Monday, June 18, 2012

Trail-Blazing Missionaries

The pastor of my church often states that you don’t have to travel to be a missionary. Mission fields are all around us. However, I ran across this story that involved not only extreme travel, but extraordinary circumstances as well.
A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old wooden shack, located close to where the Union Mission had been. The shack, discovered by workers clearing underbrush for power lines, sits about fifty feet from an old rock-covered road that leads to an area of Grand River known as Mission Bend. My brother-in-law, who grew up in Chouteau, Oklahoma, a few miles north of the area, often visits Mission Bend for fishing and boating. The story, as related to my brother-in-law, has it that the shack was actually a homestead, lived in by an early Oklahoma resident for ninety-seven years. Actually the structure more resembles an outbuilding, but it’s still an intriguing reminder of the past.
I’ve lived in Oklahoma most of my life. However, until a few years ago I was unaware of the Union Mission site. I’m not alone. The mission, an important part of Oklahoma history remains relatively unknown to many of the state’s inhabitants.
As early as 1796, Jean Pierre Chouteau operated a trading post along the Neosho (Grand) River. In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson learned of the Three Forks area, a place where the Neosho (Grand) River met the Verdigris and Arkansas, from his explorers, Lewis and Clarke. Speaking to Congress in 1806, President Jefferson mentioned the area along with its inhabitants, a tribe of the Osage Nation that had travelled from Missouri to settle in the region. Most historians agree this was the first time the United States government recognized the area we now know as Oklahoma. Eighteen years later, Fort Gibson was constructed to provide military protection for the region. But a few years before that, Oklahoma became a mission field.
On November 15, 1820, Epaphras Chapman and a group of missionaries from Connecticut and New York landed on the west bank of the Neosho River. At the location, about twenty-five miles north of the Three Forks area, Chapman and his followers founded Union Mission.
It’s difficult to imagine such an undertaking. The trip from New York to Oklahoma took ten months, navigating the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers into present day Arkansas. From there, they paddled several hundred miles up the Arkansas River to reach the site Epaphras Chapman had chosen a year earlier, an area with no roads, no towns, and no settlements, except for a few scattered trading posts. They suffered hardship and death to bring the Gospel of Jesus to the Osage people and a handful of French traders. Talk about faith.
The Union Mission, the first Protestant mission west of the Mississippi, went on to establish the first school, erect the first printing press, publish the first book, mortar the first brick, and hold the first Christian wedding in Oklahoma. The Mission cemetery has the oldest marked grave, that of Reverend Epaphras Chapman, who founded the mission, and died in 1825 at the age of 32.

Old Railroad Bridge – Mission Bend, Grand River, OK

Union Mission Marker – Erected by Oklahoma Library Association

Mission Bend – The area where Reverend Epaphras Chapman established Union Mission – November 15, 1820

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