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How Anti-Catholic Propaganda, Racism, and One Man’s Paranoid Obsessions Helped Form Oregon’s Founding Myths


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As the Cayuses struggled for their very survival, Henry Spalding despaired of his new life among American settlers in the Willamette Valley. Despite having spent the first three decades of his life in the uniformly white small towns of upstate New York, he wrote that he “never felt at home among the whites.” Short of money and with four young children to provide for, he jumped from job to job in the 1850s, working as a teacher, farmer, school commissioner, postmaster, roving minister, justice of the peace, Indian agent for the federal government, and pontificator in local and East Coast newspapers. All the while, he ached to return to Nez Perce country, where he wanted to resume the only thing he had ever been good at: missionary work among Indians whose language he had learned, whose leaders he had trained, and whose culture he felt he understood. If he could find a way to return to the Nez Perces, he believed, his Christian followers, especially Chief Lawyer and the devout headman Timothy, would welcome him back and allow him to rebuild his ministry.

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Spalding’s abrasive personality, though, stood in the way of his return, costing him federal appointments and forcing him out of jobs, which made him wild with resentment. When he pleaded with the American Board in the 1850s to send him back to the Nez Perces, several of his fellow missionaries strongly advised against it. They said Spalding was unstable. “I deem him wholly unfitted in body and mind,” wrote the Reverend Elkanah Walker, who had known Spalding since 1838. The Reverend Cushing Eells, another longtime acquaintance, said that Spalding “does not possess very largely of a cooperative disposition.  .  .  . He has not been a discreet, prudent missionary—is often precipitous. He appears to suffer from mental or moral obliquity, which has occasioned much reproach.”

Deepening Spalding’s darkness was the death of his wife. Eliza had been a loving and moderating presence in his life. She had also been crucial to his success among the Nez Perces. Her steady temperament won trust and devotion and helped rein in her hotheaded husband. With Eliza gone, Spalding told foolish lies. He recklessly created conflict. He even turned his wife’s gravestone into anti-Catholic agitprop. “She always felt that the Jesuit Missionaries were the leading cause of the massacre,” it read. In later years, Spalding repeatedly claimed that Eliza had been murdered in 1847 by the Cayuses at the Whitman mission and that Catholic priests were “the instigators of that heart sickening & bloody butchery.” In fact, Eliza died in bed of natural causes, on January 7, 1851, four years after the massacre, surrounded by her husband and family at their home in the Willamette Valley.

As we know, when the American Board sent Spalding to Oregon, it told him, “Do nothing to irritate.” As a middle-aged minister in the 1850s and ’60s, he was, if anything, more irritating than ever. Whenever he could, Spalding published his anti-Catholic, paranoiac, and false fulminations in the newspapers. In so doing, he offended a number of very important people, in Oregon and in Washington, D.C. He falsely accused Dr. John McLoughlin, a former friend, of saying that “Doct. Whitman and Mrs. Whitman got just what they deserved” and that “Spalding ought to be hung.” In 1851, after he was dismissed, for absenteeism, from a job as a federal Indian agent, Spalding wrote and published a series of letters that accused his former supervisor of being a crook, an incompetent, and a papist who discriminated against Protestants. One of these letters was published in a Christian newspaper on the East Coast, where it came to the attention of President Millard Fillmore. Fillmore wrote a letter in 1852 noting that Spalding’s claims were “destitute of truth.”

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That assessment of nearly everything Spalding said and wrote was shared by some of the most prominent newspaper editors in the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the nineteenth century. “They all refused their columns to Mr. Spalding,” according to a letter in the Portland Morning Oregonian. “He felt it keenly. It troubled him, and he often spoke about it to his friends, and blamed the papers considerably.”

Asahel Bush, the influential editor of the Oregon Statesman, described Spalding in 1855 as “a lunatic upon the subject of Catholicism” and not “sane on any subject.”

***

Spalding, though, was never merely a crackpot. There was a cunning to his madness—and to the reckless accusations and fantastic claims that came out of it. He had a keen sense of the prevailing prejudices of Protestants in nineteenth-century America, writing that the “community are indignant at the conduct of the Catholics.” He spent the final three decades of his life inciting that indignation—and feeding off the fires he helped set.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were not dead six months before he found a way to wrap the factual particulars of their lives and murders around his most enduring fabrication: the Whitman Saved Oregon story.

It first surfaced, in bare-bones form, in the early summer of 1848, as part of an obituary printed in Protestant newspapers in Chicago and Boston. Although unsigned, “The Death of Dr. Marcus Whitman” bears Spalding’s unmistakable literary fingerprints. It includes details, phrasing, and sectarian venom he would repeat and refine in sermons, letters, lectures, and essays over the coming decades.

“In the winter of 1842, Dr. Whitman made his last visit to the United States, clothed in skins. He then performed, almost alone, the perilous journey across the plains, traversing snows and swimming their icy streams, that he might communicate important intelligence to the American Board in regard to their stations, and prevail upon his countrymen to commence at once an emigration, in order to save Oregon from the grasp of Great Britain, as well as to preserve it from the power of the Jesuits, with whose schemes he had become acquainted.”

After this tantalizing preview, the story slipped out of public sight—for eighteen years. The long dormancy of the incipient lie coincided with a depressing and often desperate time for Spalding, marred by job setbacks, personal loss, an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the American Board, and searing public condemnation from enemies he had made in the Catholic Church, the U.S. government, and local newspapers.

Amid it all, as the editor of the Oregon Statesman called his sanity into question, Spalding began to live a hidden life as the local leader of the secret Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. He became president of Preble Wigwam No. 38, the order’s chapter in Linn County, Oregon. He hosted meetings in his home, where members vowed to vote only for American-born Protestant politicians who opposed immigration and committed themselves to doing everything in their power to vilify and undermine Catholics.

For Spalding, it was a shrewd—and stealthy—political play. To be appointed to a government job in Nez Perce country, he needed help from elected federal officials and their top regional appointees. And the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner—widely known as the “Know-Nothings” because members denied all knowledge of their society—was fast becoming a formidable political force, with secret cells across the United States and in nearly every community in Oregon. Leading newspapers in Oregon encouraged the group (also called the American Party), attacking Catholics and turning against “foreign influences,” especially the Hudson’s Bay Company, which continued to operate in Vancouver.

The Know-Nothings enjoyed exponential national growth and exercised extraordinary political influence in the mid-1850s. In little more than two years, membership soared from forty-three individuals in New York City to more than a million nationwide. In 1855, the year Spalding joined, the Know-Nothings elected eight governors and more than a hundred members of Congress, along with mayors in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago and thousands of lower-ranking politicians. Even Millard Fillmore, after leaving the White House in 1853, became a member. No nativist political organization in the United States had ever grown so fast and achieved so much so quickly.

Then, as now, nativists derived their power from stoking and exploiting fear of foreigners, and there was plenty of fuel for that fire between 1845 and 1854. The influx of immigrants had never been higher—“more than had come in the seven previous decades combined,” according to historian Tyler Anbinder. This amounted to about 15 percent of the population, or about 2.8 million people. They came mostly from Ireland and southern Germany, and their religion was as alarming to many Protestants as their numbers: by the 1850s, most were Roman Catholics.

Spalding’s anti-Catholicism had found formal academic support in the 1830s, when he was a student at Lane Theological Seminary, in Cincinnati. His primary intellectual influence there was the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a Yale-trained Presbyterian minister with a national reputation for attacking Catholics as agents of a plot against America. Just before Spalding traveled to Oregon, Beecher wrote A Plea for the West, a book that explained how Catholic immigrants, priests, and Catholic schools were attempting to steal away the western frontier. When Spalding later claimed that papists had instigated the killings of the Whitmans and schemed with the British to take Oregon, he was not being particularly inventive. Opinion makers like Lyman Beecher had trained Spalding—and Protestants throughout the United States—to perceive the world through the nativist lens of a papist conspiracy. As seen through that lens, Catholics were hell-bent on destroying the ethnic and religious homogeneity of the country—and it was a seemingly commonsense assumption that they were trying to steal the West for the pope.

In “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, in 1964, that “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” have always infected public life in the United States. He traced a facts- be- damned style of political discourse that for two hundred years obsessed over the menace posed by Freemasons, international bankers, and Communists hiding in the State Department. One of the most hysterical and sustained of these obsessions focused on Catholic immigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century, when, as Hofstadter wrote, Protestants “invented an immense lore about libertine priests” and their licentious misbehavior with nuns behind convent walls.

In 1836, the year Spalding traveled west with the Whitmans, the most successful book of this lurid genre appeared in print. Called Awful Disclosures, it was written by Maria Monk, a young woman who escaped a nunnery in Montreal, where she claimed she was taught to “obey the priests in all things.” Babies fathered by priests, she wrote, were killed, but only after they were baptized, so they could go to heaven. Although Maria’s mother later said that her daughter had been disturbed since childhood, when she stuck a pencil in her head, and although Maria died in prison after being arrested in a brothel for petty theft, the book was bought, and believed, all across America. It became, as Hofstadter wrote, “probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”

Foreign-born Catholics were relatively slow to settle in the Pacific Northwest. But early white settlers—many of them farmers and small-town merchants from Missouri—had been steeped in the anti-Catholic hysteria that made Awful Disclosures a must-read. As Spalding intuited, Oregonians were primed and ready to believe in outrageous papal plots, notwithstanding that there were few local Catholics around to carry them out. Soon after the Whitman killings, a petition to expel Catholic clergy from Oregon was introduced in the territorial legislature. It failed, but seeds of anti-Catholicism found fertile soil, fertilized year after year by Spalding’s sermons and by published claims that priests had played a role in the Whitman Massacre and that Catholics had conspired with the British to try to steal Oregon from Protestant America.

Nativism and bigotry in Oregon would endure well into the twentieth century. By majority vote, they were enshrined in the new state’s constitution. A Black exclusion provision made Oregon the only free state admitted to the union with a constitutional clause banning African Americans from entering the state or owning property there. Although rarely enforced, the law effectively kept Blacks out. In 1860, a year after it became a state, there were just 128 African Americans in Oregon. The law wasn’t removed until 1926. The state population is still just 2 percent Black, and Portland—for all its progressive bona fides—remains the whitest of America’s big cities.

Nativist loathing of Catholics went hand in glove with racism, and both thrived in Oregon into the late 1920s. They helped create and energize the largest Ku Klux Klan chapter west of the Rockies, which became a formidable statewide political force after World War I. With the backing of the Klan and the winking approval of a Klan-friendly candidate for governor, voters in Oregon approved a law in 1922 that would have shut down all Catholic schools in the state—had the law not been declared unconstitutional in 1925 by the United States Supreme Court.

___________________________________

From MURDER AT THE MISSION by Blaine Harden, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Blaine Harden.

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