The Dreaded Letter

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
March 2010

In the 1830s the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent six couples to the Oregon Country: the Whitmans, Spaldings, Grays, Smiths, Walkers, and Eells. A single man, Cornelius Rogers, joined as a volunteer. They were all dedicated, strong-willed people with a common cause. But, they did not always agree.

Mostly the missionaries wrote about their problems in their diaries or in letters to each other. But a few of them sent long letters of complaint to the Board. The three major complainers were Mr. Gray, Rev. Smith, and Mr. Rogers. 1840 was an especially bad year. On March 20 Gray wrote a twelve page letter to the Board. Just one month later he felt the need to write another twelve page letter. In 1840 Smith wrote seven letters totaling over 30,000 words. Complaints included being misled on how successful the missions were; that the missions were not cost effective; and too much time was spent teaching secular activities such as farming. Here is some of what they wrote:

From Smith:

“By the time this reaches you, this mission will have cost the Board not less than $17,000…making an expense of at least four dollars to each individual of the whole tribe. And as yet the work can scarcely be said to be begun.”

“…I am ready to give up the cause of Indian missions in despair.”

From Gray:

“If they [Whitman and Spalding] are engaged in teaching the Indians the value of their souls, I am confident they would not think so much about ploughs and mill irons, etc.”

By the fall of 1840 Dr. Whitman was aware of these negative letters. He wrote to the Board:

“Mr. Gray has lately informed me that letters have been sent by him & others, setting forth difficulties that have existed in this mission. It was never my intention to trouble you with them.”

He and the other missionaries were concerned about all these negative letters. What would the Board think? What action would they take? The Board might even consider closing the missions and dismissing the missionaries, a nearly unheard of action.

The missionaries worked to resolve their differences. This took time and rearrangement of personnel. By 1842 the major malcontents were either gone or preparing to leave. The remaining staff had ironed out their differences. They wrote the Board that all was now going well in Oregon. But, would this be enough? Would the letter arrive in time? The missionaries decided to ignore any orders from the Board until the Board had time to learn how things had changed.

The letter about reconciliation did not reach the Board in time. Just a few months later the dreaded letter arrived. It was as bad as the missionaries had feared. The Board ordered the Whitmans to close their mission and move to the Tshimakain mission, which was run by the Walkers and Eells. The Spaldings were to close their mission and return to the States. The Board also recalled the Smiths and Grays. (The Board didn’t yet know that the Smiths and Grays had already quit.) The final paragraph expressed the Board’s extreme frustration with the group:

“It is a cause of much grief and disappointment, as you may well suppose, that a mission which seemed to promise so great and speedy results, as did yours for years, should be brought to such a close, and that too owing to disaffection among its members.”

Dr. Whitman called an emergency meeting. During the meeting he stated that he felt the crisis required a face-to-face discussion and volunteered to travel to Boston to talk directly with the Board. Walker and Eells finally agreed to the change in plans on the condition that Whitman would also take letters from them. Walker and Eells then went home to compose their letters, but Dr. Whitman couldn’t wait.

On Monday morning, October 3, 1842, Dr. Whitman strode out his front door and across the yard to where Mr. Lovejoy, Aps (an Indian), several pack animals, and Trapper (the family dog) were waiting.

This is where we will leave them, with Narcissa watching her husband and company head toward the Blue Mountains, knowing that it will be nearly a year before she sees him again.

This is the last installment of “A Missionary Saga” for 2010.
See complete Season 2 list

Next: A Rushed Departure



Drury, Clifford M. Chapter 15 (pdf 920 kb) and Chapter 16 (pdf 709 kb) of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. 1994. Northwest Interpretive Association: Seattle, Washington.

Drury, Clifford ed. The Diaries and Letters of Henry H. Spalding and Asa Bowen Smith Relating to the Nez Perce Mission, 1838-1842. 1958. The Arthur H. Clark Company. Glendale, California.

Last updated: January 16, 2018

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