Marcus Whitman was a missionary in the 19th century who played an important role in the development of the American West. He and his wife, Narcissa Whitman, have been revered since perishing in an 1847 Indian attack. But the story isn’t what it seems. Blaine Harden tells the startling account as he expounds on his latest book, Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West.
How did Blaine Harden become interested in the history of the American West in general—and the story of Marcus Whitman in particular?
As a grade-school kid growing up in the small town of Moses Lake in eastern Washington State, I acted in a state-approved school play that presented an ethnocentric and historically misleading version of the Whitman story. From my teachers in the 1960s, I learned that the Whitmans were Christian heroes who brought Jesus and the benefits of civilization to Indians who were ungrateful and bloodthirsty.
After a long career as a reporter and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and the New York Times, I began writing books about various subjects, including the Pacific Northwest.
The Whitman story had always stuck in my craw as dubious—and so I began to do more research.
Who were Marcus and Narcissa Whitman?
They were white Protestant missionaries from upstate New York who came west to the Oregon County in 1836. Their mission, as Narcissa described it, was to penetrate “the thick darkness of heathenism” and convert the “benighted Indians.”
Marcus was a medical doctor; Narcissa was a teacher. They built a mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, and were initially welcomed by the local Cayuse people.
Who were Henry and Eliza Spaulding?
They were also Protestant missionaries from upstate New York, and they traveled west in 1836 with the Whitmans to the Oregon Country. Spalding was an ordained Presbyterian minister from a poor background who was zealously pious—and prone to self-righteous condemnation of his peers for their lack of Christian zeal.
Eliza was a gifted linguist and an empathetic missionary who found extraordinary success in communicating with and teaching literacy to the Nez Perce people, among whom the Spalding’s settled in 1836 at Lapwai, in what is now Idaho.
Why did Henry Spaulding have hard feelings toward the Whitmans—and how did that tension manifest?
When he was in his early 20s, Spalding attended the same school as Narcissa. He fell in love with her and proposed marriage. She turned him down, a rejection Spalding never got over.
About a decade later, when the newlywed Whitmans were traveling west with the Spaldings to Oregon, Henry Spalding shared the same camp tent as the Whitmans—at the time when Marcus and Narcissa conceived their first and only child.
Spalding’s mental stability, never that stable in the best of times, was sorely tested. He tormented both Whitmans on the journey to Oregon and continued to do so for many years. Narcissa later wrote that she and Marcus should never have gone west with Spalding, whose “wicked jealousy” tainted their lives.
In what context does New York’s Burned-Over District make an appearance in Murder at the Mission?
The Burned-Over District refers to a part of upstate New York where residents experienced—and rapturously embraced—the flames of revival evangelism in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The families of Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Prentiss were among the many millions of Americans who converted to Protestantism during the era, which became known as the Second Great Awakening. It was a time of traveling revivals, exploding church membership, and a fervent desire to spread the Christian message to “heathen” people in the West and around the world.
What was the purpose of their mission—and how has it been misunderstood for generations?
The Whitmans and Spalding were sent west by the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the principal U.S. organization for dispatching American missionaries around the world.
The American Board had been appalled by federal government abuse of Indians in the American Southeast under President Andrew Jackson. The board instructed the Whitmans and the Spaldings to convert and assimilate Indians in the Oregon Country so that they might survive the inevitable arrival of massive numbers of white settlers.
The Whitmans utterly failed at their assigned task.
How were the Whitmans initially received by Native Americans—and how did that relationship evolve?
The Cayuses, a small but powerful tribe of horsemen and traders, welcomed the Whitmans—at first. The tribe’s elders hoped that the White Man’s God be might a helpful supplement to their own religion.
But the strict Calvinist version of Christianity that the Whitman’s preached was all but impossible for the Cayuses to understand or accept.
In 11 years of missionary work among the Cayuse tribe, the Whitmans converted just two people.
Why did the Cayuse warn the Whitmans to leave—and why didn’t the Whitmans go?
They warned the Whitmans to leave for three reasons.
One, the Cayuses never saw much material or spiritual benefit from allowing the missionaries to squat on their land—and never pay any rent.
Two, the arrival of the missionaries soon brought more and more white people to the Oregon County, settlers whom the Whitmans warmly welcomed. The settlers who quickly turned the Cayuses and other Indigenous people into minority residents of their own land.
Three, white people brought disease. In the final weeks and days before the Whitmans were killed, measles wiped out about half of the Cayuse tribe, as Dr. Marcus was helpless to stop the disease from killing Indians.
The Whitmans refused to leave despite multiple warnings from the Cayuses and from white friends. They did so because Narcissa had begun to focus on the care and education of white orphans at the mission; and Marcus had become something of land developer, expanding his farm operation at the mission and seeking to get federal government help in acquiring more land.
How did Marcus and Narcissa Whitman die?
They were killed on November 27, 1847, in an attack by a small group of Cayuse warriors. They were outraged by the deaths caused by the measles epidemic and by the ever-growing numbers of white settlers crossing through Cayuse land.
The Cayuses had a long tradition of killing failed healers. Dr. Whitman understood the tradition and had often written of the risk he and Narcissa were running by staying on Cayuse land.
How did their deaths change the direction of United States history?
When word of the killings reached Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1848 it became a tipping point in the creation of a continental nation. President James K. Polk had promised to use force if necessary to make the Oregon Country, previously shared by treaty with Britain, a formal part of the United States.
With the news that Christian white folk were dead out west and that more would die unless the federal government acted, Polk prevailed on Congress to create the Oregon Territory, which soon became Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
How did a false narrative become established as official history?
It was the work of the ever-aggrieved Henry Spalding. About 20 years after the Whitmans were killed, Spalding collaborated with other white Protestant ministers to fabricate a fairy tale about how Marcus Whitman—before his murder—had “saved Oregon.”
As Spalding told the story: Whitman got wind in 1842 of a British, Catholic, Indian plot to steal Oregon—and the brave missionary doctor thwarted it by riding on horseback through winter snows to the White House, where he persuaded President John Tyler that the British were coming.
When Whitman returned to Oregon, Spalding claimed, the British and the Catholics persuaded the Cayuses to kill him.
Spalding had a gift for patriotic propaganda. He made up an action-packed story of Manifest Destiny and Christian courage. It was a tale that white Protestant America eagerly believed. Spalding took his fake history lesson to the U.S. Capitol in 1871, where he persuaded Congress to print it as fact.
Soon, it appeared in the New York Times, the Encyclopedia Britannica and in nearly all the history books used in the schools in the United States until the end of the nineteenth century.
The false story was debunked by scholars in 1900, but in the Pacific Northwest it lingered on for more than half a century public school lessons, plays, monuments, even operas.
I was taught the lie about Whitman in a public school in 1962, more than six decades after it had been demolished by professional historians.
What impact has your book had on contemporary institutions?
The impact has been substantial. The National Park Service is rewriting and remaking its exhibits at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site in Washington State and at the Spalding Site in Idaho.
Whitman College in Walla Walla, which for many decades raised money from the lie about Whitman, has created five new full scholarships for tribal students from the Umatilla Reservation, where the Cayuse people live.
The Presbyterian Church in the Inland Northwest has apologized for Spalding’s behavior and told me it is now investigating a larger apology for his lies about Whitman, the British, and the Cayuse. Oregon City, where five Cayuse warriors were hanged in 1850 for killing Whitman, is building a memorial to the executed men. It is expected to say that justice was not served in their hanging.
Just before my book was published, the state of Washington decided to remove a statute of Marcus Whitman that had stood in the U.S. Capitol in Washington since 1955.
What lessons does the story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman hold for Americans today?
As I write in my book, the Whitman lie is a timeless reminder that in America a good story has an insidious way of trumping a true one, especially if that story confirms our virtue, congratulates our pluck, and enshrines our status as God’s chosen people.
About Blaine Harden
Blaine Harden is an award-winning author and journalist. He has written for prestigious media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, National Geographic, and The Guardian. He is the author of five books, including Escape from Camp 14 and Murder at the Mission. His website is blaineharden.com.
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