Monday, April 19, 2010

"Famous Potatoes" had link to early missionary

Henry Harmon Spalding (1803-1874) and Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) were the two pioneer Protestant missionaries who brought the Gospel to the territory that is now Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Their 1836 trip across the Rockies on the Oregon Trail with their young wives has a prominent place in the history of the American West. Both men hailed from Prattsburg in upstate New York, and while Marcus Whitman was educated in the east to follow a medical career, Henry Harmon Spalding completed his education by coming to Hudson to attend the old Western Reserve College and graduating with the class of 1833.

His betrothed, Eliza Hart, followed her fiance out to Hudson, lived with a relative, and attended the Ladies School conducted by Mrs. Nutting, wife of Rufus Nutting, at their home on Hudson Street, now known as the Nutting-Farrar House, used today as a faculty residence.

In November, 1833 Spalding and Eliza were married in the old Chapel on our campus, an event recorded in the diary of a fellow student, John Buss (1811-1879) who spent the rest of his life as a store keeper in Hudson. The young couple now went to Cincinnati so Henry could attend the Lane Seminary and be ordained in the Congregational/Presbyterian Church. Meantime, Marcus Whitman made plans to become a medical missionary in the Oregon Country, and on a chance meeting with his former neighbor, asked Spalding to join Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, as partners in this missionary endeavor to the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest. In 1836 the four went to St. Louis and eventually caught up with a large gathering of hunters and mountain men who were headed across the Rockies toward Oregon. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding became the first American women to cross the Rocky Mountains, a notable accomplishment although neither were seeking notoriety, but instead were committed to bringing the Gospel of Christ to the "heathen" Indians.

While Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were posted to a mission station near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, the Spaldings had been asked to take the mission at Lapwa among the Nez Perce Indians in what is now Idaho. It was while he was trying to teach the skills of agriculture to his Indian followers that Spalding planted the first potatoes in the Clearfield River valley in 1837, thus initiating the crop for which the state of Idaho would later make its claim. Today, the state officially recognizes Henry Harmon Spalding as the pioneer missionary who first introduced "famous potatoes" to Idaho. Less successful were his efforts at conversion, although Spalding had more success than his counterpart, Marcus Whitman. In November, 1847 the Whitmans were among fourteen mission workers to be massacred by the Cayuse Indians to whom they had ministered for eleven years. The Mission Board then recalled the Spaldings who settled in what is now Oregon and where Eliza died a few years later leaving Henry with the care of their four young children. Late in his life, Henry returned to his old post at Lapwa where he died in 1874 and which is now known as Spalding, Idaho.

Better remembered are the Whitmans, probably because they gave their lives to the cause, and Whitman College in Walla Walla, a highly regarded liberal arts school, was founded as a seminary and dedicated to the memory of the Whitmans and their colleagues. Marcus Whitman is also represented in Statuary Hall at the U. S. Capitol. We should be proud of the contribution made by Henry and Eliza Spalding who both lived and studied in Hudson, and were married at our old Chapel, and who went on to lead model lives of courage and Christian dedication.