Indians asking for missionaries: a story of rivalry between Protestants and Catholics

Nez Perce camp on the Yellowstone River, 1871 (from “The Indian Dispossessed” by Seth K. Humphrey, 1906)

The story of how Christianity first arrived in the northern Rocky Mountain region of U.S. territory is not the tale of zealous Christians going west to impose their own religion on unsuspecting natives. On the contrary, the wave of Christian missionaries that went west beginning in the 1830s came at the invitation of the Indians: Christian evangelists were first enticed to the mountains by native peoples who had come east asking for Christian instruction. At least that is the story that has come down to us from Christian historians.

The native version of this story remains untold. It’s unlikely that we will ever know for certain what complex circumstances and conditions motivated native peoples to send delegates east seeking help from the Americans. What we do know is that four Indians from the northern Rockies arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 1831.

Different Versions of the Story

Alternate versions of this story circulate in the historical record, and the differences align with deep fault lines in the history of American Christianity. Specifically, Protestants tell a different story of the four Indians who first came to St. Louis than what Catholic historians say about them. Their respective versions reveal little about the actual circumstances of Native Americans in the western mountains, nor do they offer much insight into why native peoples would find it advantageous to send a delegation to an American frontier town asking for help. But the different accounts told by Protestants and Catholics say quite a bit about the contrasts between these rival groups of American Christians in nineteenth-century America.

What did the Indians ask for?

Catholic and Protestant sources agree that a delegation of Native Americans arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 1831 (originally thought to be 1832 in early Protestant versions) pleading for missionaries to serve their people. The two religious groups differ, however, on the origins of the Indians’ request and what they actually were asking for. According to the Protestant version, these Indians desired the “Book of Heaven” that they had heard about either in Protestant schools or from fur trappers. In contrast, Catholics tell of Iroquois trappers from Canada introducing the religion of the Black Robes (a common term for Jesuit missionaries) to native peoples of the upper Columbia River basin; in the Catholic telling of the story, the Christian tale captivated these tribes, and they subsequently sought Black Robes to come minister them in their native lands.

Probably neither of these two versions of Indians pleading for Christian missionaries is wholly accurate — their respective stories emphasize details that have more to do with intra-religious rivalries between Catholics and Protestants than with indigenous motives for dispatching a series of diplomatic missions to St. Louis in the 1830s. But whatever prompted the Indian delegation to undertake such a daring mission to the American outpost on the Mississippi River, the story of their appearance served well the evangelical purposes of both Protestants and Catholics in America. ♨

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