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Review

Selected Letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, Bishop of Walla Walla & Nesqualy (1846-1879)

By Roberta Stringham Brown and Patricia O’Connell Killen, editors; Roberta Stringham Brown, translator

March 6, 2014

Review By John Barker

During his long tenure as the founding Bishop of Walla Walla and of its successor diocese of Nesqualy, A.M.A. Blanchet meticulously copied (or had copied) his outgoing correspondence. Upon his retirement in 1879, nearly thirty-two years after making the challenging overland trek to Walla Walla, he had recorded more than 900 letters filling five large letter books. From this trove, the editors have selected and translated forty-five letters, forty of which have been translated from the original French. Highlights include Blanchet’s report on the Whitman massacre, which occurred less than three months after his arrival at Walla Walla; the subsequent conflicts between the growing numbers of settlers and Native Americans that threatened the survival of the Catholic mission; competition with rival Methodist missionaries; negotiations with secular authorities in the Hudson’s Bay Company and later the US federal government; the establishment of churches and schools to serve both Native and settler populations, many of the latter of whom were (like Blanchet and many other Catholic missionaries) French Canadian in origin; protests over the mistreatment of Native Americans by Indian agents; fund raising and recruitment of priests and missionary sisters from Quebec and Europe; and the administration and enforcement of discipline upon the growing Catholic establishment in what eventually became Washington state.

The editors have done a superb job combing church archives in Washington State, Quebec, and France, and mining published sources to provide background on the people, events, and contexts of the letters. Each letter is copiously annotated. The book is less successful at achieving its larger ambition, to draw upon Blanchet’s correspondence not only to tell the story of the Catholic mission but to provide a “deeper appreciation” of the “moving mosaic of people representing multiple ethnicities, cultures, and convictions” who provided the early cast of Washington’s territorial history (x). To this end, the editors have arranged the letters in chronological order and with separate introductions to each to provide not only background but create a connecting narrative. Unfortunately, the letters work against them. Blanchet did not write with the needs of future historians in mind. With few exceptions, his missives address the immediate concerns of the mission diocese. In many cases, the introductions and annotations run longer — and sometimes considerably longer — than the letters themselves, which often prove to be less interesting and informative than the editors’ commentaries. Indeed, on occasion the letters impede the larger historical narrative as the editors work to explain specific contingencies that had few, if any, lasting consequences.

The bigger disappointment lies with the letters themselves. Few make compelling reading. Most are fairly narrowly addressed to the business of the day. Even in his longer letters, Blanchet does not come across as a very reflective writer. He makes minimal efforts at description and one gains few insights into his personal character, aspirations, and struggles. All the same, there is no denying the importance of the letters or the service that Brown and Killen have provided in publishing this well-edited and annotated selection. They report in the Preface that Brown has translated the entire corpus of Blanchet’s official correspondence into English, a significant contribution in its own right and hopefully one that will be made available for future historical research.

Selected Letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, Bishop of Walla Walla & Nesqualy (1846-1879)
Roberta Stringham Brown and Patricia O’Connell Killen, editors; Roberta Stringham Brown, translator
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2013. 408 pp. $40.00 cloth