29 November 2007

November 29: This Day in History

Every day merits celebration or remembrance. Throughout the year, each day marks the birthday of someone’s hero, and the anniversary of some momentous achievement or tragic event. Today, 29 November 2007, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations vote to partition Palestine. On this day in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The first Army-Navy football game took place on this day in 1890—Navy slaughtered Army 24-0. In 1948, Verdi’s Otello became the first opera to be televised. Atari announced Pong, the first commercially marketed home video game in 1972—marking in the opinion of some the ruin of all future youth of America.

Today marks the birth of Christian Doppler (1803), C.S. Lewis (1898), Madeleine L'Engle (1918), Gary Shandling (1949), and many others. Lists are available at Brainy History, Celebrity Link, Wikipedia, . . . .

29 November is the Feast Day of St. Saturninus, Bishop of Toulouse, martyred on this day in 257. He labored as a missionary to the Gauls with some success. He frequently walked past a pagan altar where on this day his opponents seized him, tied him by the feet to a bull they were planning to sacrifice, and watched him dragged to his death.

American West

Today marks the anniversary of two singularly tragic events in the history of the American West: the killing of missionary physician Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and eleven others by members of the Cayuse tribe (1847), and the day-long slaughter of Cheyenne and Arapaho children, women, and men by two regiments of Colorado Volunteers under the leadership of Colonel John Chivington (1864). Collective memory of both events is managed, in part, by the National Park Service’s administration of the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. These two events highlight different aspects of the nineteenth century transformation of the American West. Each marks a significant episode in a larger story of settlement and cross-cultural relations, and each has been elevated as a symbolic moment in particular narratives.

Whitman Massacre 1847

Missionaries Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding and their husbands, Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding, crossed the vast expanse of the West on their way to the Oregon Country in 1836. Their journey, motivated in part by the publication of the so-called Flathead Delegation’s quest for the source of Anglo-American sacred power, made these two the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Also Henry Spalding’s stubborn attachment to his wagon, even after it was reduced to a cart, made it the first set of wheels to roll over much of the route that would become the Oregon Trail. Perhaps the next major episode in the development of the nascent Oregon Trail was the first organized wagon train along the route—the Bartleson-Bidwell Party’s journey in 1841. Among those traveling with Bidwell were the Jesuits Pierre Jean De Smet, Gregory Mengarini, and Nicholas Point. The party split at Soda Springs (in present day Idaho) with some heading into the Pacific Northwest and others to California. The Jesuits went north into Montana, where they established missions that eventually prospered and grew across western Montana and northern Idaho. The oldest building in Idaho, the Cataldo Mission, is one of several lasting results of the work of De Smet and company.

The Pacific Northwest developed as a site of rapidly expanding Christian missions beginning with the arrival of Methodist Jason Lee in 1834 and the Jesuits Francis Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers four years later. Before the arrival of non-Indian missionaries, Indians of the Interior Pacific Northwest gave ear to the preaching of Spokane Garry and other sons of headmen that had been sent away to Red River to receive Christian instruction, then returned as Native missionaries to their own and neighboring tribes. The fur trading companies employed missionized mixedbloods from the east and offered Euro-American (or Euro-Canadian) curriculum and catechism to youths whose parents were willing to send them away.

When the Whitmans and Spaldings arrived, the ground had been well prepared for their arrival. Nevertheless, they found the task difficult and wrought with cultural conflicts. These missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM—the Oregon Country was yet foreign to the United States) believed that a transformation of Indian lifeways from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture was a necessary prerequisite to the development of serious and lasting Christian faith. They struggled with the physical deprivations, loneliness, and cultural conflict of frontier conditions and made slow progress. They battled with Native beliefs, on the one hand, and Catholic competition, on the other. Some of those in the mission service had deep personal conflicts with their brethren.

Reports of their difficulties made their way through letters and rumor to the east. When in 1842 Elijah White—the first United States official to be appointed for Oregon—arrived, he brought a letter from the ABCFM ordering consolidations and closings of their missions in the region. Although Spalding at Lapwai and Whitman at Waiilatpu did not agree on every important matter, they agreed that their work should continue. Thus, Whitman returned to Boston and convinced the Board to rescind their order. He returned to Oregon in 1843 helping lead the largest single group of settlers to traverse the Oregon Trail through its entire history—a full thousand emigrants, plus or minus a dozen or so. Members of this Great Migration, as it has come to be known, benefited along the way both from his medical services, and from his knowledge of the route.

Back in Oregon conflicts with the Cayuse grew as Whitman’s emphasis seemed to shift toward aiding Euro-American settlers rather than ministering to the spiritual needs of Natives. Many Cayuse were upset that Whitman had never paid for the lands he claimed for his mission, but valued his own property enough that he put emetics in the watermelons to discourage theft.

Measles and Retribution

Traffic along the Oregon Trail grew year by year, and many of the pioneers stopped at Waiilatpu. Diseases came with the settlers, and in 1847 Whitman was busy attending to a measles epidemic. He administered medicines to many patients that recovered and many others that died. The Cayuse were less fortunate than the non-Indians, dying in greater proportions. Some of them thought that Whitman deliberately killed Indians while healing settlers.

On 29 November 1847, Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and eleven others were killed in an attack on the mission that had inside help. The bloody scene provoked the raising of a militia to hunt down the perpetrators, negotiations, battles, and finally surrender of the five who were allegedly responsible for the killings.

Cayuse tradition permitted the taking of the life of a shaman (or medicine man) if his patient died. Many have called foul because explanations of this tradition was denied as possible evidence through a series of rulings by the judge in Oregon City during the trial of those given up as Whitman’s executioners. On the other hand, they were tried only for the murder of Marcus Whitman; this tradition would have offered a feeble defense for their reputed slaughter of the other twelve who died on that day.

The effects of the massacre included the closing of all Protestant missions in the interior, alteration of the route of the Oregon Trail, and increased efforts of settlers in Oregon to push for territorial status within the United States. Hence, the Whitmans have become celebrated for their role in the cause of bringing civilization to the Pacific Northwest wilderness. On the other hand, the Cayuse defendants that were tried and hung, and perhaps the Cayuse as a whole, have been portrayed as martyrs to the advance of civilization.

Whitmans as Martyrs
A threat greater than the competition of the two arms of the Christian faith was about to come to Waiilatpu on Whitman’s return there. The Grim Reaper, the unhorser of the free-riding Cayuse Indians, had prepared measles for murder. Now he sharpened his scythe and rode a pale horse through the ‘place of the Rye Grass.’ In the annals of Pacific-Northwestern Indian-white relations few events were more singularly tragic than that of November 29, 1847.
Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Indians of the Pacific Northwest (1981), 101.

Cayuse as Martyrs
[T]hese Cayuses were martyrs to a destiny too strong for them, to the Juggernaut of an incomprehensible civilization, before whose wheels they were compelled to prostrate themselves, to that relentless law, the survival of the fittest, before which, in spite of religion or science, we all in turn go down.
Frances Fuller Victor, as quoted in Ronald B. Lansing, Juggernaut: The Whitman Massacre Trial, 1850, (1993), 100.

Sand Creek Massacre 1864

The deeds at Sand Creek in 1864 are more widely known and narrated more frequently, in yesterday's CultureKitchen, for example. There also, the event took place in the context of a protracted struggle between Natives seeking to hang on to their lands and way of life, on the one hand, and growing numbers of immigrants seeking to bring their version of civilization to a particular part of the American West, on the other. There were battles and negotiations, destructions of property by Indians and whites alike, murders, and other depredations. While the Civil War raged in the east, calls went out in Colorado to raise a militia to fight Indians.

Once the militia was raised in Denver, they marched south to Fort Lyon, near present-day Lamar, Colorado. On the evening of 28 November 1864, two regiments numbering more than 700 men answered the call. They marched through the night nearly thirty miles north, and at dawn attacked a large village of Cheyenne and Arapaho. The fighting went on for seven hours. Less than a dozen soldiers were killed, and several dozen wounded, but they killed an estimated 150 or more Indians, injuring and displacing many more. They burned the Indian tipis, destroyed their food stores, and chased the survivors for miles. Some of the soldiers participated in some of the most unspeakable brutalities to be found anywhere in the annals of Indian-white relations.

Howard Zinn, A People’s History

Neither the Sand Creek Massacre, nor the Whitman Massacre can be found in the pages of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Indeed, Zinn is almost entirely silent on nearly all aspects of the history of the American West. Nor does he offer much of substance regarding the history of American Indians beyond one chapter devoted to Indian Removal during the Jackson era. Zinn’s work is disappointing on the matters before us today.

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offer more coverage than Zinn with respect to the Whitmans, Sand Creek, and Western American history generally. A Patriot’s History devotes the last few pages of one chapter to the development of Oregon, including a full paragraph on Jason Lee, Marcus Whitman, and De Smet (246). Even Elijah White gets mentioned. Unfortunately, they bring Lee to Oregon two years before he arrived, collapse the Whitman’s first migration into the second (one that Marcus took without Narcissa), and fail to bring the Jesuits into the Inland Northwest until after the Protestants leave. They do mention measles and its influence in the killing of the Whitmans.

The Sand Creek Massacre also gets a full paragraph in A Patriots History, including an explicit quote carried over from the work of Ray Allen Billington:

Indians “were scalped … their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns [and] mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.” (A Patriot’s History, 408)

Schweikart and Allen get the date wrong, listing 28 November as the date of the attack, a date that Billington correctly gives in Westward Expansion for the departure of the soldiers from Fort Lyon. This sort of error is easy to make when note taking is too hasty, or when it is left in the hands of an inexperienced research assistant. Aside from this error, their text gives a fair account of the event at the beginning of a section concerned with Indian wars in the West.

From Columbus to Chivington

Frankly, I find disappointing and frustrating the accumulation of small errors of fact in A Patriot’s History, but am appalled that Zinn ignores Whitman and Sand Creek. A People’s History does a better job than A Patriot’s History regarding Columbus, but it fails miserably when we turn to the west and look at the histories of Indians and whites on the frontier. In my score keeping, A Patriot’s History wins a point today.

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