In 1837 Henry Spalding became the first missionary to try writing a book in the Nez Percé language. But it was soon discovered that the alphabet devised by him was not adaptable to the Indians’ tongue and this 72-page “primer” was never printed.
The next year, having received a new printing press themselves, the American Board missionaries in Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands) offered an older press to the Oregon missionaries. This, the first printing press in the Pacific Northwest, arrived at Lapwai in May 1839. With it came Edwin Hall who was to assist in starting the operation.
Eight days after setting up the press, the missionaries had proudly produced 400 copies of the first book printed in old Oregon. The authors, using an adaption of the alphabet employed in Hawaii, were Henry and Eliza Spalding and Cornelius Rogers. The significance of this achievement is not lessened by the fact that this book had only eight pages.
Between 1839 and 1845 a total of nine books were printed. The most elaborate of these was the Gospel according to St. Matthew turned out in Nez Percé by Spalding. All but one of the books were printed in the Nez Percé language; that one was a 16-page primer in Spokane translated by Elkanah Walker, the copies being stitched, pressed, and bound by his wife, Mary. All these imprints are now quite rare, and of one only a single copy is known to exist. This is the Nez Percé Laws, drawn up by Indian Agent Elijah White in 1842.
Reducing the Nez Percé language to writing was not an easy task. Asa Smith, the best linguist in the group, wrote: “[The] number of words in the language is immense & their variations are almost beyond description. Every word is limited & definite in its meaning & the great difficulty is to find terms sufficiently general. Again the power of compounding words is beyond description.” But even as he struggled with this problem, Smith was convinced of the necessity of books: “We must have books in the native language, schools, & the Scriptures translated, or we are but beating the air. . . .”
By 1846 the missionaries had become pessimistic about their progress in publishing. The amount of effort required for just a few pages was tremendous. Their best linguists – Smith and Cornelius Rogers – were no longer with the mission. The Indians were not as receptive to the printed word as the missionaries had hoped. In that year the press was moved from Lapwai to The Dalles, and this first publishing venture came to a close. After the Whitman massacre, the press was used in the Willamette Valley by some men who were among the first newspaper publishers in the Pacific Northwest.
The immensity of this undertaking can be grasped only if one remembers the primitiveness of the land in 1839 when the missionaries distributed the first pages ever printed in the Oregon Country.