‘The Missionary doctor not only became a champion of Manifest Destiny but did so with his eyes open to the potentially catastrophic consequences–for the Cayuses and for himself.’ — Murder at the Mission by Blaine Harden

June 1, 2021 at 4:51 pm (History)

For a book that purports to belong in the True Crime genre, Murder at the Mission is unusual. To begin with, the murders happen very early on in the narrative; from the outset, there is no doubt as to the perpetrators. The remainder of the story concerns the use and abuse of an historical incident, providing a vivid illustration of the ease with which disinformation could be spread across a vast distance, way before the advent of social media.

The chief dramatic personae:

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Dr. Marcus Whitman


Henry Spalding

All three were missionaries, come to Oregon in 1836 to convert the Native Americans, specifically those of two tribes:

Nez Perce


The Cayuse, astride their famous ponies

Before too much time went by, Marcus Whitman’s work devolved from Christianizing the Indians to facilitating the settlement of Oregon by Easterners and immigrants. As their rightful claim to the land was subverted over and over again, the Cayuse people became increasingly angry and resentful. Then a measles epidemic ravaged the area, often proving fatal to Native Americans and White settlers alike.

The Cayuse held the missionaries responsible for all of these evils. They had, finally, had enough.

This is not to say that their slaughter of the Whitmans was in any way justified. But they considered themselves to have been provoked beyond reason and thus impelled to act.

(It is worth remembering that Oregon was not even a Territory in the 1830s – it was a settlement, and one both jointly owned and disputed with the British, at that.  It became a U.S. Territory in 1848, and finally a State in 1859.)

As I stated at the outset, the tragic story of the killings is told very soon after the book commences, The mystery is not about who was responsible for the carnage. That was known almost immediately afterwards. Rather, the remainder of the narrative concerns a rather amazing journey undertaken by Marcus Whitman not long before his demise. The purpose of the journey…well, let’s say  that the purpose of the journey was vigorously disputed.

Meanwhile, Blaine Harden gives us a deep, hard look into the hearts and minds of the missionaries. It is a fascinating depiction. And at times an enraging one. And as I headed toward the fraught conclusion of this tale, I could not help pondering the central question…What on Earth were they thinking??

The American missionaries demanded more than just religious conversion. Assuming that their way of life was superior in every way to the centuries-old spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of Indians, they sought to transform the “copies of their white neighbors.”
To that end, the missionaries insisted that the Indians learn English, cut their hair, wear white people’s clothes, forsake collective ownership of land, accept private property, settle down as  farmers, embrace “hard work,” learn to plow, and raise row crops–all the while obeying the Ten Commandments, and renouncing polygamy, drinking, gambling, dancing, and horse racing.

Don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who could live like that, whatever their ethnicity.

And what, pray tell, were they supposed to do for fun?

There is plenty of material in Murder at the Mission concerning the treatment of Native Americans that was meted out by their White counterparts. It is an appalling record of deliberate injustice – ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’

Blaine Harden demystifies these matters with a sense of quiet outrage. He is a native of Washington State, so truth telling in this aspect obviously carries great weight with him.

This is an amazing, illuminating, and ultimately heartbreaking story.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: