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Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and Its Shifting Legacy in the American West

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Washington State Book Award Finalist

A highly-readable, myth-busting history of the Whitman Massacre—a pivotal event in the history of the American West—that includes the often-missing Indian point of view

In 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, devout missionaries from upstate New York, established a Presbyterian mission on Cayuse Indian land near what is now the fashionable wine capital of Walla Walla, Washington. Eleven years later, a group of Cayuses killed the Whitmans and eleven others in what became known as the Whitman Massacre. The attack led to a war of retaliation against the Cayuse; the extension of federal control over the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming; and martyrdom for the Whitmans. Today, however, the Whitmans are more likely to be demonized as colonizers than revered as heroes.

“[Tate] tells the Cayuse’s side of the story with empathy and clarity . . . a meticulously researched book. The Seattle Times

ISBN-13: 9781632172501

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

Publication Date: 11-17-2020

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

CASSANDRA TATE is a Seattle-based writer and editor. A former journalist, she earned a Ph.D in American history at the University of Washington in 1995. She is the author of Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of "The Little White Slaver." Her work has been published in Smithsonian, Columbia Journalism Review, and other national magazines, and she has contributed more than 200 articles to, the online encyclopedia of Washington State history. She is a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

Marcus Whitman was a Protestant missionary who might have been only a historical footnote had not he, his wife Narcissa, and eleven others been killed by Cayuse Indians during an attack on his mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1847. Instead, he became one of the most memorialized figures in the Northwest. A
county, a college, a national forest, half a dozen public schools, and numerous other enterprises—from an upscale hotel in Walla Walla to a church in Des Moines—carry his name. The Washington legislature once considered a measure to rename the iconic Mount Rainier in his honor. His former mission is a National Historic Site. His statue stands in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in
Washington, DC, nine feet of gleaming bronze on a seven-ton block of polished granite, depicting a muscular, buckskin-clad frontiersman with a ripped torso and linebacker thighs. He appears to be striding resolutely along an unbroken trail, one foot higher than the other,
buckskin fringe and kerchief flying, a Bible in one hand, saddlebags and a scroll in the other. His strong jaw is neatly bearded, his flowing locks topped by a beaver-skin hat. If the National Statuary Hall had a hunk contest, he’d be the winner, hands down.

The statue embodies Whitman’s place in the mythology of the
West, not the realities of his life. The only feature that can be verified as historically accurate are the saddlebags, which were copied from a pair used by Whitman when he was an itinerate physician in upstate
New York. He left them behind when he was appointed a missionary in 1835. They ended up a century later in the collections of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. Sculptor Avard
Fairbanks, who was commissioned to create the statue in 1950, studied them when he was designing what is otherwise a fanciful depiction of Marcus Whitman. Even the quotation carved into the granite pedestal—“My Plans Require Time and Distance”—is a paraphrase of something Whitman wrote, not his exact words.

The bronze Whitman was unveiled on May 22, 1953. More than three hundred people attended the ceremonies, including most of
Washington State’s congressional delegation, dozens of other dignitaries,
four distant descendants of the Whitman family, and one dove,
who flew in through a window and fluttered around throughout the services.1 Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a graduate of
Whitman College in Walla Walla (and eventual liberal icon), gave the main dedication speech. He described Whitman as a “dynamic man of boundless energy” who “brought thousands into the region beyond the old frontier.” Like most of the other speakers, Douglas emphasized Whitman’s role in promoting the settlement of the West by whites, praised his vision and fortitude, called him a martyr, and deplored the “treachery” of the Indians who killed him. Washington governor Arthur Langlie was unable to attend but sent word that “it is a privilege for the citizens of Washington . . . to offer to the people of the United States this visible monument to one who lived humbly and died nobly in pursuit of happiness and freedom for his fellow men.” Langlie said that Whitman had made “tragic sacrifices,” he had “died a martyr,” and “America honors itself by honoring him.”

The story of the “Whitman Massacre” was a standard part of the curriculum for schoolchildren throughout the Northwest in the
1950s. I was introduced to it as a sixth-grader in Seattle. It was a simple tale, with sharply defined heroes and villains and thrilling touches of mayhem and gore. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were brave, noble pioneers who came west to “save” Indians. It was never clear to me what the Indians were being saved from, or whether they wanted to be saved, or what they thought about the missionaries,
or why they attacked the mission, but they were not the focus of the story that we were told. The emphasis was on the white people.
Marcus was strong and handsome; Narcissa was beautiful and saintly;
they were “massacred” by brutal, ungrateful “savages.” I was left with an indelible image of Narcissa’s long, white throat being slashed by a knife, sending a river of blood down the front of her billowing gown.

Actually, she was shot, but memory and story and history and fact have a fluid relationship. Heroes rise and fall to the rhythms of what scholars call “the politics of memory.” New facts are revealed,
old ones dissected, and stories reshaped (and sometimes forgotten altogether) as political and social conditions change. The initial narrative, or “memory,” about the Whitmans—as told by whites—
emphasized their religiosity. It reflected the evangelical values of dominant voices in the mid-nineteenth century, a time of intense religious revivalism in the United States. By the end of the century,
after two major economic crises and associated social and political upheavals, a new version of the story had emerged. Grounded in nostalgia for an idealized past, it celebrated the Whitmans as heroic pioneers who had helped a young, expansionist nation realize its dreams of Manifest Destiny. A competing narrative, one that included the voices and perspectives of the Cayuse and other indigenous peoples,
began to develop in the late 1960s. Books such as Dee Brown’s Bury
My Heart at Wounded Knee and films such as Soldier Blue and Little
Big Man helped foster public interest in uncovering the history of the
West from Indian points of view.

In the 1980s the National Park Service, which operates the
Whitman Mission National Historic Site, stopped commemorating the annual anniversary of the attack on the mission; redesigned its displays to give more attention to the Cayuse and a more balanced assessment of their interactions with the Whitmans; and phased out use of the word “massacre” in favor of more neutral language. The word appeared five times in a four-page brochure distributed by the
Park Service in the late 1950s. In contrast, it was not used at all in brochures available in 1997, the 150th anniversary of what instead was called the Tragedy at Waiilatpu. Today the tendency is to see the
Indians, not the missionaries, as the martyrs.

We seem to live in a binary world, where the lines between good and bad are clearly drawn, without much room for nuance. For more than a century after their deaths, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were venerated by non-Indians as heroic pioneers who had given their lives to bring Christianity and “civilization” to the West. In more recent years, however, they’ve been demonized as cultural imperialists and agents of genocide. They received too much credit in the first instance,
and too much blame in the second. They were complicated, imperfect people: idealistic but culturally arrogant, courageous but inflexible;
and it was the way they died, more than what they did in life, that guaranteed them a place in the history of the Northwest.

The Whitmans left comfortable homes in upstate New York in 1836 to become missionaries in what was then called Oregon
Country—a vast region (consisting of the present-day states of
Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming)
that relatively few Americans had ever seen. They were joined by another missionary couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding. They reached their destination after an arduous, seven-month, three-thousandmile journey. Narcissa and Eliza were the first women known to have crossed the continent from coast to coast. They traveled much of the way on horseback, riding sidesaddle.

Whitman established a mission on Cayuse land at a place he thought was called Waiilatpu (pronounced “way-EE-let-pu”). Henry
Spalding picked a site 120 miles to the northeast, at Lapwai, among
Nez Perce Indians in present-day Idaho. Relations between the
Whitmans and their hosts were initially cordial, but disappointment and disillusionment built up over time, on both sides. The Whitmans expected the Cayuse to be eager to convert to Christianity, take up farming, and live like white people. The Indians were interested in some aspects of the newcomers’ culture and religion but only to supplement,
not replace, their traditional beliefs and way of life. Longsimmering tensions erupted in violence on November 29, 1847,
ending with the deaths of the Whitmans and eleven other Americans.

The attack was a pivotal event in Northwest history. One immediate effect was the passage of a long-delayed bill establishing the
Territory of Oregon, a measure that extended federal authority over the region. The bill had been stalled for more than two years by a debate over whether slavery would be permitted in the new territory.
In the end, it was not. Meanwhile, the superintendent of Indian affairs issued an order declaring that the Cayuse had “forfeited” their rights to their ancestral homelands. He encouraged settlers to file claims to Cayuse lands and stipulated that the claims would not be undercut by any future treaties with the Indians. The “massacre”
became a rallying cry for a two-year war of harassment and retribution against not only the Cayuse but any Indians suspected of being allies of or sympathetic to the Cayuse. Finally, in the spring of 1850,
five Cayuses surrendered to the territorial government in Oregon
City and were hanged, after a brief, cursory trial.

The Whitman story was burnished and romanticized for generations after their deaths, at least in the version told by non-
Indians, but it has now largely faded from public memory. Although
Whitman retains his place in the National Statuary Hall—at least as of this writing—and his name remains attached to monuments,
plaques, and highway signs from upstate New York to the Northwest coast, many people don’t know who he was.

This book takes a new look at the Whitmans, the Cayuse, and the shifting legacy of the events at Waiilatpu. One of my goals is to slice through the myths, lies, and misconceptions that have built up around the story over the past 170 years. Narcissa Whitman did not have her throat sliced, as I once imagined. She was not scalped,
as Richard Neuberger, then a young freelance writer and later a US
senator from Oregon, reported in 1938, in particularly lurid prose
(“Narcissa’s blond scalp eventually dangled against the greasy thigh of a Cayuse warrior”).3 She was not “shot a dozen times . . . men whipping her laid-bare back while she was still breathing,” her head
“a cracked melon,” as in a scene conjured by an Idaho writer in
2019.4 Marcus Whitman did not convince the US government to fend off British claims to the Northwest and thereby “save” Oregon
Country for American settlers. The Cayuse attack on the Whitman
Mission was not unprovoked.

The key figures in this tale were neither heroes nor villains but simply human beings, caught in a web not entirely of their making.
Their lives played out in ways that profoundly shaped the history of the Northwest and continue to influence it to this day. What follows is, to the best of my research and knowledge, an evenhanded account of what happened and why, and how the narrative changed with each new generation of storytellers. It’s a complex tale of arrogance, fortitude,
naïveté, and misunderstandings. It can be seen as a singular
American tragedy but also as representative of the tangle of cultural myopia and conflict that marked each wave of American incursion into the West.

My dissection of the story begins with the incident that wrapped
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in a cloak of martyrdom and put their names in the history books and on the roadside markers: the
November 1847 attack at Waiilatpu.

Table of Contents

Author's Note about Nomenclature ix

Timeline x

Introduction xv

Chapter 1 The Attack 1

Chapter 2 The Imperial Tribe 19

Chapter 3 The Missionaries 45

Chapter 4 Destination Oregon 77

Chapter 5 Early Years at Waiilatpu 105

Chapter 6 Mutual Disillusionment 129

Chapter 7 Explosion of Grief and Violence 151

Chapter 8 Aftermath 173

Chapter 9 Canonization 191

Chapter 10 Reinterpreting the Whitman "Tragedy" 211

Acknowkdgments 233

Notes 237

Selected Bibliography 273

Index 280