Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West
“a fittingly timely book that fits well into the post Donald Trump era of false narratives, conspiracy theories, and cries of fake news . . .”
In 1836, Marcus Whitman, along with a ragtag band of fellow missionaries and fur traders joined a wagon train to the Oregon Territory. He and his wife, Narcissa, along with Reverend Henry Spalding and his wife, Eliza, and William Gray, founded a mission at present-day Walla Walla, Washington. They had come to the area to convert local Indians to Christianity. For the next ten years, their efforts at conversion were met with only limited success and as more white settlers descended upon the region and intruded upon sacred Cayuses lands tensions between the settlers and tribal leaders began to arise.
Following the deaths of a large number of natives from an outbreak of measles (which was brought to the area by the white settlers), some of the tribal leaders accused Whitman of murder and in retaliation, a renegade group killed Whitman and 11 others on November 29, 1847, an event that came to be known as the Whitman Massacre. This event led to continuing warfare between settlers and native people for several years and reduced the indigenous population even further.
This massacre is known as one of the most notorious episodes in the US settlement of the Pacific Northwest and its shock and horror directly led to Congress establishing the Oregon Territory. The tragedy remains controversial and Whitman and other missionaries are regarded by some as heroes, while others view them as liars, cheats, and interlopers who attempted to impose their religious beliefs on unwilling Native Americans.
“If you think fake news started in 2016, think again. Alternative facts, self-mythologizing, and outright lies have long played a starring role in American history, nowhere more so than the expansion west in the 19th century.”
In Blaine Harden’s new book, Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, It's Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West, he takes a closer look at the Whitman Massacre and its enduring impact on the region and on the Native American tribe, it helped to destroy. Harden is a contributing editor for The Economist, PBS Frontline, and former bureau chief for the Washington Post. He is a New York Times bestselling author who has penned several works that include A River Lost (1997), Escape from Camp 14 (2012), and The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot (2015).
“They traveled west into . . . the thick darkness of heathenism . . . during a peak season of godliness in the United States. Called the Second Great Awakening . . . Their quest, as they described it, was to convert the benighted Indians to Christianity and civilize them so that they might survive a looming stampede of westbound white people.”
In this fascinating well-written exposé, Harden has done a brilliant job of not only looking at the life and legacy of Marcus Whitman but also examining the context in which his tragic death begot “one of the great hoaxes in the history of the American West.” A lie that led directly to the ruin of the Native Americans of the Columbia River Plateau. For nearly 175 years the Whitman massacre victims were celebrated as martyrs, but Harden reveals that this was all just an elaborate tale spun to raise money and found a college.
In Murder at the Mission, Harden skillfully brings to life the collision of myth and reality. He has managed to write a fittingly timely book that fits well into the post-Donald Trump era of false narratives, conspiracy theories, and cries of fake news in which a large segment of the Naïve American population was deceived into believing utter nonsense by destroying others in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.