Address in Meacham, Oregon
As I stand here in the shadow of the great hills, my mind reverts to the placid banks of the broad Potomac. There, as here, to an American proud of his country and revering her traditions, there is much of patriotic interest, and between these rugged mountains and those fertile lowlands I find much in common. Living history records many indissoluble links, to one of which it seems fitting that I should direct your attention to-day.
Of the many rooms in the White House which possess the peculiar charm of association with epochal happenings, the one most fascinating to me is that which formerly comprised the Cabinet room and the President's study. Through its high windows one's gaze is drawn irresistibly to the towering granite shaft whose very grandeur, exceeded by no other monument in the world, admirably symbolizes the matchless character of George Washington. The beautifully carved mahogany bed-posts are those upon which fell the eyes of Andrew Jackson when opened from the troubled slumber which even to this day occasionally falls to the lot of an over-weary President. Sunk into the marble mantel piece is a bronze tablet recording the circumstance that it was in this room that Abraham Lincoln signed the great emancipation proclamation, which struck the shackles of slavery from millions of human beings.
Yet another episode of hardly less importance in the building of our mighty nation took place within those walls. Before my mind's eye as I stood in that historic chamber a few days ago appeared the vivid picture. I beheld seated at his desk, immaculately attired, the embodiment of dignity and courtliness, -John Tyler, tenth President of the United States. Facing him, from a chair constructed for a massive frame, his powerful spirit gleaming through his cavernous eyes, was the lion-visaged Daniel Webster, Secretary of State.
The door opened and there appeared before the amazed statesmen a strange and astonishing figure. It was that of a man of medium height and sturdy build, deep chested, broad shouldered, yet lithe in movement and soft of step. He was clad in a coarse fur coat, buckskin breeches, fur leggings, and boot moccasins, looking much the worse for wear. But it was the countenance of the visitor, as he stood for an instant in the doorway, that riveted the perception of the two chiefs of state. It was that of a religious enthusiast, tenaciously earnest yet revealing no suggestion of fanaticism, bronzed from exposure to pitiless elements and seamed with deep lines of physical suffering, a rare combination of determination and gentleness—obviously a man of God, but no less a. man among men.
Such was Marcus Whitman, the pioneer missionary hero of the vast, unsettled, unexplored Oregon country, who had come out of the West to plead that the state should acquire for civilization the empire that the churches were gaining for Christianity.
Many of the exploits of America's resolute sons are recounted in prose and verse. How often in our youth, and even in later years, have we been thrilled by the story of how "on through the night rode Paul Revere, through every Middlesex village and farm" to call the Minute Men to embattle at Lexington and fire "the shot heard round the world!" How many times we have shuddered at the impending fate of the Shenandoah Valley with "Sheridan twenty miles away!" I loved the martial notes of those stirring verses as a boy. I love them still.
But, when I stood in that historic room in the White House and my imagination depicted the simple scene, I could not but fed that the magnificence of Marcus Whitman's glorious deed has yet to find adequate recognition in any form. Here was a man who, with a single companion, in the dead of winter, struggled through pathless drifts and blinding storms, four thousand miles, with the sole aim to serve his country and his God. Eighty years and eight months ago he was pushing grimly and painfully through this very pass on his way from Walla Walla to Fort Hall, thence, abandoning the established northern route as impassable, off to the South through unknown, untrodden lands, past the Great Salt Lake, to Santa Fe, then hurriedly on to St. Louis and finally, after a few days, again on the home-stretch to his destination, taking as many months as it now takes days to go from Walla Walla to Washington.
It was more than a desperate and perilous trip that Marcus Whitman undertook. It was a race against time. Public opinion was rapidly crystallizing into a judgment that the Oregon country was not worth claiming, much less worth fighting for; that, even though it could be acquired against the insistence of Great Britain, it would prove to be a liability rather than an asset.
It is with sheer amazement that we now read the declarations of the leading men of that period. So good an American, so sturdy a frontiersman, so willing a fighter, as General Jackson, shook his head ominously in fear lest the national domain should get too far outspread, and warned the country that its safety "lay in a compact government." Senator McDuffie, of South Carolina, declared he "would not give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory," and expressed the wish that the Rocky Mountains were "an impassable barrier." Senator Dayton, of New Jersey, said that, with very limited exceptions, "the whole country was as irreclaimable and barren a waste as the Sahara desert," and that malaria had carried away most of its native population. Even so far- seeing and staunch an advocate of western interests as Thomas Benton protested that the ridge of the Rockies should be made our western boundary, and avowed that "on the highest peak the statue of the fabled god, Terminus, should be erected, never to be thrown down."
Webster, although not definitely antagonistic, was uninterested and lukewarm. Years before he had pronounced Oregon "a barren, worthless country, fit only for wild beasts and wild men," and he was not one who changed opinions readily. But neither was Whitman one easily dismayed. Encouraged by the manifest friendliness of President Tyler, he portrayed with vivid eloquence the salubrity of the climate, the fertility of the soil, the magnitude of the forests, the evidences of ore in the mountains, and the splendor of the wide valleys drained by the great rivers. And he did not hesitate to speak plainly, as one who knew, even like the prophet Daniel.
"Mr. Secretary," he declared, "you would better give all New England for the cod and mackerel fisheries of Newfoundland than to barter away Oregon,"
Then, turning to the President in conclusion, he added quietly but beseechingly:
"All I ask is that you will not barter away Oregon or allow English interference until I can lead a band of stalwart American settlers across the plains. For this I shall try to do."
The manly appeal was irresistible. He sought only the privilege of proving his faith. The just and considerate Tyler could hot refuse.
"Doctor Whitman," he rejoined sympathetically, "your long ride and frozen limbs testify to your courage and your patriotism. Your credentials establish your character. Your request is granted."
Whitman's strategy was true statesmanship. Substantial occupation would make good the claim of the United States, and that was what he had initiated during his few days in St. Louis. A few months later he had completed an organization of eager souls, and led the first movement by wagon train across plains and mountains along this unblazed trail.
What a sight that caravan must have appeared to the roaming savages! And what an experience for the intrepid pioneers!
More than two hundred wagons, bearing well-nigh a thousand emigrants, made up the party. They traveled by substantially the same route that Whitman had taken when he first went out to Oregon; from a rendezvous near what is now Kansas City they moved due northwest across northeast Kansas and southeast Nebraska to the Platte River; followed the Platte to the middle of what is now Wyoming, thence crossing the mountains by way of the Sweetwater Valley and the South Platte; and from Fort Hall, following the well-known route, roughly paralleling the Snake River, into Oregon. The difficulties of the trip, involving beside the two hundred wagons, the care of women and children, and of considerable herds of live stock, were such that its successful accomplishment seems almost miraculous.
But stern determination triumphed and the result was conclusive. Americans had settled the country. The country belonged to them because they had taken it; and in the end the boundary settlement was made on the line of the forty-ninth parallel, your great Northwest was saved, and a veritable Empire was merged in the young Republic.
Never in the history of the world has there been a finer example of civilization following Christianity. The missionaries led under the banner of the cross, and the settlers moved dose behind under the star- spangled symbol of the nation. Among all the records of evangelizing effort as the forerunner of human advancement, there is none so impressive as this of the early Oregon mission and its marvelous consequences. To the men and women of that early day whose first thought was to carry the gospel to the Indians—to the Lees, the Spauldings, the Grays, the Walkers) the Leslies, to Fathers De Smet and Blanchet and De Mers, and to all the others of that glorious company who found that in serving God they were also serving their country and their fellow men—to them we pay to-day our tribute; to them we owe a debt of gratitude which we can never pay, save partially through recognition such as you have accorded to-day.
We may reasonably do more to-day than rejoice in possession of the imperial domain which they revealed, and the life they made possible to the virile, aspiring, and confident Northwest. I find new assurances in recalling the heroism, the resolution, the will to conquer of these pioneers.
I wish I might more effectively visualize them. Not very long ago I saw the covered wagon in the moving picture. I sat entranced. There was more than the picturesque, more than sorrow and discouragement, more than appealing characters and enthralling heroism. There was more than the revelation of the irresolute, who failed in fitness to survive, more than tragedy and comedy in their inseparable blend. There was more than the scouts who surpassed our fancies, more than nature's relentless barriers revealed. Everywhere aflame was the soul of unalterable purpose and the commanding sturdiness of elemental greatness. Still more, there was determination to do, themselves, not asking the Government to do, but for Government only to sanction or permit.
Much the same spirit was revealed in the making of the Central West, where the determined pioneers builded in the confidence which they had in themselves. They battled with nature and every obstacle which they encountered, heroes perished without fame's acclaim, and they conquered and wrote big their part in the making of the greater Republic. Their victory proclaimed the strength of resolute purpose, and the human genius, confident in itself and eager to achieve on its own account.
The lesson can not fail to impress itself. In this test of self-reliant citizenship there came the rugged, militant, wholesome West. Greater things were wrought, larger accomplishment was recorded, greater victory was won in this wholesome, inspiring individualism than will ever attend paternalism or government assumption of the tasks which are the natural inheritance of the builders who may better serve for themselves. Government may well provide opportunity, but the worthwhile accomplishment is the privilege and the duty of men.
I thank you from my heart for permitting me to participate in-doing homage to those brave souls. I rejoice particularly in the opportunity afforded me of voicing my appreciation, both as President of the United States and as one who honestly tries to be a Christian soldier, of the signal service of the martyred Whitman. And finally, as just a human being, I wish I could find words to tell you how glad I am to see you all, and reflecting as you do, from untroubled eyes, the happiness of spirit breathed by your own best song:
There are no new worlds to conquer—
Gone is the last frontier,
And the steady grind of the wagon-train
Of the sturdy pioneer.
But their memories live like a thing divine,
Treasured in Heaven above,
For the trail that led to the storied West
Was the wonderful Trail of Love.
Warren G. Harding, Address in Meacham, Oregon Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/329291