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New book explores the lies that built up Marcus Whitman's legacy

Jessica Kowal
Blaine Harden grew up in eastern Washington, where he was in a school play about the life of Marcus Whitman. His new book talks about how much of that history was a lie.

The missionary Marcus Whitman has been lionized through generations of Washington state history. A county is named after him, plus a college and a handful of other things.

But his place as a hero in state history is fading. A statue of Whitman – one of two the state gets to display in the U.S. Capitol – is about to be replaced with one of the late Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member and Native fishing rights activist. And the truth about Whitman is becoming more clear.

Seattle-based journalist and author Blaine Harden writes about Whitman in his new book, “Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West.” He spoke with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about how history was written and how we’re now coming to learn a more accurate – and vastly different – version.


On the myth that Whitman ‘saved’ the Oregon country from the British: “It’s incredibly not true. The story did not exist while Whitman and his wife were still alive. It was made up about 20 years later by another missionary, who had also come from back East. His name was the Rev. Henry Spalding. After [the Whitmans] were killed, he made up a story saying Whitman had gone back to the White House and convinced the president at the time, Tyler, that the British were coming in cahoots with the Catholics and with the Indians, and that the only way to save the Oregon country was to send more white people out. This story, most of which is nonsense, was popularized in the 1860s, and in 1871, Congress printed it as an official U.S. government document. It was reprinted in virtually every history book read by students in high schools across America for three decades. It was in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was in The New York Times."

On how Whitman’s legacy resonates among Native people Harden spoke with: “It’s so immediate. It’s almost like it was news that happened last Thursday. They feel like justice has never really been done. After the killing, in 1850, five Cayuse tribal members were taken to Oregon City and tried. They were all hanged simultaneously from gallows that would have been built specially for them. … Once they were hanged, the whites could feel vindicated and they could also take Cayuse land, which they took almost all of it. The bodies of the hanged individuals were taken in a wagon and wheeled to the edge of town in Oregon City and buried. The Cayuse have tried for decades to find those remains and bring them back to the reservation, but nobody knows where they are."

On questioning history: “Americans like stories about their past that are simple, action-packed, hero-driven and sanctified by God. The entire settlement of the American west was such a story as it was told in dime novels. … Until recently [America has] been so extraordinarily successful and rich and powerful. We could look to ourselves and describe ourselves as the shining city on a hill. And we also had founding principles that are still admirable and are still good guides for how to live in a democratic world. There’s a lot of self-glory that’s in the American experience. Some of it is phony.”

Listen to the complete interview with Harden at the link above.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.