Narcissa Prentiss Whitman might seem an unlikely heroine nowadays. The Christian missionary is commonly considered the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains, and the first to bear a child in what would become the Oregon Territory. In 1847, she was among fourteen settlers killed by Cayuse Indians at the Whitman Mission and her untimely demise was a catalyst for government actions that furthered westward expansion at the expense of Native people. But she’s also an essential, mesmerizing figure in Debra Gwartney’s new memoir/history, I Am a Stranger Here Myself.
Using Whitman’s life as a touchstone, Gwartney—a fifth-generation Idahoan who now lives in Oregon—reexamines her own complicated family history. The narratives braid into a meditation on belonging and identity, an exploration of the history that women played in settling the Northwest territories, and an elegy to the places that shape our selves.
Gwartney teaches in Pacific University’s low residency MFA program, and is the author of Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love.
I spoke with Gwartney in March about rewriting history, the power of hair, the evolving spirit of the West, and more.
The Rumpus: Early on in I Am a Stranger Here Myself, you pose the question, “But what is it I need to remember about my grandmothers so I can finally be me?” Where do you suppose this need to identify with, and belong to, those that share your blood but don’t necessarily “get” you comes from?
Debra Gwartney: Such an interesting question. I’ll start here: no place has been more essential to my sense of self than the small town where I was born and where I spent the safest and most secure periods of my childhood. That sense of safety and security abided in the people who lived there, my grandparents and great-grandparents, among others. I cherished Salmon, Idaho, and I had an especially strong connection to my grandmothers, who tended to me when I was a kid. I did my best back then to ignore the suspicion that I didn’t really belong there, simultaneously idealizing the Salmon life that was never going to be mine.
I’ve carried around this 1960s perfect version of the town ever since, pining for it. Except I actually know little about the real place and I never wanted to live there, work there, or raise my kids there. (For one thing, the staunchly conservative politics; for another, the roles assigned to women; for another, the bitterly cold winters.) So, then, what did I want out of it? I suppose to believe that this one place on earth would be waiting for me if I required its protective embrace. A sweet remnant of childhood, that sentiment, which I probably should have given up a long time ago. But we all ache to belong somewhere. Isn’t it one of the most primal of desires?
Rumpus: Your portrayals of your grandmothers are complex, each exhibiting a sense of self and strength despite the rigidity of the roles prescribed to them.
Gwartney: When I was a girl, my maternal grandmother, while she cooked dinner, often recited a little ditty: “Fishy, fishy in a brook, daddy caught you with a hook, mama fried you in a pan, and I ate you up like a big strong man.” I remember how it annoyed me, that doggerel. This grandmother was herself an impressive angler—for some years, she held the record for catching the largest steelhead in the Salmon River. She was also a wondrous camp cook. You sure wanted to sit at her campfire and get served up a big plate of trout and beans, and her delicious rolls, but cooking was only one of her talents in the outdoors (not to mention the indoors). I never once heard her praise herself. She had no inflated sense of her place in the family or her Salmon, Idaho community. She just did the hard work, day after day. I wish I had a way to ask her: why did she subscribe to this rhyme of patriarchy? Why did she teach it to me?
Rumpus: Switching to a different strand of your narratives, why did Narcissa Prentiss Whitman so capture your attention?
Gwartney: This is a question I’ve pondered many times. I don’t find her a likable person, no one I’d want to emulate or, if it were possible, spend time with. If I was asked that age-old question, “If you could have dinner with anyone?” Narcissa would not have a spot at my table. And yet I have a complicated relationship with her—or at least with the idea of her, the enigmatic first woman of the West.
I read about her for the first time years ago. That initial book set off my dim opinion of who she was and what she did. Narcissa came to the frontier to talk, not to listen, and she was neurotic about changing Native people’s lives to adhere to her beliefs. Never once did she ask them what they thought about the divine, but only forced her own notion of God on everyone around her. The more I came to know her, the less I admired this woman, yet I did start to sympathize with her. That surprised me.
Even with that first book, I felt a twinge of anger because it was clear that powerful men used her as a pawn and leveraged her untimely death as a means to “advance” the West in just the way they wanted. All it took was portraying her as an “angel of mercy,” a martyr who died at the hands of cold-blooded killers—which was not a hard picture to concoct back in the 1840s since her death was heinous and new settlers were generally jumpy about conflicts with Native tribes.
Was it a conscious manipulation of nervous newcomers, the selling of Narcissa as an icon of suffering-for-progress? I can’t say for sure, but things changed with lightning speed after her death. Oregon was officially named a Territory by the US Congress, and that meant a legislature could be formed, which meant laws were quickly passed, and law-enforcers lickety-split were hired. Native people were killed, their lands taken with impunity because of the terror and fear created around Narcissa’s death.
The real Narcissa was forgotten in the hubbub. Or at least I think so. She bears responsibility for her role in the conflict between the two sides for sure, but it feels wrong to me that she’s been memorialized as someone she flat out wasn’t. I intended, in this book, to remember her vulnerability and occasional fragility (under her hard mask of stern religious certainty), her unpleasant grouchiness and overly stern comportment, and the depth of her loneliness. At age twenty-eight, married to a stranger, she charged off on an extreme venture to please her mother and to please her father, God, and I suspect that from the beginning she deep-down knew this business was a bust.
Rumpus: I Am a Stranger Here Myself weaves history with memoir, placing a retelling of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman’s life alongside your own family history. How did you decide to structure the book?
Gwartney: For years I chewed on the question about how the strands I was developing would best intertwine. I was after a confluence of narratives: my story of identity with region and family, Narcissa’s story about moving West and dying here (which at its heart is also about identity), and the overarching theme of women diminished by, or forgotten in, the mythology of the West. The three came closest to touching—which I found personally electrifying—every time I was in the presence of an item that belonged to her. The Narcissa-related tangible things, including the note I found in the book, her trunk, her hair, the eponymous wine, the vapid film about the Sagers, and others. These began working for me as the backbone of the structure, upon which everything else hangs or floats or extends.
Rumpus: You describe some of your research process in the last quarter of the book, “Memento Mori,” where you write about the lengths you go to in seeking out archived locks of Narcissa’s hair. What was the rest of the research process like?
Gwartney: Mostly, I’d say, it was full of surprises. I loved it when the unexpected fell in my lap; for instance, quite literally, a note that slipped out of a book I’d checked out from the American Antiquarian Society Library—there was no way I could have predicted this charming, curious artifact, on such delicate onion paper, and yet there it was in my hand. I remember wondering if I could legitimately use it because of the mix-up of Narcissa’s name. But then I thought, Wait, I’m not a historian! I’m not a scholar! My job as a creative writer is to add intrigue to the narrative, and I think the mistake on the note does just that. It was a good lesson—to push past preconceived notions about the things I found, and give them time and space to ebb their own interpretations in my direction.
I could have spent years just tracking down Narcissa’s hair. Pieces are stored in archives all over the West and as far away as Yale University. Or, anyway, what people have claimed is her hair (no way could it all be off her head). I’m fascinated by the folklore created around this dead woman’s hair, an obsession that I guess I fell right into and that I’m adding to by focusing on it in this book.
Rumpus: I Am a Stranger Here Myself strikes me as a reckoning of both the history of the American West, and your own family history. You say it’s time “to break it apart, my own past,” and, though you say you’re not sure why, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman’s. A sort of ambivalence plagues this process for you as well. Does that reckoning feel complete, now that the book is out in the world?
Gwartney: One of my favorite insights about writing personal narrative is something like, “Memoir’s job is not to answer the question, but to deepen the question.” If anything, the process of reckoning you ask about here has become more complicated for me over time, and certainly the questions I pose for myself have a depth they didn’t when I started this book. That’s both wonderful and daunting. Also, I’m holding my breath in the way of most memoirists: what will my family think of this book? I have tried not to predict what might upset different relations or what might delight those same people. I understand that my dealings with them might undergo a shake-up, but I want to trust that, in the end, such an airing will be a good thing. I’m glad to be from where I’m from and I feel an allegiance to the family that made that possible. But I also respect my own discomfort with the patriarchal mythology of the West, which has rubbed against me like sandpaper since I was a kid.
I remember my teacher Phillip Lopate saying that all memoir is about self-awareness, and that statement was constantly on my mind as I put this book together. My own abiding goal was to know myself better once I had moved through my past and Narcissa’s past. What I realized is that it’s not possible to reach a clear, ringing answer. I recognized the ambivalence you speak of early on and thought to embrace it. Most humans are walking contradictions, after all—saying one thing while meaning another, for example. It felt right to recognize the tendency in myself, how I claim a ferocious desire to belong to the town where I was born and yet never once have I looked for a job there or rented a house or planted a garden in a bare patch of ground. I claim to long for a different kind of father, yet I fall back, constantly, on the comfortable, familiar distance long ago established between my father and me. I also have a good deal of ambivalence about Narcissa. She should have never traveled West. She did untold damage. But I cannot condemn her as I thought I could once—it turns out she was as human as the rest of us.
Rumpus: One of the other things that comes up for you is the idea of rewriting history to suit a particular narrative. Do you think it’s possible to ever be completely objective about the past?
Gwartney: I look at it differently in different sections—how can we learn from the past, when so much of what was documented and recorded was set down by those with a particular privilege, excluding every perspective but their own? Two books (among the many I read that pressed this point) which woke me up to the extent of the warped mainstream history of the West were John Unruh’s The Plains Across and Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest. Both are impeccably researched. Limerick was among the first to recognize the substantial role that women played in the settling of the West, and she also, at last, included a non-colonial take on those troubled, tumultuous years of the frontier. Unruh went to great lengths to set right the narrative of the Oregon Trail. This book and his straightforward, convincing prose showed me how shifting the narrative a little bit here and a little bit there and then calling the result “historical fact” can be ruinous for those not in power.
Rumpus: You write a lot about the settler/Native struggle that ended Narcissa’s life, and manage to remain mostly neutral in your telling. Was that hard to do? And, though it has been almost two centuries since these events took place, do you see the legacy of the Whitman massacre lingering in how the Native people of the West continue to be treated?
Gwartney: I’m of the “when the action is hot, write cool,” school of memoir writing. My plan was to tell the details of the attack as straightforwardly as possible, to be rigorously true to the facts I had gathered, and not put too many thoughts in too many characters’ heads. I wanted the reader to come to her own conclusion about what happened on November 29, 1847. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I also decided to enter the scene of the attack twice in the book. I fussed for a long time about that choice, but I felt like the characters were more real to the reader when the second account rolled around—especially the Sager children. I read, I think, every survivor’s account of that day, and what struck me as most potent and disturbing was what happened to the children who survived (as well as what happened to some who didn’t). I intentionally focused on the young people, on Frank Sager, and his sister Catharine, and young Eliza Spalding, as well as the two girls sick with the measles, and other kids. They were plunked in the middle of mayhem and violence—on an impossibly freezing cold afternoon—and had to somehow figure out how to get through it. The survivors, held hostage for a month, were forced to manage the aftermath of violence (sewing shrouds out of bedsheets; picking up the Whitmans’ scattered remains; watching the teenage girls be taken away as “wives”). The reader, I thought, should get a stark view of the stretched hours and weeks of havoc and death, but I didn’t want the havoc and death to eclipse the rest of the book. I left out some of the worst of it. I hope someone writes a book about Lorinda Bewley, for instance. My goodness, what she went through. I didn’t get into her story because I was afraid it would spin me off, and spin the book off, into a sideways sphere and I wouldn’t find my way back. So I left out most of her story. But, anyway, bless you, Lorinda Bewley. You deserve to be remembered.
Rumpus: How do you see the culture of the West evolving?
Gwartney: Men and women were enticed out to the West by the offer of free, fertile land in the 1840s. It seems like hundreds of thousands of those folks were willing to put up with months of continuous hardship to attain freedom, which meant the government off their backs and widely available property. Land that (they’d been told) was theirs for the asking. These overlanders were fiercely independent. They had a staunch work ethic, and were determined to make it their own way. A big part of the mythology of the West is this idea that people accomplished it all on their own—when, actually, the new settlers and those who came after had significant help from the government.
Still, fierce independence rings through this part of the country. That can be an admirable trait, but it can also reel out into extremes; for example, the Bundys and their followers, a group of armed militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Center near Burns, Oregon, a few years back. The Bundys raged in to defend their outdated ranching lifestyle and their Second Amendment rights—and got a lot of attention for doing so.
I disagree with about everything the Bundys did and said, and I am disturbed that they faced few consequences, but I recognize their staunchly held beliefs, which have roots in the early days of Western expansion and settlement. The Bundy followers are living out the creed of Manifest Destiny, and as the West becomes more commercialized and developed, as well as more diverse, I believe we’ll see other protests by those who feel crowded and denied what they believe is their God-given right. This is why Trump won in Idaho by huge margins. He gave hope to those who want to return to an old code of the West or at the very least preserve what’s left of it.
Photograph of Debra Gwartney by John Clark.