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Manuscript Bible Verses in Nez Perce

Digital Memories

Henry Harmon Spalding, whose life as a missionary to the Nez Perce Indians was one of trial and tribulation, failed at most things in his life. However, his Idaho ministry had some significant accomplishments. Arriving at Lapwai Creek where it flows into the Clearwater River in 1836, Spalding recognized the need for the missionaries to learn the Nez Perce language in order to teach the gospel and, as well, civilization as they knew it. In 1839, using a printing press imported from Hawaii and a journeyman printer, he printed the first book in the Nez Perce language. It was also the first book printed in the Pacific Northwest. Knowing Spalding’s career, it is not surprising that it was immediately discarded; the other missionaries disagreed with Spalding’s choice of alphabet and made him adopt the standard form and redo the work.

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handwritten manuscript of a Nez Perce translation of a portion of the Bible

The discovery of this first printing was not made until 1914 when a copy of the second book from the press, also from 1839, was closely examined. The printer had used the discarded sheets of the first printing to reinforce the binding of the second book, again entitled Nez Perces First Book: Designed for Children and New Beginners. The copy in the University of Idaho Library, from the collection of Thomas W. Streeter, lacks a binding and thus the binding reinforcement of the pages from the true first book. Enough fragments of the first First Book survived to make possible a 1994 reprint in celebration of the dedication of the new Idaho Center for the Book and the return of the original printing press to Idaho for a brief exhibition.

Spalding’s missionary needs were not entirely solved by issuing the gospel and primers as published works. He also used the printer’s skills to create small bound volumes of blank pages for the use of his students in the mission school. Two of those small books are among the holdings of the University of Idaho Library. One illustrates the binding reinforcement technique that doomed the first edition of Nez Perces First Book. The printed text used as stiffener refers to doctrinal questions typical of religious newspapers and periodicals of the day.

Collected and researched by Orofino’s Carroll E. Brock, who donated them to the University of Idaho Library, they contain bible verses in the Nez Perce language. Although the writer has not been identified, and may not be the same throughout the two volumes, Spalding noted in 1842 that his wife spent much time with a pen “in printing.” Such small books were, he said, distributed to his class of eleven “Chiefs.” It was described as “a little book with a few verses of scripture printed with a pen, given to each of this class [which] did much to bring in this class, and the daily addition of a verse or two secures an increasing diligence.”

Written in July 1996 for the library’s Digital Memories website.

Caption: Manuscript Bible verses in the Nez Perce language, ca. 1842. Special Collections and Archives, University of Idaho Library, MG 5144.

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