Graveyard behind the Church


Kate Christine McBeth  1833-1915

Susan Law McBeth  1830-1893


First Indian Presbyterian Church In America In Kamiah, Idaho, Is Still Holding Services

By John Lofton, Editor/ The American View

KAMIAH, Idaho - One of the pleasant, indeed Providential, surprises I experienced when I was in this town at the Lewis-Clark resort was discovering the first Indian Presbyterian Church in America which was established on Christmas Day in 1871 - and is still holding services!

The McBeth sisters were the missionary teachers in this area to the Nez Perce Indians. Sue McBeth arrived in remote Kamiah, Idaho, in 1873. As a missionary, she focused on the theological training of young Nez Perce men. She was a dedicated scholar and linguist and collected and organized a lengthy Nez Perce/English dictionary. Her sister Kate arrived in 1879 as a missionary teacher to Nez Perce women. They remained among the Nez Perce for the rest of their lives.

Much more information about these ladies is available at the McBeth Website.

A report from the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, Missions Among the Indians in the 1880s, says: “Miss Kate McBeth has continued her work among the women of the Lapwai station. Her general influence in the whole community is increased by her knowledge of the language… .

“The year has not been one of great spiritual results in the mission. Apathy and coldness have characterized most of the churches, and some of them, as, for example, the church at Lapwai, have rather declined than gained in membership. But Miss Sue McBeth in her report notes one exception. She says: ‘The interest in the Kamiah church still continues. Last fall the session of the church decided that because of the little ones and the old people in the community at Lakahs, 6 miles from Kamiah, the Lakahs outstation should be ministered to separately during the inclement weather and bad roads of winter…..

“‘At the holidays the Lakahs people and the whole Kamiah church assembled at Kamiah, where they had preaching services for more than a week, the Lord’s Supper on Sabbath (Christmas), and such a time of refreshing from the Lord as they have not had for years — Christians revived, backsliders restored, those who were in danger of being led astray brought back into the fold. Ten were added to the church at that time, several of them from among the heathen of Joseph’s band, causing much rejoicing. Another of the wildest looking of Joseph’s heathen has since professed faith in Christ, and been received into the church, making in all eleven added to the church, while the whole church is quickened and strengthened. Help us to thank Him who has so helped and encouraged his people.’”\

Sue McBeth’s interest in language culminated in her effort to produce a Nez Perce-English Dictionary. Intended primarily as an aid to evangelistic outreach by Nez Perce ministers and missionaries, it provided McBeth untold hours of intellectual stimulation and satisfaction. On March 14, 1874 she writes:

“In my last letter I told Dr. Lowrie what I had been doing in the Nez Perce language with Mr Whitman’s help. I enjoy such work and my University experience comes to my aid in it very much. And I was in a measure, compelled to begin it, but for my work & because I can only learn a language through understanding it or rather I must know something of its principles or I cannot remember it. There is no book such as Dr. Lowrie speaks of nothing printed in the language save a few hymns, and the Gospel of Matthew by Mr. Spalding - I found only about 80 words (N.P.) written down (by the Rev. Mr. Montieth) here and the first thing that struck me as a hindrance in the work, was the lack of some such book.

“I spoke to Mr. A when I came but he could not attend to it, and as I needed it very much, in my own work, and saw no other way I began it myself. Dr Lowrie spoke of an alphabet he thought could be adapted to it. Would he please tell me where & how I could get it? The vowel sounds are the same in the Nez P as in the Choctaw - the diphthongs similar & some of the same consonants wanting in both. The consonant sounds of b, c, d, f, g, q, r & are abundant in N.P. But enough of this. As I acquire Nez Perce words I have been teaching, verbs by blackboard with their English definitions to my pupils at least such as come into their lessons & daily intercourse with them & found that it facilitates their studies very much & helped my influence with them.”

Sue McBeth’s first attempt at organizing a Nez Perce vocabulary reached the Smithsonian in 1875. About 2,000 Nez Perce words are in the dictionary. The methodology for organizing the dictionary - having Nez Perce ministerial students copy English words from an English dictionary and translate the words into Nez Perce - was problematic. Often, it was necessary to ‘invent’ a new word in Nez Perce when no equivalent existed.

Following Sue McBeth’s death in 1893, Kate McBeth mailed the dictionary by steamship to the Smithsonian Institute. The boat carrying the manuscript exploded and burned on the Columbia River. An uncanny chain of events saved the irreplaceable dictionary. The manuscript was found floating in the river by an acquaintance who recognized Sue McBeth’s handwriting. He dried the water soaked pages and re-mailed the work. The water stains remain visible.

The Smithsonian “Finders Guide” contains the following [edited] description of the dictionary: “2487 McBeth, Sue L.

NEZ PERCE. Dictionary and grammar of the Nez Perce language. Compiled over a period of 20 years while the author was a missionary at Lapwai, Idaho….Consists of the following sections:

  1. English-Nez Perce vocabulary. 8 pp. Rec’d in Smithsonian Inst. Aug. 1875.
  2. English-Nez Perce dictionary. 735 pages filled with English words but only about 1800 Nez Perce equivalents have been filled in.
  3. Vocabulary notes. Principally English-Nez Perce notations: some Nez Perce-English. Not alphabetically arranged. 2 vols., about 100 pages each. This is apparently the original material from which the final or ‘clean’ copy (no. 2 above) was being prepared. It probably contains data which had not yet been entered in the final copy.”

Our acquaintance with and understanding of the McBeths comes through their personal papers. They were prolific writers. Sue McBeth’s letters (over 150) form the largest personal text collection. Kate wrote fewer letters, but her journal and notebook provide a rich store of material. Though today definitely “politically incorrect,” Nez Perce people retaining traditional spiritual beliefs and culture are characterized as “heathen,” “wild,” and “uncivilized” by both sisters.

The original letters are microfilmed in the “American Indian Correspondence: The Presbyterian Historical Society Collection of Missionaries Letters, 1833 — 1893.” These films are available for use in the University of Idaho Library.

G. L. Deffenbaugh, Missionary, Nez Percé Agency, reports: “Public services, prayer meetings, and Sabbath schools have been well sustained during the year. The native ministers have labored with commendable earnestness and with much satisfaction to the people. For carrying on the work of the mission the sum of $3,600 has been expended by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Nothing of unusual interest is to be noted in regard to results, though the effect on the people of a year’s quiet, steady work on the part of all concerned is very satisfactory.

“The most important religious gathering of the year was a camp meeting that held over the 4th of July. The number of people in attendance from this and adjacent tribes was somewhere between 800 and 1,000. In the midst of the week’s meetings they suspended their usual daily services to celebrate the natal day of our country and theirs, and I suppose that the day was not any more patriotically observed anywhere by the citizens of the nation. There were processions, speeches, dinner, plays, and in the evening fireworks; and with it all the best of order and the most hearty good-will.

“This leads me to note the absence of the usual drunkenness and horse-racing at that season of the year. In the report I had the honor of sending to the Commissioner last year I took occasion to refer to the growing evil of gambling in horse-racing and the great trouble it was causing in the church. This year I am happy to report that the agent, through his police force and court of Indian offenses, has succeeded in entirely stopping horse-racing on the reserve; consequently, we have not had a single case of discipline for an offense of that kind.

“The young men of the church have been shielded from the temptation to indulge in what seems to strongly fascinate them, and the officers of the church have been spared the mortification and trouble of disciplining them for yielding to the temptation to gamble, a condition of affairs for which we are devoutly thankful. (And just here I would like to introduce a word, parenthetically, in commendation of Agent Monteith’s fidelity and zeal in devising and executing plans looking to the advancement of the people in true civilization. I would respectfully express the hope that he may be retained in his present position, which he is in so many respects qualified to fill successfully and satisfactorily to all parties concerned.)

“It is with pleasure I take note of a long step forward in our church work taken last spring, when Presbytery assigned each church to the care and control of a Nez Percé minister. By this arrangement each church has its own pastor, whom it supports in connection with the Board of Foreign Missions. It is contemplated that these churches will each year advance towards self-support and in time be able to pay their pastors’ salaries without assistance from the Board.

“The people here at Lapwai have done nobly in raising funds and getting lumber to build a new house of worship. The building used for that purpose now is inadequate and the people are rejoicing in the hope of having a neat and more commodious house in which to worship in the early winter.

“With a brief reference to the returned Nez Percés I will close. They arrived on the reservation June 1, and were immediately taken to the hearts and homes of their friends here. On the first Sabbath in July we received 80 of them to the membership of the reservation churches. They have acted in a very becoming manner so far as my observation has extended, and have gained the sympathy and good-will of all with whom they have had to do. It was certainly very proper for the Department to consent to and order their return to Idaho; and it was likewise a very proper thing to make a distinction between the subdued and unsubdued, and send the latter to a point remote from the scenes of their dastardly deeds and wanton depredations.”

In 1892, the Board of Indian Commissioners Reports from Experiences in Alloting Land by Alice Fletcher: “At Kameah is this remarkable settlement where Miss Sue McBeth has left the great mark of her work. Kameah is some 70 miles from the agency, and has been removed from the agency influence; and these Indians have risen to a degree of independence and intelligence that is very remarkable.

“In the Kameah settlement Felix Corbett was elected judge. The agent ran one candidate, the people who were opposed to him ran another; and the result was that the Christian, progressive Indians put up their candidate, and he was elected. I was some 50 miles away at the time this happened, and the next day Felix Corbett came to my tent. He said: “the people have honored me by electing me their judge. You tell us we will be citizens when our lands are allotted, and that we will live under the laws of the land. I want to do right; it seems to me it would be well for me to try to administer my office under those laws, and I would like to have a book to tell me about them.” I entered into some correspondence with some lawyers, and it resulted in my presenting him with a copy of the revised statutes of Idaho, under which he administered his judgeship during the last year, was reëlected the present year, and is going on in the same way.

“I am informed, however, that he has been found fault with because he does not collect sufficient fines. He told me that he had been able to manage the people with only one offense where he had had to collect any fine, which I think was a good record for Kameah and Judge Corbett. But Felix can not read. However, his daughter has been at Chemawa school, and she has read the statutes to him.”

1879 Reports of the Commissioner Affairs and Indian Agent Reports “Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs,” pp. 69-375. In U.S. House. 46th Congress, 2d Session. “Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1879” (H.Ex.Doc.1, Pt. 5, Vol. 1). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880. (Serial Set 1910):

“Churches: The membership of the two churches here — one located at Lapwai, having 100; one at Kamiah, 203 — is a total of 303. The missionary work is under the direction of Rev. Mr. Deffenbaugh, an appointee of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, assisted by Rev. Robert Williams, a full-blood Nez Percé, who is an ordained minister by and belonging to the Presbytery of Idaho.

“Services at each of the churches are held three times (11, 1, and 5) each Sabbath, and prayer meetings regularly every Thursday and Saturday evenings at the houses of the different members, conducted by the elders and members. There can be a no more interesting sight than to see from 300 to 400 dusky forms, realizing them to once have been the most savage, assembled at church, rain or snow making no difference in their numbers, listening to the interpretation of that word whose gentle spirit has penetrated and tamed their savage way “as nothing else could do”; and the spirit with which they sing such old familiar pieces as “Bethany,” “Dennis” or the like would wake to enthusiasm the most fastidious of an Eastern audience.

“They have raised for various purposes during the year $125. Their membership is constantly increasing, and the standard of morality is greatly improved thereby, seventy-four marriages having taken place since February 1, the majority being those who had lived for years in Indian custom. Cases of separation between husband and wife are extremely rare. The amount contributed for missionary work among this people for the year was $1,750, forwarded by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.”





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