Believe it or not there have been missionaries working in this part of the country for more than 200 years. At times there were so many, relating so many faiths that the Indians really didn’t know what to think until they decided that the white man’s god was a friend to carry on his shoulder until he needed him.
The first missionaries to come here were French priests, traveling with exploring parties. One of them, a Father Guingas, is said to have come up the Mississippi River as far as the mouth of the Minnesota River, then traveled alone up the Minnesota until he came to the Dakotah villages along the river, where he remained performing his priestly duties until he heard of a village two walking days to the north.
That was a challenge he couldn’t resist. Once again he walked off alone, finally coming to a village on the north shore of what is now Green Lake. He remained with those people, telling them about the One Great One of the French, until the coming of winter made him retrace his steps back to the explorers, camp on the Mississippi.
Quite a few years later, in 1835, a party of Protestants went west to minister to the Indians there. They chose a site near Joseph Renville’s fur trading post, located on the Minnesota River, several miles north of where Montevideo and Watson stand today. Over the course of a few years, they built a strong mission, with a church and housing for the missionaries and the people who came with them to carry out the secular phases of the ministry, and even a doctor to care for injuries and illnesses.
The mission served a village of about 400 Dakotah. It taught the men how to farm, the women how to weave thread into cloth (first time in Minnesota), and give the children a general education. They also wanted to teach English to everyone, and to give everyone a religious education.
Dr. Thomas Smith Williamson developed a Dakotah alphabet, and then translated the Bible into Dakotah.
LacQui Parle, as the mission was called, is now a historical site open to visitors daily during the summer months, and a memorial service is held there on one Sunday a year.
Other missions were cropping up at places like Fort Snelling, Lake Calhoun, Sandy Lake, Leech Lake, Red Lake, Traverse des Sioux, Kaposia, Shakopee, Yellow Medicine and the Whipple Mission. The latter was located near today’s Jackpot Junction.
All of those missions were going to try to convert the Dakotah to Christianity, and also teach them how to become farmers and how to live in a white man’s world.
The Whipple Mission was started by Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple (the first Anglican Bishop in Minnesota) and his wife Cornelia. She was so kind and helpful toward the Indians that when a church was built they named it St. Cornelia. Cornelia is not in the Calendar of Saints, but that was a minor detail that bothered no one, and St. Cornelia is an active parish today.
Whipple recognized that the Indians were being treated unfairly and worked tirelessly in their behalf. After the Dakota Conflict, more than 300 Indians were sentenced to death by courts martial that did not always dig for the truth. Whipple was the first to protest to President Lincoln, who accepted the Bishop’s appeal and as a result only 38 were hanged in Mankato Dece. 26, 1862.
As more families settled in Minnesota, their church bodies sent ministers to the frontier to reach and minister to those families as well as they could. They were really circuit riders traveling from one settlement to another and from one cabin to another. One Swedish Lutheran pastor was famous for making his rounds from Red Wing to this area to serve his settlers on a blind, white horse. All of those pastors were welcomed whenever they came to a central cabin in a settlement and stayed there while messengers notified the faithful of place and time of services.
Each church body had its own goals in mind. Some wanted to concentrate on Christianizing the Indians, others wanted to concentrate on serving settlers of their faith, and some wanted to combine the two.
A good example of how this was done would be the German Lutherans, headquartered in Detroit. In 1856, they decided to send Pastor Ernst Miesler and an interpreter along with a band of Chippewa who were moving to Minnesota. He was also charged with surveying Minnesota Territory to find the German families which had settled there.
He was expected to serve two Chippewa bands even while he was conducting the required survey in an area nearly 100 miles to the south.
He began his survey in and around St. Paul, then going farther and farther afield to find the German settlers. He found 500 German families in a 16-county area which included what is now Kandiyohi County.
His work was made easier by the arrival of two other pastors, one of whom was the Rev. Frederick Kahmeyer, who was to work with only the Indians, while the Rev. Meisler and the third pastor concentrated their efforts on the 500 German families in the area.
Those families were grouped into 42 “preaching stations,” three of which had enough families to merit becoming independent congregations. One of those was soon to become St. John’s Lutheran Church which was and is located three miles north of Atwater.