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[Detail] Chilkat dancers, Alaska, 1895

Missionaries in the Pacific Northwest

Once the fur companies made inroads into the region, missionaries were eager to bring Christianity to the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. The Subject Index heading, Christianity, and a search on missionaries provide many images, primary texts by Indian agents and missionaries, and secondary texts such as "Anglicanism Among the Indians of Washington Territory," which includes excerpts from the Church of England Missionary Society Proceedings, 1819-1820:

It has been suggested ... that the western parts of British America, lying between the high ridge called the Rocky Mountains and the North Pacific Ocean, and extending from about the 42d to the 57th degree of North Latitude, offer a more promising and practicable field for Missionary Labours than any other in that quarter of the Globe. The people are not savage, ferocious, and wandering; but settled in villages, and in several respects somewhat civilized, though still in the hunter state; with few arts, no letters, no general knowledge, but a great desire to be taught by White Men, whose superiority they clearly discern... .

(Pages 224-25, "Anglicanism Among the Indians of Washington Territory")

  • Why would the Church of England want to establish missions among Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest? What attracts them to this particular region?
  • Why do you think that the Missionary Society described the people of the Northwest as having a "great desire to be taught by White Men, whose superiority they clearly discern"?
  • What attitudes did missionaries have towards Native Americans? Can you identify differences among missionaries' attitudes?

In the first half of the 19th century, several denominations established missions throughout the Northwest. Protestant missions were established in 1834 and 1836 in the Oregon Territory. Jesuit missions were established in Oregon in 1840. Catholics established missions at Fort Vancouver in 1838, and on Idaho's St. Joe River around 1842. Subject Index headings such as Catholic, Catechists, church, nuns, Jesuit, Methodist, Presbyterian, and priests provide narrower selections of materials such as this 1859 photograph of Jesuit Pierre-Jean de Smet with a delegation of chiefs on a peace mission in Vancouver.

  • What does the photograph of Father De Smet and the Indian delegation suggest about the success of his efforts?
  • What else can you learn about missionary work from this photograph?

Missionary work was supported by the U.S. government as a means of assimilating, or "civilizing," Native Americans and has been seen as something forced upon indigenous people. However, in her article, "Christianity, a Matter of Choice: The Historic Role of Indian Catechists in Oregon Territory and British Columbia," Margaret Whitehead makes the point that Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest "displayed . . . selectivity when proffered white culture. They could and did deal intelligently and profitably with the intrusive society." Her article focuses on the free choice many Native Americans made to accept Christianity, while "Lawyer of the Nez Perces" describes how in 1831, the Nez Perces and Flatheads sent a delegation to St. Louis seeking information about Christianity.

Missionaries were not always successful in converting Indians. "The Spokane Indian Mission at Tshimakain, 1838-1848" and "Lawyer of the Nez Perces" describe the problems of a group of Presbyterian missionaries in the Northwest, culminating in the 1847 massacre of Marcus Whitman, a medical doctor at the Waiilatpu Mission. The massacre ultimately led to the Cayuse War, which set back missionary work in the region for a decade.

Photograph of Sahale Stick

Photograph of
Sahale Stick.
Page 100 of “Christianity, a Matter of Choice”

  • What was the relationship between the fur trade and missionary work? What interactions occurred between individuals of each group?
  • What did missionaries hope to accomplish in the Pacific Northwest? Did their goals change over time?
  • What techniques and activities did they use to achieve their goals? How successful were they?
  • How did Native Americans respond to missionaries and to Christianity?
  • According to their reports, what did Indian agents and superintendents think of missionary work? What value did they see in it? What problems did they see?
  • What roles did missionaries play in establishing and enforcing government policies towards Native Americans?
  • How did the introduction of Christianity impact Native-American cultures and the way history unfolded in the Pacific Northwest?
  • What other missionary work was going on in North America during the 19th century, and how did it compare to the work in the Pacific Northwest?

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