Missionaries Seek Souls to Save

A revival meeting
People seek personal salvation at an 1835 revival meeting that was part of America's Second Great Awakening. Energy from this evangelical movement led many devout church members to volunteer for missionary assignments during the 1830s. Several efforts focused on Indians of the distant Oregon Country. (Image courtesy New York Historical Society)
Religion proved to be the next major influence over the Oregon Country. Swept along by the power of the Second Great Awakening, more and more missionaries answered the call to bring the word of God to the heathen Indians. In the process, they helped pave the way for great migrations of white settlers.

Second Great Awakening 

Covering much of the early 1800s, the Second Great Awakening infused religion with its trademark of renewed personal salvation in revivals and camp meetings. Highly evangelical, the movement leaders, such as Lyman Beecher, encouraged a wave of social activism. In the process, some denominations, such as Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, grew in numbers and strength. The energy from this growth sought outlets in the form of missionary work, which led devout members of churches to distant lands to save the souls of heathens. The Oregon Country would be the recipient of a number of missionaries in the 1830s.

Jason Lee and the Willamette Mission 

The Reverend Jason Lee first came to Oregon in 1834, following his assignment by the Methodist Episcopal Church to be a missionary in the Flathead Indian country of the West. After arriving at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, Lee was advised by Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor John McLoughlin that the Flathead country was too isolated. He instead suggested a site about ten miles north of present-day Salem, Oregon on the Willamette River. Lee founded a school at the Mission Bottom site to educate the local Indians in what he considered a proper, Christian manner. The results contributed to a growing sense of futility. There were fourteen Indian students the first year, of whom seven died and five ran away. In 1836 there were twenty-five students, of whom sixteen fell ill. Only one of the surviving students converted. In fact, malaria and other diseases helped cause approximately a 90 percent drop in the population of Willamette Valley Indians in the 1830s. Lee received reinforcements, including Dr. Elijah White, to help with the mission but by 1838 he returned to New England to recruit more. In 1840 he returned with 50 recruits including ministers, teachers, farmers and mechanics yet by that time the pattern was set.

A drawing of a mission
An 1834 view of the Methodist mission at Mission Bottom north of Salem. The mission later moved operations to present day Salem, founding what would become Willamette University. (Image from Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature)
Over the years, critics of Lee complained that he focused far too much on economic development and far too little on the original goal of saving souls. The Methodist Church removed him in 1843 for not converting enough Indians to justify the vast expenditures needed to maintain his missions. Disgusted by the outcome, the church closed the mission and ordered its assets to be liquidated. By that time the Oregon Methodists, though failing at their religious purpose, had succeeded in building a thriving community with farms, businesses and a growing political will. Their letters to relatives in the U.S. lauded the fertility of the land and the promise for growth. These joined the growing number of reasons restless people in the Midwest and East saw for forming wagon trains for the long overland journey to Oregon and what they hoped would be a better life.

Catholic Missionaries 

A portrait of Father Blanchet
Father Blanchet led Catholic missionaries beginning in 1838.
Catholic missionaries had better luck than Methodists in converting Indians to Christianity. A group of retired fur trappers, mostly French-Canadians living on French Prairie in the Willamette Valley, petitioned the Bishop of Red River in Canada for a priest in 1834 and 1835. Their efforts were finally rewarded in 1838 with the arrival of Fathers Francois N. Blanchet and Modest Demers. The priests provided services to the French-Canadians and they also looked for converts among the Indians. Part of their success centered on the fact that they did not require the Indians to change their way of life significantly to be baptized. They also brought a mystique with their vestments, rituals and incense. Moreover, the priests were committed to a vow of poverty so avoided many of the extensive economic entanglements and distractions so characteristic of Jason Lee and the Willamette Mission. And, in contrast to the Methodists, they were willing to invest time to master the native languages in an effort to better spread their message. Footnote 1

The Whitman Mission

A drawing of the Whitman Massacre
An illustration of the Whitman Massacre. (Image from Marcus Whitman M.D.: Pioneer and Martyr.)
Other major missionary efforts during the period were made on behalf of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an umbrella group for Protestant missions. Led by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman along the Walla Walla River and Henry and Eliza Spalding on the Clearwater River at Lapwai, their methods suffered from a rigid insistence on forcing the Indians into a white way of life. This resulted in few conversions and a growing antagonism. When Whitman's superiors in the East decided to close the mission because of a lack of results in 1842, Marcus traveled through the winter to reach them and win a reversal of their decision. On his return trip in 1843 he guided the "Great Migration" of settlers, nearly 900 strong, to the Oregon Country. Soon, the Whitmans were spending more time on the needs of the growing number of immigrants than they were ministering to the Cayuse Indians.

Increasingly frustrated, Marcus Whitman intended to move his family but a measles epidemic quickly changed his plans. The epidemic struck both white and Indian children. Yet while the white children recovered, the Indian children, lacking immunity, died in large numbers. Many of the Cayuse saw this as a plot designed to remove them to make way for white settlers. On Nov. 29, 1847, a group of Indians attacked, killing 12 whites, including the Whitmans; kidnapping over 50 women and children; and burning the mission buildings. The massacre drew national attention to the problems faced by settlers in the West and led to early passage of a bill to organize the Oregon Territory in 1848. It also triggered a prolonged campaign against the Cayuse by the Oregon Militia in retaliation. Eventually, the tribe surrendered five members who were tried and hanged in 1850. Sadly, the Cayuse War was one of many Indian wars that punctuated the period before Oregon statehood.

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  1. 1. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 344.