Marcus Whitman statue compilation

Marcus Whitman statues currently standing in Walla Walla, Washington, D.C., and Olympia. All might be evicted from the places they've stood for decades.

Walla Walla, Olympia and Washington, D.C. — in three cities stand three identical statues depicting 19th century missionary and pioneer Marcus Whitman as a man of the American frontier, with Bible in one hand and saddle bags in the other as he blazes the way west.

One poses in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, while another guards the entrance to the state Capitol in Olympia, and a third greets visitors to the prestigious Walla Walla college that bears his name.

In the next few years, at least one will be evicted from its current place of honor. The others may be going too.

For some, removal is necessary as society reexamines a man whose life has become like a myth, with its stories of helping establish the Oregon Trail, opening up those lands to the expansion of white settlers and bringing measles to the region’s Indigenous peoples.

For others, especially in Walla Walla — just a few miles from where Whitman called home — removal of the statues is an insult to the memory of a healer and martyr to Manifest Destiny.

Whitman not only helped establish what would become Walla Walla, but his legacy would be used in pageants and pamphlets to attract investment and tourists to the city for decades after his death.

More than a century after he and his wife, Narcissa, along with 11 others at the mission site just west of what’s now College Place were killed by a band of Cayuse, artist Avard Fairbanks was commissioned to create Marcus Whitman’s likeness.

Clad in buckskin, Fairbanks’ Whitman is a boundless frontiersman, though the accuracy of the depiction has been disputed.

In 1953, the first such statue was installed in the U.S. Capitol, and a copy was installed on the front steps of the state Capitol in Olympia. In 1992, a third copy was placed in Walla Walla on the border between the city’s downtown and Whitman College.

Following legislation signed into law last year by Gov. Jay Inslee, the Whitman statue in D.C. will be replaced in coming years by a statue of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member and activist for environmental protections and treaty rights who died in 2014.

The Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee has also discussed the possibility of creating a second copy to also replace Whitman’s statue in Olympia, though there is some debate whether that group has statutory authority to do so.

And though the Walla Walla Arts Commission in May recommended the removal of the statue near downtown here, a final decision has not been made by the City Council.

Still, efforts are underway to remove all three statues amid shifting cultural attitudes about symbols of the nation’s past. If all three are removed, it remains unclear where they will go.

National Statuary Hall

Marcus Whitman D.C. statue

The original Avard Fairbanks statue of Marcus Whitman stands tall in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall.

The only statue whose removal is certain is the one residing in Washington D.C.

One hundred and five years after his death, a bronze statue of Whitman was erected in the nation’s Capitol. Today, alongside a likeness of Mother Joseph of the Secret Heart, he represents Washington state’s contribution to the pantheon of Americans memorialized in National Statuary Hall.

Established in 1864, National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol contains 100 statues, two from each of the 50 states.

Washington state was one of the last to honor a residents when a bill was introduced into the 1948-1949 legislative session to send a statue of Marcus Whitman to D.C., wrote Cassandra Tate, a Seattle writer and staff historian with HistoryLink.org, in a 2009 article. Tate also wrote a 2020 book “Unsettled Ground: The Whitman massacre and its shifting legacy in the American West.”

Even at the time, the proposal received some opposition, Tate wrote in the 2009 piece.

The Good Government League argued in letters to legislators that “the Marcus Whitman legend is 90% fictitious,” and sending his likeness to D.C. would “make Washington state the laughingstock of the nation,” wrote author Clifford Merrill Drury in a 1973 book on the Whitmans.

The bill was approved, but state funding was slashed by the bill’s sponsors. Instead, a 12-person committee led by Walla Wallan Goldie Rehberg raised funds from private donors, Tate wrote.

More than 70 years later, a strikingly similar process is underway to procure the Frank Jr. statue that would replace Whitman in D.C.

After a stalled 2019 attempt to replace both the D.C. and Olympia statues, a bill focused solely on the version in the U.S. Capitol passed overwhelmingly in 2021. Whitman’s contribution to the creation of the state of Washington was “profound and important,” wrote the bill’s authors, but it was time to celebrate a “more contemporary Washingtonian…”

The bill created the Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee, which is tasked with selecting an artist and working with staff from the U.S. Capitol, who have to approve the final design. The committee are expected to consider a short list of artists during their upcoming Aug. 16 meeting.

The process to actually replace the statues could take several years. A number of steps are involved in approving a statue to be placed in the U.S. Capitol, said Architect of the Capitol Brett Blenton during a March 15 meeting of the state committee.

Much like with the Whitman statue more than 70 years ago, no state funds were allocated for the design, creation, transportation or installation of the Frank Jr. statue. Instead, private donations are being sought once again.

The ousted statue of Whitman must also be gifted to Walla Walla County, the result of an amendment pushed by Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla.

It’s not clear where, exactly, the statue will go once it’s here, however.

Fort Walla Walla Museum, which already has a smaller version of the statue, was informally asked about taking the full-sized D.C. version, but officials there were unable to respond in time to meet the deadline, wrote Executive Director James Payne in a May email.

The Whitman Mission National Historic Site, where the Whitmans lived and died and which is today operated by the National Park Service, declined to accept the statue due to a dissenting vote by tribal members, according to reporting in the Union-Bulletin.

In October 2021, the Walla Walla Board of County Commissioners voted to relocate the statue onto county land, the cost of which will be included in the state’s fundraising efforts and will not be borne by county taxpayers. But a final destination has yet to be determined, wrote commission Chair Todd Kimball in a Wednesday, June 22, email.

Olympia

Marcus Whitman Olympia statue

A statue of Marcus Whitman stands in the marbled halls of the Washington state Capitol in Olympia.

While the bill creating the Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee made no mention of the Marcus Whitman statue presiding over the entrance of the state Capitol, its members have.

Representatives of the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services, the agency that manages the Capitol Campus, were invited to a May 17 meeting of the committee to explain the process for replacing the Whitman statue in Olympia.

The committee could send a proposal to the Department of Enterprise Services to start the process, said Brian Frare, assistant director for facility professional services at DES. The public would be able to weigh in before a decision was made, but the director of DES would have final approval, Frare said.

Again, it’s neither clear where the statue would go nor if there’s room in the local community for all three, if it comes to that. Kimball wrote in his Wednesday email that he was not aware Olympia’s Whitman statue was being considered for removal.

Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society, suggested that the Washington State History Museum may be able to house the statue in its collections, though she made no guarantee about whether it would be displayed outside of specific exhibits.

It’s also not clear whether the museum will agree to take the statue, or whether it can even house a statue of its size, though Kilmer told the Union-Bulletin she expected a decision by September.

It’s possible that the Whitman statue could simply be moved elsewhere in the Capitol, which could be decided during the Department of Enterprise Services’ deaccession, or removal, process, Frare said.

The possibility of destroying Olympia’s Whitman statue was briefly discussed during the committee’s May meeting, but state House Minority Leader and committee member J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, urged leaders to avoid that idea.

“There was never a mention of destruction in the debate around the bill, and if this committee veers into talking about destroying the statues, I think we descend into chaos,” Wilcox said.

Despite Frare’s comments at the May meeting, it’s unknown whether the committee has the authority to make a proposal about the statue in Olympia in the first place.

“Frankly, I don’t see that in the statue, but maybe I didn’t read it clearly enough,” Lt. Gov. Denny Heck told Frare during the meeting.

In an interview Wednesday, Rude said the legislature, not the committee, should make a decision about the Olympia statue.

“I would not mind entertaining a conversation about replacing the state capitol statue, but I think it’s really important for groups tasked with a duty under law to accomplish their duty and not go beyond the scope of that duty according to the RCW,” Rude said.

Though there’s interest in moving forward, the committee would still need to vote on whether to submit such a proposal, said RaShelle Davis, senior policy advisor to Gov. Inslee.

But the committee has already budgeted for a second Frank Jr. statue, said Mike Sweney, Art in Public Places program manager for ArtsWa, during the May 17 meeting. While the costs for actually removing and replacing the Whitman statue hadn’t been budgeted yet, they could be included, Sweney said.

Walla Walla

Marcus Whitman Statue

The Marcus Whitman statue at the corner of East Main Street and Boyer Avenue in Walla Walla, September 2020

In 1991, then-Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Heyner, R-Walla Walla, secured $53,000 in the state’s capital budget to create a final copy of Fairbank’s Whitman statue.

It was the last chance to create a new statue before the original mold was set to be destroyed, according to an article in the Seattle Times that described the procurement as “pork barrel politics” needed to secure passage of the budget.

The statue was unveiled the next year at the corner of three intersecting streets, where downtown Walla Walla abuts the campus of Whitman College.

Not long after the stymied 2019 bill attempted to remove statues of Whitman in both Olympia and in D.C., the Walla Walla statue also became the subject of public controversy.

In October 2019, the base of the Whitman statue, inscribed with the paraphrased words “My Plans Require Time and Distance,” was vandalized. The word “distance” was painted over, and a misspelled version of the word “genocide” was written in its place.

A portrait of Narcissa Whitman was similarly vandalized two years prior, her face covered in black paint, and a note was left denouncing the Whitmans, according to reporting in the Whitman College student newspaper.

In 2020, a group of local art researchers associated with the college called for the Walla Walla statue to be removed and relocated to Fort Walla Walla Museum, where it could be presented with historical context.

“The statue tells us a lot, and it has a rich and fascinating history, but again, that history is not the history of Marcus Whitman, it is not the history of the Walla Walla Valley, and it’s not the history of Whitman College,” Libby Miller, director of Whitman College’s Maxey Museum and art history professor, said during a September 2020 Walla Walla city Arts Commission meeting.

The statue, Miller and her team argued, does not accurately depict Marcus Whitman, a medical missionary from the 1800s. Whitman rarely wore buckskin, but the garb appeared to have been chosen by the artist to honor a symbolic representation of “frontier mythology,” Miller said

In response to complaints about the statue, the city of Walla Walla adopted new procedures to deaccession, or remove, public art owned by the city. That new process was then initiated for the Whitman statue by a request from Emily Tillotson, a professor at Walla Walla University.

After years of heated public debate, which was waylaid by the pandemic but eventually drew dozens of community members to unusually active City Council meetings, the Walla Walla Arts Commission in May voted unanimously to recommend that the statue be removed.

The commission’s decision is purely advisory, and any final decision will be made by the Walla Walla City Council, which is expected to take up the issue at its July 13 meeting.

But as with the older statues, it isn’t clear where Walla Walla’s would go. While Fort Walla Walla Museum was again floated as a potential home, no formal conversations will take place prior to the council’s vote.

Then, of course, the museum will have to decide whether to take the city’s statue.

“Landowners should have input as to what is located on their property,” Payne, Fort Walla Walla Museum’s director, wrote in an email. “If the city decides to move their Marcus Whitman statue, and if they ask us about the possibility of placing it on museum grounds, the museum board will assess the piece at that time.”

Either way, Payne added, “a community only needs one copy of an historical statue or monument.”

Emry Dinman can be reached at emrydinman@wwub.com or 425-941-5829.

Reporter covering agriculture, Walla Walla city and county government, and other topics.

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