Blanchet’s Mission at the Walamette Village, 1841

The following is report from a Notice, Notice No. 4, part of a series of reports of the Catholic missionary Francois Norbert Blanchet (September 30, 1795 – June 18, 1883) from 1841 to 1842 about his missionary conversion work among the tribes of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, in the middle Chinookan area. Blanchet visits the villages at Willamette Falls, Clackamas, Vancouver, and the Cascades from May 1841 to early 1842. Blanchet had arrived in Oregon in 1839 and began holding sermons at St. Paul in the area of French Prairie, the north Willamette Valley. His first visitors would be the French-Canadian Catholics who had begun settling in Franch Prairie in 1838 after their contracts ended with Hudson’s Bay company. He learned the Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa)  language of the time from the native peoples and converted a number of the sermons to the language so that he might communicate better with the native peoples. He also used the Catholic Ladder, a unique drawing depiction of how people get to heaven, the various steps people need to take in Catholicism to gain that station, to attract natives to convert to the religion.

Blanchet here is directly confronting of the Chiefs of the Walamette tribe, most likely the village of “Wilamt,” at the Clackamas River, which was likely the Clackamas tribal village near Willamette Falls with interrelationships with the Clowewalla  people. There is no indication that Blanchet knew there were chiefs on both sides of the river and at this time its possible there was not two chiefs, one on the east side and one on the west side. Later in the 1850s, there are two chiefs one for the “Oregon City” side (east bank) and one of the “Linn City” side (west bank). But Blanchet’s task here is to convert them to Catholicism and he does this by directly confronting them by challenging their willingness to be bought to the Methodists religion with a few items of clothing and making them the “slaves” of the Methodists. Blanchet’s challenge is met with not a little aggression from the chief, which he bravely stands off. Even the natives of this time had high regard for spiritual people and would have balked at directly threatening a shaman of the tribe, on the possibility that they may be cursed in some manner. Normally killing of shamen, for some offense would happen secretively, and they may assign a slave to do the job, in case the assassin would be recognized and cursed. But Blanchet’s bravery is what likely wins over the chief, because Blanchet is proving that his faith is absolute even in the face of certain death. Interestingly, Blanchet appears to win the argument, and then hands out his own trinkets, symbols of the Catholic Faith, as well as some instruction in the proper recitation of canticles and singing. Blanchet’s intention is also the enslavement of these people to his own religion through their willing conversion to the faith.

In my opinion, this is the fourth wall that the Catholics do not want to admit.

Blanchet’s ethnographic observation is quite helpful here. His notation of “Above and below the falls are seen the sites of large villages which the fevers of 1830 entirely depopulated. Having arrived at the village of the falls, which consists of four or five lodges” is a very interesting bit of history. In his Cowlitz Journey report, Blanchet also lists these population counts of the Walamette.

At Walamette:

100 families, of whom 60 Catholic and 40 Protestant: 500 persons, of whom 350 Catholics and 150 Protestants

Since some 95% of the people likely died of Malaria in 1830 (Boyd 1999) and immediately afterward, this population represents the rebound and resettlement population from that extreme epidemic. And the population in 1841 is quite small for the falls. It is one of the major fishing location for the whole of the Columbia River system. It’s interesting that Blanchet does not mention the Canemah village, which was above the falls, or the west side village, nor appear to visit any other villages in the vicinity of the Falls other than Clackamas and Walamette. this suggests that there were only two main villages extant in 1841. Virginia Miller’s ethnographic notes by Drucker suggest numerous villages in the area, some smaller, that were only fully occupied during the right fishing seasons. But there is no hint of a large village up the Clackamas, something that Blanchet may not have known about. I think what we are seeing is the extent of the rebounded population in 1841, not yet fully able to reoccupy their village sites.

Blanchet’s hubris shows well in this report as he is really only concerned to count the number of baptized individuals so that he can report the numbers back to his main administration. His feelings of superiority are absolute, there are no feelings that the Natives own culture has any value at all and his only goal to completely convert all persons to Catholicism.

Blanchet’s effort caused the church to raise his status as there were no Bishops in the west in 1841. In 1844 he travels to Quebec to be raised to Bishop in the church and establishes the Oregon City diocese.  He is the first Catholic bishop in Oregon.  Later the Oregon City Diocese under Blanchet helps establish and sponsors the American College of the University of Leuven, Belgium. The American College begins in the mid-1850s and trains missionaries to take missions throughout the world. In 1859 Adrian Croquet is one of the first missionaries to leave the college and emigrate to the United States. Rev. Croquet is first assigned to Oregon City, then in 1860, he is assigned to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation where he has the St. Michael’s church built and there he remains for 40 years.

1852 GLO 2s, 2e, showing Clackamas Indian Village

Mission to the Native Village at Falls of the Walamette

Your Highness already knows how the Savior opened the gate of the river Tlakemas by a sudden conversion of Chief Pophoh in February 1841; how I made entrance among the natives of this post while returning to Vancouver on the following March 11th. I had baptized eleven children and one adult; I had distributed crosses, rosaries, images, etc.; for a native does not believe himself belonging to us and attached to our faith until he is covered with these insignia. It is when he asks for them that he is commenced to be converted.

Pophoh had returned to Walamette at the beginning of April, as much for the purpose of strengthening his principles as for obtaining some privileges that would give him importance in his village. He left very pleases with a red flag having a cross in the center. The Natives singularly like to see floating in the middle of their village a standard of the cross, to the great regret of the Protestant ministers who would like to strike it down.

On the 29th of April I went down to the village of Walamette, which I had not yet visited except in passing. I wanted to hold a mission there to kindle the divine torch of the faith. This village is situated at the foot of the falls which is located midway between Vancouver and the establishment of the Walamette Valley. On the right bank has settled, since the autumn of 1840, the so-called minister Waller, who claims the surrounding country for his apostleship. He had made little progress in the village at the falls; but he was a bit better liked at the other village where Pophoh, handy man of Minister Perkins, established at the great rapids on the Columbia, was trying to lord it by means of the doctrine, the dress, and the books of the ministers, with which he was abundantly supplied.

It was with cross in hand and prayer in my heart that I approached Satan’s empire. Above and below the falls are seen the sites of large villages which the fevers of 1830 entirely depopulated. Having arrived at the village of the falls, which consists of four or five lodges. I made known the object of my visit and desired to see Chief Weramus; but he caused me to be answered that I could go visit some other place; that as for him and his, their mind was made up and that they could do without me. I learned shortly that hurt because I had visited the village of Tlakemas before his, this chief had become Methodist: Which had won for him trousers, cloak, shirts from Minister Waller.

However the natives seemed to me well enough disposed. I expressed the pain that I felt from the conduct of their chief, which was like a slave. My words were repeated to the chief, who, mortally hurt, came, dagger in hand, to have it out with me. I received him well and pitied him for the misfortune he had had of selling his soul. His answer made me understand what a mass of calumnies has been hurled against me through a spirit of jealousy which the false apostles themselves call the evangelical spirit. He calmed down, however, and asked me for clothes and crosses, etc. I promised him that he would be satisfied; he left happy, and I bless providence for the outcome of that interview. In the evening I had only five or six individuals to recite the prayer followed by singing and an instruction in the Chinook jargon.

On the second day I could not solemnize the holy mysteries, as much because of the rain as a lack of a meeting house; but I prepared an altar for the following day, Sunday. I received and made visits, distributed bread with the words of salvation. It was necessary to study characters, probe dispositions, and not be in a hurry. There was instruction and singing of some canticles which some had learned from Pophoh. The crowd was not large.

The celebration of morning mass rendered the 3rd day of my visit more solemn. The ornaments of the altar and the imposing ceremonies of the Catholic worship were indeed more suitable for captivating the attention of the natives than the cold and meaningless ceremony of the minister Waller. The creation of the world, the fall of Adam, the promise of a Savior, His coming, His Life, His death for our salvation, were explained that day and the following by means of the interpreter Weramus. In wain did the minister try to attract the natives. He had come to measure his powers; his defeat was complete. Like another David, I had not recoiled before this new Goliath, here I was traveling in the name of the Savior. But that opposition on his part caused me to make very sad reflections on the baleful consequences of the pretended reform and on the blindness of men, otherwise estimable, who lose themselves and seek to drag so many souls into their fall.

The fourth day, as well as the following ones, there were mass, instructions, prayers, etc. Pophoh arrived with some of his people, and recounted that they had raised a flag on Sundays, until Mr. Waller had caused it to be taken down, in a holy outburst, saying that he did not wish to have it any longer in sight. This assault upon Indian propriety, on the day of rest, brought him disappointment. This conduct of the minister has been criticized by his own people. Such a fanatical zeal against the sign of the redemption scandalized those infidels to whom he had to preach the mystery of a God slain for us on the cross. I consoled my native by making him see what that act included of indignity and contradiction.

My natives, although difficult to bring together, were beginning to make some progress in the singing and prayers. Hours passed in explaining the Catholic Ladder, in showing the sign of the cross, the Lord’s Prayer, God’s commandments, etc. as well as the chant of the canticles, the names of the sacraments, and the manner of baptism. But little moved by the holy truths which I was announcing to them, my poor natives went with indifference to the instructions. I had to renew the call, to go and look for them. Still they did not like to be constrained; “Go away,” they kept saying, “I shall go presently.” I continued praying the Saviour to cast compassionate glances in the poor infidels, to enlighten their spirit, and to convert their hearts, not to permit that souls created in His image, the price of His Son’s blood, should become the prey of everlasting flames. That prayer in the mouth of a St. Francis Xavier would presently have had its effect. The ardent zeal, the word of fire from the model of missionaries would have kindled with the fire of divine love those hard and unfeeling hearts; but as for me, my prayer was so feeble. So weak, my zeal so lacking in intensity! Before my arrival the rumor had been spread among the natives that if they listened to me the falls would be swallowed up, that they were going to die, etc. These rumors were given credit among them, without doubt through the zeal of the minister; so that a large number did not dare longer to come to hear me; and it was only with a great deal of trouble that I succeeded in dissipating their fears and in drawing them to my instructions. They ended by deriding these rumors, saying: “They are not good those who threaten us in this way.”

Soon I had the consolation of seeing these poor natives make the sign of the cross, the offering of the heart, name the sacraments, recite or rather chant the benedicite and the thanks, recite the words of baptism. They seemed to repeat with satisfaction: “God, our Father in heaven, the priest, our father on the earth.”  Sahale̕ taye̕ Nesika Papa Tropu Ele̕he̕. I gave my recommendations concerning the prayers to make each day and concerning the meetings on Sunday. They seemed to me quite disposed to follow my advice during my absence. That was the final day of my mission.

In the middle of one instruction I saw enter some strange natives who were struck by the show of the altar, the ornaments, my vestments, etc. The minster, M. Frost, they said, was far from showing them things like that. They begged me to visit their lands. I told them I would try to satisfy them: which I have not yet been able to accomplish. I learned that day that the great chief Kainso [Kiesno], whose subjects live below Vancouver, has said to his people: “Follow the priest, you, if you like; as for me, I have been too wicked; I am not able to change; I shall die as I am.” The one who told me that added that seventeen of his nation were in favor of us. They also gave me consoling news about the Chief of the Cascades who was acting in the capacity of an apostle among his own. That was Tamakoun [Cascades]. He has received our instructions at Vancouver, and the time was lacking for visiting his tribe.

The following day, before my departure, I made a census of the tribe, and I found ten families in it, of whom one was for Waller, and two men undecided. The total gives about forty souls. I distributed, before leaving, all provisions, at the risk of going without myself.

Such was, Monseigneur, the result of the seven-day mission that I made to the natives at the fall of the Walamette, where I baptized eleven children. And now for ten months I have not been able to give them any mission. During this time they have been exposed to dying without baptism, to forgetting what they had learned, and to fall back into infidelity. This is a misfortune which we shall have to bewail, until we can establish a permanent mission among the natives. Those at the falls are in the main good and peaceful. I do not believe them to be thieves, as some say. Their love for religion penetrates through the laziness which is characteristic of natives. They like justice and complain much when people fail in it in respect to them. the also like gifts and do not cease asking for them.

Section of John Mix Stanley painting of Oregon City about 1851, Left is a salmon drying scaffold, far right is likely a Plankhouse, and some of the small buildings are likely tribal huts


this book is on

Landerholm, Carl , tr., Demers, Modeste Bp. 1809-1871., Blanchet, Francis Norbert 1795-1883. Notices & voyages of the famed Quebec mission to the Pacific Northwest: being the correspondence, notices, etc., of Fathers Blanchet and Demers, together with those of Fathers Bolduc and Langlois. Containing much remarkable information on the areas and inhabitants of the Columbia, Walamette, Cowlitz, and Fraser Rivers, Nesqually Bay, Puget Sound, Whidby, and Vancouver Islands, while on their arduous mission to the engages of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the pagan natives, 1838 to 1847. With accounts of several voyages around Cape Horn to Valparaiso and to the Sandwich Islands, etc., Oregon Historical Society [by the Champoeg Press, Reed College] 1956. (pp 80-120)

The letters are directly transcribed by me form the English translation offered by Carl Landerholm. There were a few errors in the printed text, which were corrected in this text. All transcription errors are mine alone.


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