An Unofficial Addition
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
In 1838, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent additional missionaries to help the Board's missions in the Oregon Country. William Gray, who had traveled out with the Whitmans two years earlier, had returned east to get married and was now returning to his mission station. With Gray were three other newlywed couples: Rev. and Mrs. Eells, Rev. and Mrs. Walker, and Rev. and Mrs. Smith. On March 29, 1838, the group reached Cincinnati. While there they met a twenty-two year old, single man, Cornelius Rogers. Rogers was inspired to join the group, but there was no time to get permission from the Board back in Boston. So Rogers volunteered to go in an unofficial capacity.
Like Whitman's party had done two years previously, the group, now with seven missionaries and two hired men, joined the fur traders' caravan that was traveling to the Rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. At the Rendezvous they met a party of 20 Hudson's Bay Company personnel led by Francis Ermatinger, who escorted them farther west to Fort Hall.
When the group finally reached the Whitmans' mission, there was much to do, including unpacking, paying off the hired men, and finding places for people to sleep. Thirteen people were already staying at the Whitmans' house and in nearby lodges. The new arrivals brought that total to 23 including the Whitmans.
After they were settled the missionaries had their first (and as it turned out last) meeting where all were in attendance. The group laid out several goals. The need to learn the local languages was stressed. Local tribal members would be taught primarily in their own language, though they would also be taught some English. To aid this goal the group decided to accept the offer of a printing press from their sister mission in Hawaii. It was also decided that a gristmill and blacksmith shop would be established at the Spaldings' mission at Lapwai. (The Whitmans already had a gristmill at their station; eventually the blacksmith shop was moved to the Whitmans' mission.) Rogers worked on a variety of projects including attempting to cut mill stones and helping to create a Nez Perce dictionary. Even though he was never an official member, the Board included Rogers in their annual reports, listing his function variously as "Mechanic," "Teacher," or "Printer."
Rogers and Rev. Smith were the first to attempt taking a census of people who spoke Nez Perce. To get a tally, they approached the head man of each band and requested one stick for each person in that band. Their initial estimate was that there were fewer than 3,000 Nez Perce and Cayuse peoples (both groups could speak the Nez Perce language).
But all was not going well. Rev. Spalding in particular annoyed Rogers. By February of 1841, only 2 ½ years after arriving, Rogers wrote the Board, informing them that he wanted to leave, stating: "I will simply say that Mr. Spalding is felt by me to be the principal cause of my course."
Discouraged and disillusioned, Rogers left for the Willamette Valley. Since he had never been an official member of the mission group he had no obligation to stay. In the Willamette Valley he met Miss Satira Leslie, daughter of Methodist missionaries. They were married in September of 1841. Since he spoke Nez Perce, Rogers was hired as a translator by the US government for official parties headed into Nez Perce country. Unfortunately, on February 1, 1843, the canoe that he, his wife, and four others were traveling in was swept over Willamette Falls and all aboard drowned.
Cornelius Rogers was not the only person inspired to travel west to do missionary work regardless of the lack of official sponsorship. During their time at Waiilatpu, several "Independent Missionaries" arrived at the Whitmans' mission. But lacking an official sponsor, none of them was able to establish their own mission. In regards to being able to contribute to missionary efforts, Cornelius Rogers had been luckier than most.
This is part 5 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives."
Did You Know?
The Whitmans’ mission was important to early Oregon Trail travelers. Those who were sick, tired, or hungry or who needed a wagon fixed would make the side trip to the mission. Some would spend the winter with the Whitmans before continuing on to the Willamette Valley.