Founding Mother: Eliza Hart Spalding and the Spalding Mission

One forgotten woman in the history of Idaho is Eliza Hart Spalding, or Mrs. Henry Spalding as she is typically written about, whose life is shaped by the missionary work she and her husband did in the Northwest Territory in the mid-1800’s.  Leonard J. Arrington wrote in his book, History of Idaho, that “what Plymouth Rock was to New England, the Spalding Mission was to Idaho.” Without the help and work of Eliza Spalding it would not have been the foundation for the creation of Idaho that it was.  She changed the history of the West by blazing the trail for women to migrate by land over the Rocky Mountains and helping form the first white settlement in Idaho.

Arrival at Lapwai

            On November 29, 1836, after a long and sometimes treacherous journey, Eliza and her traveling party including the Whitmans finally arrived at the site Henry had chosen for their mission in Idaho, Lapwai.  It was located twelve miles from what is now Lewiston, Idaho and two miles up the Lapwai Creek, which connected to the Clearwater River.    Within six months of her arrival, Eliza brought eight Nez Perce children “into their family” as adoptive children.  Before she and Henry were able to build permanent structures, they lived in tipis.  On December 23, 1836 when they moved into their permanent structure built by the Nez Perce , it was a log home eighteen feet by forty-eight feet.  It was the first mission in Idaho and of the structure only an eighteen by eighteen foot space was used as a home by the family.  The rest of it was used as a school for the Nez Perce and a church.  At the time of their move-in it was missing two doors, two windows, and a portion of the floor.  This did not seem to bother Eliza, as she wrote to her parents in February of 1837:

            “I need not specify any particulars to satisfy you why this spot is endeared to me, if you will reflect for a moment upon the thousands of miles I have journeyed on horseback through rugged barren uninhabited regions to reach it.”

She referred to it as “this dear place” in a letter to her parents and said “we are located among a people with whom we will be happy to spend our days.”  In 1839, they resettled the mission back down the creek two miles to the banks of the Clearwater River.  This mission house would become the base for the first white settlement in Idaho, and would grow rapidly during the Spalding’s time there.

            Henry’s regular Sunday service was often attended by over five hundred Nez Perce and on some occasions having upwards of two thousand attendants.  One of the earliest of their converts was a Nez Perce named Tuekakas, from the Wallowa River area in Oregon.  After his baptism, Henry renamed him Joseph.  He became Old Joseph when his son was born, who also took on the name of Joseph.  Young Joseph would later be known to American history as Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce chief who tried to lead his people to freedom after they refused to join a reservation.


            Eliza quickly learned the Nez Perce language and put her new skills to use in her teaching.  As Henry noted after the opening of the school, the first in Idaho, in January of 1837:

           “Here a scene commenced, more interesting, if possible, than any we had before witnessed.  Nothing but actual observation can give an idea of the indefatigable application of old and young, mothers with babes in their arms, Grand-parents and Grand-children.  Having no books, Mrs. Spalding with her numerous other cares, is obliged to supply the deficiency with her pen and print her own books, consequently, she can spend but a short time each day in school.  But her absence does not close the school.  From morning till night they are assembled in clusters, with one teaching a number of others.”

She could not teach each of the hundreds of Nez Perce who showed up daily, so she set up a system of teaching in which she taught a few Nez Perce a song or lesson until they memorized it.  They would then teach it to the other members of the tribe.  In addition to teaching languages, she also taught many of the girls to sew and knit.  She set up the first loom west of the Rockies and taught the girls to make stockings and “civilized” clothing.  Eliza also hand wrote lessons in the Nez Perce language.  By doing so, Eliza taught many of the Nez Perce how to read and write in their own language.  Prior to Eliza’s teaching the Nez Perce had had no concept of a written language, since all of their traditions were passed orally.

            Eliza’s school remained different than many of the other missionary schools in the west.  She did not require her pupils to bathe, dress in “white” clothing, or cut their hair.  In addition, she taught in both English and the Nez Perce language.  This probably made her school more successful, because she did not foster as much animosity amongst her students.  However, a language barrier still existed and the lack of an “adequate” written language required Eliza to develop two other ways to teach her pupils.   The first was through the use of song.  She taught them to sing Protestant hymns and created a hymnal in the Nez Perce language, the first book written in the language.  The second teaching method was the use of story and illustrations.  Eliza would draw an illustration of a Biblical story and would then teach the story to a member of the tribe who spoke some English.  This member would then pass on the story to the rest of the tribe in their language.  This strategy worked particularly well because the Nez Perce had an existing tradition of oral history. 

Relationship with Nez Perce

            Through her work as teacher and missionary to the Nez Perce she developed a positive relationship with them, which was important as Henry often left Eliza alone with three thousand Nez Perce when he traveled to visit the Whitmans.  She was often followed around her home by Nez Perce women who wanted to see how the “white woman” cooked, cleaned, dressed, and cared for her children.  She was quickly liked by them and respected for her courage and for her attempts to act as a buffer between the Nez Perce and Henry, who was not always as well liked. He was inflexible on gambling, liquor, and polygamy and reproved many people and even went as far as whipping some Nez Perce or having them whip each other.  This led to him being ridiculed and denounced by some.  Henry was the opposite of Eliza in his relationship with the Nez Perce; where she sought to understand them, he sought for them to understand him.

In contrast, one Nez Perce man is known to have insulted Eliza and he nearly lost his life at the hands of his own people but was spared when Eliza pleaded with his captors to not kill him.  Eliza Spalding Warren, the eldest daughter of Henry and Eliza, later recounted another story demonstrating the respect and love between the Nez Perce and Eliza:

           “Once, when she had been sick for a long time and we all feared that she would never recover, the Indians were most solicitous, and never a day passed that they did not ask about her condition.  One of the old chiefs used to sit by her bedside and watch her quietly.  He broke his stolid reserve at one time, and in his broken Indian manner said to her: ‘Oh, that I might be taken in your place and you could be spared to teach my people!’”

Another story comes from missionary William Gray.  One day a Nez Perce man insulted Eliza, thinking she could not understand his language.  However, “her cool quick perception of the design enabled her to give so complete and thorough a rebuff to the attempted insult, that to hide his disgrace, the Indian offering it fled from the tribe, not venturing to remain among them.”

Leaving Lapwai

            However, sentiments would not remain the same and soon the missionaries were looked upon suspiciously.  After the Whitmans, the Spaldings’ traveling companions and friends, were  massacred, the Spaldings abandoned Lapwai and moved to the Willamette Valley.  At the time of their departure, the mission had grown from a single log building to a mission with forty-four acres of cultivated land, one hundred and forty-six horses, cows and pigs, and a collection of buildings including: a student dormitory, blacksmith shop, two schools, a meetinghouse, two print-shops, a spinning and weaving shop, a poultry house, a multipurpose building/ summer kitchen, a shop, a storeroom, granary, the Spalding’s wood house, and a blockhouse.  It truly was the first white settlement in Idaho.

            After the mission’s failure, Eliza experienced what might be her biggest personal crisis.  While she has held strong to her faith through the difficulties of the journey west and the establishment of the mission, its complete failure and the death of the Whitmans left her with guilt and questioning her own faith.  She began to doubt whether God’s will has been done through her work.  Whether she resolved this is unknown.  Eliza died in 1851, at the age of forty-four, and on her tombstone Henry wrote a two hundred word description of her, concluding with, “Mrs. Spalding was respected and esteemed by all, and no one had greater or better influence over the Indians.”  Henry would return to the mission in 1863 to preach; he remained there until the end of his life.

            Eliza Spalding is not remembered today by the Nez Perce or the people  of Idaho for the work she did.  She is the “wife of missionary Henry Spalding” or the “mother of Eliza Spalding Warren”, the first white child born in Idaho.  She should, however, be remembered as the trailblazer she was.  She was the first white woman to cross the Continental Divide.  She helped found the first mission in Idaho, equally with her husband, if not more.  She taught at the first school in Idaho, wrote the first books in the Nez Perce language, helped built the first Christian church, and opened the first loom west of the Rockies.  Her work opened up the west for the immigration of white families.  Eliza Spalding is truly one of the founding mothers of the state of Idaho.

Arrington, Leonard J.  History of Idaho: Volume 1. Boise and Moscow: Idaho State Historical Society and University of Idaho, 1994.
Clay, Claud Alfred. “The First Woman Born in the West: The Extraordinary Story of the Oldest Living White Woman Born West of the Rock Mountains.”  The Ladies’ Home Journal, August, 1913. 14, 38-39.

Dawson, Deborah Lynn.  Laboring in My Savior’s Vineyard: The Mission of Eliza Hart Spalding.  Ann Arbor: University  Microfilms International, 1988.

Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven: Yale University press, 1965.

McBeth, Kate C.  The Nez Perces Since Lewis and Clark.  New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908.


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