Our college’s history is founded on a lie. We should talk about it more often.

Parsa Keshavarz Alamdari, Columnist

We have all heard about Marcus Whitman, the man our college is named after. The way Marcus Whitman was murdered made him a character that is remembered to this day, and Whitman College had a big role in promoting this myth.

Marcus Whitman was a missionary who traveled with his wife Narcissa Prentiss to the Oregon territory and settled in an area they called Waiilatpu. The people who settled in the area with the Whitmans also brought with them diseases that were not known to the native population, such as measles. Measles claimed many lives from the Indigenous populations inhabiting the area.

Tensions have been rising ever since the Whitmans established their mission for numerous reasons, but this was the breaking point. On Nov. 29, 1847, several Indigenous people entered the mission and killed Marcus, Narcissa, and some others; 13 people in total.

The killing of Marcus Whitman and others was a turning point in the region. It gave the U.S. government an upper hand and a reason to attack the native Cayuse, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Walla Walla people, and impose treaties with less-than-satisfying terms.

The history of the region is too complicated. I cannot do it justice in this article. I mainly wanted to talk about the role of Whitman College and its former presidents in promoting the Whitman myth.

Blaine Harden has written a book on the Whitman myth, “Murder at the Mission.” I do recommend everyone interested to read it. 

In the chapter “the old college lie,” Harden explains that by the turn of the 19th century, Whitman College was in a serious financial crisis. However, then newly-appointed president Stephen B.L. Penrose managed to turn the college from a failing mess into a prestigious institution with an “amazing story”—or in other words, a lie.

In the pamphlet “the romance of a college,” he claimed that the trip Whitman made to Boston to save his mission was actually to Washington, DC. He then compared the death of Marcus Whitman with Jesus’, and stated that his blood has “baptized” Idaho, Oregon and Washington. This story was then used to plead for money to save this “little, struggling college” that was “the only memorial of a national hero.”

With the help of millionaires D.K. Pearsons and Oliver W. Nixon, author of “How Marcus Whitman saved Oregon,” Penrose managed to save Whitman College with that beautifully-curated lie.

Blaine Harden actually addressed the college last October, which I did not attend. If I hadn’t have read his other book “A River Lost” in my introduction to an environmental studies class and hadn’t watched a news report featuring him, I perhaps would never know about what Penrose did and therefore wouldn’t write an article on it.

And that’s exactly the point. We study at a college that has huge historical baggage associated with not only its creation but why it still exists today. It is the duty of students, faculty and the administration alike to educate each other on these matters.

After all, Stephen B.L. Penrose is memorialized through Penrose library (where I borrowed Blaine Harden’s book—ironic!). However, I don’t think that most of us know what he has done for the college, and at what cost.

I’m not advocating for whitewashing at all. Sometimes, the names are so offensive that the change could be understandable, but names and symbols could also represent a historic reminder to all of us on how we got here.

I also think that we should know the people behind our college—our former presidents, the people our buildings are named after—Chester C. Maxey, John W. Stanton and Peter Reid, among others. We should be aware of to what extent the privilege of us studying at Whitman is based on a myth and a lie.