The Pawnee Mission Letters, 1834-1851

The Pawnee Mission Letters, 1834-1851

The Pawnee Mission Letters, 1834-1851

The Pawnee Mission Letters, 1834-1851

Synopsis

Rev. John Dunbar and Samuel Allis set out in 1834 to establish a mission to Indians beyond the Rocky Mountains. Unable to obtain a guide and with only a vague knowledge of the West, they instead encountered the Pawnee Indians in Nebraska. It was the beginning of a twelve-year odyssey to convert the tribe to Protestant Christianity and New England "civilization." Dunbar and Allis traveled with the Pawnees on buffalo hunts and spent time at their villages, recording the customs and habits of the tribe. After a permanent community was established, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent additional missionaries, and conflicts over conversion methods ensued, nearly destroying the mission community. The mission was eventually abandoned in 1846, when hostilities between the Sioux and the Pawnees escalated. This collection of letters written by and to the missionaries, as well as their journal entries, illustrates the life of the mission, from the everyday complications of building and maintaining a community far from urban areas, to the navigation of the bureaucratic policies of the federal government and the American Board, to the ideological differences of the Pawnees' multiple missionaries and the ensuing rift within the community. These writings provide a unique and personal portrayal of this small white community in the heart of the Pawnees' domain.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1834 Rev. Samuel Parker, Rev. John Dunbar, and Mr. Samuel Allis set out from Ithaca, New York, to find a suitable location for a mission to the Flathead Indians west of the Rocky Mountains. When they reached St. Louis in early June, they discovered that the fur traders and trappers who they hoped would guide them to the Flatheads had left for the West in May. Unable to obtain guides, the missionaries abandoned their objective. Parker returned to New York to organize another expedition to the Oregon country in 1835. Dunbar and Allis followed a vague contingency plan and pushed on up the Missouri River. in October they met with the Pawnee Indians. It was the beginning of a twelve-year odyssey in an effort to convert the tribe to Protestant Christianity and New England “civilization.” Their letters, and those of their associates who came later, provide a unique and personal portrayal of this small white community in the heart of the Pawnees’ domain.

Samuel Parker’s idea for a Flathead mission came about in 1833, when he read an article in the Christian Advocate and Journal that would wrench any pious heart. It was titled simply, “The Flat-Head Indians,” and was based on a letter written by William Walker, a Christianized Wyandot Indian, to Gabriel D. Disosway, a white Methodist friend in New York. During the winter of 1831–32 Walker and several other Wyandots had been scouting Indian Territory west of Missouri for a suitable site for a reservation. Walker wrote that he had seen a delegation of Flatheads who had walked from their homeland “on top of the Rocky Mountains” to St. Louis to find someone who would return with them and teach their people the proper methods of Christian worship. Disosway forwarded the letter, along with a few of his own comments, to the Christian Advocate, and it was published on the front page. the article also included a sketch depicting a Flathead as a person with a severely deformed cranium sloping back from the eyebrows to a point on the crown. If the message was not clear from the letter and the picture, Disosway made it so in his footnote. He concluded . . .

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