The Power of Myths: Blaine Harden and "Murder at the Mission"

Blaine Harden
Felicity Barringer
Emily Greenfield
Tue August 10, 2021
Event Sponsor
Bill Lane Center for the American West
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The Power of Myths: Blaine Harden and "Murder at the Mission"

There's no question about the centrality of myth and myth-making in the American West's identity. Blaine Harden and Emily Greenfield will use Harden's book "Murder at the Mission" as a starting point to discuss the use of myth in Western history. The participants will discuss why myths are so profusive in the region and why telling stories about myths is important.

About "Murder at the Mission"

In 1836, two missionaries and their wives were among the first Americans to cross the Rockies by covered wagon on what would become the Oregon Trail. Dr. Marcus Whitman and Reverend Henry Spalding were headed to present-day Washington state and Idaho, where they aimed to convert members of the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes. Both would fail spectacularly as missionaries. But Spalding would succeed as a propagandist, inventing a story that recast his friend as a hero, and helped to fuel the massive westward migration that would eventually lead to the devastation of those they had purportedly set out to save.

As Spalding told it, after uncovering a British and Catholic plot to steal the Oregon Territory from the United States, Whitman undertook a heroic solo ride across the country to alert the President. In fact, he had traveled to Washington to save his own job. Soon after his return, Whitman, his wife, and eleven others were massacred by a group of Cayuse. Though they had ample reason – Whitman supported the explosion of white migration that was encroaching on their territory, and seemed to blame for a deadly measles outbreak – the Cayuse were portrayed as murderous savages. Five were executed.

Exposing the hucksterism and self-interest at the root of American myth-making, Murder at the Mission reminds us of the cost of American expansion, and of the problems that can arise when history is told only by the victors.


Blaine Harden
Author and Journalist

Emily Greenfield, Moderator
PhD Candidate, Department of History, Stanford University

Felicity Barringer, Presenter
Writer-in-Residence, The Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University

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