"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


THE FIRST NEBRASKA MISSIONARIES


After the explorer and the fur trader the missionary came to Nebraska. Rev. Moses Merrill and his wife, Eliza Wilcox, were the first to come. They were sent out in 1833 to the Otoe Indians by the Baptist Missionary Union. At that time the Otoe tribe lived along the Platte as far west as the mouth of the Elkhorn. Their largest village was in Saunders County about ten miles north of the place where Ashland now is. They hunted south and west along Salt Creek, Weeping Water and the Nemaha.

Mr. Merrill and his wife drove an ox team from Missouri to Bellevue. Here was an Indian trading post where the Otoe, Omaha and Pawnee Indians came to trade furs and skins for white man's goods.

At first very few Indians attended the missionary meetings and those who came begged for corn, potatoes and whisky. Mr. Merrill began to study the Otoe language in order that he might talk to the Indians without an interpreter and translate the Bible and hymns into their tongue. In this way he spent the first winter.


The Building of an Earth Lodge.

The next spring Mr. Merrill rode on horseback, fording two rivers, to the Otoe village on the south bank of the Platte near Ashland. He was received by Itan, the great chief of the Otoes, in one of his lodges which was made by setting large trunks of trees in the ground, laying poles on them and covering the whole with grass and dirt. This lodge of Itan was circular in form and measured a hundred and twenty feet in circumference.

Itan gave Mr. Merrill a feast of boiled buffalo meat served in a wooden bowl. It was to be eaten with the fingers, the guest eating first. All the rest waited until he had finished. Itan was a great chief. He had five wives and four houses for them to live in. Town of Yutan in Saunders County is named for him. It is only three miles from where his lodge stood.

On Sunday, the next day, Mr. Merrill was invited out to eat four times before noon. He went, and after eating, read to the Indians part of his translation of the Bible. He showed the children some pictures and began to teach them to sing the scale. The children were deeply interested and tried hard to sound the notes as the white man did. At the end of a week two of the children could sing the scale correctly and knew twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

One day Mr. Merrill learned that fifty Otoes had gone to the white trading post with fifty beaver skins, worth five hundred dollars, to trade for whisky. Chief Itan spoke in strong words to the missionary against the curse of the white man's strong water. On the very next day he and another Otoe chief were drunk and talked very loud against whisky, saying that it was bad, the Indians did not make it, the white man was to blame. Mr. Merrill kept on trying to teach them better, reading verses from the Bible and praying for them.

One Indian was sick and the Otoe medicine men came to cure him. The sick man was stretched out naked in his lodge. The medicine men beat their drums, shook their rattles and danced around him, each stopping to take a mouthful of water from time to time and to spurt it on the sick man's head. It is to be hoped that he survived this treatment.

Then the Otoes went away for their summer hunt. When they came back in the fall they brought skins and began to trade them for whisky. Mr. Merrill wrote from a trading post where whisky was sold as follows: "This is not the house of God, nor the gate of heaven. It is rather the house of Satan and the gate of hell. Two kegs of whisky were carried from the house this morning by Indians. They will trade their horses, their guns and even their blankets for this poisonous drink."

It was against the law then, as now, to sell liquor to Indians, but Nebraska was far out on the frontier and the white traders could make greater profit by selling whisky than in any other way.

In September, 1835, Mr. Merrill moved his family to the Otoe Mission on the Platte River, about eight miles west of Bellevue. Here the government built a log cabin and a schoolhouse which enabled him to carry on his mission work away from the evils of the trading post. It was a beautiful site with an open prairie sloping to the Platte, with rich meadow for stock and gardening and a large body of timber close by. Half of the Otoe tribe moved there and made their village at the mission.

The Otoes were very poor these years and became poorer. They hunted deer, elk and buffalo in the summer of 1836 and brought home very little meat. Their appetite for whisky was greater than before and the more bad luck they had the more whisky they wanted. Many were sick with fever this summer and Mr. Merrill gave them food and medicine, cared for them and tried hard to have them give up liquor and look after their crops and families. He urged them to keep away from the places where whisky was sold and this stirred up the traders against him, as the whisky trade was their best business. For a single tin cup full of whisky the trader would often get ten dollars' worth of furs.

When the people became sick and began to die the traders told them that God was angry with the Otoes for having the missionaries among them. Two pupils in Mr. Merrill's school died in the fall and the traders said that they were killed for learning to read. As the whisky habit grew in the tribe the men became miserable and quarrelsome. The United States had sent a farmer and a blacksmith to teach the Indians how to farm and to make tools for them. These men and their families lived near the Mission. Drunken Otoes shot at the farmer and both he and the blacksmith moved their families back to Bellevue, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Merrill alone among the Indians at the village.

Two of Itan's wives ran away with two Otoe young men. Itan was in a very great rage and said that he would kill the young men when they came back. News was brought that these braves were in the village and Itan took his gun and pistol to kill them. When he passed the mission house Mr. and Mrs. Merrill went out and begged him not to begin a bloody fight. He was wild for revenge and went on. The two young men came out to meet Chief Itan singing their war song. The chief fired his musket at one of the young men and missed him. Then one of the chief's friends fired at the same young man and he fell. He rose, however, and shot the chief through the body. A brother of this young man then shot Itan the second time. One of Itan's friends shot the brother. A third young man shot Itan again and was at once shot himself. The three young men and Chief Itan died that evening. Two of them were Mr. Merrill's pupils. This happened on April 28,1837. The whole Otoe tribe was torn into factions by this tragedy. Some wanted to kill the friends of the young men, others to avenge their death. The bloody feud over the fight lasted for many years.

After Itan's death Melhunca, the second chief in the tribe, came to take breakfast with Mr. Merrill. He wanted presents and said that the traders told him it was bad for the teacher to live near him and never give the Indians presents or fine clothes, and sugar and coffee as the traders did. Mr. and Mrs. Merrill tried to show him that they were poor and had no means of making great profits, as the traders had selling whisky. They urged him to keep away from liquor. He soon became angry and said he was going at once to the trading post to trade horses for whisky. On the next day the school children who were given bread for lunch every day they came to read began to complain loudly and said that they would not read any more unless they were given a full dinner every day.

In August, 1837, a band of fifty Ioway Indians came over from the Weeping Water to trade with the Otoes. They brought fifteen kegs of whisky. Mr. Merrill held a great temperance meeting that day. The next day the whole Otoe village was drinking whisky. One Otoe had his ears cut off and another was stabbed and died. The Ioways left, taking with them six Otoe ponies, paid for in whisky.

In 1838 Mr. Merrill went with the Otoes on their buffalo hunt. By this time he had learned to speak their language and had translated portions of the Bible and several hymns into Otoe. The Otoe hymns had been printed in a book with the name:

Wdtwhtl Wdwdklha Eva Wdhonetl
and was the first Nebraska book ever made.

In spite of all Mr. Merrill could do the Otoe men cared more for whisky and less for good things every year. They no longer loved their old time games and exercises. They longed for the white man's fire-water and the visions that danced before their brains when they drank it more than for all the gospel messages and Christian hymns brought by the missionary. All they could get was spent for liquor and food was begged from the mission. The young men became impudent and pretended to be Sioux in order to frighten the missionary family.


Old Otoe Mission..
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

It was six years since Mr. Merrill and his wife came to give their lives in teaching and saving one tribe of Nebraska Indians. A baby boy, Samuel Pearce, had been born to them in l835. He became a Baptist minister and is to-day the second oldest living white person born in Nebraska, the oldest being Major William Clark Kennerly, of St. Louis, Mo., who was born at Ft. Atkinson, Nov. 2, 1824. Mr. Merrill lives at Squirrel Island, Maine. They had built a large log mission house with a great stone chimney which could be seen for many miles. In this they held school on week days for the Otoe children and here they held their Sunday services.

A new and deadly enemy to the mission appeared. Mr. Merrill became the victim of consumption. Exposure, overwork and grief hastened its ravages. He was deeply discouraged and wrote in his diary at this time: "Formerly Mrs. Merrill felt perfectly safe day or night, but it is not so now. The Otoes trample upon my property and rights unreproved. They occupy my pasture with their cattle and horses when it suits their convenience, often leaving the fence thrown down. They steal my potatoes, pumpkins and corn by night. As we are alone it would not be prudent to resist these thefts. How long we shall be able to live quietly in our own habitation is uncertain. Indeed we are disturbed often now. My family fear these vagrant Otoes. These Indians do not feel friendly toward white people. They are ungrateful for favors received."

Mr. Merrill grew worse rapidly. He died on February 6,1840, and was buried on the east bank of the Missouri River opposite Bellevue. The Otoes called him "The-One-Who-Always-Speaks-The-Truth."

On a Nebraska farm in Sarpy County sloping gently to the Platte River is a grove of giant cottonwoods over eighty years old. In their midst stands an old building with a great stone chimney. This is the monument and witness to-day of the life and labors of the first missionaries to Nebraska.


QUESTIONS

  1. What two rivers did Moses Merrill ford in going from Bellevue to the Otoe village?
  2. Why did the Nebraska Indians build their lodges out of earth?
  3. Why did the Indians wait until Mr. Merrill finished before they ate?
  4. Could Indians sing before Mr. Merrill taught them the scale? Why?
  5. Who was to blame for the ruin caused by whisky, the white man or the Indian?
  6. What do you know of Itan's character from this story?
  7. Explain the action of the Otoe school children in demanding a full dinner and tell what you think of it.
  8. Was Mr. Merrill's mission to the Otoes a success? Why?



BACK | CONTENTS | NEXT