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This year marks mission’s 175th anniversary

WASCOPAM METHODIST MISSION in The Dalles, viewed from the south. The crudely constructed buildings, abandoned after the Whitman massacre of 1847, were ordered burned by the army to prevent potentially hostile Indians from using them. Two illustrators, George Gibbs and William Tappan, accompanied the regiment. Whether the artist of this sketch was Gibbs or Tappan is undocumented.

Wasco County Pioneer Association collection, WCPA-45-3, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center
WASCOPAM METHODIST MISSION in The Dalles, viewed from the south. The crudely constructed buildings, abandoned after the Whitman massacre of 1847, were ordered burned by the army to prevent potentially hostile Indians from using them. Two illustrators, George Gibbs and William Tappan, accompanied the regiment. Whether the artist of this sketch was Gibbs or Tappan is undocumented.

— This year marks the 175th anniversary of the first Christian mission established in The Dalles, and a re-enactment of the first camp revival is set for this Sunday, July 21 at 3 p.m. at Pulpit Rock.

The revival, led by Aaron Auer of R.O.A.R. (Reviving Ory-gun’s Amazing Roots) ministries, will feature the testimony of Chief White Swan of the Yakama Nation.

The mission itself was first established on March 21, 1838, and was founded as the Wascopam Methodist Episcopal Mission.

Pulpit Rock, a natural basalt pillar, stands as a sentinel overlooking the old Mission grounds at the intersection of East 12th and Court streets. The mission itself was built northeast of Pulpit Rock, near Amotan spring, where the current Methodist church and The Dalles Wahtonka High School are today.

Pulpit Rock was never mentioned by any of the missionaries in their journals. Local legend states that Jason Lee preached from Pulpit Rock, through interpreters. That claim has been based on the oral history of two Indians, Joseph Luxlello of the Wishram and Chief White Swan of the Yakamas, who claim they saw Jason Lee preach from Pulpit Rock during camp meetings.

Following the widely publicized “Macedonian Call,” the Methodist Board of Missions, headquartered in New York, decided to send missionaries to Indian Territory to minister to the native peoples and convert them to Christianity.

Rev. Jason Lee was ordained as the “Missionary to the Flathead Indians” in 1833. He and his nephew, Rev. Daniel Lee, and three others joined a 70-man party traveling overland to Oregon.

Jason Lee chose a site in the Willamette Valley to establish a mission, but the area was considered “malarial” and two members of the party, including Daniel Lee, got sick.

Rev. Henry Perkins arrived Sept. 4, 1837,- to help. He spent the winter at the Willamette mission, and the following spring, Henry Perkins and Daniel Lee, who had rejoined the mission, traveled by canoes from Ft. Vancouver with the aid of six local Indian guides, and an old chief, Marnicoon. They arrived at the dalles of the Columbia on March 21, 1838, where they were greeted by about 50 Wascopam Indians who had word of their approach.

“Wasco” means “bowl made of horn” and the suffix “-pam” means “people.” This Native American band inhabited the lands at the foot of the several-miles-long stretch of rapids that French-Canadian fur trappers referred to as “les dalles” of the Columbia River.

Daniel Lee and Perkins, with two helpers and some local Wasco Indians, built the mission during the scorching summer heat.

Jason Lee and Dr. John McLoughlin stopped at the Wascopam mission in 1838. Lee was on his way to the East Coast, where he urged the formation of an Oregon Territory. His fervent call for settlers helped trigger the Oregon Trail emigration.

One of the greatest challenges faced by Daniel Lee and Perkins was communicating the tenets of Christianity to the Wascopam natives.

Perkins developed a good grasp of Indian dialects. He began a dictionary, and he kept journals, recording the customs and devastating mortalities of the native peoples caused by disease and armed conflicts. By early 1840, Perkins had developed a strong enough command of Sahaptin, the Wascopam language, to sermonize in it.

He began having great success. Daniel Lee had left earlier, and returned in November 1839. He was astonished at what Perkins told him. Lee wrote, “…Large numbers of the natives attended the meetings as earnest hearers, and several had begun to pray.”

In the winter of 1839-1840 the two carried on a revival, going from long house to long house, contacting the Indians for 50 miles up and down the Columbia River.

Their success was such that their claims were doubted by the missionaries in the Willamette Valley, who had very little success in their own area.

In April 1840, Lee said some 1,200 people attended an eight-day camp meeting. This is significant, given only 1,600 native people lived in the Wascopam circuit at the time.

On Oct. 11, 1840, Jason Lee arrived for a second camp revival. While 400 natives participated in communion, and Lee baptized more than 100 Walla Wallas, the numbers of attendees were far less than they had been in April.

On March 31, 1842 the last recorded camp meeting was held at Wascopam. Again, attendance was disappointing. They never again achieved the size of the April 1840 gathering.

In fall 1843, the first large wagon train over the Oregon Trail, a migration of over 800 people, arrived at the Dalles mission.

Perkins was elated that many of the immigrants were in the habit of attending camp meetings. But the mission was overwhelmed by the needs of the emigrants. He noted: “we could not see them pass hungry and starving...most of our wheat, potatoes and fat cattle we have parted with.”

The Methodist Board of Missions was discouraged that for the amount of money spent — far more than expected — the number of native converts to Christianity was less than spectacular. They unrealistically expected the Christian religion to immediately supplant 10,000 years of native tradition, regardless of differences in culture, language, and religious heritage.

In July 1843, Jason Lee was removed as superintendent of the Oregon missions and replaced in June 1844 with Rev. George Gary, who moved quickly to sell off mission property.

Henry Perkins became upset with Gary’s actions and threatened to resign. He soon changed his mind, but his resignation was accepted.

In December of 1844 Perkins left. The emigrant flood continued. As the years went on, the focus of the mission shifted from converting the native population into Christians to serving the influx of white settlers, who arrived hungry, destitute and ill.

In September 1847, Dr. Marcus Whitman, acting on behalf of the Presbyterian American board, asked to purchase the Wascopam mission. A draft for $600 was drawn to pay for it, and Whitman left his nephew, Perrin Whitman, and another man in charge while he returned to his mission in Walla Walla.

Two months later, on Nov. 29, 1847, Whitman, his wife Narcissa and nine others were massacred by the Cayuse Indians. As soon as Perrin Whitman heard of the murders, he and his companions at Wascopam Mission fled to Fort Vancouver.

The $600 draft to buy the Wascopam mission was never cashed, and in the face of Indian hostilities, the Presbyterian American board pulled out of the region.

After the Whitman massacre, hostilities grew between area natives and the hordes of white settlers and gold seekers. The government sent a regiment of Oregon Mounted Volunteers to Dalles City in 1849. The abandoned mission buildings were in bad shape, and the army burned them to prevent “hostiles” from using them.

In 1850, the small community of Wascopam numbered about 40 permanent settlers. By 1860, it grew to about 2,500, with a “floating tent” population of about 10,000 gold seekers, railroad workers, pioneers and adventurers.

In 1853, the current Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in The Dalles.

The Wascopam natives avoided hostilities with the area settlers, perhaps in part due to the friendly relationships established by the missionaries, unlike Cayuse and Yakama tribes, who went to war in 1855 following the signing of peace treaties that summer.

Compiled and edited by Susan Buce


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