July 1988

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The Crooked Lake Review Visits

The Narcissa Prentice House

Prattsburgh, New York


Bill Treichler

About 1805 Stephen and Clarissa Prentiss built what is thought now to be the first framed house in Prattsburgh. There were earlier log houses; the Prentisses themselves lived in a three-sided shelter while they built their 22' by 33' house. On the ground floor there are five rooms and a short entry hall in the center that leads from the front door straight to the stairs to the second floor. Two of the downstairs rooms open off this short hallway, one on one side of the entry hall and the other on the opposite side. Both of these rooms are well lighted by two windows on the front side of the house and one or two windows in the end walls. They must have served as parlors or one of them as the dining room. Each room has a doorway into the kitchen which runs across the middle part of the back of the house. Behind the front room on the east end of the house is a small room that may have been a birthing room or a bedroom for a sick member of the family. Another room the same size that may have been the buttery is in the southwest corner of the house and is entered from the front room on the west side of the house by a doorway next to the doorway that leads to the kitchen from that room. The present southwest corner location of this room seems to be too warm a position in the house for use as a dairy room. Normally such a room would have been placed on a cooler corner of the house. This inconsistency with early practicality supports the belief that the house is not on its original site and may have been moved from across the roadway the house faces and turned around. If the front of the house faced south originally, the buttery would have been on the northeast corner, a cooler spot. There may even have been a spring under the buttery at the original site. At the present time the kitchen has a screened porch outside. Earlier there may have been a woodshed part way along the kitchen side that was entered by a doorway now closed to make room for a dish sink. This simple plan with a centered front door opening into a short hall was economical and practical for a family in a new settlement.

The convenient ground floor plan is repeated in the layout of the second floor rooms. Starting from the short entrance room and opposite to the front door is a hall-wide stair that goes steeply up to a room with one small, under-the-eave window on the back side. The ceiling on this side slants down to the low wall. From this room the four original bedrooms of the house were entered. Each bedroom has one window that is in the end wall, and all have sloping ceilings because of the low roof. The bedroom on the front right side of the house has a closet over the lower entryway. The door into this closet is made from a single board as is the door from the hallway. It is 22 inches wide!

There were too smaller bedrooms in the back corners of the upstairs that are the width of the stair landing room. One of these has been changed into a bathroom. Between this room and the larger front bedroom on the left or east end of the house is a smaller-than-usual doorway that makes you wonder if this wasn't a direct way between the parents' bedroom and this smaller bedroom when it was used as a nursery. They built the house without any frills or ornament except for the highly raised panels of the front door and the metal banding on the heavy lock bolt set on the front door.

The Prentisses built a sensible yet comfortable house for their family. They had nine children. Narcissa was the first to be born in the house. Perhaps this pleasant house in some way contributed to Narcissa's confident and attractive personality. At an early age she wanted to become a missionary in the west. When her family moved from Prattsburgh to Amity (now Belmont) she went with them. On February 18, 1836, she married Marcus Whitman at Angelica. He had been born in Rushville, not so far from Prattsburgh. Whitman was a medical doctor and had already been west intending to set up missions among the Indians. He had come back to get more people to go with him. Six and one half months after their wedding, on September 1, 1836, their party reached the Columbia River in the Oregon country. Narcissa and Eliza Spaulding, the wife of another missionary, were the first white women to cross the continent by trail.

Narcissa Prentiss, born in Prattsburgh in this house in 1808, educated to be a teacher at Franklin Academy and the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, was realizing her ambition to be a missionary with the Indians in the West.

The Whitmans founded a mission that year among the Cayuse Indians at Waiilatpu, near the present site of Walla Walla, Washington. A grist mill, sawmill and a blacksmith shop were constructed at the mission. Narcissa's father, Stephen Prentiss, had operated a grist mill and sawmill on the creek just behind the present location of the Prentiss house in Prattsburgh. The Whitmans at their mission attempted to win the Indians away from a nomadic life to a more settled existence. They hoped the Indians would then become more receptive to religious teaching. Narcissa even started a school. She and her husband had learned the Indian language.

The life styles were too different. The Indians saw themselves being displaced by the endless stream of immigrants coming over the Oregon Trail. Then an epidemic of measles broke out and killed half of the Cayuse tribe. This sickness which didn't affect the white immigrants as seriously, and against which doctor Whitman's medicines were ineffective, convinced the Indians that the missionaries were not their friends or protectors. On November 29, 1847, the Whitman family was wiped out by a band of Cayuse. The Whitmans inability to convince the Indians to change to a settled life and their failure to help the Indians with white man's medicine must have been a terrible personal tragedy for them.

Perhaps it was an unavoidable tragedy. Narcissa and Marcus were undoubtedly sympathetic to the Indians, yet they been caught up in the great feeling of adventure and excitement and could not be satisfied living in still young western New York where life was beginning to settle down as towns were expanding, farms improving and beautiful houses were being built. The Whitmans sought fulfillment in the wild country farther west from the already tamed land of the Genesee and lake country.

The Prentiss house in Prattsburgh shows this turn toward home, family and comfort beginning even before Narcissa's birth. This first frame house in Prattsburgh was a great improvement over the rough early shelters. As soon as life was a little more settled in the new place a simple version of the houses these people had left in New England or Pennsylvania could be built. In another generation people would build fine Greek-style houses.

The Prentiss house was lived in by other settlers after the family went to Amity, and then for along time stood neglected. In 1936 Dr. Arthur Limouze purchased and restored the house. He then presented it to the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in 1940. The house is now run by the Committee for the Preservation of the Narcissa Prentiss House.

The present residents of the house are Mr. and Mrs. Vernon T. Smith who make the house and its surrounding lawn attractive and inviting with their gracious hospitality and fund of information about the house and Narcissa Prentiss.

Go to Prattsburgh and the Narcissa Prentiss House. Meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith, see the front door with its massive lock and key that came from England, peek into the birthing room and the buttery, and look across the lawn from the kitchen porch to the site of Stephen Prentiss's creek-side mill.

The house is open to visitors during the summer, Wednesdays through Sundays, between 1:00 and 5:00 from the middle of June to the end of September. Other times are available by appointment. School, church and club groups are especially welcome.

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