- Purchase/rental options available:
This article examines the murders of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at their mission near Ft. Walla Walla in 1847. White and Indian historians agree on the immediate cause: that Cayuse Indians killed the Protestants and twelve others because they thought Dr. Whitman spread measles among them, and to protest the surge of settlers on the Oregon Trail. The roots of the tragedy are traced to an earlier era, when traders threatened disease-ravaged Indians with germ warfare and supplied them with tobacco and ammunition, while the Christianity they endorsed blended with religions of the Columbia Plateau. The trader era sheds light on later disputes over disease, trade, and religious inflexibility culminated in the Whitmans' murders. The massacre then assumed symbolic importance as the region moved from an inclusive frontier toward homogenous nationhood. Protestants unjustly blamed the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company for conspiring with Jesuits to foment the murders, illustrating how Anti-Catholicism and anglophobia contributed to northern Manifest Destiny. The martyred couple's impact on expansionist politics and subsequent Protestant-Catholic debates over their historical agency are highlighted. For Protestants, Marcus convinced skeptical politicians of the region's worth on a trip east in 1843, and the trailblazing missionary heroically "saved Oregon" from Indians, British, Catholics and American ruffians. The debate over this exaggerated interpretation ranged from newspaper editorials and school-naming controversies to the pages of the American Historical Review before revisionists banished the "Whitman Myth" from mainstream textbooks. Once overinterpreted, now largely neglected outside the region, the Whitman saga shows how the Pacific Northwest fits into the history of the early republic.