Home Christian News What Is the True Legacy of Marcus Whitman, the Pioneering Northwest Missionary?

What Is the True Legacy of Marcus Whitman, the Pioneering Northwest Missionary?

Marcus Whitman
A statue of Marcus Whitman is displayed in the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Wednesday, May 12, 2021. For generations, Whitman has been viewed as an iconic figure from early Pacific Northwest history, a venerated Protestant missionary who was among 13 people killed by the Cayuse tribe near modern-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1847. But this past year has seen the continued reappraisal of Whitman, whose actions are now viewed by many as imperialistic and destructive, and the Washington Legislature voted to remove a similar statue of Whitman from Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — For generations Marcus Whitman has been widely viewed as an iconic figure from early Pacific Northwest history, a venerated Protestant missionary who was among 13 people killed by the Cayuse tribe near modern-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1847.

But this past year has seen a continued reappraisal of Whitman, whose actions have increasingly been viewed as imperialistic and destructive.

The Washington Legislature voted to strip his likeness from the U.S. Capitol. Students at Whitman College in Walla Walla demonstrated recently to demand another Whitman statue be removed from campus. A new book says a well-known story about Whitman’s efforts to save the Northwest from British rule was fabricated.

The developments come amid a nationwide movement, following George Floyd’s death last year, to shed Confederate monuments and depictions of historical figures who mistreated Native Americans. Statues of colonizers have been targeted in several states.

Marcus Whitman is known for leading a small group of missionaries in 1836 into what was then Oregon Country, a region about the size of Alaska. He established the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu, near the Walla Walla River.

The mission was in the territory of the Cayuse Tribe, which was wary of the white settlers.

Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, were strict Calvinists who preached a demanding version of Christianity that proved unpopular with the tribe. In more than a decade of effort, they managed to convert only two members of the tribe, said Blaine Harden, an author and former New York Times and Washington Post reporter who wrote the newly published “Murder at the Mission” about the massacre.

“Whitman was a mediocre missionary,” Harden told The Associated Press.

But the mission became an important stop along the Oregon Trail from 1843 to 1847, and the Cayuse became suspicious that the white settlers were coming to take the land.

After a few years, the Whitmans lost interest in the Cayuse and spent their time trying to convert white settlers. Whitman eventually decided the Native Americans needed to give way to the settlers.

An 1847 measles outbreak killed half the local Cayuse. The illness also broke out in the mission, but more white settlers survived. Some of the Cayuse blamed the devastation on Whitman and his wife. The Cayuse had a tradition of killing failed medicine men, Harden said, and Whitman, a medical doctor, was warned to leave the area. The Cayuse attacked the mission and killed the Whitmans and 11 others.

The deaths shocked the nation.