Eaton’s presentation of the settling of Oregon in Narcissa Whitman is convincing and believable. She does not support either the whites or the Native Americans, instead presenting the facts and the plight of both sides. The differing tribes and individual members are not stereotyped but are portrayed like the whites, as good and bad. Although Eaton shows both whites and Native Americans suffering disease, death, and hardships, however, the concept of Manifest Destiny is evident, disguised somewhat in patriotism and philanthropy. It is ironic that the Whitmans initially wanted to help the Cayuse, teaching agriculture and trying to Christianize them, while simultaneously leading more and more emigrants to Oregon. As Marcus Whitman stated, “Oregon isn’t going to remain neutral long. It will be settled by Americans and belong to us.” The Whitmans came to Oregon as missionaries, but they soon became patriots. The local tribes were patient for many years until they saw the end of their way of life. By then it was too late, however, because the whites, who had an entire nation behind them, believed that “no portion of the human race can ask exclusive ownership of vast territories just to roam in.” The publicity of the Waiilatpu massacre slowed the settling of Oregon somewhat, but it hastened the Native Americans’ demise by advancing the United States Calvary westward. The Cayuse turned over those involved in the massacre—many of them chiefs, who were hanged—but this action did not help them.
Admittedly, Eaton includes some biased terms, but these seem to reveal the prejudices of the day rather than her own. She cites an Indian agent, quoted in the Methodist Christian Advocate, who told a touching story of Native Americans who...
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Published in 1941, before women and minorities were given much attention in historical works, Narcissa Whitman is a classic because it was ahead of its time in its realistic and sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans and of life on the frontier and because it showed a woman’s contributions to the United States. Most exploration tales prior to the 1960’s focus on a male protagonist, but Narcissa Whitman is clearly the character around which the text focuses. Although Whitman excels in the generally accepted roles for women of her time, she longed for more opportunities and more power.
Eaton, an author of books for children and young adults, wrote twenty-three books. Most of these texts were biographies of American heroines and heroes, such as Jeanne d’ Arc: The Warrior Saint (1931), Heroines of the Sky (1942), Trumpeter’s Tale: The Story of Louis Armstrong (1955), and her last book, America’s Own Mark Twain (1959), for which she won the Ohioana Book Award. Narcissa Whitman is a useful book for educating young readers about American frontier experiences. It is a catalyst for discussion about Manifest Destiny, assimilation, and cultural preservation. Because the viewpoint is predominantly white and does not reveal the final results of these conflicts, however, the book should be balanced by other accounts.