The Power of Myths
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.
Author and Journalist
Blaine Harden is an American author and journalist. His latest book, Murder at the Mission, dismantles a phony legend about how the Pacific Northwest became a part of the United States. The book shows how Protestant ministers worked together to falsify history, invent a fake hero, and sanctify white conquest. Their Big Lie helped justify a century of abusive treatment of Native Americans.
Harden is a longtime foreign correspondent who reported for The Washington Post from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Northeast Asia. He was also a national correspondent for the New York Times, a contributor to the Economist, and has reported for PBS FRONTLINE. He was an editorial consultant to “North Korea’s Deadly Dictator,” broadcast Oct. 4, 2017. He was the lead reporter on the 2012 FRONTLINE film, “Alaska Gold.”
Emily Greenfield, Moderator
PhD Candidate, Department of History, Stanford University
Emily is a PhD candidate in history at Stanford University, where her research focuses on slavery, race, and memory in the United States. She is particularly interested in the construction of public narratives about slavery and the American nation – at historic sites, as well as in textbooks, museums, and memorial spaces. Emily was previously director of strategic communications at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and an Emmy Award-winning producer at CBS News’ Face the Nation.
Felicity Barringer, Presenter
Writer-in-Residence, The Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
Felicity Barringer joined the Center as writer in residence in September 2016. She is the editor and lead writer for the Center’s “... & the West” blog on western environmental and health issues. She was a national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times. She provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction carbon policies. More recently she focused on the West’s water challenges. Earlier, she covered the United Nations and worked as a correspondent in Moscow. Her career began at The Bergen Record; she worked at The Washington Post for nine years.