’d been half dozing in the warmth. I followed our uncle’s pointed finger and my brother’s gaze toward the snag.

Ron got up on a knee, flat hand over his eyes to better study what our uncle was talking about. “Hey, don’t screw around,” he said, turning toward him and scooting, I noticed, in the direction of the extra set of oars. “The girls are nervous.”

Cindy, nervous like me, though usually the bolder of the two of us, sat up. “What’s going on?” she said.

Our uncle shrugged. The oars groaned and snapped in the locks as he stuck them in the water again. After the first couple of strokes, he sat up straighter. He’d let the raft drift too far; that’s what I’d realize later. He said to Ron, “Get over here.” My brother tipped forward, bear-walking toward our uncle, and suddenly the whole group of us was alert, paying attention. My husband reached over to grip my shoulder while I stared at the island flying toward us.

“What the fuck?” my husband yelled out. Then we were silent. Our uncle dug into the water, dug again, his back arched and face in a knot. He dug with the muscles of his arms and legs and his tight red neck.

My sister wrapped her hand around my wrist, tethering the two of us together.

“Hold on,” Ron shouted, and he pulled a cooler from under a metal slat that we used as a bench. He tossed the cooler overboard so it wouldn’t fly up and hit one of us. It tipped sideways, a happy canoe, and bumped its way downstream.

And then the cottonwood and the island in the center of the river were in front of us, maybe two body lengths from where I gripped the frame made by Grandpa Bob. I held on to my sister with the other hand. Before I could get a better purchase, before I could plant my bare feet or tighten the cotton straps of the lifejacket, we slammed into the snag. The raft trampolined into the air for a split second then splashed back into the river. We hit the tree again.

Ron and our youngest sister toppled off the back. Cindy’s husband was already gone. My husband reached over to grab my nine-year-old cousin under the arms. He flung the boy onto the island ahead of us and I watched as the kid hit the brush with a thud and my husband fell sideways into the water.

The raft backed up, collided a third time with the tree. Now a whirlpool force sucked on the boat, and I heard a noise as if I’d put my palm against a vacuum cleaner’s hose. “Get out!” our uncle shouted at the last two passengers, Cindy and me. She leapt for the island and so did I, but I missed. Instead of finding earth as I expected, my feet skidded across the river, and I went under.

I had water in my eyes and in my ears. It bubbled around my face. My glasses swirled away, but I didn’t notice. I kicked for the surface, shocked by the iciness of the water and even more surprised by the heat of my own bones. I opened my eyes and saw blue above me—not the blue of the sky, but the bottom of the raft. Every time I pushed myself in a direction that felt like up, aided by the buoyancy of the life jacket, my head rammed against thick rubber that would not budge.

I don’t remember being afraid. I was, for once, somehow unloosed from fear. Instead, a pissed-off curiosity unfurled in my chest. I’d die this way? I couldn’t understand how the river held me nearly motionless. I could jerk myself neither left nor right, only up a few inches to be pushed down again. I remember thinking that my father and grandfather must be searching for the spigot by now, the one that would turn off this water so it would stop rushing around my body. Only shutting off a main faucet, which was to my mind as real as any part of this day, would keep me from drowning.

I wish I could say I thought of my small daughters growing up without me, and how my girls would spend the rest of their lives sorting out why I had chosen a river trip over them. How could they feel anything but cheated by my decision? I did not picture my grandmother staring at her clock wondering where are they, patting the sobbing infant in her lap, a knot of dread in her gut. Suspended under water, I remembered no one, and I soon set aside thoughts of rescue. My legs went limp and my arms went limp. I felt the river against my mouth, wanting in. Knocking at the door of me, demanding entry. I knew so little about this river, though I’d long considered it part of my heritage, as much mine as the cells in my blood. But now the river wanted to take me, to show it owed me nothing. There was no strength here but its own. Only its singular and unrelenting power.

• • •

After Alice’s death, Narcissa had every reason to quit and go home. No one would have criticized her if she’d resigned her post, packed her things, and moved back to upstate New York to be with her parents. I can’t fathom why she didn’t. She longed for the comfort of her family—her sister, her mother, those who would not hear news of the child’s drowning for nearly a year. Alice was buried, weeks went by, and only then did Narcissa receive a bundle of letters and packages from home—the first notes of congratulations for her baby, along with clothes and knitted hats and tiny mittens and an assurance that Alice Clarissa’s name had been entered on the Births page of the family Bible. Condolences from her parents wouldn’t arrive for yet another year, and by then, for whatever reason (a bitter strain between them is my guess), Narcissa and Marcus had decided that there would be no more Whitman babies.

Narcissa also had nothing left to give the missionary effort. She stopped offering the Cayuse women lessons in cooking. She didn’t ring the bell on Sunday mornings to draw the people of the tribe to services. She’d been assured, long before she and Marcus had married and set off, that the natives of the West were chomping for news of the white man’s God, eager for knowledge of Him. She’d been desperate to go—so desperate that she’d married a stranger. Narcissa and Marcus had met only once before their hasty wedding the day before their departure for the frontier, as the missionary board had insisted on a married couple for the post in the West. He was a gentle country doctor, she a devout schoolteacher, and both were focused only on their sole aim of conversion, whether the local Cayuse wanted that God or not.

By the time Alice died, it was becoming clear that the majority of the Cayuse didn’t care for an epistemology that meant rejecting their own—in the end, not a single member of the tribe converted to the Whitman’s faith. The Cayuse, Narcissa regularly complained, were beyond redemption. They broke windows, stole food from her garden, spoke to her harshly. She was finished. But still, she did not leave.

In the years after Alice’s death, the ABCFM was bombarded with letters from the Western missionaries. They wrote mostly to complain about each other, griping about their infighting, their inability to speak decently to each other or to make agreements that stuck. As one of the relatively new missionary men wrote of the enterprise, “It is enough to make one sick to see what is the state of things in the mission.”

The board responded with a letter received by Marcus in the fall of 1842, demanding that the Whitman Mission be shuttered and the Spaldings be sent back to Boston, while Marcus and Narcissa were to move to what is now Lapwai, Idaho, to work among the more receptive Nez Perce.

Marcus Whitman would have none of it. He’d do whatever was required to save his creation, his compound and fruitful fields, the mission into which he and Narcissa had poured everything. The place where their Alice was buried. Against the advice of his co-missionaries, he located a man willing to travel east with him, and Marcus climbed on a horse, wrapped in a bear-size fur coat, and departed from his grieving wife.

He did not return for a year.

And what of Narcissa? How did she endure seeing him go without her? Did she, as I had on the day of the rafting trip, stay quiet out of loyalty to duty, out of obligation to a way of life that she’d learned to adhere to, no matter what roiled inside her? I can’t help but believe this woman had a burning desire to call out to Marcus, to beg him to gather her up too, and all of their belongings, including the last of Alice’s clothes and toys, and give up an undertaking that was turning out to be nothing but a delusion.

About a week after her husband’s departure, Narcissa was awakened by the sound of her bedroom door latch being jarred, and then the door was suddenly shoved open. She started to scream, and when help arrived she described a Cayuse man rampaging to her bed and threatening to rape her. She later told others at the mission she was sure the man had been intent on killing her. The Cayuse denied it, but whatever happened that night, Narcissa fell apart. News of her unsettled state reached the new head of Fort Walla Walla, a man named Archibald McKinlay, and he promptly rushed to the mission to get her out of there. McKinlay made a bed in the back of his wagon and laid the unnerved, weeping Narcissa in it. After a few days at the fort spent resting and calming herself, Narcissa received a letter from a group of Methodists near a town called The Dalles. Narcissa regularly maligned the Methodists, and yet they—and not her fellow missionaries—were offering her shelter. She had no choice but to accept. She retreated to the Columbia River, where she spent most of her days alone, often sobbing and writing long letters, finally admitting to those around her that she was finished with the missionary enterprise. She wrote to her father that the mission she’d started with Marcus had become “a place of moral darkness.”

Marcus returned in the fall of 1843 to find his compound in ruins, his prized gristmill burned, and the windows broken out of the house he’d finally built. He discovered that emigrants passing through during his absence and Narcissa’s had used the station as they wished, plopping down like they owned the place and taking what they could—tools, bedding, food—before heading off for the Willamette Valley. The Cayuse, too, had ransacked the Whitmans’ home. Surveying the wreckage of his dream, Marcus must have considered the news he had to deliver to the other missionaries: the board had decided to give them a reprieve. They’d all stay on after all.

It’s a wonder Marcus didn’t turn around and head right back to Boston, where he’d been celebrated by crowds of admirers for his role in opening the West to American settlers, as well as by those who’d just wanted a glimpse of a rugged mountain man clad in animal skins. He might also have been tempted to slip away again because, in a matter of hours, he was going to have to tell Narcissa that he’d failed her. He had not detoured up to her parents’ home after all, even though a visit with her family was her most fervent wish. He had not personally delivered his wife’s letters to her loved ones, nor picked up notes and packages for her in return. She lived for those letters. He had not sat with her sisters to describe their darling Alice. Narcissa ached for her family’s touch, but he had brought back no consoling kisses or embraces. Perhaps most egregiously, Marcus had forgotten to buy his wife the one item she couldn’t do without anymore—a pair of eyeglasses. She would have to stumble around in a world growing fuzzier by the day. He had nothing but sorry news for Narcissa, and yet he hitched his tired horse to a wagon and went to retrieve her from the Methodists.

The reunited Whitmans returned home in mid-October. They found another couple occupying their bedroom, in their bed. Settlers had moved into the compound’s buildings, using up the dwindling stores of wheat and plundering the garden of the last fruits and vegetables. The Whitmans chased these strangers away and re-entered the mayhem of their lives, determined to follow the board’s orders to just keep on going. Somehow.

If Alice had lived, would this all have gone a different way? The child might have tempered her mother, providing her with comfort and companionship and ameliorating the strained relations with the Cayuse. Perhaps other children would have followed, adding to the bridge of friendship and conversation between tribe and mission. It’s possible that Narcissa and Marcus, happy with their family, would have contained their frustrations with other missionaries, sending positive reports to the ABCFM board instead of one diatribe after another, so that Marcus wouldn’t have been compelled to run back to plead his case. If only, back on a sunny Sunday in 1839, Narcissa had lifted her head for a moment and told her two-year-old to stay away from the river’s edge, or stood up to go with her. Yes, Alice, let’s dip some water. And yet such conjecture is useless. We do what we do. We are hardwired by our own histories to act in ways we spend the rest of our lives untangling.

• • •

Our uncle, spotting me in the river, reached under a pile of deadfall to grab the edge of my life jacket and pull me out. Another moment and I’d have drowned. I crawled on the small island to wait for rescue with my sister and our young cousin. We waited, too, in dread of news of the others. We spent the hours hardly speaking, just rubbing mosquitoes from each other’s backs and arms and legs. Thousands of mosquitoes, covering us like rugs, hoping to bleed us dry. And though I was panicked and raw, I believe that already a determination was galvanizing in me. I knew I’d be told—by the men in my family in particular—that I had to go back, jump in the water, return for another trip in a raft, maybe even the following day—the only way to face your fears. That’s their code of toughness, and I have no quarrel with it. But sitting on that island, still wondering if I’d make it home to my children, I realized my family’s code was no longer my code, if it ever even had been. I would not return to the river.

Two search and rescue boats failed to reach our small island, unable to negotiate the rough currents to get to the patch of land where Cindy and I stood shouting at them, begging them to get to us. Just when I thought we’d be there overnight, more dark hours before hearing news of our siblings and cousins and husbands, we spotted our grandfather sailing toward the island in his yellow raft. He was standing up, oars tight in his hands, and, with bent knee and back, he fought the current until he was up against the dim edge of land. Our boy cousin jumped on, and then Cindy. I was last, half-blind without my glasses. I sat on the bottom of the boat and let out a single, long wail.

“What’s this about?” my grandfather said to me, looking out at the water to chart his course.

“Grandpa,” I said. “I almost drowned!”

“You did?” He still peered over his shoulder, shoving us into the current, his eyebrows popped high on his forehead. “When?”

Such was his ability to make small what felt enormous to me. He knew by then that no one, in fact, had drowned, so what was the big deal? And what was there to do but forge on?

Narcissa could not forge on. She couldn’t have seen how her child’s death and her crumpled resolve, her fury and grief, would lead to worse trouble with the Cayuse. Ugly tensions and threats mounted, until one day in 1847 a small band from the tribe entered the compound. They killed Marcus first, then twelve other men, and then Narcissa, dragging her body into a ditch and smashing in her skull.

Would Narcissa have survived if Alice had lived? Would this be an altogether different story about the founding days of the West?

My grief is nothing compared to Narcissa’s, I understand that. By bedtime on the day of our accident, I was holding my daughters, our hearts pounding against each other. I’d been saved; my children still had a mother.

And yet I couldn’t submerge my body in a bathtub for six months. It was several years before I could put my head under in a swimming pool. I didn’t return to Salmon, Idaho, for nearly a decade. Now it’s been thirty-five years since our raft was sucked away in the whirlpool, never to be located again, and I still have not reentered the waters of the Salmon River.

If I ever do go again, it will be because I alone have decided I’m ready.

• • •

Recently, I stood on the deck of my home, which overlooks a different river, one in Oregon. It was a warm afternoon; the sun was shining, the water in front of me smooth as glass, laminar. I’d just finished reading the thin book in my hand, an account of the killings at the Whitman Mission written by Erwin N. Thompson, who’d also spent years researching the plight of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.

The book includes a letter that Narcissa wrote to her father soon after Alice’s death. She lets down her guard in front of her father in ways she typically didn’t with her mother and sisters. The letter struck me as the most vulnerable I’d read from her hand, and in the time it took me to read it, the last rage that burned in me toward her was released, like so many ions snapping on the surface of a tumbling stream, and regret washed over me. I wobbled under it. Who was I to judge this woman from the past—this mother, caught up in her binds—who did only what she was compelled by circumstances to do?

I would describe to you, if I could, her bright, lively appearance on Sabbath morning, the day of her death. She had always slept with me until just a week before her death, and that night she proposed, of her own accord, to sleep on a mat on the floor. This gave me a very strange and singular feeling, for I never could persuade her to live away from me, not even in her father’s arms, before, and I could not divest myself of the feeling that she was laid away for the grave. It being very warm, and because she preferred it, I let her sleep on the floor all night—but did not sleep much myself. Ever after this, I made a bed for her by the side of mine, where I could lay my hand upon her. When I used to take her into the bed with me, she would lie a while and then wish to go back again. Thus she gradually went out of my arms to the grave, so that I should not feel it so severely as if torn from them at once.

About the Author

Debra Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is the author of Live Through This, a memoir, and the co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. She has published in such journals as Tin House, the Normal SchoolPrairie Schooner, and the American Scholar, and teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.

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