On a hill in Southeast Washington, a 26-foot, 11-inch white marble obelisk inscribed with the word “Whitman” stands in striking relief against the Blue Mountains in the distance. The monument marks the mass grave of Protestant missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with eleven other white Americans who were killed by members of the Cayuse nation in 1847. In 1897, 3,000 Americans attended the monument’s dedication, listening as Reverend Moses Hallock likened Whitman to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and assured the audience that “the blood of these martyrs was the seed of an empire!”
The Whitman Monument commemorates the Whitman of legend: a Christian martyr and patriotic hero who helped ensure that the United States, rather than Great Britain, would take possession of Oregon Territory. But the Whitman of history is a far more ambivalent figure: resolutely committed to supporting white settlement, even at the expense of the Cayuse people whom he was appointed to evangelize, and unable to win the trust, let alone the souls, of his Cayuse neighbors. The Whitman Mission had promised to bring new knowledge and alliances to the Cayuse homeland, but it instead brought sectarian conflict, disputes over material resources, relentless waves of white settlement, and, finally, epidemic disease that the physician Whitman’s treatments seemed to exacerbate. Today, the Whitman monument is a national historic site, and it works to capture this more complicated history. While its emphasis has shifted from hagiography to history, however, it continues to provide a physical locus for interpreting Whitman’s legacy.
Not so for the other set of martyrs that emerged from this violence: the five Cayuse men whom an Oregon territorial court tried and executed for the missionaries’ murders. After three years of war, Tiloukaikt, Kiamasumpkin, Tomahas, Isaiachalakis, and Klokamas were surrendered to the Oregon territorial military. Tiloukaikt insisted that they agreed to the trial not because they were guilty but because they hoped that their sacrifice would end the war. As he explained to his captors, “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So die we to save our people.” He predicted correctly. Judge O.C. Pratt rejected the defense’s arguments that the attack occurred before the Oregon territorial government even existed and that the killings were consistent with Cayuse law. An all-white jury, some of whom knew the victims personally, deliberated for just over an hour before finding all the defendants guilty and sentencing them to death by hanging. There is no monument, no government-sponsored interpretive site for the so-called Cayuse Five. Instead, settlers buried them in an unmarked grave somewhere in Oregon City near the site of the trial, 250 miles from the Cayuse homelands. Today, the Cayuse nation still searches for the lost grave of their ancestors.
Monuments serve as powerful loci for establishing, debating, and propagating histories, as the recent controversies over monuments connected to imperialism, slavery, and other forms of violence show. But as Americans debate who and what should be memorialized, it is important to remember that our current memory landscape involves not just creation but erasure. Oregon’s settlers not only built monuments to Whitman and other figures they lionized as pioneers; they also buried the Cayuse Five in a place that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Cayuse people to engage in the same place-based memory work. Destroying, building over, or simply neglecting sites of Native memory served the broader goals of settler colonialism. Building monuments to pioneers naturalized Anglo-American settlement by depicting relative newcomers in the West as part of a distant, foundational past. Erasing sites of Native memory naturalized Native dispossession by removing or obscuring evidence of Native people’s far longer and still ongoing connection with Western places.
This deep asymmetry has continued into the present. Washington’s legislature recently voted to replace the statue of Marcus Whitman in the US Capitol with the Nisqually fishing rights activist Billy Frank, Jr., but Whitman’s name and likeness still adorn a county, multiple schools, streets, a glacier, and the Washington state capital building, ensuring that however contested and altered, Whitman’s legacy will continue. Meanwhile, the Cayuse Five rest somewhere on the outskirts of Oregon City without so much as a headstone.
The search for the Cayuse Five has intensified in light of a proposed urban renewal project that could disrupt a possible burial site. Locating the burial site would not only enable the Cayuse people to repatriate their long-lost dead; it would also serve as one step toward re-inscribing Native memory and Native presence in a landscape that has been altered to obscure them.
Sarah Koenig is assistant professor of history at Ramapo College. She earned her joint Ph.D. in History and Religious Studies from Yale University.