As we drive on paved roads, past concrete buildings and under modern power lines, it can be hard to picture our corner of the world as it was in 1852, the year that the St. Joseph Mission at Ahtanum was founded.
For a little historical context, in 1852 the Taiping Rebellion was raging across China and Bonaparte III became an emperor. Closer to home, the United States was consumed with the issue of slavery. Louis and Clark had passed through this area only 47 years prior, and Yakima County would not exist officially for another 13 years.
At that time apprehensive trappers, miners and settlers inhabited the area, along with an equally uneasy Native American population.
But one thing both settlers and Native Americans wanted was to build a church.
Chief Kamiakin of the Yakama people requested a mission to be placed near his summer camp. Wanting to spread the Christian faith, the Catholic Church also wanted to build a mission in the area. Thus Archbishop F. N. Blanchet, whose career was blossoming due to the growth of his parish in Oregon City, ordered a pair of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to build a mission to satisfy Chief Kamiakin’s request.
On April 3, 1852, Louis Joseph D’herbomex and Charles M. Pandosy, two who had prior missionary experience in the western territories, founded St. Joseph Mission on Ahtanum Creek in what is now West Valley. Not working alone, they toiled alongside the Yakama people, also producing rudimentary canals intended for farming.
Not only was this mission an important part of agricultural development, it also served as a cultural meeting place, where Native American people brushed up against early American settlers. Yakama people, including Kamiakin’s own children, came to the mission to be baptized. It was a place for the outside world to learn about the Yakama people. Although the priests taught languages to the Yakama, they also learned language from them.
Cary Campbell, the mission’s current caretaker, said she is particularly attracted by the optimism during the mission’s development.
“I love this place,” said Campbell. “It’s part of me, and I couldn’t imagine living without it.”
There was a friendly relationship between the two groups that included much learning and help. The Yakama people even provided meat to the impoverished priests.
But things soon changed.
The Yakama Indian War exploded in 1855, born out of conflict between resentful local tribes and encroaching settlers. With new treaties, native peoples were being restricted to increasingly small plots of land, which they opposed with attacks against settlers. Conflicts between the U.S. Army and various local tribes escalated, and St. Joseph Mission was abandoned, its inhabitants in fear for their lives.
When the advancing U.S. Army entered the mission, it had already been vacated. One thing that remained, however, was gunpowder. It was found buried in the garden, discovered in a cask when soldiers were digging up vegetables. The gunpowder gave Army soldiers what they thought was justification to accuse the priests of colluding with the Yakama in earlier fighting. Historians nowadays believe this gunpowder was not intended for warfare, since gunpowder was often used for hunting and other purposes.
Still, with this scant evidence, soldiers burned the mission in 1855.
This could have been the end of St. Joseph if priest Louis Napoleon St. Onge and Brother John Baptist Boulet had not re-established it, beginning in 1867. The pair built a log cabin first. Then, just as the earlier Catholics had, they worked with the Yakama people to rebuild the mission. They finished in 1870.
Their work, unfortunately, was for naught, since the government gave an anti-Catholic Methodist minister authority of the area in which the mission stood – part of President Ulysses S. Grant’s Indian Peace Policy that placed local missionaries in control of the Indian affairs agencies. As a result, the Catholic priests were banned from entering the area in which the Yakama people dwelled, and the mission was closed again.
Catholicism in the area did not die there, however, since following the mission’s closure St. Joseph Church was built in what is now Union Gap. The church moved to Yakima in 1884 and was eventually replaced in 1900. And the Catholics’ Knights of Columbus renovated the mission again. They bought the land from farmers in the early 1900s, and the Knights made the grounds around the mission a park.
When Campbell got involved with the mission, she was surprised that so few people understood its history and significance in the area. Thus, she has dedicated herself to making people aware of it and preserving it.
Now surrounded by a park and on the National Register of Historic places (it was listed in 1970), St. Joseph Mission on Ahtanum Road consists of a museum that describes the history of the site, a log cabin and what is thought to be the oldest functioning church in Washington state. Masses are held there on the first Sunday of the month at 9:30 a.m. The site is open from dawn to dusk, every day.
With its history, St. Joseph Mission is a place where people can get in touch with the past, consider tragedy or celebrate hope for the future.
Ahtanum Mission Park, 17740 Ahtanum Road.
In order to see inside the church and museum, visitors must call Cary Campbell. 509-966-0865.