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The Oregon missionaries were collectively the religious-minded pioneers who settled in the Oregon Country of North America starting in the 1830s with the intent of converting local Native Americans to Christianity. The Foreign Mission movement was already 14 years underway by 1820, but it was difficult to find missionaries willing to go to Oregon, as many wanted to go to the east, to India or China. It was not until the 1830s, when a schoolmaster from Connecticut, Hall Jackson Kelley, created his "American Society for the Settlement of the Oregon Country," that more interest and support for Oregon missionaries grew. Oregon missionaries played a political role, as well as a religious one, as their missions established US political power in an area in which the Hudson’s Bay Company, operating under the British government, maintained a political interest in the Oregon country. Such missionaries had an influential impact on the early settlement of the region, establishing institutions that became the foundation of United States settlement of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1834, New York Methodist minister Jason Lee came to the Oregon Country as the first of these missionaries, to establish the first American settlement and to convert the native population. The party was called the Wyeth-Lee Party as Lee had contracted with Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, who was going on his second trading expedition, to accompany him. The party set out on April 28, 1834 traveling independently from the American Fur Company's caravan headed for the same destination. Lee built a mission school for Indians in the Willamette Valley at the site of present-day Salem, Oregon. The school evolved from a mission school to a secondary school called the Oregon Institute, eventually becoming Willamette University, the oldest university on the West Coast.
In 1835, Dr. Marcus Whitman made his initial journey west from New York, past the Rocky mountains and into California. 1836, Marcus Whitman made the same trip, this time with his new wife, Narcissa Whitman, and another missionary couple, Henry Harmon Spalding (who had been jilted by Narcissa) and his wife Eliza Spalding. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.
The Whitman’s reached Fort Walla Walla on October 26, 1838 and founded a mission at Waiilatpu, about 25 miles east of Fort Wallo Wallo in the Walla Walla Valley, then the territory of the Cayuse Indians, in the present-day state of Washington. The Spalding’s founded a mission among the Nez Perce Indians at Lapwai, at the foot of Thunder mountain, in present-day Idaho.
Legacy of Early Oregon Missionaries
Missionary work in the Oregon country continued into the 1850s, though in 1853, the Washington territory was established, separate from the Oregon territory to which it had previously belonged. The success in converting Native Americans to Christianity was varied. In some cases, the Indians were very suspicious of the missionaries, and this suspicion only increased when many of the Indians contracted diseases that were introduced by missionaries and white settlers.
As tensions between native tribes and white missionaries rose during the 1850s, resulting in small-scale wars between settlers and natives, like the Rogue River War, missionary work in Oregon was increasingly targeted at white immigrants from the eastern parts of the US, rather than native populations.
- Jones, Nard. The Great Command: the story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Oregon country pioneers. Little, Brown and Co, 1959
- Loewenberg, Robert. Equality on the Oregon Frontier: Jason Lee and the Methodist Mission 1834-43. University of Washington Press, 1976
- Drury, Clifford. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon. Arthur H. Clark Company, 1973
- Norwood, Frederick. “Two contrasting views of the Indians: Methodist involvement in the Indian troubles in Oregon and Washington.” Church History, vol 49, no. 2, 1980
- Cook, S.F. “The Epidemic of 1830-1833 in California and Oregon” ‘ ‘The Emergent Native Americans: A reader in culture contact’ ‘ ed. Deward Walker, Jr. Little, Brown and Co. 1972. pg 172-192