The Tragic Tale of the Mungers
By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
Asahel Munger, a carpenter, and his wife Eliza were members of a religious colony in Oberlin, Ohio. In 1838 they agreed to join Rev. Griffin in a missionary effort to the Indians in the Oregon Country. They had zeal, but no major missionary board would sponsor them. The lack of funding did not stop these "independent" missionaries.
Asahel wrote a long letter to his mother detailing his trip out. Like many who would later travel west, he reported both wonders and hardships. The trip was especially hard on Eliza who frequently felt ill. As the Whitmans and their colleagues had done earlier, Griffin and the Mungers made their way west by traveling with a fur traders caravan to the yearly Rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. There they met a group of Hudson's Bay Company personnel, led by Francis Ermatinger, who escorted them to Fort Walla Walla.
By the time the Mungers reached the fort, they realized that being out west was different than dreaming about being out west. The Mungers needed an alternative plan. The Whitmans, who stopped by while the Mungers were there, needed a carpenter. Asahel wrote:
Both sides were very pleased. Asahel continued, "We have found friends…are surrounded by those that appear like brothers and sisters." According to Narcissa, "It seems as if the Lord's hand was in it in sending Mr. and Mrs. Munger here just at this time, and I know not how to feel grateful enough."
The Board that sponsored the Whitmans was not pleased by these "independent" missionaries and warned the Whitmans against being too friendly with them. But when these people showed up tired, hungry, and travel worn on their doorstep, what were the Whitmans to do? By 1840 the Whitmans were harboring five independent missionary couples.
The Mungers, at least, proved useful for the Whitmans. Dr. Whitman wrote his Board: "He [Munger] is a good house carpenter. In that time I hope he will finish our house & make some comfortable furniture & some farming implements."
But a few months later things went terribly wrong. Narcissa wrote her friend: "Our Brother Munger is perfectly insane and we are tried to know how to get along with him." In another letter she reported, "Efforts have been made by my husband and Mr. Gray to restore him, but all prove ineffectual."
Sending the Mungers home turned out to be harder than they imagined. The fur caravans, so helpful in getting the missionaries out, had ceased. No longer did a large group return east each year. Ermatinger thought he might know someone who could take the Mungers. A concerned colleague of the Whitmans wrote:
But the plan didn't work out. Instead the Mungers ended up traveling west to the Willamette Valley with two of the other independent missionary couples. Eliza, who severely missed her friends and family back east, was extremely disappointed.
Things did not get better for the Mungers. Shortly before Christmas Asahel Munger died while attempting to demonstrate a miracle by driving nails into his hands, then burning them in the fire.
Working in a foreign land can be challenging, straining relationships and sometimes a person's mental health. Challenges can also bring people together. One example was Francis Ermatinger, who popped in and out of the Whitmans' lives, ferrying people and letters, among other useful things.
This is part 6 of "A Missionary Saga, Season 4: The People in Their Lives."
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