It has been a ruinous year for the legacy of Marcus Whitman, a White Protestant missionary tomahawked to death by Cayuse warriors near present-day Walla Walla, Wash.
His demise in 1847, together with widely circulated lies about his nation-building heroism, gave Whitman an extraordinary afterlife. Into the 20th century, high school history books across the United States lionized him as a martyred patriot. In the Pacific Northwest, his name is still on banks, nursing homes, schools and a glacier on Mount Rainier.
This spring, however, the state of Washington passed a law that will remove his statue from the U.S. Capitol, where it has stood for 68 years, and swap it out for one honoring Billy Frank Jr., a leader of the Nisqually tribe who was arrested more than 50 times for demanding tribal fishing rights.
Undergraduates in Walla Walla have also demanded that Whitman’s statue be removed from Whitman College. “This guy is a colonizer,” sophomore Gillian Brown told the student newspaper. “He’s not someone to be celebrated.” Chuck Sams, an Oregon-based tribal leader of Cayuse descent and President Biden’s nominee to be the first Native American director of the National Park Service, has helped persuade the college to make amends for once peddling false claims about Whitman. The school will soon offer five full scholarships to students from the Umatilla Reservation, where the Cayuse people live in northeast Oregon.
The Whitman backlash comes amid a national reckoning over race, racism and the treatment of Black Americans and Native Americans by White historical figures immortalized in bronze. Whitman was at the vanguard of a wave of settlers that used the strength of numbers, the zeal of Christianity and the power of federal troops to shatter Native American culture, grab tribal land and confine Indigenous people to reservations.
But the Whitman reckoning also arises out of an elaborate con about who he was and what he accomplished before he was slain. For several decades, that con was wildly successful, persuading Congress, East Coast newspapers and most Americans to accept a fairy tale version of how the West was won. As the story went, Whitman was a horse-riding champion of Manifest Destiny, a man of God who single-handedly thwarted a British plot to steal the Pacific Northwest away from the United States.