Whitman under fire in Olympia
Revisionists want to remove statues of the most prominent Washingtonian in history
Last updated 2/5/2021 at 11:12am
The culture, heritage and history of Eastern Washington - indeed all of Washington and Oregon history - is under fire again in Olympia.
I'm talking about an effort this year in the House to erase Marcus Whitman's significance from the halls of the Capitol building in Olympia and the national statuary in Washington, D.C.
Pushed by lawmakers, who obviously lack a full understanding of Whitman's significance, House Bill 1372 seeks to replace the bronze Marcus Whitman statues with a new statue of Billy Frank Jr.
Yes, Billy Frank Jr. has been prominent in state matters involving Washington tribes. But let's be frank, he's no Marcus Whitman.
Whitman is tops on the list of the most influential historic people to shape the Pacific Northwest. He was so instrumental in whom we are today that there are streets, buildings, parks, schools and even a university and county named after him.
The move to replace his statues is part of an apparent broader effort nationwide by leftwing activists bent on erasing our history.
When I was in school, the stories of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman used to be a mainstay in history classes.
More than four decades later, I vividly remember a day-trip to the Walla Walla area and an educational outing at Whitman Mission.
Our class boarded a bus to "Waiilatpu," the site of Whitman Mission. There, we learned about Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife, Narcissa, and their cross-country trek to Eastern Washington with the Rev. Henry Spalding and his wife, and a group of fur traders. If you don't already know, Whitman himself led one of the first wagon trains west on the Oregon Trail.
Whitman brought modern farming, medical care, education and religion to the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes, as well as settlers and fur trappers.
Narcissa was the first settler to give birth to a non-Indian baby in the Oregon Territory. That baby, Alice Clarissa Whitman, drowned in the Walla Walla River at age 2. A historical marker is located on the site today to remember the toddler.
As more settlers moved to Oregon Country, European diseases that came with them ravaged the Cayuse and Nez Perce. Try as he might, Whitman wasn't able to cure the diseases.
Cayuse Chief Tilaukaikt blamed the Whitmans for the deaths and led warriors to Whitman Mission on Nov. 29, 1847. There, they killed the Whitmans and 12 others, and took 53 women and children as prisoners.
That event triggered the Cayuse War, which would last eight years. The Provisional Legislature of Oregon raised a company of 50 volunteers, who headed to The Dalles, Oregon Territory, to protect another mission there. Called the "Oregon Rifles," the men drove off tribal marauders and established Fort Lee.
Eventually, they were re-enforced by a militia of more than 500, who headed to the Whitman Mission, near present day College Place. While travelling, they defeated the Cayuse in the battle at Sand Hollows. It wasn't long before the U.S. Army was dispatched to the area to end what had become the Cayuse War.
In 1850, with the Cayuse defeated, the tribe turned over the chief and four warriors involved in what is now called the Whitman Massacre. All five were hanged, but skirmishes continued for five more years.
Following the Whitman Massacre, the 60-man "Oregon Volunteers" were dispatched to Tshimakain Mission, to protect settlers and escort missionaries - including Mary Walker - to safety in the Willamette Valley.
Today, the school district in Springdale, Wash., is named for Walker who, along with Narcissa Whitman, was among the first non-Indian women in Oregon Country.
While Walker is honored with a legacy school district, the Whitmans are remembered for their contributions to the settlement of the Oregon Territory, and nowadays the states of Washington and Oregon. Numerous schools, including Whitman College in Walla Walla, are named after Marcus Whitman.
An Eastern Washington county and a glacier on Mount Rainier are also named in his honor, and the family gravesite is a national historic site. What's more, there are identical bronze statues of Marcus Whitman wearing buckskins and carrying a Bible and satchel in the state and U.S. capitals. Additionally, Sept. 4 is Marcus Whitman Day in Washington State.
But if some lawmakers have their way, the statutes of arguably the most significant figure in Pacific Northwest history may be replaced.
Call House Bill 1372 the second Whitman Massacre.
Introduced by Rep. Debra Lekanoff and read Jan. 26, the bill is simply political payback to the tribes that supported Democrats running for office. It's been referred to the House's State Government and Tribal Relations Committee.
The bill is an attempt to "whitewash" our history and the significance of Marcus Whitman's role in the Pacific Northwest.
Eradicating Marcus Whitman from our state and national capitols is revisionism by weak-kneed politicians kowtowing to those lacking knowledge of Pacific Northwest history.
Marcus Whitman earned his place in history - and the Capitol Building in Olympia and in the national statuary in Washington, D.C. If we sit idly by and let his statutes be removed, emboldened revisionists will take aim at schools and other places named in honor of Marcus Whitman.
Then they'll move onto another target.
We have a rich history here in Eastern Washington. And we need to remind uneducated lawmakers and revisionists that their political motives are not welcome.
- Roger Harnack is the publisher of Free Press Publishing. Email him at