Not all of the Protestant missionaries who came west were well suited for working with Indians. Far from home, temperamental, and prone to pessimism, Asa Smith had many difficulties as a missionary, but left an important legacy. Asa Smith wrote the first Nez Perce dictionary and grammar book, unwittingly taking the first steps in saving the Nez Perce language.
Asa Smith and his wife Sarah originally had set their sights on going to Asia to work in Siam (present day Thailand) but financial difficulties and the need for missionaries in the west changed their plans. After an arduous trip west with a group of other missionaries they arrived at Marcus and Narcissa Whiman's mission, Waiilatpu, in late August 1838. The original plan was to give Waiilatpu to the Smiths to run, while the Whitmans relocated to a more central location. This was considered important because Marcus Whitman was a doctor and his services were very important in such a remote and undeveloped area. Narcissa dissented, however, and a Nez Perce headman, known as Lawyer, argued that a missionary station should be opened in Kamiah. The Smiths moved to Kamiah in the spring of 1839.
After establishing a mission in Kamiah, Smith plunged into his work, taking a census of the Nez Perce and enthusiastically studying the language. Asa was a vicious critic of Henry Spalding, the missionary at nearby Lapwai, in his letters to their supervisors back East. Whitman and Spalding both thought the best strategy to "civilize" the Nez Perce was to make them farmers. Smith disagreed, thinking that this would be futile, as their hunting and gathering traditions were too deep to be broken. Smith also disapproved of Spalding's methods of religious instruction.
The Smiths left Nez Perce country in 1842, only a few years in to a mission that they'd intended on holding their entire lives. The move was necessitated by Sarah's poor health (she had been bedridden for weeks) and Asa's despondent mental state. The couple worked as missionaries in the Hawaiian Islands until 1846 when the family returned to the United States. Sarah Smith died on May 27, 1855 at the age of 41. Asa continued preaching the rest of his life and died at nearly 80 years old.
Last updated: November 5, 2022