How Bogus History was used to Save Whitman College

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This is an excerpt From MURDER AT THE MISSION by Blaine Harden, just published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Blaine Harden. Republished here with permission.

Editor’s note: This excerpt focuses on the false history that arose after the spectacular killing in 1847 of the missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 11 others. The history was distorted for decades in order to spread the false story that Dr. Whitman had somehow saved the Pacific Northwest from falling into British hands by his famous winter ride back to alert President Tyler to this danger, then led a large contingent of settlers on the Oregon Trail, and died a martyr to these causes. The truth, slow in emerging, was quite otherwise, as Whitman was largely a failure at his Walla Walla mission, converting only two Cayuses to Christianity over 11 years. The false story—largely an invention of another missionary of the era, the Rev. Henry Spalding—was a sensational boost to the cause of Manifest Destiny. In the final decades of the 19th century, it was printed in Congressional documents, included in high school history books, and credulously recounted in the New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Whitman, for a time, became a national hero. The story also proved immensely useful to fundraisers at tiny Whitman College; indeed, it saved the school. In the 20th century, the college gradually stopped spreading patriotic fictions about Marcus Whitman. 

It was the summer of 1894. The Whitman College faculty had not been paid for several months. Enrollment had sputtered, with only 40 students registered for the fall term. To pay operating expenses, the college had been burning through its endowment—in violation of the school’s charter. That endowment, never large, was all but gone. The scruffy campus of six and a half acres in Walla Walla had three wooden buildings with mortgages the college could not afford. 

It could not appeal to its neighbors for rescue. The wheat-growing country around the college was mired in a depression made worse by a rail strike and an early-summer flood on the Columbia River. The cost of planting and harvesting a bushel of wheat was far higher than the price it could sell for.

The college president, James F. Eaton, a New York–born, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Williams College, had lost the support of faculty, staff, students, and trustees. Accused of elitism and blamed for wrecking the school, he resigned under pressure in September and left town. “Except for a faithful few,” said a history of the college, “no one seemed to believe in its future or to care much whether it lived or died.” 

Searching for a savior, college trustees played a long shot. They hired a thirty-year-old Congregational minister, the Reverend Stephen B. L. Penrose. When he accepted the job, he was thought to be the youngest college president in the United States. He was shockingly green, with no experience as an academic administrator and no track record of doing what successful college presidents must do — raise money. 

Like his failed predecessor, Penrose was an upper-crust easterner with an elite education—Phi Beta Kappa at Williams, doctor of divinity from Yale. His wealthy and politically powerful family had lived in Philadelphia for six generations. He grew up in a big house where Irish servants picked up his dirty clothes and called him “Little Sunbeam.” At Williams he played baseball, bicycled, and mastered Greek and Latin, which he later taught.

After divinity school at Yale, he made an odd choice for a classically trained Penrose of Philadelphia: he became a home missionary for the Congregational Church, accepting an assignment that in 1890 deposited him in an all but empty corner of southeastern Washington State. It was not quite the Russian steppes, but it was arid, windswept, and very lonesome. His Congregational church in the tiny farm town of Dayton had six resident members, all over 60, three of them invalids. 

Penrose taught Sunday school, cleaned the grounds, and somehow attracted new members who revived the church. Hungry for more challenges and more human contact, he joined the board of trustees of Whitman College—30 miles from Dayton. Whitman College took a chance on Penrose because he had near-perfect credentials for a liberal arts school with elite aspirations and no money. The college envisioned itself as the Williams of the West, and Penrose had excelled at Williams. Whitman College was almost broke, and Penrose’s services were almost free. He cut his salary from $2,000 a year to $1,500, while insisting that he would pay his own travel costs and purchase his own stamps.

Penrose was ambitious, even a bit messianic. He believed a good life was impossible without a good college education. Still, his résumé was laughably thin, and he had no firm idea how he was going to steer Whitman out of bankruptcy. He said he trusted in “Divine guidance,” and that may have been what directed him to the Whitman College library, where he stumbled upon a handsomely printed book about Marcus Whitman. It claimed that the missionary had been murdered as part of a British conspiracy. Penrose was thunderstruck. He “realized at once” that he had found an “amazing story” that could be used to save the college. Americans would find the story thrilling and irresistible, he believed, and they would be bound by their love of God and country to give money to Whitman College. 

Penrose knew nothing about the life and times of Marcus Whitman when he picked up Oregon: The Struggle for Possession, by the Reverend William Barrows. The book looked authoritative. It had all the trappings of serious scholarship. Complete with maps, index, and a list of authorities, its 363 pages had been published in 1883 in Boston as part of Houghton, Mifflin and Company’s prestigious “American Commonwealths” series, which assigned noted scholars to write state histories. The editor of the series was another Williams man, Horace E. Scudder, an eminent man of letters, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the author of a popular high school history text that repeated the Whitman myth.

What Penrose did not know—or did not care to know and would never be interested in learning— was that the book he had fallen in love with was an error-riddled recapitulation of Henry Spalding’s fabrications about Whitman. Furthermore, its author was not a noted scholar. Before writing the book, Barrows, a Congregational minister, had worked as a secretary for the Massachusetts Home Missionary Society. After Oregon: The Struggle for Possession was published, he had become the East Coast fundraiser for Whitman College, a job that he had failed at, never raising more than a few hundred dollars a year. 

It is not clear how Barrows managed to persuade Houghton, Mifflin to publish his shoddy scholarship as part of its American Commonwealths series. Scudder later regretted his role in editing the book, saying that he was “sorry that it ever appeared.” In years to come, debunkers of the Whitman legend would bemoan the extraordinary influence of the book, while subjecting Barrows to scorching ridicule. One of them, Edward G. Bourne, a professor of history at Yale, called it “one of the most remarkable perversions of history ever published,” in a letter to The New York Times. He estimated it to be “the source from which millions of readers have learned a story of Oregon which is a grotesque distortion of the real facts.” 

Stephen Penrose knew none of this. He was desperate to revive a dying college, and he chose to believe Barrows’s book, which struck him as an “inspiring story of pioneer devotion.” In a pamphlet called “The Romance of a College,” Penrose boiled the Whitman story down to its essence: “But why does that vast [Pacific Northwest] country belong now to the United States, and not to Great Britain? Because Marcus Whitman was prophet enough to foresee its value, and hero enough to risk his life to save it.” 

The cover of the eleven-page pamphlet displayed an American flag. Inside, the text boldly—and, of course, falsely—declared that Dr. Whitman single-handedly prevented foreign schemers from stealing the wonderful part of America that would become Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Part passion play, part dime novel, it edited out complexities in the Whitman fable. Unlike the false story invented by Rev. Spalding, Penrose’s version did not demonize Catholics (a prejudice that was by then fading among many American academics and some American Protestants). Instead it amplified Whitman’s supposedly patriotic acts, turning fabricated history into melodrama for the masses.

As Penrose summarized the story: Whitman was alarmed to learn that leaders in Washington, D.C., were “about to abandon” Oregon. He also knew that Great Britain was “planning to seize it.” As a patriotic man of God, he rushed east in the winter to save the Northwest, obliged along the way “to subsist on mule-meat and dog-meat.” In the White House, he made a strong impression on President Tyler with his frostbitten limbs and missionary sincerity. He then led back to Oregon a wagon train “that decided the destiny of a great empire, by reason of one man’s prophetic heroism.”

Marcus Whitman, not unlike Jesus Christ, had paid the ultimate price, Penrose wrote. Repeating claims made up by Spalding and echoed by Barrows (though leaving out the role of the Catholics), Penrose wrote that the British Hudson’s Bay Company had incited Indians to kill the missionary doctor and his wife. His pamphlet emphasized the savagery of Indians, claiming that “every vestige of civilization was destroyed” at the Whitman mission.

After describing the Whitmans’ murder, Penrose shifted to another heartrending, but more contemporary, melodrama: the plight of “a little, struggling college . . . the only memorial of a national hero,” which was in urgent need of money, at least $100,000. “If this endowment is not secured,” Penrose wrote, “the college must die.” The climax of Penrose’s pitch came in a final reference to the three stars in the flag on the cover of his pamphlet. Mixing the gore of Christian imagery with the glory of American conquest, he wrote, “Why are those three stars marked in red? They stand for the three states which Marcus Whitman saved, baptizing them with his blood.”

For the next year and a half, Penrose took his pitch back east, where the money was. His first stop was Chicago, home to more than 50 Congregational churches. More important, as it turned out, Chicago was also home to two elderly men—a millionaire philanthropist and a scrappy newspaper editor— who came to believe the Whitman Saved Oregon story with the same unshakable intensity as Penrose.

The millionaire was Dr. Daniel “D. K.” Pearsons, a tall, bright-eyed financier with mutton-chop whiskers and strong opinions. When Penrose first met him in early 1895, Pearsons behaved like a cartoonist’s caricature of a plutocrat. Wearing a silk hat on the back of his head and sitting in a swivel chair at a rolltop desk in his office in the Chicago Tribune building, Pearsons commandeered his initial conversation with the young president of Whitman College.

“Dr. Pearsons poured out a vigorous stream of talk, a tirade upon the financial ignorance of colleges, upon college football which he detested, and upon the inadequacies of college presidents whom he had known,” Penrose recalled. Then, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Pearsons peeked at his watch, realized he was late, and ran off to catch a train. Just before he vanished, however, he said, “Come tomorrow at the same time, and then you do the talking.” 

Born and raised in Vermont, Pearsons was a medical doctor who in the 1850s moved to Illinois, where, at his wife’s urging, he gave up the practice of medicine for more lucrative endeavors. He specialized, at first, in selling farmland on commission. Soon the Illinois Central Railroad Company asked him to sell its vast landholdings. He became rich, important, and respected in Chicago after investing his profits in the city’s real estate, banks, and rail transit companies. 

By the time he met with Penrose, Pearsons was 74 years old, retired, worth more than $5 million (about $153 million now), and a major donor to small Christian colleges, mostly in the West. Typically, he would offer a school $100,000 for its endowment if it could raise a matching amount. The schools he helped—and in some cases rescued—include Pomona College, in Claremont, California; Pacific University, in Forest Grove, Oregon; and Beloit College, in Beloit, Wisconsin. When trustees of Whitman College heard in the early 1890s that Pearsons was making these large gifts, they wrote to him and asked for one. He offered $50,000, if the college could raise another $150,000.

For Penrose—whose college could not pay its faculty or its mortgages—the millionaire’s conditional offer “seemed absurd under the circumstances.” But no one else was offering Whitman College large sums of money under any conditions. So Penrose had hurried to Chicago and humbly presented himself to Pearsons in the faint hope that he could sweet-talk him into a more generous offer.

When Penrose showed up on the second day at Pearsons’s office, the old man again did all the talking, and the college president again listened dutifully. Finally Pearsons began to ask questions, and Penrose explained his desperate need for cash. The chemistry between the two men changed. “After that all ice disappeared,” Penrose recalled, “acquaintance rapidly ripened into friendship, and the interest of the Doctor in Whitman College steadily grew. It became one of his favorite colleges and he took thenceforth a fatherly interest in [me].” 

Pearsons also became a fervent believer in and influential advocate of the Whitman Saved Oregon story. The millionaire’s enthusiasm for all things Whitman would soon erase one of Penrose’s most urgent worries: the college’s $12,500 in mortgages, which were accruing interest at 8 percent a year and which the college could not keep up with. At their second meeting in Chicago, Penrose nervously broached the subject with Pearsons, explaining that he hoped to find a private individual in the East who would lend that amount at 6 percent. With brusqueness that shocked Penrose, the old man shouted, “Nonsense. It’s not a business proposition. Nobody would lend you the money.”

Hearing this, Penrose was embarrassed and felt hopeless—and looked it. Pearsons saw the effect of his outburst and reversed course. “I’ll lend you the money,” he said. “Sit down and make me out a note.” A few months later, Penrose mailed Pearsons a check with the first year’s interest payment on the loan. Without explanation, the Chicago financier mailed it back, uncashed. When Penrose got married the following year, Pearsons forgave the entire debt as a wedding present. 

In total, Pearsons would give more than $213,000 in matching and unmatched contributions to Whitman College. The money helped save the college from collapse and paid for its first permanent buildings. Pearsons also took command of a campaign to mobilize Congregational churches throughout Chicago and its suburbs for a “Whitman Day.” On Sunday, June 30, 1895, ministers took to the pulpit in at least 41 churches (by a count in the Chicago Tribune), where they explained how Whitman saved Oregon and ranked his greatness alongside that of Lincoln, Grant, and Homer. 

The largest newspapers in Chicago joined with the churches in urging readers to give to Whitman College, which they described as a monument to a dead hero. The Chicago Tribune approvingly noted that local philanthropist Pearsons had taken the college “under his helpful and practical wings.” The Tribune, Inter Ocean, Evening Post, Daily News, and Advance all printed news stories that drew on Penrose’s pamphlet; some of them excerpted it. None of the newspapers doubted that Whitman was a national hero or questioned the claim that he had saved the Pacific Northwest for the union.

Working alongside Pearsons to burnish Whitman’s legacy and save the college was Dr. Oliver W. Nixon, a nearly deaf, white-bearded journalist who had become Marcus Whitman’s self-appointed publicist, biographer, and trumpet blower.Nixon was a close friend and philanthropic adviser to D. K. Pearsons. It was at Nixon’s suggestion that his rich friend first offered $50,000 to the college, and Nixon had convinced Pearsons of Marcus Whitman’s rightful place in the pantheon of American heroes. 

“Pearsons had a score of colleges to be interested in; Nixon had but one,” said the student newspaper at Whitman College. With his narrow and obsessive focus, Nixon “did the college a great service” by making sure that the old philanthropist’s friendship with Whitman College remained “warm.” Like Pearsons, Nixon was a septuagenarian former medical doctor, a profession he was forced to give up during the Civil War. While he was serving as chief surgeon for the 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of New Madrid in Missouri, artillery explosions had ruptured Nixon’s eardrums. After the war, he could not hear the complaints of his patients well enough to treat them.

Before his medical training and before the Civil War, Nixon had traveled extensively across the West, spending about a year in the Oregon Territory as a teacher. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were murdered just three years before he arrived. “It was a time when history was being made,” he later wrote. “The Great Tragedy at Waiilatpu was fresh in the minds of the people. With such surroundings one comes in touch with the spirit of history.” 

Nixon, though, would never come in touch with the actual history of Oregon. Instead, he convinced himself that Spalding’s fable about Whitman— widely published in the early 1880s in history books, public school texts, Protestant newspapers, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica— was the one true account of how the territory became part of the United States. Like many amateur historians who have unshakably strong opinions, Nixon seems to have conflated what he read with what he believed he had seen and heard. He always insisted that “he did not have to depend on what was in the books to know what Whitman did and how he died.” He believed that contemporaneous written records of individuals with firsthand knowledge of Whitman’s death and of his ride east were less authoritative than the information he claimed to remember from his brief sojourn in the West.

“In my historical facts I have tried to be correct and to give credit to authorities where I could,” he wrote. “I expect some of my critics will ask, as they have in the past: ‘Who is your authority for this fact and that?’ I only answer, I don’t know unless I am authority.” 

Nixon’s true expertise was in weaving together Spalding’s lies with genuine historical materials—such as the diaries of Narcissa Whitman and the letters of Dr. Whitman—in a way that supported a highly readable narrative. At the same time, Nixon downplayed or ignored historical materials that raised doubts about Spalding’s story.

In 1878, Nixon became the literary editor and part owner (with his brother) of the Inter Ocean, a major daily newspaper in Chicago. From this powerful editorial perch he attempted to raise awareness in the late 1880s and ’90s of what he believed to be the overlooked greatness of Marcus Whitman. His efforts included an annual editorial in the Inter Ocean on the anniversary of Whitman’s murder. Under the head-line “Neglected Hero,” it began, “The history of the race furnishes multiplied proof that many of the wisest and most deserving have grown into their honors in the estimation of their fellows years after they have rested in their graves.”

Whitman’s reputation rose from his grave as never before in 1895. Nixon made it happen with a late-in-life literary eruption. In April of that year, to help Penrose prevent Whitman College from going under, Nixon took off four weeks from his editing duties at the Inter Ocean and pounded out a 333-page paean to his hero. How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon included faux-realistic paintings of Whitman’s famous ride, of his conversation in the White House with President Tyler, and of his murder. It was an infectiously readable— and totally credulous— version of Spalding’s fabrications. 

In the early 1880s, William Barrows’s Oregon, with its similarly triumphal account of Whitman’s exploits, had hit a sweet spot among scholars and Protestant ministers, circulating in most of the country’s big-city and university libraries. Nixon’s fin de siècle book was aimed at the Protestant masses and proved an even greater success. “It ran through five editions and became the most widely distributed and most popular book on Whitman of that generation,” Clifford Drury, a historian who specialized in Whitman, wrote in 1973. “Since Nixon’s book got into so many public and church school libraries, it is still being quoted as authoritative by uncritical readers.” 

More than four decades after Drury wrote those words, the book was still available in hardback, paperback, and Kindle format on Amazon. “It was like a giant virus,” said Michael Paulus, who for many years was chief archivist at Penrose Library, on the campus of Whitman College. “Nixon flooded the market and his story was accessible.” 

In years to come, the credibility of Nixon’s book would be demolished by historians. They would single it out, along with Barrows’s Oregon, as one of the most deceptively influential histories ever written about the West. “If it is within the bounds of possibility to produce a more worthless and misleading book than Barrows’ Oregon, Dr. Nixon has furnished it to us,” William I. Marshall wrote in 1906. In 1901, Yale history professor Edward Bourne wrote that he was impressed with Nixon’s storytelling skills, but not with his honesty: Nixon “has made his book as interesting as a narrative as it is utterly untrustworthy as history.” 

Nevertheless, Whitman College, under President Penrose, awarded Nixon an honorary doctor of laws and invited him to give the dedication speech for the college’s first brick building, which was built with D. K. Pearsons’s money. The Whitman College Quarterly described Nixon as “the gentle-hearted, noble-minded man to whom the rescue of Whitman’s name from oblivion is largely due.” Nixon and Pearsons became strategic advisers to Penrose. After guiding his efforts to gobble up donations in Chicago, they helped him plan, execute, and staff a multiyear fundraising campaign along the East Coast, with a focus on New England.

As the campaign began, the burden of selling the college fell primarily on Penrose. He traveled, by his own estimate, forty thousand miles, scurrying among New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Andover, Worcester, Pittsfield, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven, and many smaller towns in between. In churches, clubs, prominent business firms, summer hotels, and rich people’s houses, he handed out his pamphlet and endeavored “to raise money by telling everywhere the Whitman story.”Using Spalding, Barrows, and Nixon as his gospels, Penrose sanctified his Whitman sermons with invocations of God’s will and America’s greatness.

“The story of the saving of the Northwest for God and the United States is the story of the acts of one of God’s disciples,” said Penrose as he began an address to the Congregational Club in Worcester, Massachusetts, on April 20, 1896. By then, he had been on the road for more than a year, and in that time his sermons had become highly polished crowd-pleasers with long pauses built in for applause. The Worcester Daily Spy reported that “the young man’s earnestness, power and enthusiasm carried the audience by storm.” 

In addition to his standard recitation of the Whitman myth, his speech in Worcester had a fiery—and factually wrong—finale. At a time when there were at least nine other colleges in the Northwest, Penrose claimed that Whitman was “the only college in a region that is as big as all New England and Pennsylvania.” Then, with a rhetorical flourish that mixed vagueness with grandiosity, he declared that his college was “saving Oregon for God and the United States.” 

When the applause faded, Penrose said he did not like to beg, but his college had practically no money. He mentioned D. K. Pearsons’s conditional gift of $50,000, which would be forthcoming if the school could collect $150,000 more. Two-thirds of that money had been pledged, Penrose said, but where the rest would come from, he did not know. He said he would be staying on in Worcester for a limited time, during which he would be glad to accept contributions.

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Blaine Harden, a native of Eastern Washington state, is a Seattle-based author of many acclaimed books and a former foreign correspondent for major American newspapers.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Fabulous story (and I use “fabulous” here in both its meanings). And a remarkable example of the sometimes mythic power of historical narratives to shape perceptions and present day realties.

    Now I want to read the book!

  2. Historian Junius Rochester sends this comment to the above story:

    During my Whitty years, and later, the “Whitman Massacre” theme and Marcus’s ride to “Save Oregon” were questioned by Whitman history professor Bob Whitner, among others. Certainly Narcissa’s letters revealed her racial prejudice and annoyance in many forms. I must add, however, that Whitman’s failure as a missionary should not detract from his courage and dedication to the job at hand – the only job he ever had. He built a mission and sawmill with his own hands, planted and tended crops, hunted and fished to provision a household, acted (for about two years) as an Oregon Trail way-station for exhausted and frightened travelers, suffered and mourned the death of Alice Clarissa, his only child, and provided medical treatment to anyone who needed help. Also, his several cross-country trips by foot and horseback were impressive feats.

    And the name of an institution carries only so much weight. Whitman College has long survived its moniker and produced one of the country’s outstanding examples of the liberal arts tradition.

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