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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Missionary Zeal

The desire to share the happiness found in their own particular faith brought many religious people to Wisconsin. The first was Fr. Rene Menard (1605-1661) who came here in 1661 after Iroquois attacks drove his small flock of Huron converts 1,000 miles west from the St. Lawrence Valley. Setting out from Lake Superior, Menard hiked overland across the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, canoed down the Wisconsin River from Lac Vieux Desert, and met his death at a rapids on the Rib River in Taylor County without reaching his congregation. Over the next 50 years, Menard was followed to Wisconsin by many other Jesuit missionaries.

Protestant missionaries came close on the heels of the first English-speaking settlers. Episcopal minister Richard Cadle (1796-1857) arrived in Green Bay in 1829, and Congregational (later Presbyterian) missionary Cutting Marsh (1800-1873) settled at Kaukauna with the Stockbridge in 1830.

Every day this summer we are issuing an entry from Marsh's journal of a trip west in 1834 to visit the Sauk and Fox Indians. He and several Christian elders of the Stockbridge wanted to bring the Gospel and literacy to the Sauk and Fox, who were known for their resistance to white culture. They were not well-received. "The Great Spirit has made us different from the white men and we do not wish to become like them," Marsh was told on July 19th. "We think the white man's religion very good for him and that ours will do as well for us." And when asked if they would welcome learning to read and write, their principal chief, Keokuk, replied that "the Gr[eat] Sp[irit] had given them mouths to speak with and they did not wish to learn to talk on paper."

Most Indians usually listened to visiting missionaries politely for a while before going back to their daily activities and traditional beliefs. For example, Marsh lived for 18 years with the Stockbridge, but less than a third of the tribe became members of his church. Despite their frequent lack of success in making conversions, missionaries provided counsel and medical care to all tribal members who wanted their help, and frequently interceded on a tribe's behalf when traders or government officials tried to exploit them. At the same time, they were always quick to try to "Americanize" their hosts, and at the end of the 19th century often employed brutal methods to try to implant white middle-class values in Indian children.

For a list of the most important missionaries of all faiths who served in Wisconsin, type the word "missionary" in the Keyword box at our online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Curiosities on June 19, 2006

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