At the Whitman Mission III
Bill Long 7/27/06
Reflecting on the "New" Facts
So, while standing in the blazing heat by the Whitman Obelisk a few days ago, the "traditional history," narrated in the previous essay, along with the three "new facts" (at least new to me) came into mind at first in uneasy connection with each other. Then, I began the following thoughts.
Fact One: Henry Spalding's Love for Narcissa Whitman
Whenever there is a story of purely "spiritual" interest, I scratch around a little bit and usually find a very human tale, sometimes quite poignant, beneath the surface. Here is what I found on this one. Henry Spalding's date of birth is always curiously unknown in all the Internet sources I consulted. Why? Well, Clifford Drury (the leading historian of matters Whitmania two generations ago) in 1963 edited and supplemented Where Wagons Could Go, which are letters of Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding during the years of their respective missions, and in this book there are some interesting things about Spalding and Narcissa Whitman. Narcissa, born in 1808, was brought up in Prattsburg, NY. All the towns in this narrative are to be found in the one of the least-explored areas of New York State, that narrow sliver of land West and South of the Finger lakes and just North of the PA border. She attended the public shools in Prattsburg but transferred to the Franklin Academy in town in 1827, which had opened for boys in 1824 but was now co-ed.
Meanwhile Henry Harmon Spalding, whom Drury says, in the moralism of the time, had the "misfortune to be born out of wedlock," began attending the Franklin Academy in 1825. He was older than the fellow students (being in his early 20s) and, according to Drury, always manifested an inferiority complex which the good historian attributes to "the facts of his birth, his poverty, and his limited educational opportunities." Undaunted, however, he, who was member of the same church as Narcissa, decided to ask her to marry him. She refused. Then, as Drury said, "His love turned to bitter jealousy which later had unfortunate consequences in faraway Oregon" (p. 28).
The linchpin establishing the case of rejected love, however, only came to light about 50 years ago. One letter from Narcissa Whitman to her family from October 1840 describes the open conflict with Spalding:
"Our trials dear father knows but little about. The missionaries' greatest trials are but little known to the churches. I have never ventured to write about them for fear it might do hurt. The man who came with us is one who never ought to have come. My dear husband has suffered more from him in consequence of his wicked jealousy, and his great pique towards me, than can be known in this world. But he suffers not alone--the whole mission suffers, which is most to be deplored. It has nearly broken up the mission."
But this letter doesn't necessarily say that Spalding is the man (it could have been Gray) and it doesn't mention a refused marriage proposal. Indeed, Drury, in his first edition of the book, declined to advocate the "rejected suitor" thesis. But then, probably in the 1950s, Drury found a letter in the Oregon Historical Society from Narcissa's younger sister, Mrs. J. J. Jackson (nee Harriet Prentiss) to Eva Emery Dye on January 11, 1893, more than 45 years after her sister was murdered. This letter says:
"he (Spalding) wished to make Narcissa his wife, and her refusal of him caused the wicked feeling he cherished toward them both."
Thus, my little detour on "fact 1" not only brings to light something that is now well-known by specialists in the field, even though it hasn't always been so, but also shows how historical knowledge grows in a rather chancy way. By the way, Eva Emery Dye moved to Oregon in 1891 and was perhaps the most illustrious author of Oregon historical fiction in her generation. I don't know how her correspondence began with Narcissa Whitman's sister, but we are the richer for it.
Now that I have explained "Fact 1" to you, you can see how history opens up before your eyes. Rather than just learning the "male" facts about the Whitmans (that Marcus needed a wife and "found" Narcissa and then were married in February 1836--and then we move to the real important stuff, such as crossing the Plains and Indians and building buildings and setting up Missions, etc.), I am pausing on this very "female" fact. You know, if I stopped right here and presented this material to a classroom of women, what do you think would be the discussion? Listen in...to my imagination.
"Well, why did Marcus ask Henry to join the mission anyway? Did he know that Henry had proposed to Narcissa? If not, why didn't Narcissa tell him? What was Marcus thinking? If Narcissa didn't tell him, was this because of the "times"--that women just kept quiet about this, and hoped it would all "go away?"
Dozens of questions, literally, are forthcoming once you know the Henry Spalding--Narcissa Prentiss (Whitman) missed connection. Almost makes you want to become a historian.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long