Rethinking the legacy of missionary Marcus Whitman

In Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, Marcus Whitman represents the state of Washington — but not for much longer.

“He has spent over 70 years telling the Washington story, it’s time for him to rest,” said state Rep. Debra Lekanoff.

Lekanoff sponsored a bill to replace Whitman’s statue with one of Billy Frank, Jr., the Native American activist and environmental leader.

“When Billy fought for the Salmon (people), he fought for everybody in Washington state,” Lekanoff said.

The bipartisan bill passed overwhelmingly last spring, at a time Whitman’s legacy is being reassessed.

“We have been memorializing a myth rather than the actual story,” said Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, run by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeast Oregon.

Conner spoke at the Whitman Mission Historic Site in Walla Walla, which is on Cayuse land.

In 1847, the Cayuse murdered Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and eleven other white men.

“We were the boogeyman under the bed for a very, very long time,” Conner said.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman came to Walla Walla in the 1830s as Protestant missionaries aiming to convert Native Americans to Christianity.

“It turned out that Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were particularly inept,” said Seattle author Blaine Harden, who published a recent book called “Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West.”

Harden said over 11 years, Whitman only baptized two people.

“He more or less gave up on that job and turned to real estate.”

Whitman became a major force for the white settlement of the Northwest, as he and Narcissa welcomed ever-larger groups of wagons on the Oregon Trail.

The Cayuse, who initially welcomed Whitman, increasingly saw an invasion of their homeland by white people bringing diseases.

“We did not have immunity to the high-fever diseases that were coming our way,” Conner said.

Entire villages were wiped out by smallpox and measles.

Marcus Whitman was a medical doctor and unsuccessfully treated Native Americans who fell ill.

Cayuse tradition called for killing failed medicine men.

After many warnings, the Cayuse murdered Marcus Whitman.

“His death sentence was a malpractice execution,” Conner said.

When news of the Whitman massacre reached Washington, D.C., Congress sent in an army, officially making Oregon territory part of the United States and paving the way for the future states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Whitman are really important to the history of the Pacific Northwest because they got killed,” Harden said.

Five Cayuse were hanged for the murders.

Then, in the decades after Whitman’s death, a myth took root.

Rival missionary Henry Spaulding, no friend of Whitman while he lived, recast him as a martyr, claiming Whitman saved Oregon.

“After they were murdered, Spalding turned them into national heroes by making up a lie about what Marcus Whitman had done,” Harden said.

The legend goes that in 1843, Whitman rode his horse east in winter to warn President John Tyler of a British and Catholic plot to take over Oregon.

“There was no British plot,” Harden said. “Whitman did go to Washington, but it’s not clear what he did there or who he saw.”

Around 1900, scholars debunked the Whitman myth.

They proved his true purpose back east was to visit missionary headquarters in Boston, where he persuaded leaders not to shut him down because of infighting.

“He didn’t go to save Oregon, he went to save his skin and his job,” Harden said.

In Washington state, however, the myth persisted.

Harden said a former Whitman College president spent 40 years using it as a fundraising tool, bringing big crowds to Walla Walla for re-enactments.

“Without a doubt, the lie about Whitman saving the Pacific Northwest saved Whitman College from going broke,” Harden said.

In the 1950s, the state legislature sent the Whitman statue to Washington, D.C.

Washington schoolkids were taught the myth about Whitman saving Oregon well into the 20th century.

“One of the things we’ve found is maybe that story isn’t quite what we were told when we were in fourth grade,” said Steve Thede, superintendent of the Whitman Mission Historic Site.

Now the National Park Service is working on more accurate interpretive signs at the site, with the help of tribal leaders.

“That story has become a stain, or a blemish, on our people’s history for a very long time,” Conner said.

Their reputation as murderers of a national hero cost the Cayuse nearly all of their homeland.

“We were penalized in the treaty council for having killed the Christians,” Conner said.

It took the arrival of casino gambling 150 years later for the Cayuse to prosper on the Umatilla Reservation they share with two other tribes.

This summer, President Joe Biden nominated Umatilla leader Chuck Sams to become the first Native American to lead the National Park Service, which runs the Whitman site.

Whitman College says it now partners with Umatilla tribal leaders on education to ensure students understand history in context.

The state legislation replacing the Whitman statue in Washington, D.C. calls for its return to Walla Walla.

That will likely take a couple of years, and plans for exactly where it will go are undetermined.