The first permanent residents of the Northwest were fur traders who arrived in the early 1830s and later decided to stay, but the first people to immigrate to the Columbia River country specifically to establish permanent communities were Christian missionaries in the 1830s and 40s. Prominent among these were the Methodist Jason Lee, who settled on the Willamette River 10 miles north of present-day Salem in 1834 and whose nephew, Daniel, later established a mission at the mouth of the Columbia in 1840 a mile from Point Adams. Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding led a group of Congregationalist-Presbyterian missionaries in 1836. Whitman established a mission among the Cayuse Indians at a place called Waiilatpu on the Walla Walla River in Washington; Spalding established a mission on the Clearwater River in Idaho, 110 miles to the east. Meanwhile Catholic missionaries were at work farther in the interior, among Indians in present-day northern Idaho and western Montana.
The two religious traditions took different approaches to evangelism. Catholics, such as the tireless Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, sought simple expressions of faith from Indians. Protestant missionaries, on the other hand, sought not only to convert Indians to Christianity but also to convert them to a new lifestyle centered on individual labor and community-building.
To missionaries, particularly Protestants, religion and Euro-American civilization were complementary. That is, land ownership and the establishment of farms and communities was an extension of religious practice. These missionaries believed that through farming Indians could merge their traditional lifestyles with the agrarian lifestyles of the immigrants whom the missionaries believed soon would flood the Northwest.
Marcus Whitman believed strongly that he was responsible for teaching farming as well as faith. Whitman wrote that “. . .while we point them with one hand to the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, we believe it be equally our duty to point with the other to the hoe, as the means of saving their famished bodies from an untimely grave & furnishing the means of subsistence to future generations.”
Sometimes, nature helped the missionaries, as it did in 1843 when salmon runs were lower than usual, at least in the Spokane River. Rev. Cushing Eels and his wife, Myra, and Rev. Elkanah Walker and his wife, Mary, were assigned to the mission at Tshimakain (“the place of the springs”), also known as Walker’s Prairie, about 15 miles northwest of Spokane House, the Hudson’s Bay trading post near the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers. Eels noted the poor salmon runs in a November 1843 report to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. He wrote that the declining runs of salmon, a primary food source for the Indians, would force them to devote more time to farming.
Missionaries had both successes and failures in convincing Columbia River Indians to take up farming. Indians living near The Dalles and Celilo Falls, for example, had a enjoyed a steady supply of fish from the Columbia River nearly year-round, as well as game, berries and native plants. In short, there was an abundance of food, and they were simply not interested in farming. The farming life was a nearly impossible change for a people and culture that evolved with regular patterns of hunting, gathering, abundance and scarcity. In some Indian religious traditions, too, the act of tearing into the earth for the purpose of planting crops was considered a desecration of the creator.
The missionaries also experienced successes and failures in converting Indians to Christianity. Missionaries were successful in part because the apocalyptic vision of many Christians of this era was similar to apocalyptic visions of the Indian prophets. At the time, apocalyptic zeal was in vogue, and many American Christians believed America was going to be the seat of government of the Millennium before the return of Christ. To some Indians, the Christian message included familiar themes. Both Christianity and the Prophet Dance religion, which began to be practiced by Indians of the Columbia Plateau about 1770, have a doctrine of resurrection. The hospitable reception given some Christian missionaries as they began working in the Northwest in the 19th Century may have been the result of recognizing these common elements.
In the Prophet Dance religion, the Earth Mother had a limited life span. Prophet Dance followers envisioned a coming “millennium” in which Coyote, the Earth Mother and those who had died — the “Old Ones” — would return to Earth and work miracles. Meanwhile, believers would be transformed after their own deaths into living creatures in a new life, presumably in a better world. Prophet Dance involved circle dances, and those who did not dance could not expect to be transformed upon their deaths; they would return to Earth in some non-human form. The dances were held to hasten the coming of the millennium. Prophet Dance was a forerunner of the modern-day Washat, or Long House, religion.
Some Columbia Plateau Indians recognized similar tenants in the Christian teachings of missionaries, thus encouraging their acceptance. Historian Barbara Wester writes: “Plateau peoples found that Christian doctrine confirmed their beliefs in the transformative power of death, and the coming of a new and better life.” Missionaries also may have been accepted because of Indian prophesies about the coming of non-Indians and their religion. In 1782, a smallpox epidemic broke out among tribes of the Great Plains and spread west along trade routes. In eastern Washington, the disease decimated the Spokane Tribe. A Spokane prophet, Yureerachen (“the Circling Raven”), whose son died of the disease, is said to have gone to the top of Mount Spokane where he fasted for four days and had a vision of the coming of non-Indians. As recounted by historians Robert Ruby and John Brown, Yureerachen did not tell his people about this vision until 1790, when pumice from a volcanic eruption in the Cascade Mountains to the west blanketed eastern Washington, and the Indians thought the world was ending (Geologists have dated a large eruption of Mount St. Helens, the first of the mountain’s Goat Rocks Eruptive Period, at about AD 1800). According to an oral tradition that developed after the first missionaries arrived in the region, Yureerachen said, in effect: “Soon there will come from the rising sun a different kind of man than any you have yet seen, who will bring with them [sic] a book, and will teach you everything, and after that the world will fall to pieces.” The prophet assured them the sama, as they would be called, would be friendly, and so the Spokanes looked forward to the arrival of the non-Indians, whom they also would call chipixa, “white-skinned ones.” Accordingly, some Indians anticipated the arrival of the sama and their book.
In some areas, missionaries found few Indians remaining alive as the result of epidemics. Disease virtually emptied vast areas of the lower Columbia River. The decimation caused by the malaria epidemic of 1830-33 was so complete that missionaries and other Europeans moving into the Willamette River valley of Oregon found virtually no Indians. The disease was carried by a mosquito that inhabited the temperate lowlands but was not found in the colder regions east of the Cascade Mountains. One indication of the slaughter and resulting empty countryside is the fact that Oregon communities were named after others in the eastern United States or were derivatives of family names — Portland, Astoria, Eugene — while many Washington cities, where Indians were more numerous and had not been as severely impacted by disease, were given Indian names — Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Yakima.
In 1832 a delegation of four Nez Perce and Flathead Indians traveled to St. Louis to seek a religious teacher for their people. Similar delegations of Nez Perce and Flathead Indians had traveled to the East seeking religious instruction in 1831, 1835 and 1838, the latter met by Father De Smet in St Louis that year. In 1840, De Smet made a reconnaissance of the Northwest in search of mission sites, and in 1841 returned to establish a mission (St. Ignatius) among the Flatheads at a site south of Flathead Lake.
In places, the work of Catholic and Protestant missionaries overlapped, as among the Spokane and Nez Perce tribes. Differences in Christian doctrine confused the Indians, but the work continued. Many Indians converted to Catholicism, many others to Protestant denominations. Anti-Catholic sentiment among some of the Protestant missionaries and mission workers contributed to the confusion and hampered the effectiveness of the missionary work.
Over time, cultural differences between unconverted Indians and Euro-Americans grew into deep distrust, suspicion and fear, and this affected all of the mission work. Wagon trains were delivering waves of settlers into a country that had been inhabited by semi-nomadic tribes for thousands of years, and their ancient lifestyle and cultures were being overrun or pushed aside steadily. The growing tension came to a boil at the Whitmans’ Waiilatpu, which had become a way station on the Oregon Trail. The Whitmans entertained frequent visitors as a result, and in 1847 some travelers arrived carrying measles. An epidemic spread among the Cayuse, who had no resistance to the disease, and about half of the tribe died. Although Whitman was a doctor and had been treating the local Indians since his arrival 11 years earlier, he could not cure measles outbreak among the Indians. Possibly believing Whitman had poisoned their children, and possibly convinced by Whitman’s attention to non-Indian children that his medicine helped them but not Indian children, Cayuse Indians attacked the mission on November 29, 1847. Disease was not the only catalyst for this conflagration. The Whitmans and their mission were a focal point for the growing sense of alienation, anger and distrust the Cayuse felt over the steady influx of wagon train pioneers into their homeland.
The Whitmans and 12 others were killed, and 50, mostly women and children, were taken hostage and held for a month until they were ransomed by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Following the massacre, Protestant missionaries generally withdrew from the interior Columbia River Basin but continued to work in the Willamette Valley; Catholic missionary work declined there, but continued in the eastern interior at long-established missions in present-day Montana and Idaho. It was the end of an important colonizing era in the Columbia River Basin. Christian missionaries entered the Columbia River Basin with religious zeal and an aim to save souls and, for the Protestants particularly, reshape Indian culture to fit Euro-American designs of civilization. The missionary period essentially ended with the attack on the Whitman mission, but the missionaries’ work led to the establishment of communities, farms, organized religion and governments in the region.