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Journeys of Faith: Artifacts from the Mission Field

In the 1830s, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries began to travel west to Oregon Country, eager to bring Christianity to the American Indians.

The Whitmans and Spaldings cross the Continental Divide. [Image ID: 3495]

Stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the area consisted of present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and portions of Montana and Wyoming. In 1836, Presbyterian missionaries Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808-1847) and Eliza Hart Spalding (1807-1851) became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide, traveling with their missionary husbands, Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) and Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874). The Whitmans settled among the Cayuse at Waiilatpu and the Spaldings among the Nez Perce at Lapwai.

A romanticized portrayal of Marcus Whitman, shown with bible and saddlebag in hand. Sculpture by Avard T. Fairbanks, circa 1953. Click for full image. [Image ID: 3476]

 

Detail of the actual saddlebag which belonged to Marcus Whitman. Click for full image.

In 1839, the Lapwai mission site received the first printing press to reach Oregon Country, donated by the First Native Church of Honolulu.

The Lapwai Mission Press. Click for full image. [Image ID: 3499]

Henry and Eliza Spalding used it to print primers, hymn books, Bible stories, and the Gospel of Matthew, which Henry Spalding translated into the Nez Perce language.

Matthewnim Taaiskt, Nez Perce translation of the Gospel of Matthew. Click for larger image. [Image ID: 3465]

 

 
 

This type from the Spaldings’ printing press was used at the Lapwai mission site.

Accidental deaths and illness were prevalent around the mission. The Whitmans’ daughter, Alice, tragically drowned in 1839 at the age of two. Eliza Spalding’s letters home to her family reveal the growing tensions between the missionaries and Indians. Conflicts intensified as white settlers continued to arrive in Oregon Country, bringing with them diseases to which the Indians had no immunity.

Letter from Eliza H. Spalding to her family, from Clearwater, April 28, 1843. Read the entire letter on Pearl.

As both a doctor and missionary, Marcus Whitman’s position among the Cayuse was always somewhat precarious. Although Whitman ministered to all afflicted children equally, many of the white children recovered, while the Indian children died. Taking revenge for what they perceived as Whitman’s sorcery, several Cayuse massacred the Whitmans and twelve members of their mission on November 29, 1847. The remaining members, mostly women and children, were held captive but eventually released.

Shown here is an artist’s conception of the murder of Marcus Whitman. Print from a wood-engraving by N. Orr & Co., originally published in Frances Fuller Victor’s, The River of the West, circa 1870. [Image ID: 3463]

 

Photograph of the tomahawk that purportedly killed Marcus Whitman. [Image ID: 3484]