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Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West

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Finalist for the 2022 Will Rogers Medallion Award

“Terrific.” –Timothy Egan, The New York Times


A riveting investigation of both American myth-making and the real history that lies beneath.Claudio Saunt, author of Unworthy Republic

From the New York Times bestselling author of Escape From Camp 14, a “terrifically readable” (Los Angeles Times) account of one of the most persistent “alternative facts in American history: the story of a missionary, a tribe, a massacre, and a myth that shaped the American West


In 1836, two missionaries and their wives were among the first Americans to cross the Rockies by covered wagon on what would become the Oregon Trail. Dr. Marcus Whitman and Reverend Henry Spalding were headed to present-day Washington state and Idaho, where they aimed to convert members of the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes. Both would fail spectacularly as missionaries. But Spalding would succeed as a propagandist, inventing a story that recast his friend as a hero, and helped to fuel the massive westward migration that would eventually lead to the devastation of those they had purportedly set out to save.

As Spalding told it, after uncovering a British and Catholic plot to steal the Oregon Territory from the United States, Whitman undertook a heroic solo ride across the country to alert the President. In fact, he had traveled to Washington to save his own job. Soon after his return, Whitman, his wife, and eleven others were massacred by a group of Cayuse. Though they had ample reason - Whitman supported the explosion of white migration that was encroaching on their territory, and seemed to blame for a deadly measles outbreak - the Cayuse were portrayed as murderous savages. Five were executed.

This fascinating, impeccably researched narrative traces the ripple effect of these events across the century that followed. While the Cayuse eventually lost the vast majority of their territory, thanks to the efforts of Spalding and others who turned the story to their own purposes, Whitman was celebrated well into the middle of the 20th century for having "saved Oregon." Accounts of his heroic exploits appeared in congressional documents, The New York Times, and Life magazine, and became a central founding myth of the Pacific Northwest.

Exposing the hucksterism and self-interest at the root of American myth-making, Murder at the Mission reminds us of the cost of American expansion, and of the problems that can arise when history is told only by the victors.

ISBN-13: 9780525561682

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 04-26-2022

Pages: 480

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Blaine Harden is a contributor to The Economist, PBS Frontline, and Foreign Policy, and has formerly served as The Washington Post's bureau chief in East Asia and Africa. He is the author of The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot; Escape from Camp 14, an international bestseller published in 27 languages; A River Lost; and Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, which won a Pen American Center citation for a first book of non-fiction.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Do Nothing to Irritate"

Marcus Whitman had promises to keep in the West. On a scouting trip to the Rockies in the summer of 1835, he had met Indians who told him they would welcome missionaries to their tribal lands in the Oregon Country. Whitman vowed to return within a year.

Six months later, he was back home in upstate New York, struggling to keep his word. To get across the continent in time for the planned Indian meetup in the Rockies in the summer of 1836, he needed to marry Narcissa Prentiss by February and head west by March. He also needed to find a second missionary couple for the journey, a couple that included an ordained Protestant minister and a minister's wife who could provide female companionship for Narcissa. This was at the insistence of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Boston-based organization that would be footing the missionary bills. The American Board, created in the early 1800s by young graduates of Williams College, was the country's largest and most important sponsor of missionaries to foreign lands and to Indians across America. It was controlled by Calvinist ministers, most of whom had been trained at elite colleges and seminaries in New England, where they had been drilled in the teachings of Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan theologian and revivalist preacher who instigated America's religious awakening. Nearly all of the board's leaders-and many of the missionaries they selected in the first half of the nineteenth century-were members of Congregational and Presbyterian churches in the Northeast.

The supply of road-ready East Coast missionary couples was low in the winter of 1835-36. What few candidates Whitman could locate in New York and New England had turned him down. That left him with no alternative but to try to wrestle a commitment out of Henry Spalding.

By the late summer of 1835, the American Board had accepted Reverend Spalding and his wife, Eliza, as missionaries. It planned to send them to the Osage Indians in what is now eastern Kansas. They were supposed to leave in the fall, but Eliza gave birth in October to a stillborn child, and their departure was delayed until she was strong enough to travel.

It was Narcissa who told Marcus they might be available. Having been born and raised in the middle-class Protestant establishment of upstate New York, she was plugged into the comings and goings of local Christians, especially those who had been chosen by the American Board as missionaries. Narcissa's willingness to point her fiancé in the direction of the Spaldings suggested that she had no feelings one way or the other for Henry Spalding. It had been about eight years since she turned down his proposal of marriage. She took for granted that his marriage to Eliza, combined with the passage of time and the recent loss of their first baby, had extinguished his animosity toward her.

When Whitman first asked Spalding to travel with them to Oregon, his reply was lukewarm. "If the Board and Dr. Whitman wish me to go to the Rocky Mountains with him, I am ready. Act your pleasure," he wrote in a late-December letter to the American Board. Within weeks, however, Spalding apparently had changed his mind. He began bad-mouthing Narcissa. He said he would not travel with her because he questioned her judgment. It is not known whether Whitman heard about this; Narcissa's well-connected family certainly did.

Still, Whitman desperately needed a commitment from Spalding. Without it, he would be forced to postpone his missionary dreams for at least another year. Under deadline pressure, he failed to investigate-or chose to ignore-evidence that Spalding held a grudge against Narcissa and that he was all but certain to become a liability in Oregon.

After an early-February snowstorm, Whitman chased after Spalding as the reverend and his wife traveled by sleigh to a nearby village to speak at a Presbyterian church. "We want you for Oregon," Whitman shouted from his horse. The three went to a nearby inn, where they prayed together and Whitman pleaded his case. In a letter, Spalding summarized the argument he heard from Whitman: "All the other attempts to obtain a clergyman have failed and if I refused, the Mission to the Rocky Mountains must be abandoned. . . . I felt it my duty to consent to his request."

Whitman had successfully secured an ordained minister for Oregon and found a female companion for Narcissa. But he expressed his regrets almost immediately. He wrote to the American Board, "I am willing to accompany Mr. Spauldin as an associate yet I know little of his peculiar adaptedness to that station."

Far more worried was Narcissa's father. Judge Stephen Prentiss, a businessman and landowner in central New York, questioned the rationality of Narcissa's traveling across the breadth of North America with a minister who had publicly and repeatedly slurred her character. Judge Prentiss summoned Spalding to his home, where, with Narcissa in attendance, he interrogated the minister about his criticism of his daughter, as well as any feelings he might still be nursing toward her. Spalding somehow managed to mollify Prentiss, who did not object when the Spaldings and the Whitmans went west.

He had clearly been taken in by Spalding: Four years later, in a letter from Oregon to her father, Narcissa wrote, "This pretended settlement with father, before we started, was only an excuse, and from all we have seen and heard, both during the journey and since we have been here, the same bitter feeling exists."

Narcissa Prentiss, Marcus Whitman, and Henry Spalding had come of age in a part of upstate New York that would become famous as the ÒBurned-Over District,Ó a term that referred to the spiritual flames of revival evangelism. They were fanned by charismatic preachers, and they flared up repeatedly in more than a dozen Òburned-overÓ counties of central and western New York, an area bordered on the east by the Finger Lakes and on the west by Lake Erie. Traveling revivals were the spark, spiritually speaking, for the Second Great Awakening, the movement that built churches, trained ministers, and converted rural Americans to Protestantism at a breakneck pace in the first half of the nineteenth century. The awakening took an especially strong hold in booming factory towns along the Erie Canal, which moved industrial goods between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. The towns were bursting with young people from farm and shopkeeping families-and many of them turned to evangelical Christianity to organize their lives, mold their values, and regiment their social interactions.

Although Narcissa Prentiss was born six years after Whitman, and five years after Spalding, she was the first to embrace the evangelical movement. In early 1819, when she was just eleven, a revival came to her Steuben County hometown of Prattsburgh, population 1,387. It packed the Congregational church, where parishioners trembled, wept, groaned, and confessed their sins. In June, in an overflow ceremony that had to be held out of doors, Narcissa joined 59 of her neighbors in making a public confession of faith.

Five years later, a few days shy of her sixteenth birthday, Narcissa had a religious epiphany that would be far more consequential. She announced to her family and to her church that she wanted to be a missionary. In a letter to the American Board a dozen years later, she remembered the exact day that her vague teenage yearnings to convert unbelievers became a firm lifelong commitment.

"I frequently desired to go to the heathen, but only half-heartedly-and it was not until the first Monday of Jan. 1824 that I felt to consecrate myself without reserve to the Missionary work."

Although Narcissa was unusually young when she pledged to become a missionary, her vow was no surprise. As the eldest daughter in a prominent Presbyterian family of nine children, she had been groomed for it from birth. Her mother, Clarissa, was a ferocious evangelical force in Prattsburgh. A Presbyterian convert who insisted that her children spend most of every Sunday in church or in prayer, Clarissa helped found the Female Home Missionary Society of Prattsburgh in the front parlor of the Prentiss house. Clarissa encouraged Narcissa to teach Sunday school, read turgid church histories, and sing in the church choir.

Narcissa was intoxicated by the romance and risk of mission work. She devoured books about missionary women who died young while laboring in foreign lands. She also loved the social aspect of Presbyterian life, becoming a popular participant in church-related parties, concerts, and sleigh rides. She needed little encouragement to show off her fine voice.

For Narcissa, her mother, and legions of American women in the early nineteenth century, church activity was a morally sound and socially sanctified way to break the chains of patriarchy and get out of the house. In the name of God, temperance, and Christian charity, women could travel, entertain, and learn about the world without the permission of a husband or a father. Evangelism also gave prosperous families a means and an excuse for imposing their values on others, especially those who did not have as much money. Narcissa's father, for example, belonged to a church committee that investigated sinful behavior among members of the Prattsburgh Congregational Church.

Because Narcissa was a devout young woman of good family, her missionary ambitions opened doors to more formal education than was typical for girls at the time. At sixteen, her parents sent her to a religious academy in nearby Auburn, New York. At nineteen, she enrolled at the private Franklin Academy, in Prattsburgh, where she studied for three years, developing skills that helped her become an affecting diarist and graceful writer of entertaining letters. Her education also put her in a position to take teaching jobs in nearby towns, sometimes spending several months away from home.

Yet her escape from patriarchy went only so far. When it came to winning an appointment as a missionary, she had a disqualifying liability. She lacked a husband.

Dr. Marcus Whitman began his urgent search for a missionary wife after hearing an evangelical minister tell an astonishing story: four Indians from beyond the Rockies traveled to St. Louis in 1831, supposedly in search of missionaries who could teach them about the white man's God.

The story upended Whitman's life in late November 1834. He had gone to an evening lecture at the Presbyterian church in Wheeler, a small Steuben County town where he had been practicing medicine for two years and riding on horseback to treat patients across the Burned-Over District. His practice included Narcissa Prentiss's hometown, just seven miles from Wheeler.

Whitman was then thirty-two, never married, and growing tired of his life as a small-town doctor. He had chosen a career in medicine because relatives convinced him it would pay better than his first choice-the ministry. He had been a committed Christian since he was sixteen, having converted at a revival, like so many others during the Second Great Awakening. His father died when he was seven, and his mother sent him away from the family home in Rushville, New York, to his father's family in Massachusetts. There he lived for a decade with his grandfather and uncle, whom he later described as "pious" and who, he said, gave him "constant religious instruction and care." Like Narcissa, Whitman attended a private academy that encouraged students to consider careers in the church. When he returned to New York at age seventeen to live with his mother and stepfather, his family actively discouraged his plans to become a minister.

At twenty-one, Whitman became an apprentice doctor, learning his profession by riding rounds with an older doctor for two years. Over the next decade, he took a total of eight months of classroom training at a medical college in Fairfield, New York, which at the time was sufficient to earn him a medical degree. He then moved to Wheeler, where he practiced medicine and became active in the Presbyterian church, teaching Sunday school and serving as a church elder.

But boredom and a sense of religious duty made him restless. He wanted to teach "knowledge of the true God" to "the Heathen," as he told the American Board in a letter written in the summer of 1834. It concluded, "My mind has long been turned to the missionary subject. For the last six months I have been more intent upon it than before. I wish soon to have a definite course."

He found it in church that November night in Wheeler. The story he heard-about Far West Indians seeking the Gospel in St. Louis-was told by the Reverend Samuel Parker, a Presbyterian minister from Ithaca, New York, who was traveling across the Burned-Over District, giving lectures and raising money for a missionary expedition to the West. Although he added a few fictional embellishments of his own, Parker had lifted most of his story from the front page of the Christian Advocate and Journal and Zion's Herald, a Methodist newspaper printed in New York.The story, published in March 1833, had become an evangelical sensation. It energized believers all across the United States for several years, and historians later credited it with setting off a chain reaction that added the Pacific Northwest to the United States.

The single source for the newspaper's big scoop about Indians searching for Christian enlightenment in Missouri was a letter from William Walker, a white Christian married into a Great Lakes tribe called the Wyandots. Walker claimed that the four Indians were from the Flathead tribe, located in what is now western Montana. To illustrate what a Flathead looked like, editors at the Christian Advocate helpfully placed a drawing of one on the front page. It showed an aboriginal male in profile with a spectacularly flat forehead. Walker said he saw the Flatheads while visiting the St. Louis office of William Clark, the explorer of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame who had since become superintendent of Indian affairs for the federal government. According to Walker's account, the Indians in question called Clark their "great father" and told him this story:

It appeared that some white man had penetrated into their country, and happened to be a spectator at one of their religious ceremonies, which they scrupulously perform at stated periods. He informed them that their mode of worshipping the supreme Being was radically wrong, and instead of being acceptable and pleasing, it was displeasing to him; he also informed them that the white people away toward the rising of the sun had been put in possession of the true mode of worshipping the great Spirit. They had a book containing directions how to conduct themselves in order to enjoy his favor and hold converse with him; and with this guide, no one need go astray, but every one that would follow the directions laid down there could enjoy, in this life, his favor, and after death would be received in the country where the great Spirit resides, and live for ever with him.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xxi

Introduction The Good Doctor xxiii

Act 1 Kill

1 "Do Nothing to Irritate" 3

2 "What a Delightful Place" 21

3 Cayuses in the Kitchen 40

4 "Want of Christian Feeling" 56

5 "A Thousand Little Harassing Events" 66

6 "Beastly & Savage Brutalities" 82

Act 2 Hang

7 "Priests Wet with the Blood" 91

8 A Proper Trial 109

9 Five at Once 130

10 "Seeing That They Stood Alone" 145

Act 3 Lie

11 Authentic Account 169

12 Collaborate 185

13 Brother Spadling Goes to Washington 205

14 The Old College Lie 224

Act 4 Expose

15 Skulls, Bones, Money 243

16 "A Defenseless Little Western Institution" 257

17 Mephistopheles and the Original Sources 269

18 Lost Cause 284

Act 5 Revive

19 Predators 305

20 Broke 322

21 White People's Money 336

Epilogue 357

Acknowledgments 365

Notes 371

Bibliography 413

Image Credits 421

Index 423