Asa Smith

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.

Although the Smiths were unhappy, they might have remained longer were it not for a dispute with two Nez Perce subchiefs: Insimmalakin and his brother Inmtamlaiakin. They ordered the Smiths to leave Kamiah in retaliation for an event that had taken place at Fort Walla Walla, when some Nez Perce were implicated in a beating of a trader.

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.

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Visit the Asa Smith Mission

Plan your visit to the site near Kamiah, Idaho where Asa and Sarah Smith set up their Mission in 1839.

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The Mission Era

During the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries spent time among the Nez Perce.

Last updated: November 5, 2022

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Nez Perce National Historical Park
39063 US Hwy 95

Lapwai, ID 83540-9715


208 843-7001

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