John Day Fossil Beds
Historic Resources Study
NPS logo

Chapter Three:

The Second Great Awakening and quickening of evangelical Christianity in the United States inspired several efforts to mount missions to the Indians of the Oregon country in the 1830s and the 1840s. While the missionaries had no direct presence in the watershed of the John Day, their legacy paved the way for Euro-American immigration into the region.

Protestant Efforts

First to respond to the call were the Methodists. In 1834 Rev. Jason Lee, his nephew Daniel Lee, Cyrus Shepard, a teacher, and lay assistants Philip L. Edwards and Courtney M. Walker set out for Oregon with Nathaniel J. Wyeth's second overland expedition. Within the next six years they established missions in the Willamette Valley, at the falls of the Willamette, on the Clatsop Plains, at Fort Nisqually, and at The Dalles (Brosnan 1932: 164-169).

Wascopam Mission on the western margin of the Columbia Plateau operated from 1838 to 1847. While its inhabitants introduced both vegetable production and stock-raising to the local area, the converts — mostly Indians fishing along the Columbia River — were discouragingly few. There is no evidence that Daniel Lee, H. K. W. Perkins, or Henry B. Brewer had any impact on the John Day band of Sahaptin-speakers. In his "Account of the 'work of God"' at The Dalles in 1839-40, Daniel Lee described how the conversion efforts were directed at the Indians from Celilo Falls to the Cascades. While hundreds participated in communion, the baptisms and commitments to the Methodist faith were negligible (Lee and Frost 1844: 182-195). Jason Lee had raised more than $100,000 and brought over fifty Americans to the Oregon missions but failed in securing large-scale conversion of Indians. He was terminated as superintendent of the missions in 1843, returned east, and died in 1845 (Brosnan 1932: 230).

Wascopam Mission
Fig. 7. Wascopam Mission, Methodist outpost at The Dalles, sketched in 1849 (Cross 1850: 100)

In 1835 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman overland to examine potentials for conversion of Indians in the Pacific Northwest. Parker continued on to Hawaii and published his Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains Under the Direction of the A.B.C.F.M (1838).

Whitman returned east from the Green River in the Rockies persuaded of the region's promise as a field for missions (Parker 1838). He secured funding, married Narcissa Prentiss, recruited Rev. Henry H. and Eliza Spalding, and in 1836 set out with the Spaldings and his wife for Oregon. The Spaldings opened a mission at Lapwai on the Clearwater River in what became Idaho. The Whitmans settled at Waiilatpu about thirty miles up the Walla Walla River from its confluence with the Columbia. Their mission operated until November, 1847, when it was attacked by the Cayuse Indians. The Whitmans and twelve others died. Whitman had just purchased the Wascopam Mission from the Methodists, but his death led to the abandonment of all A.B.C.F.M. posts in the interior of the Pacific Northwest (Drury 1937). Whitman worked among the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Indians; Spalding preached to the Nez Perce (Drury 1936). Neither had any known impact on the Indians of the John Day watershed.

Catholic Missions

The Catholics were third to mount missions in the Pacific Northwest. They had several target audiences — French-Canadian fur trappers, their Indian wives, mixed-blood children, and the Indians. In 1838 Father Francis Norbert Blanchet and Father Modest Demers, both under the auspices of the Diocese of Quebec, traveled overland through the northern Rockies and descended the Columbia River. Within a few years Blanchet and others working under his direction established St. Paul Mission in the Willamette Valley, Fort Vancouver Mission near the mouth of the Willamette, Stellamaris Mission at the mouth of the Columbia, and St. Francis Xavier Mission on Cowlitz Prairie (Munnick 1989).

In 1847 the Catholic missions expanded onto the Columbia Plateau with the creation of the Diocese of Walla Walla under Rev. Augustine M. A. Blanchet, a younger brother of Archbishop F. N. Blanchet. Until its dissolution in 1853, the diocese had the stations St. Ann on the Umatilla River and St. Rose of the Cayouse on the Walla Walla River. Eventually the priests established the churches of St. Rose of Lima, St. Patricks, Frenchtown (Lowden) and Walla Walla in the Walla Walla Valley (Munnick and Munnick 1989). Although the registers document hundreds of baptisms, marriages, and burials through the auspices of the church, there is no record of influence on the John Day band of Sahaptin-speaking Indians by the Catholic missionaries.

Cultural Resources Summary

The legacy of Christian missions in the Pacific Northwest was mixed. The denominational goals were concerned primarily with changing the religion and lifeways of native peoples. The Protestants largely failed in those objectives. The Catholics fared better, for a number of reasons. The priests were well-educated, sophisticated men who knew several languages. They were patient, indeed willing to work for decades to achieve their goals. They mastered native languages. They were not interested in developing farms and carving out personal land claims; they had taken vows of poverty. The Catholics had substantial, if distant, bases of support and reinforcement. They practiced rituals of ceremony and dress which attracted the attention of the natives. In the longer term, the Catholic imprint was substantial, though many Indians rejected Christianity and persisted in traditional practices or responded affirmatively to the rise of the Washat or Dreamer Religion which swept across the Plateau in the latter half of the nineteenth century (Walker and Sprague 1998:142-148).

Despite their limited success in Christianizing the natives, the missions and missionaries of the Columbia Plateau played a wider role in promoting white settlement of the Oregon country. The 1836 overland journey of Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding demonstrated in a visible way the possibility of family emigration to the new frontier. Through their reports, letters, and journals from the field, the missionaries introduced a wider audience of American citizens to Oregon. During the decade of the 1840s, the missions themselves served as crucial points of refuge along the overland trail for thousands of Willamette Valley-bound emigrants (Schwantes 1989: 77, 84).

No cultural sites specifically associated with the mission era (1834-1848) exist in the vicinity of the Monument or within the larger John Day River basin. The nearest mission was Wascopam (operational from 1838 to 1847), the Methodist outpost at The Dalles. There is no documentary evidence of missionaries from this outpost, or any of the other missions on the Columbia Plateau, venturing into the heart of John Day country.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002