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From John, Fiske, Unpublished Orations: “The Discovery of the Columbia River, and the Whitman Controversy;” The Crispus Attucks Memorial;” and “Columbus Memorial”; The Bibliophile Society; Boston; 1909; pp. 7-16.




A HISTORIAN as lucid and as popular as Mr. John Fiske needs an introduction as little as any author possibly can. What am I to do but congratulate the members of the Bibliophile Society upon the privilege they enjoy of being permitted to read three of Mr. Fiske’s papers never before published?

Certainly with regard to two of these papers no elaborate comment is required. Readers of the two fascinating volumes which Mr. Fiske wrote upon “The Discovery of America” will need no urging to read the contemporary oration upon the greatest name connected with that event. They will perhaps find the paper more interesting and inspiring than its forerunner, for the name of Columbus is a national, nay, a world possession, while that of Crispus Attucks belongs to a race which has been passive rather than active in history. It is not everyone who, by recalling the name of a sable militia company in the place of his birth, can name off-hand like myself the race to which this somewhat pathetic figure belonged, and I am sure that until I read Mr. Fiske’s oration I had forgotten that Attucks figured in the Boston Massacre. Important as 8 Boston is, we shall doubtless all agree that it is unfortunate to have it sandwiched between the Oregon Region and the whole of America — which means, in other words, that the oration on Attucks and the Massacre, while excellent in its local kind, yields in interest to its companion addresses.

The oration on “The Discovery of the Columbia River” deals, as the historian observes, with what is practically the final chapter in the interesting story of the finding and exploring of America. Few of Mr. Fiske’s pages are more readable than those in which he describes how Captain Robert Gray’s shrewd eyes penetrated the mystery that hovered over the mouth of the great river, and only a very lukewarm patriot will forego the pleasure of a smile at the dogmatic assurance of the British naval officers that there was no river to be discovered. It is another sort of delusion, however, with which this oration has most to do — or, at least what many persons regard as a delusion.

In her “Prefatory Note” Mrs. Fiske tells us that when he delivered the oration at Astoria, in 1892, Mr. Fiske had not made a critical study of the later history of Oregon, and in particular had not investigated “the story of the services of Dr. Marcus Whitman, in saving the better portion of the territory to the United States.” Later Mr. Fiske studied the question carefully and reached the conclusion “that the ‘Whitman 9 saved Oregon’ story was a pure fabrication, having no foundation, either in our diplomatic controversy with England, or in the contemporary writings or acts of Dr. Whitman himself.”

Whether Mr. Fiske’s oration, supplementing lucidly as it does the anti-Whitman writings of the late Professor E. G. Bourne of Yale and the late Principal William I. Marshall of the Gladstone School, Chicago, will deprive “The Whitman Legend” of life may well be doubted. Hero worshippers die hard and stories once started continue to crop up. But there can be little doubt that for the reader who cares for historical analysis, or better, who likes to follow a historical detective or sleuth, no account of Dr. Whitman’s putative exploits will be found equal in interest to the persistent attacks made upon the “legend” by Mr. Marshall and the calm massing of the evidence in the case by Professor Bourne. It was to Mr. Marshall’s indefatigable labors that Mr. Fiske’s conversion from belief in the magnitude of Whitman’s services and achievements was due, and it is only fair to the former that I should close this brief note with the evidence on which my statement is based.

In a paper on Marcus Whitman read by him before the American Historical Association at Ann Arbor in December, 1900, Mr. Marshall quoted a letter written him by Mr. Fiske on July 26th, 1900, after the latter had made an investigation of 10 certain manuscripts on the Whitman question sent by Mr. Marshall for his inspection. In this letter Mr. Fiske wrote as follows: “You have entirely demolished the Whitman delusion, and by so doing have made yourself a public benefactor. I am sorry to say that I was taken in by Barrows and Gray (historians of Oregon), and supposed what they said about Whitman to be true. In 1892 I was invited to deliver the centennial oration at Astoria in commemoration of the discovery of the Columbia River. My acquaintance with the history of Oregon was then but slight. I was familiar with the history of American discovery along our northwest coast, having studied that subject in the original sources. so that part of my oration was all right; but when I came to the events of fifty years ago, having no first-hand acquaintance with the sources I trusted to Barrows and Gray, and accordingly gave my audience a dose of Whitman. Among my audience was Judge Deady,1 who afterwards informed me that all I said about Whitman was wrong. There were others who contradicted the Judge and maintained that I was right. I now see, however, that the Judge was right. I feel personally grateful to you for the light you have thrown upon the subject, and I 11 am very glad that I never printed anything about the Whitman business. That, however, I should not have been likely to do without further examination of sources.”2

Unless we are thoroughly committed to the cause of Dr. Whitman — or rather to that of his partisans, for they seem in the main to have made the cause themselves — we must be glad that Mr. Marshall sent Mr. Fiske full materials with regard to the Whitman story and that Mr. Fiske felt impelled, during the short space of life that remained to him, to recast his oration and give it the form it takes in the following pages. It is probable, as he says in his letter, that he would not have printed it without an examination of sources; yet much depends on the point of view with which one approaches a subject, to say nothing of the accessibility of the materials to be studied, and there is evidence that before Mr. Marshall supplied Mr. Fiske with documents, the latter had been approached by supporters of the Whitman story and had promised to treat the subject in a way that would please them. Early in 1895 he had actually written in a letter: “If my series of works on American History ever come down to such a recent period, I shall try to do justice to the noble Doctor. If not, I shall at some time revise my oration and print it 12 in a volume of essays.”3 But I shall not keep the reader any longer from finding out precisely how Mr. Fiske did revise his oration.



1  M. P. Deady of the U. S. Circuit court in Oregon, who appears to have started Mr. Marshall upon his long crusade against the adherents of the Whitman story.

2  Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the year 1900, Vol. I, p. 229.

3  Quoted by Professor Bourne in “Essays in Historical Criticism” (1901) — “The Legend of Marcus Whitman,” pp. 51-52, Note 1. That I may not myself play the partisan in a controversy which I have never really investigated, I hasten to add that readers of Mr. Fiske’s revised oration and of Professor Bourne’s essay may find in Dr. William A. Mowry’s “Marcus Whitman and the Early Days of Oregon” (1901) and elsewhere, full exploitation of the Whitman story in a favorable sense. Such readers will miss some entertaining reading, however, if they do not turn to Mr. William I. Marshall’s “History vs. the Whitman Saved Oregon Story” (1904) to see how the chief Whitman adherents are handled by their most inveterate antagonist. From both legend-makers and legend-breakers may the Lord defend all mild-tempered men.




“MEN no longer agree to believe in fables. All the historical statements are beginning to be sifted. But this winnowing of the false from the true, a perpetual testing of facts and opinions, is not weakening history, but strengthening it. . . .The old-fashioned historian was usually satisfied with copying his predecessors, and thus an error once started became perpetuated; but in our time no history written in such a way would command the respect of scholars. The modern historian must go to the original sources of information, to the statutes, the diplomatic correspondence, the reports and general orders of commanding officers, the records of debates and councils and parliaments, ships’ log books, political pamphlets, printed sermons, contemporary memoirs, private diaries and letters, newspapers, broadsides and placards, even perhaps to worm-eaten account books and files of receipts. The historian has not found the true path until he had learned to ransack such records of the past, with the same untiring zeal that animates a detective officer in seeking the hidden evidence of a crime. . . . If a century has 14 passed without increasing our direct information upon the story in hand, it has at least been a century of added human experience in general, so that even when we work upon the same materials as our predecessors, we are likely to arrive at somewhat different conclusions. Our first rule, then, is never to rest contented with the statements of earlier historians unless where the evidence behind such statements is no longer accessible. . . . We have a hundred ways of testing Macaulay’s account of the “Expulsion of the Stuarts” where we have one way or no way of checking Livy’s narrative of the Samnite wars; in the one case our knowledge is like the light of midday, in the other it is but a twilight.”



THE Commemorative Address given by Dr. John Fiske at Astoria in 1892 was written while he was visiting Oregon. The discovery of the Northwest Coast and of the Columbia River, as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the settlement of Astoria in 1811, and the joint occupation of the Oregon territory by England and the United States, were matters with which his historic studies had made him familiar. The history of the later settlement of the territory and its final division between the two governments was, however, a chapter in our national history which he had not at that time critically examined, especially the story of the services of Dr. Marcus Whitman in saving the better portion of the territory to the United States.

On his return to Cambridge Dr. Fiske, with his accustomed care, made a most thorough and impartial investigation of the whole Oregon question and came to the conclusion that the “Whitman saved Oregon” story was a pure fabrication, having no foundation either in our diplomatic controversy with England over the Oregon boundary, or in the contemporary writings or acts of Dr. Whitman himself. At Dr. Fiske’s death the manuscript was unpublished; 16 and I now take pleasure in presenting the revised and emended address for publication by The Bibliophile Society, expressing as it does, the final views of Dr. Fiske concerning Dr. Marcus Whitman’s services to the United States, after a full review of the Whitman controversy.


Cambridge, Mass. March 5, 1909.


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