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‘Pack of lies’ about Marcus Whitman holds lessons about the rejection of truth today

·5 min read

When I served on the Statesman editorial board and joined my colleagues interviewing candidates seeking an endorsement from the paper, I was often amused when candidates kicked off their comments by telling us how long ago their families arrived in Idaho. It was as though great-great-Grandpa and -Grandma’s decision to head west to Idaho made the candidate of today more qualified for office than one whose family only arrived in the state a generation ago.

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

For one thing, most of us know little about the details of our ancestors’ role in the growth and progress of America, and those histories may not all measure up to the patriotic and generous tales families weave about those who came before them. To cite just one example, the discriminatory and violent treatment of Chinese immigrants in the second half of the 19th century in Idaho shows how deeply embedded racism is in Idaho’s past.

As the grandson of a Polish immigrant in the latter 19th century, I’ve given considerable thought to how much I don’t know about my lineage. All I know about my grandfather is that he was an alcoholic who died at age 45 which left my grandmother with four kids to raise on her own. On my Irish side, my mother would often remark, in jest I hope, that she would just as soon not know her lineage going back to Ireland based on the behavior of her relatives who made it over here, sometimes not portraits of character.

I thought of this challenge many of us have in knowing who we really come from and whether it’s something to brag about when I interviewed Blaine Harden at Reader’s Corner for an upcoming segment about his book, “Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West.” Harden, a best-selling author and journalist who served as bureau chief for the Washington Post in Europe, Asia and Africa, grew up in Moses Lake, Washington, hearing of the exalted status of Marcus Whitman, the presbyterian minister who traveled to the Oregon territory around today’s Walla Walla, to convert Native Americans to Christianity.

For those of us in Idaho who visit Walla Walla to taste wines and visit its fine restaurants, the convoluted history of Marcus Whitman comes as something of a shock after staying at the venerable and tradition-bound Marcus Whitman hotel and walking the campus of Whitman College, the distinguished liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest named after him.

Whitman’s mission to convert Native Americans in present-day Washington, Oregon and north Idaho did not go well. He and his family were killed in what became known as the “Whitman Massacre” by members of the Cayuse Tribe who warned Whitman to quit bringing more white people into the region who were taking American Indian lands and spreading diseases for which Native Americans had no immunity. Harden reminds us of broken treaties and compensation agreements among the reasons American Indians attacked and killed the Whitman family. The Cayuse Tribe was held accountable, and six were hanged for their crimes at a carnival-like event that attracted thousands.

Even one of Whitman’s fellow missionaries would later write that Whitman thought of the American Indians as an inferior race and had he been more of a loving missionary than a boosterish land agent for white people, he might not have been killed. But that didn’t stop Whitman’s missionary partner, Rev. Henry Spalding, from creating what Harden labels a “pack of lies” that portrayed Whitman as a “patriot, a Christian role model and frontier hero.”

Among Spalding’s inventions, he spun a fictional tale of Whitman doing a Paul Revere-type horseback ride to Washington to persuade the president to save Oregon from British and Catholic efforts to steal the Northwest from America. The real ride back East, as reported by the media of the day, involved the business of the Presbyterian mission, not some patriotic move to save the Northwest from the clutches of Canada.

Harden walks us through American history since Whitman’s day to show how generations of politicians, historians, clergymen and university presidents sold the Whitman myth to succeeding generations. Their motives were varied, but in the case of one Whitman College president, he managed to use the Whitman myth to raise substantial contributions back East from folks who loved the tale of this man who changed the Northwest.

In these most frustrating times when truth and facts are supplanted by what some choose to “feel” about an issue rather than embrace the truth, it is perhaps not surprising to learn our current generation is not the first to ignore facts and news of the day and construct a reality far removed from the truth as President Trump perfected during his presidency.

“Murder at the Mission” comes at a time when too many Americans choose to live with a false narrative of our past and attack anyone retelling the American story. Unfortunately, those who do not learn from our past are doomed to repeat it, and that sure seems the case today as state legislatures across the land attempt to squelch any classroom discussion of racism in our past just as racism once again raises its ugly head.

Harden aligns history with what we really know happened during the Great Awakening of the 19th century in the Oregon territory as evangelists headed west on their religious missions and, in the process, enabled the taking of American Indian lands and destroyed their way of life.

Harden does a fine job of covering the troubled history of federal American Indian policy swaying back and forth between tribal rights and paternalistic federal bureaucratic control as it has played out in the Northwest. The people of Cayuse, Umatilla and Nez Perce ancestry took back their history in recent years, and Harden provides details of their success in Oregon, leaving the reader with hope for a brighter future for the tribes.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio and he writes a biweekly column for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

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