Blaine Harden on the Persistence of Marcus Whitman's Myth in the West
As the result of a good story, the Reverend Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa became perhaps the most revered pioneer couple in the history of America’s westward expansion.
Six decades ago, as a student in Spokane, Washington, I learned of the Whitmans in a course on our state history, a requirement in Washington schools.
In our textbooks and lectures, the Whitman couple was virtually deified as benevolent Christian pioneers who offered Indians salvation as they brought civilization to their backward flock. At the same time, they encouraged others from the East to join them where land was plentiful and open for the taking. And Reverend Whitman was celebrated as an American patriot who saved for America the territory that became the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho from a plot hatched by the British with Catholic and Native co-conspirators.
We also learned of the Whitman massacre: the shocking and gruesome 1847 murders of the gracious Whitmans and eleven other white people by renegade Cayuse Indians in an unprovoked attack at their mission near present day Walla Walla. The massacre became a flashpoint in the history of the West.
It turns out that the Whitman story we were taught decades ago was rife with lies, as acclaimed journalist and author Blaine Harden reveals in his lively recent book, a masterwork of historical detection, Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the West (Viking).