|St. Louis-Gateway to the Oregon Trail|
How very few of us ever fully aware of the ramifications of our decisions on any given day. Sometimes we have an inkling that a choice we have just made has altered the future (for better or worse) in some way, but rarely are the consequences of our choosing in clear view. This is a story about the fateful choices of several people and how those choices converged in such a way as to shape American history. The interesting thing is that a good deal of these choices were religiously motivated and yet the final outcome was largely secular in its impact.
|Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea|
The year is 1831. 25 years had passed since the Lewis and Clark expedition had traversed the American continent from St. Louis to what is now Astoria Oregon and back again, making contact with the many Native American tribes that inhabited the western frontier. Although, the Oregon Trail was not yet in existence, the route from the east to the Oregon country and vice-versa was by now well-known to the white man and Indian alike. That summer, 4 Indians (likely of the Nez Perce tribe) arrive in St. Louis. Their mission was to find out more about the ‘paleface religion’ having only heard of it in bits and pieces from traders and trappers and hopefully to find someone who will instruct them in Christianity.
This single event spurred great interest among many Protestant circles east of the Mississippi river. One such group was the Presbyterian church and their mission wing, The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM for the remainder of this article). Within two years the ABCFM sent a representative named Samuel Parker to the far west to survey the situation. Rev. Parker returned with great enthusiasm about the potential of an outreach to the natives of the Oregon country and upon his return he tirelessly spoke in churches raising support and recruits for a future mission.
Four people who were deeply moved by Rev. Parker’s talks about the Oregon country were Marcus Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss, Henry Spalding, and Eliza Hart. Spalding and Prentiss were from New York, Whitman was from Massachusetts, but living in Wheeler New York working as a local physician, and Hart was from Connecticut. Whitman and Prentiss both applied to ABCFM and were rejected. Narcissa Prentiss was a school teacher and had a deep desire to go west but the mission was not accepting unmarried women at the time. Whitman was initially rejected because he had no real theological training beyond attending church but was later accepted because his medical skills would be useful. Henry Spalding was a seminarian who had once proposed marriage to Narcissa Prentiss but was rejected. Eliza Hart was very interested in becoming a missionary and through the orchestration of a mutual friend became a pen-pal of Spalding for a year before accepting a marriage proposal from him. In a similar turn of events a mutual friend put Marcus Whitman and Narcissa Prentiss in touch with one another and Marcus made an offer of marriage to Narcissa so that she could also join the ABCFM mission. Initially it was a mission partnership but the Whitman’s fast became a marriage of love.
|Marcus and Narcissa Whitman|
The Whitman’s married in late winter of 1836 and left the day after their wedding for Missouri to join the expedition heading to the Oregon country. There they met up with Henry and Eliza Spalding and though there had been some hard feelings because of Henry’s failed courtship with Narcissa, all had made the decision to put the past behind them for the sake of the future mission. But, truth be told, in their case past was prologue and though the two couples even shared the same tent each night (or maybe because of it) by the time they crossed the Rockies tension were so high they decided to go their separate ways and not collaborate with one another. This they did and in some ways it proved quite detrimental and in others proved to be a fruitful choice.
|Pioneers on Oregon Trail|
This journey to Oregon for establishing a mission established something else at the same time. It proved the feasibility of migration to the Pacific Northwest by an overland route instead of a long ocean journey. By the time the Spaldings and Whitmans entered the Oregon country, they had completed several other firsts. Narcissa and Eliza were the first women in recorded history to have crossed the Rocky mountains. The Spaldings were the first white people to build a home in (present day) Idaho, and the Whitman’s were expecting a daughter who in a few months became the first Anglo-American girl born in the Oregon country. How the Whitmans conceived little Alice Clarissa on a 2000 mile journey in a shared tent with Henry and Eliza Spalding seems almost a greater feat, but I digress.
|Marker of the Historic Trek|
When they parted ways, the Spauldings went to a bleak, mountainous region to set up their mission to the Nez Perce at Lapwai. The Whitmans went to a verdant valley to set up their mission to the Cayuse at Waiilatpo (near present-day Walla-Walla Washington). In something akin to the parting of Abraham and Lot in the Bible, it turns out the Whitmans (like Lot) became very sidetracked with the beauty and prosperity of their land and had much less impact on the Cayuse, while the Spauldings, though jealous of the Whitmans prosperity, never were sidetracked and ministered with great effectiveness to the Nez Perce. In my opinion, neither family was well-equipped or guided by knowledgeable persons in this enterprise, which left them to operate on their own assumptions and western bias. In part, the success of the Spaldings with the Nez Perce was in the tribe’s openness to outsiders. The Cayuse had a propensity to treat outsiders with a lot of suspicion.
|Spalding Mission at Lapwai|
From the perspective of the 21st century, I don’t think there is anyone who would argue the case that any party, be they Christian missionaries or the American government, did a really great job with the aboriginal populace of North America. I am not suggesting there were no pockets of excellence or people of good will in matters relating to the Indians, but for the most part ‘manifest destiny’ took precedence over human rights most of the time. Without excusing (or for that matter expiating anyone’s sins) for what actually happened in the past, I do want to explain the worldview of 19th century Protestant missions and how it played out in the respective missions of the Whitmans and Spaldings.
Christian missions in the 19th century operated on twin tracks of civilization and Christianization. Western missionaries (from Europe and America) held the idea that Christianity flourishes best in a civilized culture and by culture they meant adopting western habits of living, thinking, and behaving. Once a culture becomes civilized, then they will readily become Christian. This didn’t mean that civilizing came first and then Christian preaching came after, but that both of these activities were the legitimate actions of Christian mission.
As well-intentioned as this may have seemed to the missionaries at the time, it was full of blind-spots and arrogance and eventually did much to slow down the spread of the Gospel. Thankfully, the modern missionary has far more appreciation differing cultures and understands that God desires to meet people in the context of their culture rather than destroy their culture altogether so they can be Christians. This is not to say that all cultures don’t have aspects which grieve the heart of God as sin. But conversion of souls within a culture usually has a strong transformative effect. And I am of the opinion that if God became human flesh in Christ (Jn. 1) to represent man in the plan of redemption, and all men (which includes women) of every culture are the objects of God’s saving grace, then the religion of Christ (Christianity) can be at home in every human culture.
As this touches on the Whitman and Spalding mission, both men and their wives arrived with little support or direction from the ABCFM and more or less just set out doing what they thought best. Spalding, who was seminary trained built a modest compound and focused his efforts largely on evangelism. Henry Spalding emphasized Christianizing the Nez Perce but also did some civilizing in the sense that he as the representative of the Lord would criticize and sometimes even punish the Indians for doing things against his moral standard. That said, to the credit of the Spaldings, they engaged in literacy and Bible translations and before they left had published several portions of the Bible in the Nez Perce tongue.
|Henry H. Spalding|
Marcus Whitman, not having any seminary training, did much more civilizing than he did Christianizing. The Whitman’s built a large missionary compound over several years which included a school, church, and agricultural facilities such as a barn and water powered grist-mill. Narcissa opened a school for the Cayuse children and Marcus introduced agriculture and provided medical help to the Indians. Because the farmland was rich, it was not long before the Whitman mission became quite financially prosperous.
Several reinforcements from the ABCFM came out west to join the mission, but the Christian impact of the mission continued on a path of decline because of continued strife and dissension between the missionary families.
In 1839 tragedy struck the Whitman family when on a Sunday afternoon when Marcus and Narcissa were enjoying their rest and some leisured reading, their little 2 year old daughter wandered away from the house without their knowing it and slipped and drowned in a nearby creek. The Whitmans grieved as all parents do, but their faith in God and his providence enabled them to carry the work on and for a time a lot of dissension and grievances among the missionaries were set aside.
By 1842, six years into the mission, the Whitman compound was seen as an outpost of civilization in the vast Oregon country. It became a magnet to other settlers moving in to the area and a source of supplies for traders and pioneers already there. Although there was some mission work to the Cayuse it had been slowed down by the mounting resentment that was building among them over more and more of their lands being encroached upon by settlers. By then, the Whitmans had established the first Presbyterian church in the Oregon country and services were very well-attended, but there were few Indians who converted and the majority of ministry efforts were going towards the white families in the area. Unexpectedly, the ABCFM sends a letter to the Whitman’s telling them to close the mission down due to its ineffectiveness with the native peoples.
This causes Marcus Whitman to cross the Rockies in the dead of winter and travel all the way back to Boston and New York to ask the ABCFM to rescind their order and to send more reinforcements to continue the work. The next spring, Whitman led the first wagon train back to the far west. This first group would be followed by thousands of other people looking for land and a place of opportunity for their families in the next decade. Because of his missionary model, Whitman looked at the influx of Anglo-American settlers as a positive development. Their presence in numbers would create a Christian civilization from which the Cayuse could learn by example. Neither of these outcomes were actually realized but it was the way Whitman thought of things.
Naturally, the Whitman mission compound was the first stop back in the Pacific Northwest and soon it became a resting spot for later migrations of pioneers. One thing it inadvertently did was cause the Oregon Trail to go straight through the Cayuse territory which in turn further escalated tensions between the Cayuse and the mission.
|Oregon Trail Routes|
By the next year (1844) the Whitmans were utterly consumed with their work tending to the huge influx of pioneers. They had lost their zeal and enthusiasm to reach the Indians around them. Mrs. Whitman ran a boarding school of a sort for the incoming pioneer children and also a separate school for Cayuse children.
With the Great Emigration came the diseases of the white man. In 1847 an epidemic of the measles broke out in the area. Many pioneer families lost family members but the effects on the Cayuse were devastating having so little immunity to Eurasian diseases. It is believed that nearly 50% of the Cayuse tribe was lost to that one epidemic. Marcus Whitman brought medical help to the Cayuse and even mild immunizations to them but when they saw more of the white settlers live than their group, they came to suspect the missionaries were killing them off in an effort to steal even more of their land.
Not long after this 5 Cayuse who had animus towards the Whitmans came to the compound and knocked on the door. When the Whitmans answered it, they pulled their tomahawks out and slaughtered Marcus and Narcissa and 12 other men who were living on the compound at the time. Many others living at the mission compound were taken hostage by the Cayuse and it took months of negotiation to get them freed.
Oregon fur trapper, political operative and later a U.S. Marshall Joseph Meek was sent to Washington D.C. to officially report the Whitman Massacre to the government. Meek was also the first cousin of President Polk’s wife and thus had immediate access to the White House. Because the massacre involved American citizens, Polk immediately recommended Congress pass legislation to annex Oregon as an American territory. In August 1848 the Oregon country officially became the Oregon Territory.
The Whitman massacre led the U.S. government to send troops in the fight the Indians and ordered all missionaries to evacuate the area. In 1850, the 5 responsible Cayuse were caught, brought to trial, and executed by hanging. The government ordered the suspension of all missionary activity in the territory for two decades.
|President James K. Polk|
In the following years, American missions to aboriginal people collapsed. Most funding and interest focused on peoples outside of North America.
Read about the trial over the Whitman Massacre here
Read about the trial over the Whitman Massacre here
The Spauldings remained and never left their missionary post. Their effort, despite its flaws, brought a great harvest of the Nez Perce and Spokane Indians to the Lord. Both of these tribes in turn evangelized other Indian groups around the Northwest. Although Henry Spalding eventually left Idaho and settled in the new state of Oregon, he labored on behalf of Indian groups the remainder of his life. Henry Spalding is also credited with teaching the Indians to grow potatoes something for which the state of Idaho is famous for today.
|Mission and Grave site today|
The Whitmans, having come as missionaries, are actually more well-known for opening the Oregon Trail and inspiring the westward advance of Americans to inhabit the continent from “sea to shining sea.”
Drury, Clifford. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. (Seattle : Northwest Interpretive Association, 1986)
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: The 19th Century Outside of Europe- The Americas, The Pacific, Asia and Africa. (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1961)
“Marcus and Narcissa Whitman” Dictionary of Christianity in America Reid, Linder, Shelley, and Stout Eds. (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 1990)
“Marcus Whitman” Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. D.G. Hart Ed. (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 1999)
Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns. 1992)
Sweet, William W. The Story of Religion in America. (Grand Rapids : Baker, 1973)
Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya : A Biographical History of Christian Missions. (Grand Rapids : Academie Books, 1983)
Wills, Garry. Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America. (New York : Penguin, 2007)