Lamar Center Scholars
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Sarah Koenig

My research explores the relationships between myth and history in the American West. In my dissertation, I trace the historical legacy of Marcus Whitman, a nineteenth-century Protestant missionary to the Cayuse Indians in Oregon Territory. After his death in 1847, Whitman was lauded by American Protestants as a missionary martyr, and legends about his bravery and patriotism circulated throughout the United States, appearing everywhere from sermons to pageants to popular magazines. In making Whitman into a national hero, the “Paul Revere of the West,” Anglo-Americans in the Pacific Northwest simultaneously created a regional history, one that cast French-Canadian Catholics and Native Americans as villains, as illegitimate possessors of the Pacific Northwest’s rich lands, and as obstructions to Anglo-Protestant progress. Such narratives were crucial in providing the ideological framework for the Anglo-American conquest of the West. Yet they were also contested sites in which Americans negotiated ideas about what constituted myth and history, what kinds of stories should be told about the West, and whose stories should be included. Over time, as these boundaries shifted, the legend of Marcus Whitman faded, but controversies over the history of the American West remain. Through this project, I aim to demonstrate the importance of history-making in the Anglo-American conquest of the West, the complicated relationship between folk history and academic history, and the changing ways that Americans have conceived of historical truth. I also hope to provide a fresh look at the legacy of nineteenth-century Protestant missions in Oregon.