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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Henry Spalding, myth maker

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: November 25, 2023, 6:05am

The nation’s largest provider of missionaries for Indigenous populations, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, dispatched Henry and Eliza Spalding to Kansas to Christianize the Osage. The board reassigned them to Oregon Country, and they traveled alongside Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. A troubled relationship emerged between the men because Narcissa had earlier rejected Spalding’s marriage proposal. Spalding still held unrequited feelings for Narcissa, and Whitman found Spalding to be irritating.

Headed for Walla Walla, the missionaries stopped at Fort Vancouver in 1836. Chief Factor John McLoughlin welcomed them. Soon, the men left, seeking a site for a mission. Returning for their wives, the men recognized their mutual dislike. So, they decided to establish two missions. The Whitman mission at Walla Walla would serve the hostile Cayuse, and the Spalding mission, 60 miles east, would serve the friendlier Nez Perce. McLoughlin warned them they’d selected a dangerous area.

Both missionaries displayed arrogant and self-righteous attitudes, believing they could Christianize the Indigenous people and turn them into farmers. Stuck in their world view, they proved to be ill-equipped. Whitman, a physician, assumed his medical skills could facilitate the Cayuse conversion. But the Cayuse warned him that in their culture, any shaman failing to cure someone would be killed. And both tribes feared all whites coveted their land.

Visiting Protestant missionaries reported their dissatisfaction with the missionaries to the board. In 1842, Whitman rode across the country to save his job. He returned the next year, leading a wagon train of settlers. When a measles epidemic broke out, Whitman tended to both whites and Cayuse, but he failed to cure many Cayuse, leading to the murders of a dozen settlers, including the Whitmans, in 1847.

Unaware of the murders, Spalding set out to visit the Whitmans but met Father Jean-Baptiste Brouillet, who had witnessed the carnage and urged Spalding to turn back, which he did.

Spalding later distorted and embellished Whitman’s journey east into a legend aligned with America’s Manifest Destiny myth. Spalding claimed that Whitman rode to Washington, D.C., and spoke with President John Tyler, saving Oregon from British control. Spalding manipulated facts and peppered his narrative with anti-Catholicism, transforming a mediocre missionary into a romantic patriotic martyr by falsely declaring that Whitman’s ride prevented the exchange of Oregon for a Canadian cod fishery.

Despite contrary evidence, Spalding’s fabrication became the accepted account of the events. A letter by Whitman stated he rode east to meet with the missionary board to secure his job. No evidence supported Spalding’s claim of a trip to the nation’s capital, or a meeting with President Tyler. Spalding also claimed the wagons led West by Whitman played a crucial role in saving Oregon.

Throughout his life, Spalding was rabidly anti-Catholic, even though Father Brouillet saved his life. Spalding positioned Catholic villainy behind the mission attack. When the Congressional Record published the priest’s version of the Whitman killings, Spalding demanded equal time, spicing his account with anti-Catholicism. On a day Congress was mired in political matters, it entered Spalding’s fiction into the official record, unquestioned and unread. That set the stage for fabulist historians to retell the lie, which lingered in history textbooks for decades.

Columbian freelance contributor