It has been a ruinous year for the legacy of Marcus Whitman, a white Protestant missionary tomahawked to death by Cayuse warriors near present-day Walla Walla.
His demise in 1847, together with widely circulated lies about his nation-building heroism, gave Whitman an extraordinary afterlife. Into the 20th century, high school history books across the United States lionized him as a martyred patriot. In the Pacific Northwest, his name is still on banks, nursing homes, schools and a glacier on Mount Rainier.
This spring, however, the state of Washington passed a law that will remove his statue from the U.S. Capitol, where it has stood for 68 years, and swap it out for one honoring Billy Frank Jr., a leader of the Nisqually tribe who was arrested more than 50 times for demanding tribal fishing rights.
Undergraduates in Walla Walla have also demanded that Whitman’s statue be removed from Whitman College. “This guy is a colonizer,” sophomore Gillian Brown told the student newspaper. “He’s not someone to be celebrated.” Chuck Sams, an Oregon-based tribal leader of Cayuse descent and President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the first Native American director of the National Park Service, has helped persuade the college to make amends for once peddling false claims about Whitman. The school will soon offer five full scholarships to students from the Umatilla Reservation, where the Cayuse people live in northeast Oregon.
The Whitman backlash comes amid a national reckoning over race, racism and the treatment of Black Americans and Native Americans by white historical figures immortalized in bronze. Whitman was at the vanguard of a wave of settlers who used the strength of numbers, the zeal of Christianity and the power of federal troops to shatter Native American culture, grab tribal land and confine Indigenous people to reservations.
But the Whitman reckoning also arises out of an elaborate con about who he was and what he accomplished before he was slain. For several decades, that con was wildly successful, persuading Congress, East Coast newspapers and most Americans to accept a fairy tale version of how the West was won. As the story went, Whitman was a horse-riding champion of Manifest Destiny, a man of God who single-handedly thwarted a British plot to steal the Pacific Northwest away from the United States.
In reality, Whitman was nothing of the kind. He was a mediocre missionary whose most significant contribution to history was getting killed.
A medical doctor turned missionary, Whitman traveled from upstate New York to the Oregon country in 1836, along with wife Narcissa. Their mission, as she described it, was to penetrate “the thick darkness of heathenism” and convert the “benighted Indians.”
It did not go well. The Cayuses, a small tribe of horsemen and traders, welcomed the missionaries and their God, hoping they might be useful supplements to their own religion. But after their land was overrun by white settlers and after a catastrophic measles epidemic, Cayuse warriors invoked their traditional right to punish failed medicine men. They killed Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with 11 other white men, in an attack on Nov. 29, 1847, that became infamous as the Whitman Massacre.
News of the martyred missionaries reached Washington, D.C., the following summer and became a tipping point in the creation of a continental nation. President James K. Polk, an aggressive expansionist, had made a campaign promise 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.
Polk dispatched a governor, a judge and 600 mounted riflemen to Oregon, where they rounded up the supposed perpetrators of the Whitman Massacre for what became a carnivallike festival of white revenge in Oregon City, a present-day suburb of Portland. In 1850, the Cayuse Five, as Whitman’s accused killers became known, were tried, convicted and “hanged, greatly to the satisfaction of the ladies, who had traveled so far to witness the spectacle,” the New York Tribune reported.
Oddly, the lie about Whitman saving Oregon did not become a part of his historical legacy until more than 20 years after his death. It was fabricated by another white Protestant missionary from New York, the Rev. Henry Spalding, who had traveled West with the Whitmans in the 1830s. Spalding was scraggly-bearded and endlessly aggrieved, and some of his fellow clerics believed he was deranged. But he had a populist gift for making up blood-drenched, action-packed, hero-driven tales that appealed to Protestant Americans.
By the late 1860s, Spalding was spreading a breathless account of how Whitman in 1842 had gotten wind of a British, Catholic, Indian plot to steal Oregon — and 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 took his fake Far West history lesson on the road in 1871, traveling east by train to Washington, D.C., where he was received as a truth-telling man of God. He persuaded Congress to print his fable as fact. Soon, it was regurgitated in The New York Times, the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Ladies’ Home Journal. In a poll taken by New York University in 1900, Whitman was one of America’s most famous explorers, outranking Meriwether Lewis and Sam Houston.
When tiny Whitman College was nearly bankrupt in the 1890s, its president, Stephen B.L. Penrose, used Spalding’s tale to raise money. Across the East Coast, Penrose visited Protestant churches and town halls, telling a story that mixed the gore of Christian imagery with the glory of American conquest. Whitman shed his own blood, Penrose said, so that Oregon, Washington and Idaho could join the union. The story was a fundraising sensation. Donors rushed to save Whitman College, which would become one of the best liberal arts colleges in the West.
The story of Whitman’s heroism was noisily debunked in 1901 by Yale professor Edward G. Bourne, who described Spalding as “one of the most indefatigable old frauds I have ever come across.” Citing missionary letters and other primary sources, Bourne demolished Spalding’s claims as “not only fictitious but impossible,” noting that Oregon was never in danger of being lost to Britain. Whitman’s reputation fizzled on the national stage.
But in the Pacific Northwest, it held up remarkably well: Washington state sent Whitman’s statue to the U.S. Capitol in 1953, more than a half-century after his supposed heroism was discredited.
The enduring myth punished the Cayuse people. For decades, they were swindled and demonized as “miserable Cayuse fiends.” Bobbie Conner, a tribal historian, calls it “our historical trauma.”
On the Umatilla Reservation, that trauma endures. Antone Minthorn, a Cayuse elder and former tribal leader, said the canard that his people were murderers without conscience will always make him angry and resentful. “It ain’t over,” he said.
Outside the reservation, there has been a significant shift in white understanding of the Whitman story. Schools in Oregon and Washington now teach a nuanced story of cultural collision between ethnocentric missionaries and a small, panicked tribe. A Native American lawmaker in the Washington state Legislature, Democratic state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, won overwhelming support this year for her bill to replace the Whitman statue in the Capitol.
While Biden’s choice of Chuck Sams to run the National Park Service awaits Senate confirmation this month, the nomination is already altering how history remembers Whitman. The Park Service has begun working with Cayuse experts to redo exhibits at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site.
It has been a rough year for Whitman’s legacy but a splendid one for historical truth and for freeing the Cayuses from the long torment of a missionary’s lie.