Protestant missionaries choose Tshimakain plain as site for a mission to the Spokane Indians on September 25, 1838.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 2/23/2017
  • Essay 20298

On September 25, 1838, missionaries Elkanah Walker (1805-1877) and Cushing Eells (1810-1893) choose a site to build a mission near where the town of Ford in Stevens County will later be located (some 25 miles northwest of the city of Spokane). Walker and Eells have been touring the area in search of a place where they can live and teach Christianity to the Spokane Indians. Situated on a plain known to the Spokanes as Tshimakain, interpreted as "place of springs," the mission will be home to the two ministers and their families for the next nine years.

Not Africa but Oregon

Neither Walker nor Eells had ever expected to find themselves anywhere near a place called Tshimakain; a year earlier, both had been awaiting deployment to Africa by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. When the political situation there was deemed too dangerous, the board offered them an opportunity to reinforce the missionary effort in Oregon Territory instead. The two men had other traits in common besides their religious zeal. Both grew up in New England and attended Congregational theological seminaries, and both were married shortly before departing for the West. Along with two other missionary couples, the newlyweds had traveled overland on a journey marked by hardship and dissension. After four months on the trail, they reached the Whitman mission at Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, in late August 1838.

Soon after their arrival, the men held a council to discuss their placements. The Spokane Indians had requested a mission the previous year, having learned of Christianity from Hudson's Bay Company employees and from Spokane Garry, who had attended a missionary school in Canada. One of their chiefs, known both as Old Chief and Big Head, had traveled to Waiilatpu to lobby for his people, and the council decided that the Walkers and the Eellses should establish a station among the Spokanes.

A "Voyage of Exploring"

Myra Eells (1805-1878) and Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897), who was five months pregnant, remained at Waiilatpu when their husbands set off on September 10 with an Indian guide named Topas on a "voyage of exploring" (Walker, 68). As far as is known, Eells did not keep a diary at this time, so all information about their trip comes from Elkanah Walker's journal.

Traveling north on horseback, they camped on the Touchet River on the 11th and enjoyed a hearty supper of salted salmon and boiled potatoes. Walker made himself a cup of tea that was so strong that "it was a long time before god Somnus would take me into his embrace" (Walker, 69). The next day they crossed the Snake River near the mouth of the Palouse, where Palus Indians traded them fresh salmon, which provided a welcome complement to their boiled potatoes for supper. "If some of the gentry in the States could have seen us," wrote Walker, "they would have no doubt judged us barbarians. Brother E. asked how many ladies at a boarding school it would take to eat as much as we did. I answered about three score & ten" (Walker, 69).

Following an established trail up the Palouse River, Walker estimated they were traveling quite fast, about five miles per hour. Late on September 14, they reached the Spokane River, and the next morning a group of Spokanes ferried them across by canoe. Reverend Eells read a passage from the New Testament that several in attendance said they recognized from Spokane Garry's teachings.

Having seen no site near the river that they judged suitable for a mission, Walker and Eells continued north to the Colville Valley and camped in the vicinity of present-day Chewelah near the village of a man called The Fool, who brought them potatoes for their dinner and encouraged them to build their mission there. The next morning, a Sunday, he arrived with a number of his people, and Walker "commenced worship after the N. England style. I talked to them some time by an interpreter ... It was interesting to see what good attention they gave while we were speaking and praying" (Walker, 72).

Wearied by the exertion of preaching two sermons that day, Walker and Eells decided to retire early that evening. "When the Indians saw us spreading down our blankets, they laughed quite heartily, the great number made use of" (Walker, 73).

Big Head, whom they had met at Waiilatpu, had arrived at their camp during the afternoon. "He had a long talk with the people & us. Gave us many thanks for coming. Said every thing in favor of locating with him & all he could against our building at the place where we were encamped" (Walker, 72). The next morning, he accompanied the missionaries as they rode north to the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Colvile, where Chief Factor Archibald McDonald (1790-1853) made them welcome. McDonald recommended that they follow Big Head's advice in choosing a mission site and promised to send tools and supplies to help with building.

After a visit farther north to Calispel Lake near present-day Usk in Pend Oreille County, on September 25 Big Head led the missionaries to a small plain near where the town of Ford in Stevens County is now located just outside the Spokane Indian Reservation. This was the place he intended for them to locate their mission. They made a quick inspection, and then accompanied Big Head to his village on the Spokane River, about six or seven miles away. The next morning, the missionaries held a worship service for about 50 people in the village, then returned to the plain "to explore it & select a place to build upon. Big Head did not go with us but sent one to accompany us who, from the sagacious look of his countenance, we named Solomon" (Walker, 85).

The sheltered valley, surrounded by wooded hills, was about seven miles long and one mile wide and lay near the Hudson's Bay Company's trail between Fort Colvile and Fort Walla Walla. "After riding all over the plain all afternoon until I was completely worn out," wrote Walker, "we selected the spot we first stopped at this morning for our present location near a spring of good water" on the east side of the valley (Walker, 85).

Working on a Building

That afternoon, the supplies promised by Archibald McDonald arrived from Fort Colvile: "two axes, 40 lbs. of Indian meal, 30 ditto of flour, 10 lbs. dry buffalo meat, 15 lbs. of bacon, all of the first quality." Wasting no time, Walker left Eells to pitch their tent while he took an axe and headed for the woods with a group of Spokanes who had offered to help.

"I marked some trees which I wished to have felled & soon they had them down & before night we had a number of sticks [logs] cut & three carried to the place. The Indians took hold of the work with as much good will as any men I ever saw ... It was interesting to see with what eagerness they would take the sticks of green pine fifteen feet long & some of them not less than one foot in diameter" (Walker, 86).

Big Head arrived that evening and "came to our tent soon after sunset & talked to the people and to us telling us that his eyes were blind his ears stopped & his mind dark, did not know any, but now we had come among them, the scales would fall from his eyes, he would be able to hear & know. Telling us how glad the people were that we had come among them" (Walker, 87).

During the next four days, the two missionaries and their Spokane helpers cut enough logs for two 14-by-14-foot cabins and laid them up to roof height. "After laying the first stick, we had a prayer consecrating it to God" (Walker, 87). They did not put on the roofs yet, for they had decided to spend the winter at Waiilatpu and return to Tshimakain with their wives in the spring.

Exceedingly Hard to Learn the Language

Walker was anxious to learn the Spokane language, but was finding it "exceedingly hard to labor & be acquiring the language at the same time. I thought I had studied hard in straightening out the Greek & Hebrew verbs, but I must say I never studied so hard as at the present time. I have to keep my mind continually on the stretch to catch every word and mode of expression." He was excited to learn that one of the Spokanes could speak some English and help with translations. He spent time with Big Head, learning words and phrases. Delivering a prayer at the Sunday service, he tried to use some expressions in Spokane, but the next morning he confided to his diary, "It seems to me that I shall never learn this language. Had strained my mind so hard last night that I was almost crazy, so excited that it was a long time before I could go to sleep" (Walker, 87-88).

By October 2, Eells and Walker felt that they had made enough progress on their cabins for the present. After making a present of powder and balls to the Spokanes who had helped with the construction, they saddled their horses and packed their mules for the journey south, with Big Head as their guide. They would return in spring 1839 with their wives and the Walkers' infant son to live among the Spokanes for the next nine years.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Chief Spokane Garry" (by Jim Kershner), "The Spokane Mission: Nine Years of Love and Conflict" (by Robert Clark), and "Walker, Mary Richardson" (by Ron Richardson), (accessed December 12, 2016); Elkanah Walker, Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: The Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker ed. by Clifford Drury (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1976).

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