All the dictionaries seem to agree, the word “myth” has two meanings. (1) an old traditional story about an epic event, often involving a heroic character; and (2) “a widely held but false belief or idea.” The myth of Dr. Marcus Whitman, medical missionary to the Cayuse Indians, exemplifies both parts of the definition.
According to the myth, the heroic Whitman undertook an epic winter journey from what would, 20 years later, become the state of Oregon to the White House in Washington,D.C.. There he convinced President John Tyler to open the American West to settlement and then turned around and led the biggest wagon train anyone had ever seen from St Louis back to Oregon. Pretty good story, don’t you think?
But what made it mythic was how deeply people believed it. Deeply enough for both the states of Oregon and Washington to have raised monuments to Marcus Whitman, deeply enough for textbooks of Oregon and Washington history, used for decades from grade schools to graduate schools, to pass on the whole fantastic yarn. Which I believe qualifies the Whitman story for the first definition of mythic status.
As for the second definition, the Whitman myth was false in every detail except that Dr. Whitman did go back East for a spell in 1837 and came back the next year. All the rest, why he made the trip and whom he saw — not the president — and his role putting together the wagon train coming home … it was all b.s..
But people believed it and acted on those beliefs in ways that shaped the histories of Washington State and Oregon in directions both consequential and evil. The power of myths can do that.
Blaine Harden is a contributor to The Economist, PBS Frontline, and Foreign Policy and has formerly served as The Washington Post’s bureau chief in East Asia and Africa as well as a local and national correspondent for The New York Times and as a writer for the Times Magazine. He was also bureau chief in Warsaw, during the collapse of Communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia (1989-1993), and in Nairobi, where he covered sub-Saharan Africa (1985-1989). He is the author of Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its legacy of lies and The Taking of the American West and of four previous books: The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot (Viking, 2015), Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent (Norton, 1990), A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia (Norton, 1996) and Escape From Camp 14 (Viking, 2012). Africa won a Pen American Center citation for first book of non-fiction. Escape From Camp 14 enjoyed a number of weeks on various New York Times bestseller lists, and was an international bestseller published in 27 languages. He lives in Seattle with his family.