‘Unsettled Ground’ examines shifting attitudes about Whitman Massacre

Missionary Marcus Whitman is one of the most memorialized figures in the Northwest, and his statue stands at the U.S. Capitol; but today he is more likely to be demonized as a colonizer than revered as a hero.

In “Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and its Shifting Legacy in the American West,” released Tuesday by Sasquatch Books, author Cassandra Tate takes a fresh look at the circumstances surrounding the event to show that the truth lies somewhere in between. 

Tate examines the personalities, dynamics, social pressures and disputes leading up to the attack at the mission outside present day Walla Walla. On Nov. 29, 1847, a group of Cayuse Indians attacked Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and other emigrants living at the mission. Thirteen people died. In April 1850, five Cayuse men were hanged in retaliation. 

The book details how the Whitmans were held up as martyrs and models of virtue for the next 150 years but now, over the past decade, popular opinion has shifted. The Whitmans have been vilified and their images defaced.

In a 2017 instance described in the book, a life-size painting of Narcissa Whitman that hung in Prentiss Hall at Whitman College in Walla Walla for 90 years was graffitied with black spray paint. The same night, someone used red spray paint to coat the hands, torso and pedestal of a Marcus Whitman statue at the edge of campus. The acts of vandalism were meant to be discovered on Oct. 9, recognized as Columbus Day by some and as Indigenous Peoples Day by others. The paint was scrubbed off the statue, and the painting was restored and hung upside down in a special exhibit that explored ways in which the college had promoted and benefited from the image of the Whitmans as Christian martyrs. When the exhibit closed, the painting was put in storage. In her book, Tate traces how rethinking the Whitmans’ legacy is part of a contentious national debate that began in the 1960s about who and what should be remembered in America.

Tate worked as a journalist for 25 years, including a stint as a reporter at the Lewiston Tribune from 1972 to 1979. She later earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Washington. A former Neiman Fellow at Harvard University, she is the author of the 2000 book “Cigarette Wars: The Triumph of ‘The Little White Slaver,’” a story about the first anti-cigarette movement, which dated from the Victorian Age to the Great Depression. She lives in Seattle.

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