Marcus Whitman statue is unveiled in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 1953.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/04/2009
  • Essay 9226

On May 22, 1953, a bronze statue depicting missionary Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) is unveiled and dedicated in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The statue, the first of two representing Washington state in the National Statuary Hall, portrays Whitman as a muscular, buckskin-clad frontiersman, striding resolutely into the future, a Bible in one hand and saddlebags and a scroll in the other. Inspired by the centennial of the missionary's death, it is based less on historical reality than on his place in the mythology of the West.

Pantheon of Heroes 

The dedication ceremony was the culmination of a five-year campaign initiated by Thelma Myrick, a member and past president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Grand Coulee, Washington. Myrick served with the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She was stationed in Washington, D.C. Touring the Capitol one day, she learned from a guide that Washington was one of only three Western states with no representation in the National Statuary Hall. She wrote to her club, urging that “something be done about it” (Spokesman-Review, 1950).  

Congress established the National Statuary Hall in 1864. Each state was invited to honor two “deceased persons who have been citizens thereof” with statues, of either marble or bronze, to be placed in the former chamber of the House of Representatives, a large, semicircular room near the Rotunda. The original hall quickly became overcrowded. Subsequent legislation expanded the display area into other portions of the Capitol, including the corridors connecting the House and Senate. By the late 1940s, nearly all the states had at least one statue somewhere in the Capitol and most had two.  

Myrick’s letter was passed on to the state board of the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, which agreed to lead the effort to put a Washingtonian in Statuary Hall. Local clubs were asked to submit nominations. Delegates to the state convention in 1948 voted to honor both Marcus and his wife, Narcissa, with a joint statue. The Whitmans, both natives of upstate New York, had established a Protestant mission near Walla Walla in 1836, in what was then Oregon Country. They were killed by Cayuse Indians 11 years later.  

After learning that only single statues were permitted, the businesswomen’s group settled on Marcus, and began lobbying the Legislature for the necessary authorization and funding.

“Deceased Resident of National Renown”

Senate Bill 32, introduced in the 1948-1949 session of the Legislature, endorsed the selection of Whitman and would have appropriated $15,000 to finance the project. However, opposition developed from a group calling itself the “Good Government League.” In a postcard mailed to each of the state’s 145 legislators, the group claimed that “The Marcus Whitman legend is 90 percent fictitious” and any effort to celebrate him would “make Washington State the laughing stock of the nation” (Drury, 393).  

Reacting to the opposition, the bill’s sponsors withdrew the provision for funding. The amended bill passed the Legislature by an almost unanimous vote. Governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) signed it into law on March 16, 1949. The legislation designated Whitman as “a deceased resident of national renown” worthy of a statue commemorating his “fame and historic services as a great Washingtonian and a great American.” (In fact, Whitman was never a “Washingtonian” -- the state was not created until 1889 -- 42 years after his death.)  

The task of selecting a sculptor, approving a design, and raising the necessary funds (an estimated $30,000) was left in the hands of a 12-person committee, headed by Goldie Rehberg, Walla Walla, a representative of the Business and Professional Women's Club.  

The committee considered proposals from 10 sculptors. The winning design was submitted by Avard Fairbanks, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. The committee agreed that Fairbanks’ model aptly captured Whitman’s essence. “People familiar with ‘the Whitman story’ have widely endorsed Dr. Fairbanks’ interpretation,” Rehberg wrote (Senate Document 167, 1).

Imagining Whitman

Whitman had already been honored by one statue, a terra cotta figure created in 1896 by Pennsylvania sculptor Alexander S. Calder (1870-1945) for the façade of Philadelphia’s Witherspoon Building, headquarters of the United Presbyterian Church. The statue was one of six that paid tribute to men considered important in the development of the church. Whitman was a Congregationalist, not a Presbyterian, but the history of the two denominations is closely intertwined in the United States.  

Calder (father of the well-known sculptor and mobilist Alexander Calder) reportedly used Perrin Whitman, a nephew of Marcus (and said to resemble him) as a model. His Whitman is a stocky figure, bundled in a fur-trimmed coat and hat, a muffler around his neck. He stands stoically by a wagon wheel, feet flat on the ground, empty handed, arms hanging at his sides.  

A plaster copy of Calder’s statue was unveiled during the celebration of Walla Walla Day at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle on September 23, 1909. A gift from the Commercial Club of Walla Walla, it was displayed near the Educational Building for the duration of the fair. Its fate is unknown. The original terra cotta statue and the others ornamenting the Witherspoon building were removed for preservation reasons in 1961. They are now on display in the courtyard of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.  

In contrast to the passivity of Calder’s Whitman, Fairbanks’s version is a man of action. He appears to be in motion, climbing an unbroken trail, one leg higher than the other, buckskin fringe and kerchief flying. His flowing locks are topped by a beaver-skin hat. He is neatly bearded, with a strong jaw, aquiline nose, and deep-set eyes: a “hunk,” in the collective judgment of a group of teenage girls visiting the Capitol recently.  

The only feature of the statue that can be verified as historically accurate are the two saddlebags held in Whitman’s left hand. They were copied directly from those he used as an itinerate doctor in New York before being commissioned as a missionary in 1835. (The originals are in the Presbyterian Historical Society.) The bronze Whitman clutches a Bible twice the size of the one the real Whitman would have carried. Even the quotation carved into the granite base of the statue (“MY PLANS REQUIRE TIME AND DISTANCE”) is a paraphrase of something Whitman wrote, not his exact words.  

As for the buckskin outfit, Whitman probably would have been shocked to have been memorialized in a costume made of a material he associated with native or “heathen” culture. He had received a gift of leather “pantaloons” from a Hudson’s Bay Company official when he first arrived in the Oregon Country, and he occasionally wore them when riding horseback, but he preferred to dress in the woolen coats and trousers favored by the professional men of his era. An inventory of his clothing after his death showed that he owned a “superfine” coat valued at $45 ($1,075 in 2009 dollars) and a “silk velvet vest” valued at $8 ($186). His total wardrobe was valued at $325 ($7,558) – making him considerably better dressed than the frontiersman ensconced in Statuary Hall.  

Whitman might have been equally shocked to learn that the second person to represent Washington state in the national statue collection is a Catholic nun: Mother Joseph (1823-1902), who designed and built schools and hospitals in Washington Territory. Her statue, dedicated in 1980, is now in the Capitol Visitor’s Center. Whitman regarded “papists” as little better than “heathens.” He would have been confounded to find himself sharing company with a Catholic in a hall of honor.

“America Honors Itself by Honoring Him”

Whitman’s statue was unveiled during ceremonies conducted in the Rotunda, where it was placed on temporary display until being moved to its permanent location in Statuary Hall. On hand were most of the state’s congressional delegation, along with dozens of dignitaries, from then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980); representatives of the Marcus Whitman Foundation, which raised most of the money for the statue; and four distant descendants of the Whitman family.  

Douglas, an alumnus of Whitman College in Walla Walla, gave the main dedication speech. He described Whitman as a “dynamic man of boundless energy” who “brought thousands into the region beyond the old frontier” (Senate Document 167, 57). Like most of the other speakers, he emphasized Whitman’s role as an agent of white settlement; praised his vision and fortitude; called him a martyr, and deplored the “treachery” of the Indians who killed him, Narcissa, and 11 other men at the mission on November 29, 1847.

Washington Governor Langlie was not able to attend the ceremonies, but sent word that “It is a privilege for the citizens of Washington during this Territorial Centennial to offer to the people of the United States this visible monument to one who lived humbly and died nobly in pursuit of happiness and freedom for his fellow men.” He said Whitman had made “tragic sacrifices,” had “died a martyr,” and that “America honors itself by honoring him” (Senate Document 167, 63).  

Nixon arrived late, apologized, explained that he had been busy escorting the vice president of India around the Capitol, and then praised Whitman as a reminder of “a wonderful period” in American history. “Marcus Whitman went across the prairies, went out into what was then the Oregon Territory, the Territory of California, all the territory that we know and love” and had “set a great example for all of us today” (Senate Document 167, 69-70). (Whitman did not actually travel beyond Oregon Territory, which was organized in 1848 partly as a result of the attack on the mission.)   

The unveiling itself was handled jointly by Marcus J. and Marcus E. Whitman, father and son, of Darwin, California, descendants of a branch of the Whitman family. According to a newspaper account, the ceremony was witnessed by more than 300 people and one dove, which had flown in through an open window and fluttered about throughout the service.


Jim B. Schick, “Honoring Marcus Whitman,” Spokesman-Review, November 19, 1950, p. 4 (magazine section); Frances Garen, “Grand Coulee WAC Sparked Drive for Whitman Statue,” Spokesman-Review, May 19, 1953, p. 6; Acceptance of the Statue of Marcus Whitman Presented by the State of Washington, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document 167 (Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1955), available online at; “Unveil Statue of Marcus Whitman,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 24, 1909, sec. 2., p 1; Clifford Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon (Glendale, California: A. H. Clark Co., 1973); “Statue of Marcus Whitman Unveiled in Capitol Rotunda,” Spokesman Review, May 23, 1953, p. 7.

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