Northwest Missionaries

Compiled by Stephenie Flora

  In March 1831, three Nez Perces and one Flathead Indian traveled to St. Louis to see General William Clark. They made the long journey east to learn about the white man, his religion and to seek the "white man's Book of Heaven".
    William Walker, a half-breed Wyandotte, an educated man who had been converted to Christianity, learning of their journey wrote a letter to a New York business man who was interested in establishing Christian missions among the Indians. The letter was published in a widely read newspaper, generating an almost immediate response.
    Although two of the Indians died in St. Louis, a third died on the way home and the surviving Indian was killed shortly after reaching his tribe in a raid by the Blackfeet, their journey had far reaching results.


On April 28, 1834, Jason and Daniel Lee and two lay assistants, Cyrus Shepard and Philip Edwards, left St. Louis for Oregon in the company of Captain Nathaniel Wyeth and his adventurers and trappers. Upon their arrival at Fort Vancouver September 15, 1834 they commenced choosing a site for the mission. In October 1834 the first mission in the Oregon country was established on the Willamette River north of the the present day city of Keizer.
    In 1837, in response to a request for additional help, another group of missionaries were sent to join Lee. By March of 1838, it was determined to establish a second mission at the Dalles. It would be called
Wascopam . Meanwhile, Lee, still in need of more assistance, returned east to plead his case. Shortly after his departure his wife and new born baby died and were buried in a single grave at the mission. A messenger was sent to advise him of his loss. Lee continued on to the east and by the following spring he had raised contributions totaling about $100,000, had recruited 51 people to join forces with those already on the Willamette, and had met and married Lucy Thompson.
    Upon his return to the mission with the reinforcements, it was decided to move the mission to a more healthful location in what is now downtown Salem. The ensuing years were hard ones for Lee. His second wife died after only two years and the differing philosophies with his laymen created tensions that finally resulted in his recall. He returned to Stanstead, Canada, in poor health, and died there shortly before his 42nd birthday in 1845. It wasn't until 1906 that he was reinterred in the Lee Mission Cemetery in Salem beside his two wives, baby son, and daughter.

    While Jason Lee was struggling to keep the Willamette Mission going, Dr. Marcus Whitman was investigating the possibility of establishing a mission. Whitman, a country doctor from New York State, and a very devout person, had previously been rejected for missionary work due to his poor health. Early in 1835, however, Whitman succeeded in getting an appointment from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to establish a mission in the Oregon country.
    In 1835 Whitman made a preliminary trip with Samuel Parker, in the company of a fur trading expedition, to talk to the Indians. After returning from Green River in 1835, (Parker remained in the Oregon country) Whitman spent the winter of 1835-36 raising funds, buying supplies and recruiting a party.
    The party included Whitman, his bride Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, Rev. Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza, as well as several hired hands and Indian boys. William Gray, a bachelor, served as scout and general manager for the expedition. Narcissa and Eliza became an important part of history as the first white women to make the overland trip to the West.
    On September 12, 1836 the party reached Fort Vancouver where the ladies remained while their husbands scouted the region for an appropriate site for the mission. In the end it was decided to establish two missions. Whitman established his mission near the Cayuse at Waiilatpu and Spalding established his near the Nez Perce at Lapwai, about 125 miles east of Waiilatpu.
    William Gray left almost immediately for the east to seek reinforcements for the missions. He returned in 1838 with his bride Mary and a party of seven including Rev. and Mrs. Cushing Eells, Rev. and Mrs. Elkanah Walker, Rev. and Mrs. A.B. Smith and Cornelius Rogers, a bachelor. They arrived at the mission at the end of August 1838.
    There was much dissension amongst the party, as the couples did not get along well with each other and indications were that the Grays were not liked by any of the others. Spalding and Whitman frequently quarreled and nearly every member of the group wrote to the Mission Board at one time or another about the conduct of his associates. In frustration over the lack of harmony, threatened closure of the mission. By the time news of the Board's decision reached Waiilatpu, the situation had changed. The Smiths, Grays, and Cornelius Rogers had resigned and left the Oregon country. The Spaldings, Eellses, Walkers and Whitmans had reconciled their differences.
    Whitman returned to the east in the winter of 1842 to warn of the possibility of losing the Northwest to Great Britain and to publicize the opportunities available in the Oregon Country. His journey was instrumental in encouraging colonization of the west. In 1843, on his return journey he accompanied a wagon train of settlers. As the preceeding years brought more trains and settlers, disease began to decimate the tribes. In 1847, after rising tensions with the Cayuse Indians, Whitman and Narcissa were killed in a massacre that left many dead and the remainder held captive until their release was negotiated by Peter Skene Ogden.

For Additional Information:
Whitman Massacre including a list of the participants.
Whitman Mission National Historic Site

After Jason Lee set up his mission in 1834, French Catholic residents of nearby French Prairie requested of Dr. McLoughlin that a Catholic priest be sent to them so that they could attend their own church.

The first two Catholic missionaries in the Pacific Northwest were Father Francois Blanchet and his assistant Father Modeste Demers. St. Francis, the first Catholic mission, was established on the Cowlitz River in 1838, under Father Demer's charge. In 1840, the St. Paul Mission was established at French Prairie, under the direction of Father Blanchet. Eventually both priests were elevated to the rank of Bishop. Father Blanchet became Bishop of Oregon and Father Demers became Bishop of Vancouver Island.  The Sisters of Providence arrived in 1856 to assist.

My name is Stephenie Flora. Thanks for stopping by. Return to [
Home Page ] All [ Comments and Inquiries ] are welcome.