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Missions in Oregon

During the 11 years they operated in Oregon, the American Board stations continually sent home requests for lay assistants to help convert the Indian tribes. Despite these pleas, no additional reinforcements were sent to Oregon after 1838. On the contrary, the mission stations were reduced from four to three. Discouraged, lonely, and increasingly concerned over his wife's health, Asa Smith left Kamiah in 1841 and sailed for the Hawaiian Islands. From then until 1847 only Waiilatpu, Lapwai, and Tshimakain remained in operation.

In western Oregon the Methodist missions, established with the arrival of Jason Lee in 1834, were suffering difficulties of their own. Faced with a rapidly diminishing number of Indians, the Methodists began to concentrate in the early 1840's on establishing churches among the new white settlements that were rapidly filling the Willamette Valley. In 1847 the Methodists offered to sell their remaining Indian mission, Waskopum at The Dalles, to the American Board. Whitman, worried that Catholic missionaries would take over the area if the American Board did not, agreed to purchase it. Lacking a missionary to send there, he hired Alanson Hinman and his wife, from the Willamette Valley, to take charge of secular affairs and sent his nephew, Perrin, to live with them.

As early as 1834 French Canadian employees and ex-employees of the Hudson's Bay Company in Oregon had petitioned the Catholic bishop at Red River in western Canada for priests. At first the Hudson's Bay Company refused to help priests come to Oregon, but in 1838 it agreed to transport Catholic missionaries across the Rockies provided that no missions were established south of the Columbia River.

The Bishop of Quebec accepted responsibility for sending Catholic missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. As soon as the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to help with transportation, the bishop sent the Reverend Francis N. Blanchet to be vicar-general of the new area. Joined at Red River by Father Modeste Demers, Blanchet arrived at Fort Vancouver late in 1838.

Peter John DeSmet

Because of the company's restriction, Blanchet was careful not to establish mission stations south of the Columbia. Before long, however, the restriction was removed, and a Catholic mission was established at French Prairie in the Willamette Valley.

During 1839 both Blanchet and Demers made extensive tours throughout Puget Sound and on the upper Columbia. While at Fort Colville, near the American Board station at Tshimakain, Demers learned that an American priest, Father Peter DeSmet, was in the Flathead country to the east. Father DeSmet had been sent out to Oregon by the Bishop of St. Louis in answer to a call similar to that which had stimulated the Protestant missions. In 1841 DeSmet founded St. Mary's mission in the Bitter Root Valley in present-day Montana and, in the next year, the Sacred Heart mission among the Coeur d'Alene Indians, in what is now Idaho.

painting of Sacred
Heart mission
DeSmet founded Sacred Heart mission among the Coeur d'Alene Indians in 1842.
From Thwaites, Early Western Travels.

By 1842 the Canadian and American Catholic missions in Oregon were united under the authority of Blanchet. Soon reinforcements were received from Canada, the United States, and Europe. In 1844 Francis Blanchet was designated as bishop and 2 years later was promoted to archbishop when Oregon was elevated to an ecclesiastical province. The brother of the archbishop, A. M. A. Blanchet, was made bishop of Walla Walla. He arrived at Fort Walla Walla in September 1847, accompanied by Vicar-General J. B. A. Brouillet, six priests, and two lay brothers.

map of principal missions and stations in Pacific Northwest
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The 1830's and 1840's were years of strong antagonisms between the Protestant and Catholic churches in the United States. The missionaries in Oregon shared in this feeling. When Marcus Whitman met Bishop A. M. A. Blanchet at Fort Walla Walla, he was greatly disturbed by the presence of the Catholic missionaries.

Bishop Blanchet proceeded to establish St. Ann's mission among the Cayuse on the Umatilla River and St. Rose of Lima near the mouth of the Yakima River. The Catholic missionaries unwittingly had chosen a most unpropitious time for establishing these missions. Their beginning was to coincide with the disaster at "the place of the rye grass."

With the outbreak of violence at Waiilatpu in November 1847, strong anti-Catholic feeling flared up in Oregon that was to color many minds for years to come. The troubles at Waiilatpu, however, were not the result of religious rivalry, and the Catholic missionaries could in no way be rightfully blamed. The tragedy at the Whitman station would have occurred had there been no Catholics in eastern Oregon.

Besides the real and imagined troubles of rival churches during this decade, the American Board missionaries were experiencing difficulties within their own ranks. Out of this dissension came one of the most remarkable cross-country journeys in American history.


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Last Modified: Sat, Sep 28 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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