One of the truly exasperating things about history is its strange relationship to truth.

Nowadays “history” has two distinct meanings: first, the actual events that happened in the past (“It changed the course of history”); second, the written presentation of those events (“The history of Japan”). This dichotomy has left its grubby fingers all over American (and all other, as far as I know) education.

One has only to pick out any past period, say Andrew Jackson’s presidency, to see how the random well-read person regards it. Not that Jackson had any discernible morals, temperance or even military genius. One can make an excellent case, depending on what your own biases are, that he was a pretty bad president. I believe that people are born, live and die in a construct of time and space that is at once firm, immovable and as delicate as a web of stardust. We can state with perfect truth that certain events happened. But what those events meant as cause or effect, or why they were or were not important to the unfolding of other events, or whether they made it inevitable or impossible for further, future events to occur, or whether these consequences are a matter of fact or opinion. And whether any of this even matters, or even how we can even know it, is endlessly fascinating.

I have been collecting material lately on Marcus Whitman, who was born in Rushville in September 1802 and died in Washington state at the end of November 1847. His parents were part of the post-Revolutionary New England exodus and his own generation washed the shores of the Pacific in the days of Manifest Destiny.

Beza Whitman (his name was apparently pronounced “Bezer” as that’s how it was always spelled in unofficial documents) and his wife, Alice (Green), were from western Massachusetts and emigrated at the end of the 18th century as a group, their movement possibly triggered by a typhoid epidemic to the newly available Genesee Country.

The Whitmans were among the last of this particular wave, stopping at Canandaigua on their way to Naples for a birth; Alice had her eldest son in 1797 just before the journey started, her second at Canandaigua in 1798 and her third at Rushville in 1802. Beza drove the oxen pulling the big main wagon and Alice rode on horseback with Augustus, the eldest, on her lap. The family was living in a log house that stood on Main Street, vacated by Alice’s brother Henry Green, who had just built his second (and much nicer) house on what is today Gorham Street.

The Whitmans built a new frame house on the slope above the road within a few years, which stood on the corner lot until 1895, when a large Victorian house was erected there. The Whitman house was moved elsewhere in the village and razed in 1952. The state erected an historic marker in front of the big house on the original site, which notes none of these changes.

Effect of father’s death

When Marcus’s father died in 1810, Alice had five children under 12. She remarried Calvin Loomis and continued to live and carry on with Beza’s several businesses in the same house. Alice’s main preoccupation, besides the children, was running the public house; Calvin ran the tannery by the West River bridge and made and sold shoes.

Upon his father’s death, Marcus was sent to live with his grandfather Samuel Whitman and his father’s half-brother Freedom Whitman, both devout Baptists. The boy was to go to a school nearby, where he hoped to become a Presbyterian missionary. Apparently the difference in denomination didn’t cause too much trouble.

The school was well-regarded throughout New England. At the same time as young Whitman, the poet William Cullen Bryant and the abolitionist John Brown attended. Marcus was unable to complete his training for the ministry, but did finish his medical degree. He went to Rushville in 1820, where his mother failed to recognize him, and he was introduced to his new stepfather and newborn baby half-brother.

He spent some years in the area practicing medicine and did some preaching in a rustic parish in Wheeler. He applied as a medical missionary among the Cayuse people in the Oregon country, a post for which he had one great disability — he was unmarried. The mission board insisted that a married couple was needed. Finally a correspondence was started (mediated by the mission board, who had a few women available who couldn’t serve without acquiring a husband).

Marcus married Narcissa Prentiss at her uncle’s house. With another minister and doctor, a couple of guides and some livestock, the party crossed the Missouri near St. Louis and set out across the Plains. They crossed the Rockies at South Pass in central Wyoming. It was about 8,000 feet high, but so broad it was not at all obvious that the divide was there until one spotted the creeks flowing westward.

Narcissa and her friend were the first white women to cross the mountains with a wagon; the route was designed to prove that wagons were practical. So many wagons crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail in the next few years (the first crossing was in 1836) that one can even now see the deep ruts.

In 1846 Marcus returned to civilization to warn officials that the British were plotting to acquire Oregon themselves and is widely credited for “saving” Oregon (which also included Washington, Idaho, British Columbia) for the United States. The route taken was amazing just as a sheer act of will, since in winter the South Pass was blocked and the travelers went south nearly to Taos, and north back up to St. Louis again.

If that’s where it had ended, the Whitmans would still have been remembered in the Territory, but would have reached neither the heights nor the depths they did in fact attain. In November 1847 the first large draft of emigrants came down with measles and Dr. Whitman took them into his house to tend them. The disease was as contagious then as it is now and passed to the children of the Cayuse people. Sickness had been a scourge to all the nations since the 16th century, and Whitman’s neighbors were just a remnant of their former number. This time, with both white and native children ill — and the white ones recovering and the native ones dying — there was already a lot of free-floating hostility.

The story spread from a couple of escaped survivors. The only woman killed was Narcissa Whitman and the sick children were cared for, so it was not a simple massacre. The French in the nearby fort blamed the Protestant Whitmans, and the emigrants blamed the Jesuits. In the end, there was plenty of blame to spread around, but little raw malice; just people unable to see each other.

Dumas has been a resident of Yates County for 40-plus years and served as research assistant and county historian for 30 years. She has authored books on the Universal Friend, Penn Yan and Yates County.

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