Plains Folk

Reverend Elmer’s Grit

A previous episode left Rev. Oscar Elmer, the Presbyterian minister sent to Christianize the Dakota Territory, horseback at 35 degrees below zero on Christmas night of 1871. I hope it didn’t take too long for him to get a fire going and warm up on return to Moorhead that night, because reading his diaries, in the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University, I’ve become sort of fond of the guy.

As a professional historian, perhaps I shouldn’t admit that. Missionaries, you see, have a checkered reputation among historians. Not so long ago, until the 1970s, missionaries were generally considered to be goodhearted emissaries of civilization. Then historians changed their minds and decided that missionaries were agents of cultural aggression and sexual oppression. Now, as I say, it’s a mixed review, because, particularly in dealing with native cultures, missionaries certainly were pushy and often were just wrongheaded, but on the other hand, sometimes missionaries were the only whites who stood up for Indians when whites were taking their lands. As for frontier preachers in white settlements, they have been caricatured by writers and movie-makers, but those caricatures commonly have come from writers who never inquired just what the frontier preachers said and did.

Which was remarkable, judging by Rev. Elmer’s diaries. Dauntless, he strode into the saloons of Fargo to post notices and invite patrons to church services. He was willing to travel long, hard distances whenever his offices were called for.

In February 1872, for instance, he set out with horse and buggy to marry a couple in Grand Forks. The first night he made Georgetown, an outpost and stage stop where the Buffalo entered the Red. He enjoyed visiting that evening with representatives of the Hudson Bay Company, but remarked, “Less pleasant was the profanity of ‘Swearing Jake Graham,’ one of the stage drivers.

“I make it a study,” wrote Rev. Elmer, “to reach these stage men . . . and win them from their profanity. Many of them are kind of heart but being away from the influences of house and society are very rough. . . . and tho’ rough & reckless a closer acquaintance often uncovers a genuine vein of silver in their character moulded there, under God, by tender hearted praying mothers.”

This preacher actually thought he could get stagecoach drivers to quit swearing! Worse, this chap Graham was “proverbial for profanity.” The minister went to the barn to talk to him about it and found him there swearing at his horses. Rev. Elmer made some conversation, but decided it was futile to attempt any reform in Graham at this time.

The next night, though, the two met again at the next station north, where the Elm entered the Red. Graham made it a point to carry water for the minister’s horse, and then, reported Rev. Elmer, “At table he waited for me to return thanks and all the time I was there he refrained from oaths.”

The rest of the journey to Grand Forks was perilous; pushing on to Goose River, the diary records, “The roads were heavy [with snow], the horse weary, and those miles seemed to tantalize with their lengths. . . . the night shut down on me on account of darkening snow, like a huge bell.” Fortunately, the pastor could make out telegraph poles to guide him in.

He went on not only to perform the scheduled wedding but also to preach the first church services in Grand Forks.

En route back south he found the stagecoach stuck in snowdrifts, joined in efforts to free it, and noted that the hero of the day was an English dude everyone had considered of no account but who organized the work and did more than his share.

“All the mustaches in the party had icicles hanging to them one and two inches long,” reported Rev. Elmer. “We were all in good spirits. . . . considerable grit was mustered in that snowbank. . . . This is the country to develop hidden resources.”

So it was, and the missionary was developing a few of his own in the snows of Dakota Territory.


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