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‘About a lie’: Author dissects tale of murdered Washington missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman

UPDATED: Fri., May 7, 2021

The Marcus Whitman statue in Washington, D.C. photographed on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.  (Orion Donavan-Smith)
The Marcus Whitman statue in Washington, D.C. photographed on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Orion Donavan-Smith)

As an elementary school student, Blaine Harden was taught a lie that he would later learn had been debunked 50 years prior to his birth.

Harden explained that lie – the one he dissects in his new book, “Murder at the Mission” – during a virtual gathering of the Northwest Passages Book Club Thursday evening.

The lie went like this: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, a couple of missionaries in the area that would become Walla Walla, were good Christians murdered by Native Americans. In 1842, Marcus Whitman had ridden on horseback across the United States through wintery snowstorms to alert the then-president of a British plot to steal the western region and make it part of Canada. If more settlers didn’t come soon, the region would be lost.

The Whitmans truly were massacred along with 11 other white men in 1847, Harden said. But by 1900, a historian at Yale had pored over thousands of letters from missionaries kept in an archive in Boston and found it was impossible Whitman had made the journey to Washington D.C. to save the west from British rule.

And the Whitmans were awful missionaries. In their 11 years living with Cayuse American Indians, their group of missionaries had only baptized two people, and the Whitmans weren’t likely involved in the baptisms, Harden said.

It was 1871 when a fellow missionary cooked up the heroic tale, Harden said, but the story spread to textbooks all across the country, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the New York Times. Whitman College was able to gain donors through the tale and Harden said several historians from the college posit it couldn’t have survived without the lie.

“The story was 80, 90% nonsense but there was an element of the story that really appealed to people,” Harden said. “It was simple. It was hero driven. It was action packed. It congratulated Americans for being the patriotic heroes they thought they were, and it seemed to be ordained by God himself because Whitman was a missionary.”

Harden said the Pacific Northwest’s adoption of the story mirrored how Southerners reimagined the Civil War in the 20th century as a battle over states’ rights rather than slavery.

In 1953 – 53 years after the story had been thoroughly debunked – a statue of Whitman went up in Washington D.C., followed by another in Olympia.

“For us in the Pacific Northwest, we simply did not want to not believe this,” Harden, of Seattle, said.

Harden said the truth turned out to be much more interesting.

“It’s completely human, it’s rich and it happens to be true,” Harden said. “There’s a lot to be written about these relationships that would be compelling for students to learn.”

Henry Spalding, the missionary who concocted the lie, had proposed to Narcissa Whitman two years before she met Marcus Whitman, and she’d turned him down. The eventual husband and wife traveled westward with Spalding.

The Cayuse initial acceptance of the missionaries was also interesting to Harden, who found the Indigenous people had considered guns and horses a leg up over neighboring tribes. At first, Harden said, Cayuse people thought the missionaries might bring more technology their way.

Instead, Harden said, the Whitmans attracted more and more white people. Hundreds came each autumn that the Whitmans were there. The Whitmans also built a nice house on Cayuse land and did not pay rent, Harden said.

Cayuse killed the Whitmans and 11 other white settlers in November 1847, during the same autumn that a measles epidemic brought by white people killed about half of the Cayuse peoples’ children, Harden said.

After the Whitmans’ deaths, settlers had leverage to encourage lawmakers in Washington D.C. to make the Oregon Territory, which later turned into Oregon, Washington and Idaho. About six months after they were killed, news of the Whitmans’ deaths made it to Washington D.C. and became a pivot point that led to the Oregon Territory’s existence, Harden said.

“That’s the real significance of the Whitmans,” Harden said. “It wasn’t anything they did while they were alive, it’s what they did by being dead.”

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