The mission seemed to be doomed from the beginning. It may have been a sign of events to come when, shortly after the Reverend Epaphras Chapman and his companion Job Vinall arrived at Fort Smith that Vinall died. The two men representing the Presbyterian Church arrived in the mid-summer of 1819 to establish a mission among the Osage Tribe, to be located either in Indian or Kansas Territory. Vinall became ill and as subsequent events occurred over the next decade, it was clear that his death would be only the first of a sequence of unfortunate occurrences that eventually lead to the mission’s closing.
With the assistance of Nathan Pryor, in April, 1820 Reverend Chapman chose a tract of land, a meadow adjacent to the Grand River that was bordered on the west by the Osage trace, soon to be called the Texas Road. Initially, it would seem that the reverend had chosen well. Returning to Connecticut, he recruited teachers and farmers to join several ministers in establishing what became known as Union Mission. In addition to promoting the Presbyterian religion, their objectives were to educate the children and teach Osage adults methods of farming, providing a means of subsistence in the changing culture.
But there were several issues related to his choice of the site that Chapman either wasn’t aware of or just ignored. In 1816 several tribes, led by the Cherokee retaliating for long time grievances perpetrated by the Osage, decimated the Osage village of Chief Clermont, killing over 100 and kidnapping an equal number. The next year a peace treaty negotiated by Assistant Indian Agent William Lovely provided for the purchase of seven million acres belonging to the Osage to be awarded to the Cherokee that included the mission site.
After the arrival of the 21 member Presbyterian contingent in February of 1821, their early progress developing the Mission was impressive. That summer five log cabins, a blacksmith shop, smoke house, corn cribs, a warehouse and school building were built. That proved to be an easier task than persuading the Osage hunters to become farmers. Some members of the Mission family meeting with warriors explained how becoming laborers in the field would ensure having food regularly for their existence. Their skeptical audience was comprised of men whose tribe had been hunters and warriors for generations while women planted and cultivated the crops. Upon completion of one presentation, an old Indian summing up their reaction responded that “plowing fields and building fences was not his idea of happiness.” The missionaries’ presentation regarding learning to read and write also didn’t gain traction. Parents were indifferent as the results indicated. The Mission school opened in September of 1821 and, until it closed in February of 1833, there were never more than 17 children in attendance in any one year. Collectively, only 79 attended, some for only a few weeks.
In a final effort to demonstrate farming techniques to the reluctant Osage, in 1823 another missionary, William Montgomery, proposed establishing a farming project that became known as Hopefield Mission. It was moderately successful, eventually attracting 11 families although other tribesmen often derided them, calling them “field makers.” But most families refused to participate and occasional taunting would escalate into conflict and the Hopefield residents would flee to Union Mission for protection.
Two more years passed without any perceptible progress in converting the Osage to Christianity, improve attendance at school or recruit additional farmers. In fact, there were frequent depredations by the very tribe the Mission had been established to serve. Livestock was killed and in one instance 40 pigs were stolen. In the meantime, correspondence by the leadership with the sponsoring agency in Connecticut also reflected mutual frustration, the agency with the progress of the Mission and the missionaries with the lack of financial support from back East. There also was growing concern about the Mission’s unhealthy location and the growing number of deaths. This was highlighted when in 1825 the founder, Reverend Epaphras Chapman, died bringing the total now buried in “the silent city,” to 11.
There had been worries about the site of Union Mission, the dampness coupled with the heat and insects that resulted in sickness and death, but it was further underscored in September of 1826. During an unprecedented wet fall the Grand River flooded completely inundating Mission buildings. Washing through the compound it filled the houses with muddy water, destroying furniture, clothing, and supplies. Although the inhabitants persevered, rebuilt and attempted to continue, the final blow fell in 1828. The federal government determined the Osage tribe would be relocated to Kansas. Further, the land the Mission occupied now belonged to the Cherokee and offers by the missionaries to serve them were refused.
Union Mission survived until 1836, both as a religious institution and way station for travelers on the Texas Road, but the buildings were burned during the Civil War. Perhaps it is coincidental that one mission is established and thrives, while another fails. However, founders of Union Mission seemed to ignore signs of reality and, in the final analysis that made their mission impossible.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.