Oregonian/1884/November 6/Dr. Marcus Whitman

Oregonian, November 6, 1884  (1884) 
Dr. Marcus Whitman by Frances Fuller Victor

This letter was the first of what would become decades of controversy over the role of Marcus Whitman in securing Oregon's status as a U.S. territory.


An Estimate of the Services Rendered to Oregon by the Pioneer and Martyr.

An Exhaustive Examination by Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor of all the Points in the So-called Whitman Controversy.

When I first commenced the study of Oregon history I was much taken by a romantic story of Dr. Whitman's services to Oregon in Americanizing it under very trying circumstances. Supposing, as hundreds of others at the first glance have been led to do, that there must be some foundation in fact for statements so bold as those made by Messrs. Spalding and Gray, I committed the fault of taking for granted without examination this patriotic fable. As I pursued my study of history I constantly came upon contrary evidence, which in this article I propose to lay before the public, in the interest of truth.

In chapter xxxvii of Gray's History of Oregon is an extract from an article written by H. H. Spalding in which it is alleged that Whitman went to Washington in the winter of 1842–3 for the purpose of showing the secretary of state, Daniel Webster, "the great importance of the region to the United States;" that Webster having had the honor to have been born in the same state as Dr. Whitman the doctor "immediately sought an interview"! but that "Mr. Webster lived too near [1] Cape Cod to see things in the same light with his fellow statesman," etc. Webster, he says, "could not admit for a moment that the short residence of six years could give the doctor the knowledge of the country possessed by Governor Simpson (of the H. B. Company) who had almost grown up in the country," and that Webster had about (illegible text) (illegible text) (Oregon) off with Governor Simpson to go into the Ashburton treaty, for a cod-fishery on New Foundland." Not being able to agree with Webster, Whitman "next sought an interview with President Tyler," who was more appreciative, and promised that if the doctor would take back a caravan of wagons he would refrain from any further action "toward trading off Oregon till he could hear the result of the expedition."

It would be difficult to get more errors into the same number of printed lines than are contained in pages 289-90 of the chapter quoted from. Without touching on the purpose of Dr. Whitman's journey, let us look at what is affirmed and implied in Spalding's statement. Webster, he says, did not understand the Oregon question. That seems singular, considering that it had been before congress ever since about the time that Webster first took his seat in that body in 1822, Floyd of Virginia having introduced a motion in the house in 1820 to have a committee appointed to "inquire into the situation of the settlements on the Pacific coast, and the expediency of occupying the Columbia river." From this time on Floyd or Benton kept the matter before one or both houses until Linn of Missouri became the champion, which championship lasted until the period of Whitman's visit.

As early as 1828 the American fur companies had penetrated to the Rocky mountains and finally to the Snake river basin and beyond, and (illegible text) all that could be gathered from their expeditions was reorted to congress or to the heads of departments. In 1828 also a bill to occupy the Columbia river was brought up in the house, and in 1824 it was revived and passed in that branch of congress by (illegible text) to 57 votes. In the following year the subject was renewed in both houses, but nothing was done, because it was understood that plenipotentiaries of Great Britain and the United States had the boundary question in (illegible text), and it would be unseemly to interfere with their negotiations. The result of their arguments was that they could not agree, and the (illegible text) of joint-occupancy of 1818 was extended again in Aug., 1827, for another ten years. This matter being settled temporarily, Floyd again introduced in 1828 a bill for the occupancy of the Columbia, and urged the encouragement by congress of private enterprises in that region, advocating also the establishment of forts and garrisons. Various schemes for inducing migration were brought forward by different members of the house, and arguments for and against the settlement of Oregon were advanced. These (illegible text) were, however, confined to the lower house for many years.

Meanwhile the government though silent was not idle, and Webster who was now in the senate was well aware of the difficulties of the situation. The United States had no navy and not much of a merchant marine. They had but a small standing army. They had not yet been able to settle the Maine boundary, and the government was forced to feel its way cautiously towards the end aimed at. But even if the government had been indifferent, the people were (illegible text) arousing to the national importance of the Oregon question—taught by the discussions of congress, and began to form schemes of settlement for themselves. In 1834 Hall J. Kelly, after protracted efforts which sadly failed, actually arrived in the Willamette valley with a little handful of settlers, (illegible text) Worth established himself on Sauvie's Island, and the Lees erected a missionary establishment. Two years afterwards Whitman and his associates arrived, and settled on the upper Columbia. These were

"The first low wash of waves where soon
Should roll a human sea."

If anyone supposes that the man who aspired to the presidency in 1836 was ignorant of these (illegible text) that person is not only misinformed, but uninformed, and he would be equally mistaken to accuse the actual heads of the government of indifference. Did not the secretary of state in 1836 send its secret agent, Slocum, to the Columbia river to learn whether the complaints Ewing Young against the Hudson's Bay company were true? Again in 1841 there was (illegible text) (illegible text) expedition, under Wilkes, in Oregon, and who can read the journal of that ex (illegible text) and not see that Wilkes was instructed to report on alleged abuses of American settlers in Oregon, complaints continuing to be made by the Americans, and injurious reports furnished (illegible text) the secretary of war; he sought out Dr. (illegible text), a returned member of the Methodist mission, and sent him back to Oregon with the title of sub-Indian agent, but in reality as a spy upon the Hudson's Bay company, Webster being at this time secretary of state.

Pendleton of Ohio made a report in 1841 containing a great deal of information concerning (illegible text) for the benefit of the secretary of war. Among the documents and letters were not one (illegible text) the Presbyterians in eastern Oregon, but plenty of matter obtained from the Methodists in western Oregon, one important document being the journal of Captain Spaulding of the missionary ship Lausanne, in which all the rancor of the Methodists against the Hudson Bay company, and all their (illegible text) upon the company are conspicuous. In this same document is a letter of Dr [2] E. White, in reply to questions on the cost of building material and provisions in Oregon propounded by the secretary of war, who proposed erecting a line of (illegible text) posts with the object of protecting the fur trade, cultivating friendly relations with the Indians, and furnishing the means of save intercourse between the American settlements at the mouth of the Columbia and those east of the Rocky mountains." Upon the strength of his report a bill was introduced in congress authorizing the establishment of two forts, one at the mouth of the Columbia, and another at (illegible text) to be selected, with 1400 men to garrison them and as much of a naval force as would be necessary to transport provisions, army stores and armament. Each soldier or non-commissioned officer who should serve out his term of enlistment should be entitled to (illegible text) acres of the public lands, west of the meridian of Council Bluffs." [3]