Tag Archives: John Dunbar

The John Dunbar Papers: Writings from the Western Frontier (1834-1836)

On May 5, 1834, Rev. John Dunbar set out with two other men for a missionary exploration of the unknown region beyond the Rocky Mountains, on behalf of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, NY.  The mission was to be called "The Oregon Mission."  Eighteen days later, however, when the men arrived in St. Louis, they discovered that the party of traders with whom they had planned to travel had already left six weeks prior.  Without the traders, Dunbar and his party had no way of proceeding, since they did not know how to travel the terrain or how to sustain themselves on the way.  They were forced to abandon the undertaking. Dunbar traveled to Liberty, Missouri and then on to Bellevue, Nebraska, where he tried to connect with the natives, learn their language, and find passage to the far regions of the west. 

At various points in his journal, Dunbar writes rather contemptuously about the traders, not only for their unwillingness to aid the missionaries or share the information they have about the territories, but for their overall lack of propriety and for selling whiskey to the natives.  He writes,

At this time no missionaries…had penetrated the Indian country farther than [Bellevue, Nebraska].  The traders and others who have heretofore traversed this immense region have almost without an exception kept the knowledge they have acquired of the country and its inhabitants to themselves, or communicated it only to their fellow traders…Those engaged in trade in this country may deem it to be for their interest to keep the world in ignorance of the geography and inhabitants of this extensive portion of our continent.  Certainly the conduct of many white men who live in, and of others who occasionally visit this county needs only to be known to be condemned in any decent society.  Their deeds are deeds of darkness, and cannot bear the light of civilization. 

Once during the time of our delay I made arrangements to accompany a wretched half-starved party of Otoes, who had come down to the Cantonment to beg provisions…when I went to their camp in the early part of the day on which they had assured me they would set out on their return, they informed me they had determined to pay their friends the Konzas a visit and it would be several weeks before they would reach their place of residence on the Platte.  The true reason however of their not wishing my company was that they were desirous to take home with them a quantity of whiskey, and they were fearful they might get into trouble about it should I be in the company.  The next day I saw some of them coming up from the settlements in the border of the state having with them 6 or 8 horses laden with the water of death to the Indian.  Some white man with a devil’s heart had for a little paltry gain furnished these creatures, already sufficiently wretched, with that which is speedily working their destruction.

In spite of Dunbar’s concern for the well-being of the natives, he uses the word “wretched” six times to describe them within the nine handwritten pages of his journal.  Later that year in October of 1834, Rev. Dunbar eventually finds a way to travel beyond Bellevue to live with the Grand Pawnee tribe, hosted by the second chief of the Pawnee nation.  After two years and four hunting tours, traveling nearly 3000 miles with the Pawnee, one can sense in his writing a deep ambivalence about them:

All of us who have lived with them are constrained to say they are a kindhearted, liberal people. But they are heathen, dark-minded heathen.

Describing the scene during one of his hunting tours, he writes:

When they have traveled all day, and just at night come to the camping ground a scene usually ensues that beggars description.  The horses are fretful and uneasy, the children, cold and hungry, the women, vexed and weary, the men ill-natured and impervious.  The dogs yelp and howl, the horses whinny, the mules and asses bray, the children cry, the boys halloo, the women scold, the men chide and threaten, no one hears and everything goes wrong.  Tongue and ears at such a time are of but little use. 

One of Dunbar’s greatest concerns is the station and treatment of women among the Pawnees, who seem to him to be like slaves, doing all of the work for little or no reward.  In the polygamous marriage traditions of the Pawnee, “the eldest sister is the principle wife, and commands the younger, who seem to be little more than domestic slaves.…How little to be desired is the condition of the youngest sisters in a Pawnee family and particularly of the youngest.”  Dunbar cannot seem to reconcile this state of affairs with his own conception of women as members of a delicate and inferior class.

In the afternoon of the third day, we rode into the village and came to the old chiefs lodge.  He dismounted and walked directly into his dwelling.  Forthwith his daughter, a young woman of 22 made her appearance to unsaddle our horses and bring in our luggage.  The young woman unsaddled and unbridled her father’s horse, then attempted to do the same to mine.  But my horse seemed to have a more just sense of propriety in this respect than prevails among the Pawnees.  She did not succeed and I willingly removed the saddle and bridle myself.

It frequently occurs, when they are travelling, that a horse gets frightened, jumps about, breaks away from its leader, kicks till it has divested itself of everything that was put on it, and then runs off at full speed.  The unfortunate wife must now follow her horse till she can catch it, bring it back, gather up her scattered utensils, replace them on her horse, then follow the train.  All the recompense she receives for her trouble is a severe chiding from her lazy husband, who may have been a witness to the whole transaction without having offered at all to assist his inferior half. 

The men say their appropriate employments are hunting (taking the buffalo), and war.  Consequently, everything else that is to be done is the appropriate business of the women.  The women are very laborious, but most abject slaves.  One educated in our privileged land can scarcely form a conception of the ignorance, wretchedness and degraded servitude of the Pawnee females.  We cannot contemplate the condition of these wretched creatures without being led to feel deeply that for all that is better in the condition of females in Christian lands, they are indebted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The female, no matter who she is, that makes light of the Christian religion, trifles with that which makes her to differ from the most abject slave and degraded heathen.