After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest from May 1804 to September 1806, meeting natives tribes along the way.
In 1831, three Nez Perce Indians and one Flathead Indian traveled from the Oregon Territory to St. Louis, Missouri, looking for the “Book to Heaven.” The Bishop of St. Louis was Rev. Joseph Rosati (1789-1843), who later sent Pierre De Smet as one of the “Black robe” missionaries to the Indians.
Bishop Rosati wrote in the annals of the Association of the Propagation of the Faith, Dec. 31, 1831: “Some three months ago four Indians who live across the Rocky Mountains near the Columbia River (Clark’s Fork of the Columbia) arrived at St. Louis. … After visiting General Clark who, in his celebrated travels, has visited their country … they came to see our church and appeared to be exceedingly well pleased with it. … Two of our priests visited them. … They made the sign of the Cross and other signs which appeared to have some relation to baptism. The sacrament was administered to them.”
Wyandot Indian chief, William Walker (1800-1874), who had become a Methodist, met the same Indians at the home of Territorial Governor William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1805-1806). His account was printed, March 1, 1833, in the Christian Advocate & Journal and Zion’s Herald of New York, a Methodist Episcopal publication which at the time had the largest circulation of any periodical in the world: “Immediately after we landed in St. Louis, on our way to the west, I proceeded to Gen. Clark’s, superintendent of Indian affairs. … While in his office … he informed me that three chiefs from the Flat-Head nation were in his house, and were quite sick, and that one (the fourth) had died a few days ago. They were from the west of the Rocky Mountains. … Curiosity prompted me to step into the adjoining room to see them, having never seen any, but often heard of them. I was struck by their appearance. … The distance they had traveled on foot was nearly three thousand miles to see Gen. Clarke, their great father, as they called him, he being the first American officer they ever became acquainted with. …”
Walker continued: “Gen. Clark related to me the object of their mission, and, my dear friend, it is impossible for me to describe to you my feelings while listening to his narrative. … (They had heard) the white people away toward the rising of the sun had been put in possession of the true mode of worshiping the great Spirit. They had a book containing directions how to conduct themselves in order to enjoy his favor and hold converse with him; and with this guide, no one need go astray, but every one that would follow the directions laid down there, could enjoy, in this life, his favor; and after death would be received into the country where the great Spirit resides, and live for ever with him. … Upon receiving this information, they called a national council to take this subject into consideration. … They accordingly deputed four of their chiefs to proceed to St. Louis to see their great father, Gen. Clarke, to inquire of him. …”
William Walker wrote further: “They arrived at St. Louis, and presented themselves to Gen. Clark the latter was somewhat puzzled being sensible of the responsibility that rested on him; he however proceeded by informing them that what they had been told by the white man in their own country, was true. Then went into a succinct history of man, from his creation down to the advent of the Saviour; explained to them all the moral precepts contained in the Bible, expounded to them the decalogue. Informed them of the advent of the Saviour, his life, precepts, his death, resurrection, ascension, and the relation he now stands to man as a mediator-that he will judge the world, & c.”
The publishing of these accounts inspired Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa to leave Massachusetts and become missionaries to the Indians of Oregon and Washington. Accompanying them were Presbyterian missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding. This made Narcissa and Eliza the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.
President Warren G. Harding, in dedicating the Oregon Trail Monument, July 3, 1923, recounted how Dr. Marcus Whitman traveled, clad in buckskin breeches, fur leggings and moccasins, “(An) episode … took place within these walls. … Seated at his desk … John Tyler, tenth President of the United States. Facing him … was the lion-visaged Daniel Webster, Secretary of State. The door opened and there appeared before the amazed statesmen a strange and astonishing figure. It was that of a man of medium height and sturdy build, deep chested, broad shouldered, yet lithe in movement and soft in step. He was clad in a coarse fur coat, buckskin breeches, fur leggings, and boot moccasins, looking much worse for the wear. …
“It was that of a religious enthusiast, tenaciously earnest yet revealing no suggestion of fanaticism, bronzed from exposure to pitiless elements and seamed with deep lines of physical suffering, a rare combination of determination and gentleness – obviously a man of God, but no less a man among men. Such was Marcus Whitman, the missionary hero of the vast, unsettled, unexplored Oregon country, who had come out of the West to plead that the state should acquire for civilization the empire that the churches were gaining for Christianity. …”
Harding continued: “The magnificence of Marcus Whitman’s glorious deed has yet to find adequate recognition in any form. Here was a man who, with a single companion, in the dead of winter (1842), struggled through pathless drifts and blinding storms, four thousand miles, with the sole aim to serve his country and his God. … He was pushing grimly and painfully through this very pass on his way from Walla Walla to Fort Hall, thence, abandoning the established northern route as impassable, off to the South through unknown, untrodden lands, past the Great Salt Lake, to Santa Fe, then hurriedly on to St. Louis and finally, after a few days, again on the home-stretch to his destination, taking as many months as it now takes days to go from Walla Walla to Washington. …”
Harding continued: “It was more than a desperate and perilous trip that Marcus Whitman undertook. It was a race against time. Public opinion was rapidly crystallizing into a judgment that the Oregon country was not worth claiming, much less worth fighting for; that, even though it could be acquired against the insistence of Great Britain, it would prove to be a liability rather than an asset. … Webster … years before … had pronounced Oregon ‘a barren, worthless country, fit only for wild beasts and wild men.’ … Whitman … turning to the President … added … beseechingly: ‘All I ask is that you will not barter away Oregon or allow English interference until I can lead a band of stalwart American settlers across the plains. For this I shall try to do!’ … The just and considerate Tyler could not refuse. ‘Doctor Whitman,’ he rejoined sympathetically, ‘your long ride and frozen limbs testify to your courage and your patriotism. Your credentials establish your character. Your request is granted!'”
Harding added: “Whitman … a few months later (1843) … had completed an organization of eager souls, and led the first movement by wagon train across plains and mountains along this unblazed trail. What a sight that caravan must have appeared to the roaming savages! And what an experience for the intrepid pioneers! More that two hundred wagons, bearing well-nigh a thousand emigrants, made up the party. They traveled by substantially the same route that Whitman had taken when he first went out to Oregon; from a rendezvous near what is now Kansas City they moved due northwest across northeast Kansas and outheast Nebraska to the Platte River; followed the Platte to the middle of what is now Wyoming, thence crossing the mountains by way of the Sweetwater Valley and the South Platte; and from Fort Hall, following the well-known route, roughly paralleling the Snake River, into Oregon.
“The difficulties of the trip, involving beside the two hundred wagons, the care of women and children, and of considerable herds of live stock, were such that its successful accomplishment seems almost miraculous. But stern determination triumphed and the result was conclusive. Americans had settled the country … and in the end the boundary settlement was made on the line of the forty-ninth parallel, your great Northwest was saved, and a veritable Empire was merged in the young Republic. Never in the history of the world has there been a finer example of civilization following Christianity. The missionaries led under the banner of the cross, and the settlers moved close behind under the star-spangled symbol of the nation.”
Harding acknowledged the missionaries by name: “Among all the records of the evangelizing efforts as the forerunner of human advancement, there is none so impressive as this of the early Oregon mission and its marvelous consequences. To the men and women of that early day whose first thought was to carry the gospel to the Indians – to the Lees, the Spauldings, the Grays, the Walkers, the Leslies, to Fathers DeSmet and Blanchet and DeMars, and to all the others of that glorious company who found that in serving God they were also serving their country and their fellowmen – to them we pay today our tribute; to them we owe a debt of gratitude, which we can never pay, save partially through recognition such as you and I have accorded today. … ”
Unfortunately, when an outbreak of measles occurred, several Cayuse Indians died. The mission was blamed and the Whitmans, along with 11 others, were massacred.
President Harding ended his Oregon Trail tribute by acknowledging: “… my appreciation both as President of the United States and as one who honestly tries to be a Christian soldier, of the signal service of the martyred Whitman.”
This highlights a recurring theme in history, namely, the two competing motivations of Greed and the Gospel. Missionaries and virtuous setters motivated by the Gospel genuinely wanted to be a blessing to native tribes; but opportunistic politicians and settlers motivated by greed wanted to drive tribes off their lands.
Attempting to discern the difference were Chief Moses of the Sinkiuse-Columbia tribe, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. They reluctantly gave up land to avoid war, but in the process, successfully preserved their tribes’ existence. Chief Moses befriended Missionary Henry Spalding and was educated at a Presbyterian mission school. Chief Moses traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met with President Rutherford Hayes.
The unavoidable fact was that the Northwest was going to be claimed by either Spain, Russia, Britain or the United States. After treaties were negotiated, the Oregon Territory of 286,541 square miles became U.S. property, being incorporated into the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana.
In 1859, Oregon became the 33rd state to join the Union. The original Oregon State Constitution stated: “Bill of Rights, Article I, Section 2. All men shall be secure in the Natural right, to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their consciences.”
In 1889, Montana became the 41st state to join the Union. The original Montana Constitution stated: “Preamble. We, the people of Montana, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of liberty … establish this Constitution.”
In 1889, Washington became the 42 state to join the Union. The original Washington State Constitution stated: “Preamble. We, the people of the State of Washington, grateful to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for our liberties, do ordain this Constitution.”
In 1890, Idaho became the 43rd state to join the Union. The original Idaho State Constitution stated: “Preamble. We, the people of the State of Idaho, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, to secure its blessings and promote our common welfare do establish this Constitution.”
In 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state to join the Union. The original Wyoming Constitution stated: “Preamble. We, the people of the State of Wyoming, grateful to God for our civil, political, and religious liberties … establish this Constitution.”
The state of Washington placed the statue of Dr. Marcus Whitman in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
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