Blanchet’s Missions to the Clackamas, 1841

The following is a Notice, Notice No. 4, part of a series of reports by 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 visitations would be to the French-Canadian Catholics and Anglicans who had begun settling in French Prairie in 1828 after their contracts ended with Hudson’s Bay Company. There was a log cabin church erected by the fur traders in 1836, which Blanchet took possession of when he arrived (History of the Pacific Northwest, 210). This log cabin became the first Catholic church in the valley and Blanchet renamed the township St. Paul. 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.

The reports for the Tlackemas (Clackamas) village are detailed, more so than many reports of explorers and travelers through this area in the same time period. This is likely because Blanchet spent more than a week with the Clackamas people and was offering instructions on the Catholic faith, working to convert the native people individually, but also to help them change their faith from their native spirituality to the formalized Catholic pedagogies. He was trying to get them to not simply convert, but to begin to express their faith in a particular formalized way, because anything less would not be appropriate according to his belief structure. They are not simply to begin believing in God, and Jesus Christ but only that ways the Catholics had created to believe in Him. And because of this strict institutionalized structure, Christianity being taught by the Methodists to the same tribes was seen as a false prophecy by Blanchet. The report and those others show a significant animosity between Blanchet with his Catholic religion and that practiced by the Methodists who had been working longer in Oregon among the tribes for their conversion, since at least 1834. This animosity comes to a head in this account when Blanchet confronts Methodist Reverend Alvin F. Waller (1808–1872) and in this account wins the argument about which religion is best for the natives.

Additional information in this account is remarkable. The fact that the tribes were converting to Christianity at all is eye-opening. Blanchet may have only been partially effective in these accounts but the missionary was having an effect. Signs of this include the number of people he was baptizing. an activity that appears to be a point of pride with Blanchet who quoted larger and larger numbers in each report. It is really unclear of the people, especially the children he baptized knew of any effect of the baptism ceremony.

Blanchet throughout this account notes the effects of the diseases, most likely malaria hit the tribes in 1830. His notations of the size of the plank house and the inspection of a second set of the house foundations which had been behind the front houses suggest that the former community was very large in population indeed. Boyd (The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, 1999) estimates that malaria killed 95% of the people in this region. This suggests that the community may have previously been into the thousands, even considering the rebound population of the past 10 years (1830-1840).

Besides the ethnographic details, Blanchet presents a lot of information about what he really thought of the Native people. His mention of “Satan’s empire” suggests that he felt he was truly saving these people from his Catholic devil, a concept the tribes had, as they knew of demons and evil in their own beliefs. But he also did not care about these people for who they were, only that he was creating several hundred new Catholics who would be saved by being baptized. Thus any knowledge they had was seen by Blanchet as false prophecy and the knowledge of charlatans. As we look back at this state of mind I wonder what knowledge we have lost forever because of this rigid Catholic/Christian zeal for conversion and civilization at all costs.  Mr. Demers offers insight into what the Catholic priests thought of what they were doing, “Happy dwellers in the wilderness, may you in fact always revere this holy religion which has civilized the world!”

Finally, it is interesting to read this new context, that the tribes were accepting of the new religion and were in the process of conversion. That chiefs of several tribes appeared to be swayed to convert to Catholicism. In researching the tribes of the 1850s we do not get the same sense of conversion happening, in fact, the settlers by the 1850s seem to not care if the natives are converting at all, just that they are in the way of American settlement. It’s then unclear what effect this conversion had on the tribes ten years later. They do not appear to have fully accepted Christianity or Catholicism until they were exposed to missionaries for generations on the reservations.

It is perhaps a fact that Americans mostly identified with Protestantism and British-Canadians with Catholicism so the conversion of the tribes to Catholicism really did not do them any favors with the white American settlers whose populations overwhelmed all others by many times. This may have been the reason that the Catholic Priest Adrien Croquet was so well accepted at Grand Ronde in 1860, because of the early influence of the Catholics at St. Paul in the midst of the Willamette Valley among the Kalapuyans, and in the middle Columbia Region which included the Clackamas, Clowwewalla (Oregon City) and Cascades. All of the tribes from this region, largely came to Grand Ronde during the removal of the tribes in 1856.

One final personal note, the arrogance of the Catholic Priest Blanchet is truly remarkable in all of his reports, his self-assurance, his feelings of superiority, his dismissal of the tribal ways is in stark contrast to the values placed on tribal culture and knowledge today.

Clackamas village on the 1852 GLO map

(Of the first mission Blanchet wrote a short entry in his Walamette report)

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.

The Mission to the Village on the Tlackemas River

I was heavy hearted, Monseigneur, to be forced to leave catechumens as barbarian as those I was leaving at Walamette; for one cannot in so short a time teach them the religion that is to change them. Weramus gave me a guide and a canoe to go up the Tlakemas River, which is only about two miles from the falls, on the right bank of the Walamette [Willamette].  On my arrival in that other part of Satan’s empire, I expected indeed that he would bring into play, all the energies of his infernal malice to hurt me at the falls. I had more to gain and also more to combat. Minister Waller saw me enter into his sheepfold; I had to the right to do it, as he is not a true shepherd.

The village is situated on the left bank of the river, which is hardly an arpent [.85 of a mile] in width. On the right bank is seen the trace of a large village which the fever of 1830 caused to disappear. The one which I was visiting containing no more than fifteen lodges about 25 feet long by 20. In former times the houses were high and solidly built; but after the fever had ravaged, people expect to die any day; and that is why, these poor natives say, they no longer take the trouble to build. One sees yet behind the village some traces of long lines of lodges which used to cover the terrain; the longest behind measured 157 steps in length. The natives were then numerous, vindicative. Cut each others throats during sleep, repose, etc. Such was the village of Tlakemas before 1830.

It was the 6th of May 1841. Prayer was held in the evening at Pohoh’s lodge. The next morning a large number of natives were present at mass. Mr. Waller’s farmer, who followed his instruction, greed that what I had said was good, although it concerned crucifix, images, etc., the usage of which he and his masters strongly censured. I made visits and presents to draw confidence, and it was necessary to do this to the point of running out of supplies.

The second day of my mission was Saturday, the day of the appearance of St, Michael. I had need of the powerful intercession of the Holy Virgin and of the glorious Archangel to maintain the combat; but also my corporal fasting was to give strength to my spirit. After the mass and instruction, while I was surrounded by many natives, I saw the minister Waller enter, followed by his farmer. He gave evidence of his displeasure that I came, as an intruder, he said, to preach to the natives of his jurisdiction, whom he was accustomed to teach every Sunday. My answer was that my mission to the Columbia did not except any part of the country; that, not considering him a true messenger, my duty was to disabuse the natives of the false doctrines that he was teaching them. He went from one point to another; I answered him patiently; but I noticed that he was serious and hurt. The natives stood around us and listened with interest, being very happy, they said, to know once and for all which was the best way. Chief Katamus goes to get the evangelical ladder of his minister and spreads it out beside mine. The natives see with their eyes that the religion of this poor Mr. Waller does not begin with J[esus] C[hrist]. They reproach him for continually threatening them with fever, sickness, death, etc. Not being willing to admit that he made those threats, everybody contradicted him. Then keeping his temper no longer, he takes his hat and leaves abruptly, leaving the natives greatly scandalized by his outburst and the feebleness of his arguments. Many abandoned him from that moment and sent word to him to come and look for his ladder. I rendered to God many acts of thanks for the outcome of that conference.

Catholic Ladder, Marquette U Image

Having perceived that the principal men of the tribe were jealous of [sic] that I was giving instructions in the lodge of Pophoh, who was a stranger in the village, I prepared the altar beside my tent, and they had no further objections t hearing me. However discontent broke out anew, because I had charged Pophoh to distribute provisions and to raise the flag, and I was near to losing the entre fruit of my labors. I commended myself instantly to Mary, and succeeded in reestablishing calm by having Pophoh consent to receive nothing in public, assuring him that he would get his good part privately and the first place in my heart. I caused thus little by little to be born again that confidence which was to aid me in winning the souls.

From the fourth day of my mission I had won over twelve lodges. I blessed the Saviour for my success so unexpected. The conduct of the minister has cooperated in this. However on the fifth day, from 9 o’clock in the morning, my natives began to gamble with some Molalis [Molalla] natives, who, although not far distant, speak another language, and only finished at 5:30 in the afternoon. In the passion which these barbarians have for gambling, they wager their clothes, those of their wives, and of their children. It was impossible for me to control this madness for gambling. An old chief named Wikaite came to meddle with the little number of those whom I was instructing in my tent during the gaming, and he persisted for three hours in not wishing to listen to any reason; but at last he abandoned the standards of the minister to whom there remained not more than three lodges.

The lukewarmness and indifference of my natives alarmed me much. Passion for gambling turned them aside from my instructions. Mr. Demers, to whom I had written in order that he might come to relieve me, did not arrive. Being obliged to return to St. Paul, I was deeply grieved because I was compelled to leave my dear natives so little instructed and exposed to the wiles of the minister, who was trying to win them by means of gifts.

Finally, I had to leave on the 15th of May without having seen Mr. Demers to whom I had however many things to communicate. I left him some notes and betook myself to St. Paul early enough to conduct the Sunday services there. Mr. Demers having arrived the following Tuesday at the village at the falls, continued my mission there until Sunday, and then went to the village of the Tlakemas, where I was able to go to meet him on the 24th. We succeeded in winning over Chief Katamas, who resisted a long while in spite of the urgings of Kainso, [Multnomah Chief Kiesno]  his brother-in-law, and his friends. The chief was the corypheus [leader] of Minister Waller’s party to whom there remained not more than a single lodge of no influence. I left again for St. Paul, leaving Mr. Demers to continue the mission.

Portrait of Frances Norbert Blanchet

The Second Mission to the Tlackemas

On the 30th of September I made my entry into the village of the Tlackamas as gloriously as the first time. While I was raising my tent, I heard cries and weeping. They told me that a native had just died. I had therefore come to be witness of the only misfortune which affects a missionary, the loss of a soul! For a man that has never seen a priest. I hasten however toward the lodge; I approach the bed; but, thanks to heaven, on uncovering him I perceive that he is still breathing. I have everybody kneel, and we recite the little rosary: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the response being: We are very needy, that is to say, have pity on us. I read the litanies of the Holy Virgin and the prayer of St. Francis Xavier; then, behold, the sick man commences to understand me; I instruct him in haste, I baptize him while glorifying God. He still lived four days after having received that favor.

The enemy of salvation had sowed tares in the field of the husbandman during my absence. Mr. Waller had continued to visit this station during my absence every Sunday. I found chiefs Katamus and Wikaite badly disposed at first; but they were not long in coming to better sentiments. So it is that, lacking evangelistic workers that can visit regularly the different stations, we risk losing, during our absence, the fruits of a laborious mission.

The 2nd of October was a very solemn day through the planting of a large cross in the presence of the natives. After some words of explanation, I went to kiss the token of our redemption; a few imitated me; but from their indifferent bearing it was easy to perceive that those poor folks did not understand the mystery of love of a God slain on a cross for us.

During the following days the instructions were little attended. On the 6th I gathered the chiefs to inform them of the threat Mr. Waller had made of upsetting my house if I should build it in their village. This fanaticism of the minister aroused the zeal of the natives who began to work in earnest, transporting the timber for the chapel on their shoulders form a distance of fifteen arpents. That success revived my courage. I perceived a renewal of fervor among my catechumens, who attended my instructions in greater number.

Mr. Waller, learning that the natives were building, came to find me with two witnesses, and expressed to me his astonishment that I was encroaching on his rights, said he, by building on his land. It was easy for me to put him in contradiction with himself and at odds with the natives, whose chiefs accused him aloud of having deceived them and reproached him of having removed his entire crop from land that they should have their share of it. After having received many reproaches from the natives, he withdrew in confusion, but not rebuffed; for he tries to harm my ministry on every occasion.

On Sunday there were few persons at the morning service; but I went among the lodges, and by my entreaties and supplications I succeeded in assembling a rather satisfactory number for the evening instruction. Having consulted Pophoh about the reasons for the apparent negligence of the natives, he told me this did not mean anything; that everybody was firmly adherent to the religion, that they loved it; and I attributed this air of indifference, this carelessness of the natives for the instructions, to their indolent character.

Meanwhile Chief Wikaite, having made a speech to reprimand the natives for their negligence in the work on the chapel, was heeded, and revived the zeal which had already cooled, Katamus caused Weramus and Tamakoun to be informed of his conversion. M. Waller, seeing himself entirely deserted, threatened to leave for the Flatraps [unknown].

Within the space of eleven days, in spite of the indolence of my natives, I had succeeded by means of visits and instructions in teaching them the sign of the cross, the offering of the heart, the words of baptism, the names of the sacraments, and singing of five canticles. They had need of being strengthened in the rest. Pophoh was entrusted with directing the exercises during my absence, But alas! Could I hope that my neophytes would be more active in learning and more fervent when I left than they were in my presence? Be that as it may, I had to thank God for the good that I had wrought among these infidels. I did not merit having any greater success.

The 12th, after having divided between the sick and the chiefs what I had to thank God for of blessings in the way of provisions, I left, leaving my dear natives under the protection of Mary. I confided also to that good Mother the care of the children that I had regenerated through Baptism. The number of eleven baptized during this mission, added to that of thirty who had been so before, made a total of forty-one. I hoped that God would have pity on that clan for whose salvation His Son had been willing to sacrifice His life. I left for St. Paul, and stopped only an instant at the falls to express to the natives my regret at not being able then to give them a mission.

After my departure from Tlackemas, Pophoh came to spend eight days at St. Paul with some others to perfect themselves in the chant and the recitation of prayers, etc. I had the consolation of seeing them depart knowing their prayers well and able to recite the rosary of the Holy Virgin. It was in the month of January 1842 that the natives began to praise Mary by the recital of the rosary in her honor.

That, Monseigneur, is how far we are with the natives in spite of the little time we have to give them. What would it be if we could follow them like the fortunate inhabitants of Canada? We would presently make perfect Christians of them. Their ways are not dissolute, the women are faithful to their husbands, and the young people sufficiently modest. The length of the instructions tired them; but it was necessary to prolong them: I had so few days to spend among them. They follow these with greater liking as soon as circumstances permit me to act differently in this respect. On every side the harvest is ripe and abundant. Messis quidem multa, operarii autem pauci. [The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.] We are expecting with great speed fresh workers to aid us in extending the kingdom of N.S.J.C. [Notre Sauveur Jesus Christ.] Regi Saeculorum immortali – honor et Gloria in saecula saeculorum. Amen. [ Immortal – honor and glory forever. Amen]


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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