Oregon History: Souls to Save

statue of missionary Jason Lee
Rev. Jason Lee responded to the Second Great Awakening by traveling to Oregon to preach to the Indians. Learn more about Lee. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
The first three decades of the 19th century were a time of intense religious fervor in America. The Second Great Awakening, kindled by the exhortations of Rev. Timothy Dwight, swept across the land. Camp meetings, revivals, sectarian controversies, the founding of home and foreign mission societies, building of seminaries to educate the ministry, and publication of books, tracts, hymns, and translations of the scriptures into Indian languages were all part of the religious commitment. Shakers gathered in celibate communities. Mormon converts followed the teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr. Revivals sweeping over the country produced conversions and, in some, anticipation of the return of Christ to Earth.
In 1832 the Christian Advocate and Journal carried a feature story about four Indians from the interior of the Pacific Northwest who had arrived in St. Louis. Although they may have come to confer with William Clark, the explorer and then superintendent of Indian affairs in the Louisiana Territory, the press interpreted their visit as a cry from heathens seeking the white man's book of God. This news proved electrifying to a population eager to promote evangelical Christianity. With the alleged request from the "savages of Oregon" for the word of God, mission societies were ready to send workers to the field to reap souls.
Rev. Jason Lee was first to respond. In 1833 the Methodist Episcopal Church authorized Lee, his nephew, Daniel Lee, and three lay assistants to go to Oregon. With mission board underwriting and a determination to preach to the Indians, this party embraced its calling and joined Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834 on his second overland trek to the Columbia estuary. Thus Nuttall and Townsend, with interests in natural history; Wyeth, who hoped to compete with the Hudson's Bay Company; and a cadre of missionaries joined forces to traverse the continent.
Although the initial request for missionaries had presumably come from the Nez Perces or Flatheads in the interior, Lee conferred with McLoughlin on a likely location for a mission west of the Cascades. He selected Mission Bottom on the southwest side of French Prairie in the northern Willamette Valley. Proximity to Fort Vancouver, the proven agricultural potential of the area, the nearby population of retired fur trappers, and the isolation of any site east of the mountains weighed heavily in Lee's decision.
The Methodists tried hard. They built a station, fenced and tilled fields, opened a school, and ministered to the Kalapuyans, whose villages had been ravaged by a horrendous fever starting in 1829. By the mid-1830s as many as 70% had perished. Lee and his associates thus coped with orphans, solitary survivors of families or entire villages, and the aged. To cope with the challenges, Lee ambitiously planned to increase his crew of workers. He sent back positive reports and in 1838 returned to the East to seek money and recruits. He raised an estimated $100,000 and brought 32 adults and 18 of their children to Oregon in 1839. The expanded staff opened a mission on the Clatsop Plains, another among the Clackamas Indians at Oregon City, a third at The Dalles, and yet another at the southern end of Puget Sound. In spite of their efforts, the Methodist laborers were not good linguists nor effective missionaries. The converts were few. Dr. Elijah White, a recruit, fired off criticisms to the mission board, which suspended Lee and closed the operations in 1843.
The Methodists, though converting few Indians, had tested the potentials of Oregon and succeeded in raising cereal crops, vegetables, and livestock. Their families prospered. They staked out land claims, including one which encroached on Dr. McLoughlin's milling site at Willamette Falls. Writing home about what they found, they gave good reports of Oregon. These Americans helped set the stage for overland emigration.
painting of Narcissa Whitman
Rev. Marcus Whitman set up a mission along the Walla Walla River to bring Christianity to surrounding Native Americans. Narcissa Whitman (showed above) and Eliza Spaulding traveled overland to Oregon in 1836. They were the first white women to cross the continent and inspired potential settlers. Learn more about the Whitmans. (Image via ops.gov)
In the 1820s the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) had sent workers among the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and other tribes. An ecumenical project drawing on the resources of the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed denominations, the ABCFM also responded to the alleged request of Oregon Indians for missionaries. In 1835 Rev. Samuel Parker and Rev. Marcus Whitman traveled west to survey prospects. Although Whitman turned back at Green River in the Rocky Mountains, Parker continued to Oregon, explored widely and, after returning home by sea via Hawaii, published Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1838). Whitman had seen enough to persuade him to devote his energies to the natives of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1836 Whitman, his new wife, Narcissa, Rev. Henry H. Spalding, and his wife, Eliza, set out for Oregon. Both women kept diaries, leaving a fascinating chronicle of the journey of the first white women across the continent. Jane Barnes, a barmaid from Portsmouth, England, had lived for a few months at Astoria during the tenure of the North West Company, but she had traveled by sea. The transit of two missionary women overland was duly noted by residents of the American frontier interested in lands in Oregon.
After visiting Fort Vancouver and obtaining supplies from the Hudson's Bay Company, the Whitmans settled at Waiilatpu, "the place of the rye grass," on the margins of the Walla Walla River near the base of the Blue Mountains. Their mission was to the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Nez Perce Indians. The Spaldings selected a site at Lapwai, Idaho, on the lower Clearwater River in Nez Perce country. For the next 11 years these missionaries and their associates who founded other stations on the Columbia Plateau wrestled with survival, mastering native languages, and trying to convert the Indians. An issue facing all was whether or not it was essential to transform Indians into sedentary farmers dressed like white people as a precondition to conversion to Christianity. The Indians found little attraction in the hard labor of farming, were reluctant to give up their traditional fisheries and hunting, and seemed generally disinterested in the whites' teachings. When Whitman whipped the Indians for disobedience, he fell in their esteem. Conversions were few; troubles accumulated.
In 1838 Fathers Francois N. Blanchet and Modest Demers set out with a Hudson's Bay Company brigade from Red River. They crossed overland through Canada and descended the Columbia to found Catholic missions in the region. The Anglican ministry of Rev. Herbert Beaver at Fort Vancouver in 1836-38 was short-lived and controversial. The fur trappers, many of them nominally Catholic or possessing Catholic ancestors, were receptive to Blanchet and Demers, who moved swiftly, marrying couples, baptizing Indian wives and children, and recording an impressive tally in their sacramental ledgers. They established missions at Fort Vancouver, Cowlitz Prairie, and French Prairie.
drawing of Father Francois Blanchet
Father Francois Blanchet brought a Catholic presence to the Northwest in the 1830s. Learn more about Blanchet. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Where the protestants had only marginal success in gaining converts, the Catholics prospered. There were several reasons. They did not insist on a change in lifeways as a condition for baptism. They wore vestments, burned incense, rang handbells, recited a ritualistic mass, and generated a sense of mystery and interest in their services. They were single men governed by vows of chastity and steadfast purpose of ministry to their flock. They were bound by a commitment to poverty and not engaged in staking land claims or contesting McLoughlin for a mill site. They had a distant but consistent base of support through the Catholic Church. They had already established connections to the native peoples because Indian women from almost every tribe or band in the Pacific Northwest had married Catholic men. They were skilled linguists and were willing to undergo years of patient work to master the native languages.
In 1834 and 1835 a group of retired fur trappers, most of them French-Canadians living on French Prairie, had petitioned the Bishop of Red River in Canada for a priest. In 1836 they had built a log chapel. Blanchet and Demers thus found a receptive audience when they established the St. Paul Mission in October, 1839. The parishioners erected a meeting hall and lodgings for the priests in 1841. The grandly named St. Joseph's College, a school funded in part by a bequest from a French philanthropist, opened in 1843 with 30 boys and three instructors. Nuns arrived in 1844 to establish Saint Marie de Willamette, a girls' school. Parishioners between 1844 and 1846 kilned bricks and erected the St. Paul Church.
Missions further accelerated changes in the lives of Oregon Indians. Many tribes, particularly in western Oregon, were imprinted by the itinerant priests and carried for generations a commitment to Catholicism. This was especially the case among the Kalapuyans and Upper Chinookans. Adrian Croquet, a Belgian priest, ministered to them on the Grand Ronde Reservation from 1860 to 1898. Catholic Oblate missions of St. Ann, St. Rose of the Cayouse, Walla Walla, St. Anthony, and Frenchtown likewise led to conversions among the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.
The protestants largely failed in their missionary efforts but left an impact in other ways. They proved that Euro-American families could thrive in the Oregon Country. They grew vegetables and fruit and raised livestock. They wrote reports and lectured in the East about the prospects of the region. They spoke of its mild climate, fertile soil, towering forests, abundant fish, and wild game. They helped set the stage for the opening of the Oregon Trail.