Friday, February 26, 2016

Killed by Alfred Thayer Mahan

Ever wonder about the grand bronze statue downtown? No, not Abe Lincoln--the other one. The dashing young man in uniform
Monaghan today, via
who perches in front of the Spokane Club, leaning on his sword and staring down the traffic on Monroe with steely-eyed determination? That is John R. Monaghan, who died because of a book.

In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his magnum opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Thayer was a geopolitical strategist and an admiral in the United States navy, and he argued that throughout history great empires had flourished not by controlling large land areas, but by ruling the seas. America, Mahan wrote, should build up its fleet and seize islands that could function as naval coaling stations around the world. The book had a huge influence on policymakers in Washington D.C. and the world over--which would prove bad news for a jug-earned Spokane teen named John R. Monaghan.

Monaghan's father James was an early settler of the region who made a fortune in mining and railroads. He sent his son to Gonzaga College, where John was in the first graduating class of 18 students. As ambitious as he was privileged, young Johnny went east to the Naval War College, where he likely took a class or two from Admiral Mahan.  Fueled by the admiral's writings, the great age of American Imperialism was underway, and Monaghan was its eager instrument.

The U.S. Navy of the 1890s was the cutting edge of empire.
Aboard the battleship Olympia, Monaghan saw service across the wide Pacific. He took part in naval shows of force in China and Japan. He participated in the ceremonies marking the forced annexation of Hawaii into the American domain in 1898. He helped intimidate Nicaragua, where America was considering building a canal to link the seas. It was heady work for a young naval officer from Spokane.

Monaghan's luck ran out the next year, in Samoa. Since the 1880s the islands had been caught in an imperial tug-or war between the United States, Britain and Germany--none of whom thought the Samoans themselves had a particularly strong claim to their homelands. In 1899 the USS Philadelphia, with Ensign Monaghan on board, was dispatched to quell the pesky natives.

It did not go well. Monaghan's shore patrol was ambushed by Samoans, who had been provided modern arms by rival European powers. The leader of the expedition fell under heavy fire, as did a number of the enlisted men. Monaghan tried to rally the men and rescue his wounded commander, but the navy men were outgunned in unfamiliar terrain. Monaghan died, and the survivors beat a hasty retreat. He was 26 years old.

A defeat, far more than a victory, needs a hero. Monaghan was pressed into service one more time. "The men were not in sufficient numbers to hold out any longer, and they were forced along by a fire which it was impossible to withstand. Ensign Monaghan did stand." the official report would read. "He stood steadfast by his wounded superior and friend—one rifle against many, one brave man against a score of savages. He knew he was doomed. He could not yield. He died in heroic performance of duty."

On October 26, 1906 the Ensign John R. Monaghan Memorial was dedicated in Spokane with suitable pomp and circumstance. Five thousand Spokanites turned out for what the Spokesman-Review
Monaghan in bronze, courtesy
Spokane Historic Preservation
described as "eloquent addresses" and a "magnificent parade" a mile in length, that included every active military man, veteran, and marching band the city had to offer.

If you go to see the memorial today you may be struck by the dramatic bronze bas-relief panel on the pedestal, supposedly depicting the death of Ensign Monaghan at the hands of the Samoans. Monaghan is pictured at the very moment of his death, falling heroically in the familiar 19th-century manner of Davy Crockett or George Custer. Strangely, the Samoans look more like Africans than Polynesians, and in place of the modern weaponry they carried that day are shown using bows and spears. The artist rewrote the history of the incident to play up the very stereotypes of "savages" that were used to justify things like conquering and annexing islands on the other side of the world.

And what of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book might be said to have sent young Monaghan off to war in the first place? He continued to teach at the Naval Academy, eventually running the place. He died just before the outbreak of the First World War, itself in part a product of the rising tensions of the naval arms race his thinking had produced.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Public History and the Dead Hand of Historiography: The Case of Whitman Mission National Monument

Academic historians are used to thinking of historiography as something one finds in old books. You know: "Back in the 1800s historians understood the causes of Civil War to be A, B and C, as we see in books D, E, and F. By the 1960s however, historians though that G, H, and I were in fact the cause, as we see in the works of J, K, and L." Outdated interpretations are sentenced to the darkest recesses of the library, where books that were once the belle of the ball are shuffled off to long-term storage.

In the case of public history, however, those old volumes are not always volumes. They are more often museum exhibits, or historical markers, or even entire public history institutions that date their creations to very specific historiographical moments. And what historians thought they knew about the past in those founding eras can continue to shape and constrain how that history is taught to the public.

 I got to thinking about this as I was cleaning up some digital files and found a copy of the old visitor center film used at Whitman Mission National Historic Site. So here it is. Created in 1976 and used until only a few years ago, the film is an interesting historical document. Also, racist.

A few years ago I gave a paper at the National Council for Public History titled The Many Deaths of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. In that paper I divided the historiography of the killings of the Whitmans into four periods: 1) The Era of Blame: 1847-1880; 2. The Era of the Redeemer: How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon, 1880-1940; 3: It Was All a Big Misunderstanding 1940-1980; and 4. The Whitmans Had it Coming: 1980-present.

The first era interpreted the killings in an effort to pin the blame on someone, preferably Catholics, though mixed-race persons such as Joe Lewis were also handy targets. The second era focused on the Whitmans as pioneers of white settlement rather than missionaries in an attempt to recover some meaning from their otherwise senseless deaths. The third era emphasized the cross-cultural misunderstandings in an attempt to bring the native point of view at least partially into the story. The current era of historiography (which I have perhaps named unfairly) focuses on the Whitmans as the agents of empire that they were and frames the actions of the Cayuse as self-defense. My book, Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, represents the most recent understanding, as does the new film at the mission that I shared last week.

This older film, though produced in 1976, represents the second stage of interpreting the Whitmans. They are representative of the white pioneers who "helped carve a nation from a wild and beautiful land." The Indians who met Marcus were "inspired by his spiritual zeal," though they showed "little aptitude for farming, and little more for the gospel." The Whitmans are significant not for their missionary work, which was a failure after all, but for their farm, their gristmill, their publicizing the Oregon Territory to eastern settlers, and for converting their mission into a way station for the Oregon Trail.

Most interpretive signs at Whitman Mission present
a traditional pioneer narrative of the missionaries. (Photo by the author.)
Why does an understanding of the Whitmans that fell out of favor in the 1940s appear in a 1976 film? It is because the national monument itself is dedicated to that interpretation. Established in 1936, Whitman Mission was molded from its inception by the Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon Story. And though the Park Service has struggled at times to distance itself from this narrative, the very layout of the park reinforces this interpretation.

The creation of Whitman Mission was part of a larger effort by the NPS in the 1930s to expand its mission from protecting wilderness to protecting and interpreting historic sites as well. At Waiilatpu the Parks Service found not a blank slate but a site that had been interpreted for decades, an interpretation firmly wedded to the "Marcus Whitman saved Oregon" story.

The Park Service slowly expanded and built up the infrastructure and interpretation at the site through the 1940s and 50s. The master narrative of the Whitmans as civilizers determined what kinds of improvements and interpretation took place. NPS employees cleared out the weeds and marked the outlines of where the mission once stood. The Whitman’s mill pond was recreated, and interpretive stops showed visitors the sites of the former gristmill, blacksmith shop, and irrigation ditches. Much was made of the fact that the Oregon Trail ran through the mission grounds, and the wagon ruts were maintained by regular applications of herbicide. A pioneer cemetery was cleared of weeds, and several headstones of people not related to the Whitmans were removed, to focus the story. An adjacent Indian cemetery was ignored.

“By their life and death the Whitmans symbolize the noblest in the spirit and endeavors of the pioneers,” wrote regional supervisor Olaf T. Hagen in the first interpretive prospectus for the park. It was added that “the life and culture of the native Indians will be presented as a background.” Park administrators did periodically notice the lack of information about the Cayuse—who were after all the vast majority of people living on the site in 1847—and sometimes they thought about doing something about it. “We have very little Indian culture references in our library,” one superintendent wrote, explaining that the park could not interpret the Cayuse because they did not know anything about them. From the 1950s well into the 1980s the park had only the slightest information about the Cayuse peoples.

In recent decades a series of superintendents and staff have worked hard and vastly improved the interpretation, with a new film, new visitor's center exhibits, and improved interpreter training. But at the end of the day, when people walk outside of the visitor's center, they are presented with a mill pond, a covered wagon, the outlines of pioneer buildings, and a soaring granite obelisk atop a hill. It is a historiographic lesson written on the landscape and carved in stone.

Monday, February 1, 2016

New Whitman Mission Film Online

A few years back I was filmed as one of the talking heads in a new interpretive film for Whitman Mission National Historic Site. I blogged about the experience at the time: In Which I am Filmed, and Confront a Ghost. The film premiered at the mission in 2013. I just noticed that it is now available on YouTube. Despite my participation the film is quite good--here you go:

I thought the old film, which provides an interesting contrast, was online somewhere but I cannot find it now. Anyone? In the meantime, you can enjoy this episode of On the Road With Charles Kuralt, which focuses on Narcissa and comes from a similar interpretive understanding of the event: Charles Kuralt on the Road to the Whitman Killings. (Bonus Hunter S. Thompson footage at the bottom of the post!)