This chance method rewarded me recently when I found a transcript of Eliza Spalding’s first letter written to her family at home from her new residence on Lapwai Creek. It was reprinted in the 1922 Biennial Report of the Idaho State Historical Society.
The letter was dated February 16, 1837 and addressed to “Ever Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters.”
The letter told of the profound eagerness of the Nez Perce for religious instruction: “Mr. S. resolved if possible not to disappoint the unspeakable desire the Nezperces had ever manifested to have us live with them that they might learn about God, and the habits of civilized life.”
Tribal members cut and carried pine logs on their shoulders for half a mile for the Spalding residence. Eliza wrote, “A number of them, one chief in particular, has been sawing at the pit saw for several weeks.”
It was surprising to me that the Nez Perce already had a rudimentary understanding of Christianity when the Spaldings arrived. They had learned of it from an Iroquois Indian who was in the employ of the American Fur Company.
The Spaldings saw in the Nez Perce a readiness to abandon their tribal beliefs and embrace the story of Jesus. Eliza wrote of the “conjurers or medicine men who pretend to heal the sick by their incantations.” She thought tribal members held them in low regard. Her evidence was that several Nez Perce came to her husband, the Reverend Henry Harmon Spalding, seeking a cure for various ailments. “They are very fond of being bled if they are sick, and Mr. S. has really succeeded in doing some of them the favor,” Mrs. Spalding wrote.
The efficacy of bloodletting was likely inferior to some of the native cures that had been passed down through the centuries.
Eliza went on to describe a Nez Perce vision quest in the most skeptical terms: “A youth who wishes this profession goes to the Mts., where he remains alone for 2 days, after which he returns to his friends pretending to be inspired with qualification requisite for healing diseases, that birds and wild beasts came to him while in the mountains and told him that those who employed him must reward him with blankets, horses and various good things. I hope and trust that the gospel will soon cause them to abandon these notions.”
Judge the Spaldings however you will, but I came away after reading the letter with a better appreciation for the sacrifice they had made by coming west. In many ways, they may as well have established their mission on Mars. Here’s what Eliza said about that to her family.
“We probably shall not meet again in this world, but if we fulfill the great end for which we were created, we shall be prepared to meet in one never to be separated. If you have received all the communications, we have directed to you, you have heard from us every few months since we left you. We probably shall write you once in six months. At all events we intend to write every opportunity, for this is the only favor we can show you in our remote situation.”
Mrs. Spalding was 30 years old when she wrote the letter. The births of her four children and the deaths of her friends and fellow missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in the Whitman Massacre were still ahead of her.
Eliza Hart Spalding died in Brownsville, Oregon in 1851 at age 43. She was originally buried there but was later disinterred and buried with her husband at the Lapwai Mission Cemetery in Idaho.