The Spokane Mission: Nine Years of Love and Conflict

  • By Robert A. Clark, The Pacific Northwesterner
  • Posted 9/22/2005
  • Essay 7260

Robert A. Clark authored two books and numerous magazine articles dealing with the Old West. He operates Arthur H. Clark Company, in Spokane, publishers of books on the American frontier experience. His account of the mission at Tshimikain originally appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1994), published by the Spokane Corral of the Westerners. It is here reprinted by permission.

The Spokane Mission

Just a few miles to the northwest of Spokane, Washington, up Chamokane Creek from its confluence with the Spokane River, is a small prairie at the edge of the Spokane Indian Reservation where, for nine years, two missionary families toiled and struggled in true frontier fashion some 150 years ago. There they built homes, brought babes into the world, struggled against the elements, and sought to convert the local natives to their Calvinistic theology. The challenge overcame them in the end, and they had to abandon their homes in 1847. But they were the first white families to settle in this area, and their story is fascinating.


The Pacific Northwest was, in the 1820s and 1830s, a very remote and unsettled area. It was dominated by the Hudson's Bay Company, which had a virtual monopoly on all trade and commerce in the area west of the Rockies. Their main post was at Fort Vancouver, and they had posts in eastern Washington at Walla Walla, Okanogan, and Colville.

In 1831 four Indians came to St. Louis from west of the rockies and met with William Clark. They said they were seeking the white man's religion. There is strong evidence that they were motivated to go east with this request by their contact with Spokane Garry, the well-known chief of this area who had been sent to the Red River School near Edmonton, Ontario, in his youth.

Their appeal was published in the Christian Advocate, a religious publication that had wide circulation throughout the Protestant congregations in the United States. The article sparked great interest in the need for missionaries to convert Western Indians. Speakers began traveling throughout the northeast, calling for volunteers to go west and fill the need.

The first to answer the call was the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1834 they dispatched Jason Lee and four others overland to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. The Methodists established a mission 60 miles south of the Columbia, up the Willamette River Valley. Supplies for the mission, and later reinforcements, were sent by ship around Cape Horn to the Sandwich, or Hawaiian, Islands, and thence to the Columbia River.

The following year, 1835, the Congregationalist and Presbyterian sponsored American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM), sent Rev. Samuel Parker on an exploring tour through the Northwest. Parker, accompanied by Dr. Marcus Whitman, was to reconnoiter potential locations for missions among the Nez Perce.

Whitman returned east in the fall of 1835 and began making preparations for traveling west to establish a mission. The previous spring he had sought out Narcissa Prentiss, an acquaintance who, after hearing Parker speak, was also interested in becoming a missionary to Oregon, and they were engaged to be married in two days.

Now, upon his return, he sought another couple to join them in their efforts at the suggestion of American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Narcissa recommended Henry Spalding and his wife Eliza, who were already appointed missionaries to the Osage Indians, but had not been sent to their post. Her recommendation set the stage for a mission beset with problems and conflicts -- a mission that would disband in tragedy just a dozen years later.

Spalding was an illegitimate child who had been abandoned by his mother when only 14 months old. He was raised without love, and as a result was plagued with low self-esteem and a defensive, contentious personality. In his youth he had offered himself to Narcissa and been rebuffed, a hurt he could not forget.

At first Spalding said no to Whitman's request that he join their missionary party. After further encouragement from Whitman, he changed his mind. Their trip across the plains did not, however, bring the couples closer together in their mutual goal. In fact, upon arrival in Oregon, the two couples agreed to establish separate missions 120 miles apart. The Whitmans were stationed near Ft. Walla Walla, and the Spaldings east of Lewiston on the Clearwater River. The old hurts had driven these two lonely couples days apart. Spalding was reported to have later told another missionary, "Do you suppose I would have come off here all alone a hundred and twenty miles if I could have lived with him or Mrs. Whitman?"

They traveled west with one other man, William Gray, a mechanic and teacher appointed by the Board. His skills were very necessary to the mission, as they would have to provide all the necessary tools for survival from the natural resources at their new homes. However, he had a sense of overconfidence and trust in his own abilities, which greatly hurt the mission over the next few years.

After establishing their missions, the families built their homes and settled in. Gray was gone most of the time exploring the country and making plans for his own future. The next year, 1837, he returned east to seek a reinforcement for the mission.

The 1838 Reinforcement

The ABCFM sent four more couples to Oregon in 1838. This group was composed of William Gray and his new wife, Elkanah, and Mary Walker, Rev. Cushing and Myra Eells, and Asa and Sarah Smith. The intriguing story of these four couples gives us great insight into the lives of the religiously committed in the early nineteenth century.

Mary Richardson Walker kept a detailed personal diary most of her life, and this diary reveals so much intimate information regarding her life and those around her that we almost feel transported into her world. She had attended rather progressive schools. In her youth she had wanted to be a doctor and had a great interest in science. She became a teacher. She experienced her religious conversion at age 20 during a Methodist revival, and shortly after joined the Congregational Church.

She was self-critical, demanding, opinionated, with a very sharp and acute mind. In 1839 she commented as follows regarding her spiritual progress since her conversion nine years earlier:

"I feel quite discouraged. I have been reviewing my life, particularly since I indulged a hope that I had experienced a change of heart. It is now almost nine years and what progress have I made, in what respect am I the better for having lived.

"I cannot see as in anything, I am just as prone as ever to indulge in vain and wicked thoughts, to forget God and the high calling with which I am called. I am still the same stupid, indifferent creature. If called to-day to deliver up my account, I fear I should do it with shame and confusion of face. What good can such a vile creature expect to do among the heathen? I should despair of doing anything were it not for the prayers of Christians and for the glory of God himself to save souls."

In the Spring of 1838 she first met Elkanah Walker, and two days later they were engaged to be married. This is startling, but not unusual at the time. The Whitman's had done the same. So had the Grays. The Walkers were brought together by mutual interest in missionary work.

Their betrothal was the result of a plot hatched by the ABCFM and one of Walker's former classmates named Thayer. Mary had met this Thayer some months earlier when he spoke at her church regarding missionary work. Speaking with him after the lecture, she became convinced that her future lay in missionary work and she volunteered her services to the ABCFM. They turned her down because she was a single female, and single women were not allowed to serve the missions except as teachers of missionary children or as domestics.

Elkanah Walker had been appointed as a missionary to South Africa in 1837. Because of a lack of funds, he had not yet been sent out by the ABCFM. While waiting his assignment, he wrote to the Board asking whether it wasn't advisable for him to marry before going out. The Board's secretary received this letter within days of receiving and rejecting Mary Richardson's application because of her being single. He wrote back to Walker and recommended that he might meet Mary.

Walker, who had never met her, sought the counsel of his former classmate and close friend Thayer -- the very Thayer that had met Mary some months before and encouraged her to enter the missionary field. Thayer remembered Mary, and endorsed the suggestion of the ABCFM secretary that Walker meet Mary. Thayer wrote two letters to Mary that Walker was to carry with him to Mary's home -- one of introduction, and one much more personal.

Elkanah Walker was a diffident and shy man who lacked self-confidence. He was brought up in Maine, in a large family of 14. He was first a farmer, but as he matured he sought schooling and the ministry at age 27. Robust in health, he was 6'4" tall and somewhat stooped. He was a patient and persevering man who was not impressive in the pulpit or in conversation, but who was well-liked by his friends and greatly trusted. He had joined the church at age 24 following his conversion. At age 31 he had applied to the ABCFM as a missionary.

On April 22,1838, this shy man visited the minister of Mary Walker's church, and together they walked to the Walker home. I will let Mary tell the story of the next 48 hours, hours that would shape the rest of their lives:

"Apr 22,1837, p.m. Along some time about 3 o'clock perhaps, I was folding away some old news papers and looked out and saw two gentlemen approaching. Gazed a moment, concluded one was Dr. Whitney, could not tell who the other was. Thought it might be some one coming to see father on some business. Continued my work without hardly stopping to take a second look. They rapped, sister P[hepe] received them at the door. Dr. W. entered & introduced a tall and rather awkward gentleman..."

Elkanah stayed only a few minutes, but returned to the Richardson home that evening with the Reverend Noah Emerson. Mary was somewhat puzzled over the reason for the second call, but according to a notation in her diary, concluded it was for the purpose of making arrangements for a meeting to be held in the Richardson home on Sunday evening. Following the Sunday meeting and before retiring to bed, she recorded some 300 words in her diary regarding her impressions of the visitor:

"His remarks were good. But not delivered in a style the most energetic ... After meeting instead of shaking hands in a kind of free cordial kind of a way as I was anticipating, his attention seemed rather taken up in some other way ... I thought he took more interest in getting acquainted with me than the rest of the family..."

Elkanah stayed at the Walker home that night. The following morning, before breakfast was ready, Mary found Elkanah reading his Bible in the living room alone. "Finding all the folks in the house were busy but me and that W & I were like to be left alone, I began to feel a little embarrased," she wrote. Elkanah laid aside his Bible and the two began to talk about the missionary enterprise. They spoke of the ABCFM, and Mary mentioned her rejected application. Elkanah spoke of his planned mission to Africa, and then hesitantly continued:

"I am going to surprise you. I may as well do my errand first as last. As I have no one engaged to go with me, I have come with the intention of offering myself to you. You have been recommended to me by Mr. Armstrong, & here is another letter from Thayer.

"Blushing agitated & confused, I took the letter, confessed my surprise and retiring to the ferthrest corner of the room & attempted to read. It was with difficulty I could raise my hands sufficiently to read...

"For a few hours after it was divulged the conflict was rather severe. The hand of Providence appeared so plain that I could not but feel that there was something like duty about it, and yet how to go to work to feel satisfied and love him I hardly know. But concluded the path of duty must prove the path of peace. Though I could discover a good foundation for true friendship, and altho I almost felt in the morning as if I wanted to throw the bargain off on to some one else, at evening I would not willingly have given up my titles."

On March 5 they were married, and just as quickly Walker was notified that there was an opening for a missionary couple in the Oregon Mission. He and Mary decided to accept the appointment and that spring they departed for the West with Gray and his new wife.

Gray's courtship had been equally brief. He had returned from Oregon country to marry his fiancé and gather the mission reinforcements. He arrived on her doorstep with bullet holes in his hat and his fiancé's family forbade the marriage. He was referred by Samuel Parker to another woman and was engaged and married in five days.

The Rev. Cushing Eells and his wife, Myra, were the third couple to join the reinforcement party of 1838. Even-tempered, though of a critical nature, Eells was to be Elkanah's partner in mission work for the next nine years.

The last couple to join the party, Asa Bowen Smith and wife Sarah, had decided to head west with the group in a whirlwind one-week period just prior to their departure. Smith had been waiting for appointment to a mission in the South Pacific, but had tired of the delays and responded to Spalding's report of great work in Oregon. Smith was also to become a trouble maker in the mission. He had romantic views of missionary work, and a great pride in his own abilities. He was intolerant of others.

Their trip across the continent sowed the seeds of self-destruction. They fought all the way. On April 27, only four days after the mission party started on their overland journey, Mary wrote in the privacy of her diary: "Some of the company feel disposed to murmur against Moses [i.e. Gray]." The object of complaint was undoubtedly Gray, and the complaints were most likely whispered by Smith. The 1838 party had been gone from the frontier less than two weeks when Smith wished he had never started. One month into the journey Mary wrote, "We have a strange company of Missionaries. Scarcely one who is not intolerable on some account."

It was a very critical group. Gray considered himself the leader, as he had made the trek once with Whitman and Spalding. He tried to control every action and decision, and was extremely parsimonious in his expenditures. The party was herding a few cattle with them for food, and one evening a calf was badly injured by wolves. This mishap led to a fierce argument typical of the party's dissension. Mary recorded the affair.

"Find the little calf so badly bitten by wolves, that Mr. W. and Smith think it best to kill it ... I dressed the head. The other family [i.e., the Grays and the Eells who shared the other tent] was displeased because the calf was killed. Refused to eat of it. I felt exceedingly tried to have things go on in this way. Resolved to talk with husband, think he had done wrong. Had been too much influenced by Br. S. & upheld him when he ought to have reproved.

"Was gratified & pleased to find Mr. W. determined to if possible to [effect] a reconciliation. I found it almost unneccessary to say what I had contemplated. Mr. S. & wife seem much less inclined to make concessions. I think S. is stubborn. .. It seems to me that he is more out of the way than Gray. He insisted in the first place that we should cook of the veal for dinner, but we did not ... At tea he insisted again on my cooking veal but I told him until there was peace I would not cook or eat of it. Mr. W. thought as I did, so though he looked cross he said no more. After the horses were picketed, we went in Mr. Gray's tent & a treaty of peace was negotiated. It was agreed that the past should be forgotten, that they would commence anew. Several resolves were passed, but the peace so far as it related to Mr. Smith, I fear was a forced point. He could not in any decency have helped falling in with the proposition. But I believe the same wrong spirit remains. The other [tent] family agreed to share the calf with us."

Upon arrival at Wailatpu, the Whitman station near Walla Walla, the Walkers, Eellses, and Smiths had to stay in the tiny Whitman cabin for several months. The stress of that arrangement led to further complications in relationships. Mary Walker had traveled overland from St. Louis on horseback, riding side saddle. She discovered enroute that she was pregnant. She went into labor in the crowded Whitman cabin on December 7, 1838. Her diary reads:

"Friday Dec. 7. Awoke about five o'clock a.m. As soon as I moved was surprised by a discharge which I supposed indicated approaching confinement. Felt unwilling it should happen in the absence of my husband ... Soon pains began to come on ... almost nine I became quite sick enough-began to feel discouraged. Felt as if I almost wished I have never been married. But there was no retreating, meet it I must. About eleven I began to be quite discouraged. I had hoped to be delivered ere then... But just as I supposed the worst was at hand, my ears were saluted with the cry of my child. A son was the salutation. Soon I forgot my misery in the joy of possessing a proper child. I truely felt to say with Eve, I have gotten a man from the Lord. With Hannah for this child I prayed. Thanks to a kind Providence for so great & unmerited a blessing. The remainder of the day I [was] comfortable. Husband returned in the evening with a thankful heart, I trust, & plenty of kisses for me & my boy."

The reaction of Smith to the joy of the Walkers reveals some of the causes of hostility within the group.

"Br. Walker & Eells are both in Dr. W's family which make a very large family. Mr. Walker has a son born the 7th of this month which was just 2 days over nine months from the time they were married, the 5th of March. What I think about such things, you know already. I feel thankful that I am not in such an embarrassed situation & at present there is not prospect of it."

Affairs were so strained after the long journey and the confined quarters that neither the Walker nor Eells family would agree to being stationed with either Gray or Smith. The men of the mission decided to establish a new station among the Spokane Indians. Gray wanted to lead that station, but all the other men voted against such a plan because of Gray's lack of qualification and contentious personality. It was assigned to Walker and Eells. Thus Gray was sent to live with Spalding, and Smith was to stay with the Whitmans.

Soon a new mission station was established by the Walker and Eells families at Tshimikain. It was located on a small prairie 20 miles northwest of Spokane, seven miles above the Spokane River on Chamokane Creek.

Life and work at the new mission was very demanding. In general the two families got along. There were petty criticisms of each other, however, which was perhaps understandable. They lived in the most primitive conditions. They had to grow their food, build houses, learn the language of the Indians, and attempt to make conversions.

Though personal tensions lessened because of the compatibility of the Walker and Eells families, problems lingered. Mary remained very self-critical. Her marriage was still new, and there was a new child to raise and care for. Her diary entries are revealing.

"I am tempted to exclaim, Woe is me that I am a wife. Better have lived & died a miserable old maid & none to share & thereby agrivate my misfortune. But it is too late. 0 may he who is his providence has suffered me to become a wife bless me in that relation & enable me to discharge every duty with Christian discretion & propriety. Yes, God helping me, I will endeavour tho faint & disheartened still to merit the love & esteem of my unfortunate but much loved husband. Perhaps tho I may be an afflication I am given to him in mercy to avert a worse. But reflections like these are but a poor solace to a grieved and disappointed wife. Disappointed, not because he is not as good as I anticipated, but because I have not gained that place in his heart that I fondly expected & which I think a wife ought to possess."

There were also troubles between the families as they tried to scrape a living from the frontier. In January 1841 there was a serious fire in the Eells'one-room cabin. Their walls were lined with Indian mats made of reeds. They caught fire and within minutes the house and contents were destroyed. The temperature was ten below zero. The Eells were forced to move into the Walker cabin. Mary's diary recounts the ordeal.

"So cold most of the family left the table to finish breakfast. The potatoes freeze in the cellar. Found the house was taking fire in consequence of the chimney being heated. Had to repair it, a cold treat for so cold a day. Our house is open and so crowded and the weather so cold, we can hardly make out to cook our food. Have not been able to wash this week."

Difficulties were inevitable.

"Fri. 22. Have gone through the old course of affairs once more. Have felt a little racked at Mr. E's remarks about my husband and myself. Wish he had more pity or politeness.

"Sun. 24. Mr. E. continues his course of polite observations, which keep me in anything but a pleasant mood. I hope the poor man will soon be able to live more remote from an object of so much disgust and aversion. I find it difficult to imitate the example of one who when he was reviled, reviled not again."

There were greater problems and frustrations, however. The entire reason for their moving west was to work with the Indians and to attempt their conversion. These New England Protestants brought their biases with them, including a great distrust for and aversion to Catholicism. At this time a number of Catholic missions were being established in the Northwest in competition with the Protestants.

The major difference in the approach to conversion dealt with when and to whom the sacrament of baptism should be administered. The priests sought to baptize infants immediately to save their souls, and would baptize adults after a brief period of indoctrination. The Protestants insisted not only on a longer period of instruction, but also upon a personal experience of salvation.

Their Calvinistic theology, with its strict precepts and moral code, made conversion a near impossibility. Walker often commented on his frustrations in his diary.

"There is one thing which renders this conversation with [the Indians] on the Sabbath quite unpleasant, that is the mixing of worldly talk with religious talk. I think if ever I felt the need of divine aid in imparting religious truth, it was to day ... 0 how long are we to live and see no visible effect of our preaching? Nothing but the spirit of God can bring them to feel their sins & repent of them..."

Days later, he had a dispute with a chief. He had given medicine to one of the chief's daughters, but in spite of this, he remarked:

"... he had sent her off to a medicine man in a rather sly manner ... At worship that evening I made some remarks about the medicine man, intending them for him ... The next morning [Sabbath] at worship, he [looked] very sour & sad ... At the afternoon service he came out ... & talked in such a manner that I could not understand him ... I should have remained ignorant had it not been explained to me by another Indian in more simple language.

"The sum & substance of it was, I had made some remarks against the medicine men the night before, & he thought of them all night, & in the morning he had determined to adhere to them ... They [the medicine men] made the salmon come. If the people were wounded, these men made them well. They were very powerful ... & he, for one, would not give them up, but hold them fast."

And the missionaries squabbled amongst themselves regarding how best to encourage Christian behavior amongst their charges. Mary suffered the following condemnation from Cushing Eells after she took in a young Indian girl who stood accused of asking young men to sleep with her.

"He [Mr. Eells] thinks it is interfering against the chief to employ her. I do not know what is right. I have compared her case with the example of our Savior in the case of the woman taken in adultery, and of the woman of Samaria, and of his eating with publicans and sinners. Also what St. Paul says of keeping company with immoral persons. I cannot determine exactly how we should treat the present case or whether Paul would have us not to pay any regard in our worldly transactions as to whether they are moral or not; or whether he would have us, so far as practicable, avoid all intercourse with persons of bad character" (Feb. 1841).

Their personal relationships with the Indians were also difficult. They preferred not to have the Indians live in close proximity. The following diary entry, made while the family was traveling to visit another mission, displays one reason for this preference.

"Sunday 28. Late last evening a poor looking Indian made his appearance & said he would sleep with us. It was with great difficulty that we could find out what he said. He finally laid down after awhile, but was up very early & took his leave. But we soon had evidence that he had left much behind for the Indians with me found that they were swarming with lice & I have felt all day as thought I was covered with them."

Surprisingly, their marriages prospered. All of the couples enjoyed warm relationships with their mates. The Walkers, especially, make numerous comments of their mutual affection in their diaries, and of missing each other immensely when separated due to mission business. They paid great attention to their children. Mary commented as follows in her diary:

"I have been wishing I were more pious, regretting my coldness and stupidity with little resolution to do better. My husband and children seem to engross my heart but I fear they will be taken from me. I was thinking of the rose-bush in Mother's garden when I was a child. I was so impatient to have the roses bloom that I used to pick the buds open or try to, so that when the flower opened it was but a mangled flower. I have thought that parents often, and perhaps we are of that number, feel the same impatience in watching the opening of the infant's mind. It is certainly better to leave nature uninvaded."

In fact it may have been their attention to family and establishing homes that deterred them in their mission work. Their relations suffered with the Indians, as pointed out by the following comment of Walker:

"... I live in constant fear lest the Indians should turn upon & destroy us altogether. This doubtless is wrong as it is not placing that confidence in God as a protector which I ought..."

In just a few years, that fear would turn to tragedy when the Whitman's and those staying at their mission were killed by the Cayuses in 1847. Though both the Spokane Indians and Nez Perce protected their missionaries from harm and requested they stay with them, both Tshimikain and Lapwai stations were closed. Thus ended an early attempt at settlement and Christian endeavor in the Spokane area.

This work would be renewed by Spalding and Henry Cowley among the Spokane tribe in 1873 and 1874, when several hundred Indians were baptized and entered into the church. The seeds sown by Walker and Eells were finally harvested.


Robert A. Clark authored two books and numerous magazine articles dealing with the Old West. He operates Arthur H. Clark Company, in Spokane, publishers of books on the American frontier experience. His account of the mission at Tshimikain originally appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1994), published by the Spokane Corral of the Westerners. It is here reprinted by permission.

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