The American Catholic Historical Researches/Volume 16/"The Story of Marcus Whitman" Refuted

The American Catholic Historical Researches, Volume 16
"The Story of Marcus Whitman" Refuted by H. M. Beadle

Published October 1899

2497777The American Catholic Historical Researches, Volume 16 — "The Story of Marcus Whitman" RefutedH. M. Beadle



Our Presbyterian friends are determined that the world shall know what a hero their church possessed in Dr. Marcus Whitman, their missionary to the Cayuse Indians, at Wailatpu, Oregon, now in the state of Washington. They do not honor Whitman because of his exceptional sanctity, or of his labors in converting Indians to Presbyterian Christianity, or of his teaching them the ways of civilization; but because he saved Oregon to the United States, making a winter journey across the Continent to the East for that purpose in 1842-3, and bringing back with him in the summer of the latter year a thousand immigrants to Oregon. If this story were true, Dr. Whitman would deserve to be remembered most kindly by the people of the Northwest, and the whole country would unite in commending his patriotism and self-sacrifice.

But, if the story is true, there should be some record of his great services outside the writings of his panegyrists. If he brought such weighty reasons to President Tyler and Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, as to induce them to change the policy of the government, there should be a record of it somewhere. If be was a man of such force of character and intellectual power as to change the policy of states and nations in a visit of a few days to Washington, some one beside his fellow missionaries must have been aware of it and left a record throwing some light upon his character and services. Outside bis record as a missionary, and the fact of his making a winter Journey over the mountains from Oregon and of his return the next summer, history has little to say of the man or his services. His biographers have constructed a story about him to fit the history of the times, not so much to glorify Whitman, whose unfortunate murder by the Indians he had been instructing for eleven years aroused universal sympathy, as to gain sympathy for themselves and help to push forward their own schemes. To give the story a foundation, it had to be assumed that the Tyler administration was about to betray the interests of the country m the Pacific coast to England in return for some advantages obtained for the Eastern States; a pure invention, without any proof whatever to sustain it.

It is not probable that, in any case, the boundary line between the Dominion of Canada and the United States could hare been located south of the 49th parallel, the present line. Great Britain never claimed "executive jurisdiction over any portion of that territory"—(Protocol Dec. 16 1826)—but that country did hope to maintain exclusive Jurisdiction over that part of the territory north and west of the Columbia river. This could never have been yielded by the United States. President Adams proposed that the 49th parallel, the line separating the two countries east of the Rocky Mountains, should be extended to the Pacific Ocean. That Great Britain hoped to obtain better terms is proven by the fact that the proposition was not entertained. The Joint occupation of the country, agreed to in 1818, was continued indefinitely, to be terminated by either party giving a year's notice to that effect. This treaty was continued for thirty years, but such was the feeling in this Country against Great Britain that no administration would ever have thought of consenting to any boundary line south of that finally agreed upon.

The title of the United Slates to the country west of the Rocky Mountains and north of the 42ud parallel, the then northern boundary of Mexico, was clear, and not disputed by any nation except Great Britain. Spain had discovered the coast of the Country and the United State inherited Spain's title by purchase from France. Capt. Gray, of Massachusetts, had discovered the Columbia river in 1792, and Lewis and Clark bid taken possession of it in ihe name of the United States, in 1806. The government had encouraged the settlement of Astoria in 1811, and bad assisted Rev. Jason Lee in taking out colonists to Oregon in 1839. It was believed in official circles that the colonising spirit of the American people would in the end give, as it did give, the country to the United States without a contest. As soon as the British premier was assured, though in an indirect way, by Daniel Webster, that the rejection of the proposition submitted by the younger Adams in 1826 and renewed by Tyler, by the British Commissioner, Pakenham, would involve the two countries in war, unless disavowed by the British Government, the contention of that Government that the Columbia river should be made the boundary was given up, and Tyler's proposition practically accepted, and this was the basis of the treaty settling the Oregon boundary made during Polk's Administration.

There had been some apprehension of danger to the interests the United States from the occupation of Oregon by the Hudson Bay Company, which practically held the Country. That company had such power that no other parties could purchase furs west of the mountains. Cushing reported to the House of Representatives in 1839 "that the ultimate rights of the United States (in Oregon) are seriously endangered" by the occupation of the Country by the Hudson Bay Company. Embodied in the same report is the opinion of Nathaniel J. Wyeth, who wrote: "A few years will make the country as completely English as they desire. . . Already Americans are unknown as a nation. ... A population is growing out of the occupancy of the country whose prejudices are not with us, and before many years they will decide to whom the country shall belong, unless in the meantime the American Government make their power felt and seen to a greater degree than has yet been the case." This was true when Wyeth was on the Columbia, was doubtful in 1839, but in 1843, when Whitman arrived in Washington, was without foundation in fact.

The business of the Hudson Bay Company was to get furs. It was opposed to the settlement of the country by any people, for furs cannot be had in a settled country. When the Methodists established their mission in the Willamette Valley, the beginning of the end of the rule of that company had come. After that the company could do but little to delay settlement, and it did not attempt it. Its officers, under the wise direction of John McLoughlin, treated the missionaries with the greatest consideration, and aided then in many ways.

H. H. Spalding reports that Dr. Whitman said, in the latter part of September, 1842; "I am going to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach Washington this winter, God carrying me through, and bring out an emigration over the mountains next summer, or this country is lost." Again Spalding makes Whitman say a "deep-laid scheme was about culminating which would deprive the United States of this Oregon, and it must be broken up at once, or this Country is lost." This bears on its face the stamp of falsehood. No one has ever stated what this scheme was or why, if it was carried out, Oregon would be lost to the United States. Dr. Whitman never put such ideas on paper; neither did Mrs. Whitman, and they must be rejected as coming from Whitman. If there was such a scheme, Whitman would have told Lovejoy of it, and Lovejoy would have mentioned it in his account of the cause and incidents of their hard Journey to the States.

It is impossible, without consuming too much time and space, to show the untruthfulness of the "Story of Marcus Whitman" in all its particulars and trace its growth from its small beginnings, or to refer to all the literature relating to it. I hope to establish two propositions, (1) that the claim that Whitman saved Oregon has no foundation of fact to rest upon, and (2) that the only connection Dr. Whitman had with the immigrants of 1843 was that of guest till they arrived at Fort Hall, and their paid pilot from that place to the Columbia river.

The Flathead Indians, living on the Bitter Root river, now in the boundaries of Montana, sent four delegations to St. Louis to invite Catholic priests to live among them and teach them the Christian religion. The first delegation, four chiefs, arrived in St. Louis in 1831 or 1832, but no one understanding their language, and two of them dying, their mission was a failure. Three other delegations were sent, but two of them arriving at St. Louis, all the members of the other delegation being killed by the Sioux. This is a most interesting story and those who wish to pursue it will find all the facts related in "The Indians and Whites in the Northwest," by Rev. L. B. Palladino, S. J.

The application of the Flatheads for Catholic missionaries was elaborated by zealous Protestants who heard of it until it was made to appear as an appeal of these Indians to have the Bible brought to them, and persons were asked to volunteer as missionaries to carry the Gospel to them. In response, Revs. Jason and Daniel Lee, natives of Canada, and others were sent out by the Methodists in 1834. They passed the Flatheads by and established the Methodist mission in the valley of the Willamette. The American Board of Missions, of Boston, representing both Presbyterians and Congregationalists, sent out Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman, in 1835. Whitman went as far as Green river and then returned for more missionaries; Parker also passed the Flatheads by, and located the mission among the Cayuses, at Wailatpu. The Cayuse Indians are evidently the same tribe that Washington Irving, in "Astoria," called the "Skinses," the "u" being mistaken for an "n." The name of the tribe has been given to a quality rather than breed of horses, an ordinary horse being termed a "Cayuse" throughout the mountain country.

While he was east Whitman married Miss Narcissa Prentice, and he and his wife, and the Rev. H. H. Spalding and his wife, went to Oregon the next year. Whitman locating at Wailatpu and Spalding at Lapwai, now in Idaho, among the Nez Perces. The American Board established two other missions in that country, which gave greater promise of success than those at Wailatpu and Lapwai. In 1842, the American Board abolished these two missions, consolidating them with the other missions. This was an unexpected change of policy, and evidently it greatly troubled both Whitman and Spalding. The fact of the discontinuance of these missions has been concealed by those who have sought to make it appear that Whitman's Journey was made wholly for the purpose of saving Oregon to the United States.

The appearance of Catholic missionaries also troubled Whitman. Fathers F. N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers arrived in Oregon in 1838. The latter had been among the Cayuses and many of them were baptized by him. In 1840, Father De Smet, S. J., went among the Flatheads, and in a journey to Fort Vancouver visited the Cayuses also. Whitman was of the opinion that if the missions at Wailatpu and Lapwai were abandoned they would be occupied by the Catholics. The danger of having his missions superseded by Catholic missions appeared imminent to him, and when the orders of the American Board were received, he called a conference of all the Presbyterian missionaries at Wailatpu, and proposed to them that he should go East immediately. There was some objections at first, but on Whitman's saying he would go any way, his Journey was endorsed. Gray, Spalding and Eells said, many years afterward, that the object of this Journey was to save Oregon to the United States and bring out immigrants to settle the country, but Whitman never said so. Writing to the American Board four years after, he said: "In the fall of 1842, I pointed out to our mission the arrangements of the Papists to settle here, which might oblige us to retire. This was urged as a reason why I should return and try to bring out men to carry on the secular work of the missionary stations, and others to settle in the country on the footing of citizens but not of missionaries. You will please receive this as an explanations of many of my opinions and much of my policy." Here the reason for his Journey was clearly stated, and it was to forestall the arrangements of the "Papists" for settling in that country.

Without naming anything which Whitman did, Peter H. Burnett, who went to Oregon in 1843, and who joined the Catholic Church the next year, speaking of Whitman after his death, said: "In my best judgement he made greater sacrifices, endured more hardships and encountered more perils for Oregon than any other one man, and his services were practically more efficient than any other, except, perhaps, those of Dr. Linn, United States Senator from Missouri. I say perhaps, for I am in doubt which of these two men did more in effect for Oregon."—(Recollections of an Old Pioneer, p. 249.)

A. L. Lovejoy went to Oregon with White's party in 1842, arriving there late in September. He returned with Whitman, starting on the third of October. Lovejoy says that on his arrival near the mission on his way to the Willamette, Whitman visited him and wished him to draw up a "memorial to Congress to prohibit the sale of ardent spirits in this country." Before they started on their Journey East, he says he had many conversations with Whitman "touching the future prosperity of Oregon," but he does not mention the subject matter of any of them. When Lovejoy met Whitman the next summer "near Laramie," Whitman told him he had seen "President Tyler, Secretary Webster, and a good many members of Congress," and that he "urged the immediate termination of the treaty relative to Oregon, and begged them to extend the laws of the United States over this country." Not once does he say that Whitman told him that he went to Washington to save Oregon, or that his visit had saved it.

Daniel Lee says that "Whitman went to the United States to obtain further assistance." (Lee and Frost's Oregon, p. 213.)

While Whitman was on his journey, McKinlay, factor of the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Walla Walla, a warm personal friend of Whitman, wrote the American Board in reference to the mission at Lapwai; praising Spalding as a missionary, and hoping that be would not be recalled. This letter was evidently written to strengthen Whitman with the Board.

The American Board received Whitman coldly, refusing to pay the expenses of his journey, but authorizing him to continue the missions without putting the Board to any expense. The danger which Whitman apprehended that the Catholics would take possession of the missions if they were abandoned, seemed to have had no weight with the Board. Slow collections, because of hard times, had most probably a great deal to do with the action of that body.

It would be expected that Whitman, in common with other citizens of the United States, was anxious that Oregon should be settled by Americans, but be had less to do with the colonization of the country than the Lees and others sent out by the Methodists. Elijah White, first Indian agent in Oregon, who conducted the immigration of 1842 to Oregon, on his journey to assume the duties of his office, had been to Oregon as a missionary and had gone back to the States because of a disagreement with Jason Lee. The latter had crossed the plains to the States in 1838, and lectured on Oregon at every convenient place as he traveled East from the Missouri river. He carried with him a memorial to Congress in regard to the condition of affairs in Oregon. This, with a letter written by him, was published in Cushing's report to the House of Representatives in 1839. Nathaniel J. Wyeth also contributed a paper to this report, showing the character of the soil and climate of Oregon. The Methodists of the United States deserve whatever credit is due for the colonization of Oregon. It was their men and money that laid the foundation for the States of Oregon and Washington.

The United States government was always alive to the importance of Oregon, as without it the country would be shut out from the Pacific Ocean. The House of Representatives, during Monroe's last administration, passed a bill for the occupation of Oregon. Monroe recommended that a military post be established south of the Columbia, on what was practically undisputed territory, and the younger Adams renewed the recommendation. Van Buren paid part of the expenses of taking some eighty persons to Oregon, by Jason Lee, in 1839. Senator Linn, of Missouri, introduced a bill for the occupation of Oregon that passed the Senate in 1843, before Whitman arrived in Washington. Organizations were formed in Massachusetts, Illinois and Missouri and other western States, to send colonists there.

Daniel Webster, in 1846, stated correctly the idea of the government in regard to Oregon, saying "We have claimed up to forty- nine degrees and nothing beyond it. We have offered to yield everything north of it. The United States has never offered any line south of forty-nine and never will." England never expected the United States to yield any territory west of the Rocky Mountains east or south of the Columbia river. The Hudson Bay Company never claimed that British territory extended south or east of that river. The company carried on business in all parts of Oregon, but the occupation of the country south and east of the Columbia was in accordance with the treaty of 1818, and not of right. The Catholic missionaries from Quebec were to exercise jurisdiction only north and west of the Columbia. No settlement of the country south of the Columbia was ever attempted by the British. The territory that was in dispute lay north and west of that river. The Bed river settlers, who came out in 1841, and brought out the first wheeled vehicles to the Columbia, settled at first near Puget Sound, but on learning that the Willamette valley was a far better agricultural country, removed there against the wishes of the company oh at had induced them to emigrate. There never was any good reason to suppose the United States would not defend its title to Oregon up to the forty-ninth parallel, and had not the younger Adams made an offer of this line to Great Britain, it is probable that British Columbia would now belong to this Country.

In order to lay the foundation for the assertion that Whitman saved Oregon, many wild and foolish statements have been made. One of these was that the Hudson Bay Company had represented Oregon to he a sterile country, the climate being so cold and disagreeable that it was practically uninhabitable. In the English papers and magazines of that day the facts in regard to the soil and climate of Oregon were frequently published. The government knew all about the soil and climate of that country; the good features of the country being exaggerated rather than understated.

A charge was made by partisan Journals, and repeated on the floor of the House by Charles J. Ingersoll, that Daniel Webster, in a speech at Baltimore, in 1842, had offered to trade Oregon for concessions from England to the fishermen of the Eastern States. The charge was untrue and had to be abandoned. This calumny might have been carried to Oregon by emigrants that year, but for Whitman to have acted upon such a rumor would have shown great lack of judgment.

It is also related that after Whitman had determined to go East, he went to Fort Walla Walla. While he was at dinner, an express arrived with the information that 150 Canadian and English settlers had passed Fort Colville on their way to the lower Columbia, and that a young priest, on hearing the news, rose from the table, threw his cap into the air, and said:

"Hurrah for Oregon! America is too late! We have got the country!" This story is made out of whole cloth; there was no emigration from any part of Canada that year to Oregon and there was no priest, young or old, at Fort Walla Walla at that time.

Gray and Spalding assert that Whitman told Webster, while in Washington, in March, 1843, that he would take a train of emigrants in wagons to the Columbia, that year, and that Webster answered that if he would pledge himself to do this "the treaty would be suppressed." What treaty is spoken of is not stated, but the inference is that it was the treaty of Washington, negotiated by Webster and Ashburton, agreed to the previous August and ratified the previous November, which had no reference to Oregon whatever; and if it bad affected Oregon, Webster would never have said that be would suppress it. If the treaty of 1618 was meant, Webster could only have said that in such an event notice would be given Great Britain terminating it in a year. But the story is absurd as are the words said to be used by Tyler in speaking to Whitman: "If you can establish a wagon route to the Columbia, I will use my influence to hold Oregon." Upon such ridiculous and unsupported assertions as these we are asked to believe that Whitman saved Oregon.

The government could not have been ignorant of the fact that wagons had been taken across the plains. Bonneville took wagons to Green river in 1832. Whitman had taken a spring wagon to Fort Hall in 1836, and two years afterwards, Gray brought it to Wailatpu, packing it over the Blue mountains. In 1841, the Red river emigrants from Canada had brought their women and household goods in carts to the Columbia. The greatest difficulty in getting wagons over the mountains was in cutting roads through the timber. Crossing the plains, tires would have to be frequently reset on account of the dry air. By drawing tent cloths or wagon covers under the wagon beds, good boats could be made of them to cross rivers. Taking wagons to the Pacific was a task of labor not of engineering.

The statement that Whitman saved Oregon rests upon the unsupported assertions of his biographers. Burnett's summing up of the value of Whitman's services might be admitted, did we not know that Jason Lee had done more than Whitman toward making Oregon known to the American people. To claim that either one or both saved Oregon to the United States is absurd. That part of it settled by Lee and Whitman was never in any danger of being taken from the United States. The country would have gone to war on the proposition that the line should be further south than the forty-ninth parallel.

It now remains to be been how far the statement is true that Whitman organized the emigration of 1843 and guided the emigrants to Oregon.

Whitman's historians say that he arrived in Washington March 2 or 8, 1843. After transacting his business in Washington, which must have taken ten days or two weeks, he went on to Boston, where he must have spent some time. He then went to New York, visiting his own relatives and those of his wife, and transacting some business. He spent some time in Illinois visiting relatives. He was back on the Missouri with other relatives, before the 20th of May, for he attended, by invitation of Peter H. Burnett, a meeting of a committee appointed by the emigrants, on that day. It is manifest that he could not have done much to organize the emigration that went to Oregon that year. He was not present when an organization was effected. Peter H. Burnett was the first captain, James H. Nesmith, afterwards United States Senator from Oregon, orderly sergeant, and John Gantt, pilot. Whitman remained behind when the train started, catching up with it on the Platte river. The only one who accompanied him was his nephew. He had no provisions except a ham, when he overtook the train. He rendered service to the emigrants as a physician, but he had nothing whatever to do with the government or conducting of the train until leaving Fort Hall.

Nixon states that Lovejoy followed Whitman to St. Louis, and spent his time organizing an emigration to Oregon. Lovejoy does not say so. Lovejoy is entirely silent as to what he did or where he went between the time of parting with Whitman at Bent's Fort and meeting him again, he said, "near Laremie," but Barnett says at Green river, the next summer. There is no evidenoe, excepting that of John Zechery, that either Whitman or Lovejoy did anything to encourage emigration to Oregon in 1843.

John Zechery, who was in his seventeenth year when he accompanied his father to Oregon, in 1843, says that his father was induced to go to Oregon by reading a pamphlet describing that country written by Dr. Whitman. No such pamphlet has ever been found, and no one excepting Zechery has ever seen or heard of it. As Zechery made the statement over twenty years after he arrived in Oregon, it is evident that he was mistaken as to the author of the pamphlet. There were many publications, some of them in pamphlet form, setting forth the advantages of Oregon, as a place of settlement, but none have been found written by missionaries.

The causes of the emigration to Oregon, beginning in 1843, were the hard times following the panic of 1837 and the belief that the government would deal generously with the settlers there in giving them lands. The financial condition of many people in the west was deplorable. Jesse Applegate sold a "steamboat load of bacon and lard for $100." Burnett, who was a lawyer, went to Oregon because he never could pay his debts if he remained at home. The total number of emigrants to Oregon in 1843 has been estimated by emigrants from five hundred to one thousand. Whitman, in his letter to the secretary of war, put the number at one thousand, but that is too large an estimate.

The newspapers of that day make no mention of Whitman. It is strange that a man, who had resided as a missionary in Oregon for six years, could have made such an extraordinary journey and met so many people along the route, in Washington, Boston, in the States of New York and Illinois, and there be no mention of him or his work in the newspapers of that time.

Yet such is the case. Nile's Register is full of references to Oregon and of the emigration of 1843, but does not mention Whitman. Burnett and Daniel Waldo are the only ones who mention Whitman at the time of the starting of the emigrants. The latter fed him while the train was in Kansas, and again when it was on Snake river.

At Fort Hall, the emigrants were in doubt whether or not to attempt to take their wagons to the Columbia. Their pilot, John Gantt, left the party at that point and went to California. Whitman advised them to take their wagons along and said the route was practical. His advice was followed and he was employed and paid to pilot the train to the Columbia. Jesse Applegate's share of this expense was $45. Whitman piloted the train to the eastern foot of the Blue Mountains, when he left it in charge of Sticcas, or Istikus, a Cayuse chief wh6 had met them at Fort Hall, and who conducted it safely over those rugged mountains, the pioneers having to cut the timber off the route for nearly or quite thirty miles.

The facts disprove the claim that Whitman saved Oregon to the United States. In stating them no reflection is cast upon him or his character, but his historians are shown to be unworthy of the slightest consideration. Whitman was an earnest, courageous, perservering man, who did his best to teach the Indians his form of Christianity, and the rudiments of civilization. That he failed is no reason for doubting his zeal or ability. To make Christians of pagan Indians, or even of pagan white people, is the laborious work of generations. In no single instance within the knowledge of the writer, has any nation or tribe of heathen people been made Christians in one generation. Civilization, as we understand the word, is a state to which no tribe of Indians has yet arrived.

Dr. Whitman was a good American, as nearly all of the first immigrants to Oregon were. But he was a most bigoted Protestant. He could see no good in anything Catholic, though two of his warmest admirers, McLoughlin and Burnett, became Catholics after forming his acquaintance, five and three years respectively, before his death, which both sincerely mourned. He was a Just man, when his prejudices against Catholics did not interfere with his Judgment. The claims made by his historians cannot be made out from his writings. As a missionary, and as a cit zen, he helped colonize Oregon, and by piloting the emigrants in 184B from Fort Hall to the Columbia, he rendered valuable service to the country, opening a road over the most difficult part of the route between the Missouri and Columbia rivers, thus completing a road to the Pacific.