Amanda McFarland

Mother of Protestant Missions in Alaska

 by Pauline V. Burkher, 1984

 I have been a member of the Amanda McFarland Circle of this church (First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage) for several years but had only the vaguest notion of who Amanda McFarland was until about a year ago when I began research to share with my circle sisters. It has been as fascinating as prospecting for gold. Helpful Presbyterians in Wrangell, Sitka, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, and West Virginia have sent me gold nuggets of information. I especially thank our own Norma Hoyt. My greatest thrill was to receive letters from Amanda McFarland’s grand niece, Lucie Gribble of Fairmont, West Virginia. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you all I know about Amanda McFarland. 

Amanda McFarland and her sponsor the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson first stepped ashore at the Indian village of Wrangell, Alaska, on August 10, 1877, just two days before Amanda’s 45th birthday. If she had not been a mature Christian she probably would have gotten right on the next boat south and gone back to Portland, but Amanda had had twenty years on various mission fields to develop her indomitable faith, courage, commitment, and compassion. She found that she would be the lone white woman in a lawless goldrush town, for Fort Wrangell was recently closed and the only representative of law and order was a commissioner of customs. Moreover, the only available building was an empty dance hall which would be reclaimed when the miners came down the Stikine River from the Cassiar mines in October.

Amanda soon learned that she would have to contend with the evils of slavery and witchcraft. Rev. S. Hall Young wrote that

Wrangell had forty Indian slaves in 1878 and about 100 persons were killed as witches that year.

Amanda was undaunted, so Sheldon Jackson arranged for the dance hall, gave her ten dollars, and hurried back to the East Coast to plead for funds for the Alaska mission. It was not in the budget and he had to sell the idea to the mission board. Some were horrified that he had left a lone woman in such a hostile environment. 

Because of a jurisdictional dispute, Amanda did not receive a dollar of salary for a whole year. She stayed in Wrangell because her great compassionate heart had gone out to a small band of forty Christian Indians who had welcomed her with great joy as their teacher and spiritual leader. They had been converted by a young Canadian Indian, Philip McKay, who with friends had a government contract to cut wood for Fort Wrangell. Philip’s Indian name was “Clah”. His interpreter was a Mrs. Sarah Dickinson, an Indian woman who had married a white man. When the fort closed, Philip, though barely literate and ill with tuberculosis, stayed on to shepherd the little flock. They met round at the homes and surprised the populace when they refused to work on Sundays, instead holding worship services. 

Amanda opened her school in the dance hall with about thirty pupils, with the Indian woman as interpreter. The number soon grew to 94. Her only supplies were four Bibles, four hymnals, three primers, thirteen first readers and a wall chart. (And I thought I had it tough when I had 49 Eskimo pupils at Barrow with plenty of supplies!) Amanda wrote to Sheldon Jackson on December 10, 1877: 

“I never loved a school so well. Today I had 74 Indians crowded into that little room, but there was no confusion, but perfect obedience and order. But there is so much to be done (Philip was on his deathbed and could no longer do the preaching). I try to do everything I can, but feel every day that I must leave much undone.”

Amanda was soon offered a better job at Sitka with twice the pay, a house, and her winter’s wood supply, if she would teach a few white children. She declined because her heart went out to the young Indian girls being sold into prostitution. She wrote to Sheldon Jackson:

“Last week Mr. X went to the parents of my favorite scholar, a bright little girl of 13, and actually bought her for twenty blankets. I determined to rescue her, as she was taken by force, begging and crying not to go. I succeeded in getting her away and her mother promised to keep her at home. But I fear for her.

“Every day I feel more and more the need of a home for girls. This week I rescued one of my girls, age 11, from a white man on the street who was trying to get her to go to his house. Oh, if the Christian women in the East could see these things as I do, they would feel the importance of such a work here among our poor sisters.”

When her stirring letters were published in church circles in the East she did get her home for girls and the minister she had begged for – the Rev. Dr. S. Hall Young. Young wrote:

“The whole-hearted welcome of Mrs. McFarland who hurled her 200 pounds of good nature out onto the wharf with surprising agility, breezed away my mental mists.”

Amanda was delighted with the arrival of the Reverend Young, too, who soon married a teacher from Sitka, Fanny Kellogg. Fannie helped with Amanda’s new home school built in 1880. Amanda’s fame had spread throughout southeast Alaska and the school now had more applicants than could be accepted. Then came the dreadful shock of fire which destroyed the school in February 1883. No lives were lost but forty children had to run out into the snow. 

Instead of rebuilding, the board sent Amanda to Sitka with as many pupils as wished to go. At Sitka, she became matron of the girls’ dormitory which she loved. However, her troubles were not over. According to Sheldon Jackson’s report of 1886 to the Secretary of the Interior, the newly appointed attorney general and others at Sitka were opposed to the mission school’s grant of land and stirred up Indian opposition to the school. Parents withdrew about half the pupils and rumors were spread that the matron was a witch, after a girl died of pneumonia. Even Sheldon Jackson was jailed for a short time. 

Amanda was eventually asked to manage a new industrial boarding school at Howkan. Howkan!? This author had lived sixty years in Alaska and had never heard of Howkan. Howkan was the largest Haida Indian settlement in 1886 and was on an island about fifty miles west of Ketchikan. It was later named “Jackson” and combined with two other villages to form the present Hydaburg. Here Amanda McFarland mothered, trained, and inspired the Indian young people for eleven years until her retirement in 1897 at the age of 65. She had given twenty fruitful years to Alaska: six at Wrangell, two at Sitka, and twelve at Howkan.

A Brief Summary

Of Amanda’s First 45 Years 

Amanda was born Amanda Reed on August 12, 1832 in Fairmont, Virginia, (later West Virginia when it became a separate state in 1863 during the Civil War). She was one of thirteen children born into a strong Christian family which produced several missionaries. Her father was a “river man” who died following an accident in which his leg was caught between two logs. He died of blood poisoning. Fairmont was located in a coal mining district near the Pennsylvania and Ohio borders. Amanda did not have to travel far to attend the distinguished female seminary in Steubenville, Ohio.

After graduation, she taught school in the Ohio Valley until at the age of 25 she married the Rev. Dr. David McFarland, eleven years her senior. Immediately after the wedding in her home church, the couple left for the home mission field in Illinois. Now we can hardly think of Illinois as a mission field, but in those days of Abe Lincoln, there were some primitive conditions in Illinois. Since it was during the Civil War, undoubtedly the McFarlands were called upon to comfort many bereaved families. 

In 1866, after about ten years of preaching and teaching in Illinois, came a great challenge and the McFarlands had to make a prayerful decision. The upshot was that the Presbyterian board of missions had asked the McFarlands to pioneer a Protestant mission at Santa Fe in the Catholic stronghold of the Territory of New Mexico. Other Protestant denominations had tried and failed. 

Amanda’s family and friends were strongly opposed to her going to the wild frontier by a two and one half-week stagecoach journey through Indian country and no house at journey’s end. Her husband also thought it best to go ahead and scout out the land. So Amanda stayed with her family in Fairmont for the winter. 

The Rev. David McFarland survived the trip, “eating dust all the way,” and found a room in the only hotel. The hotel clerk was astonished when he registered as “Reverend.” The clerk said, “You are the first reverend I’ve seen wearing pants. They (the priests) all wear skirts around here!” 

David went to call on the governor’s lady who was overjoyed that her prayers had been answered. Mrs. Mitchell asked the minister, “How is your wife? Is she pretty?”

The husband naturally replied,

“To me, she is. She has a wealth of dark hair and large kindly eyes. She thinks the mole on her lower lip spoils her looks, but I am rather partial to the mole.”

Mrs. Mitchell, in the absence of the governor, arranged for church services to be held in the council chambers with an initial attendance of 36. 

Dr. McFarland accomplished a great deal in the seven months before Amanda joined him. After putting a roof on an abandoned Baptist church, he opened school and church there on December 10, 1866. In January, he organized the Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe with twelve members – ecumenical. Later he found a property bargain of two acres with two houses for $2,500. He had only $1,000, so wrote back to Amanda who helped raise the needed $1,500. 

Amanda arrived in May of 1867 with forty pounds of baggage. She was for thirteen days, the only woman on the stagecoach which had been stopped twice by Indians. When asked if she had been afraid, she replied:

“No, I knew the good Lord had not brought me this far just to cut off my life.”

At Santa Fe their one and only child was board and baptized by the visiting Sheldon Jackson. But little Harry Fulton McFarland was taken by cholera when only seven months old. Amanda had a wealth of mother love to lavish on other people’s children and kept twelve of them in her own home. 

After six fruitful years at Santa Fe, her husband’s health broke and they spent two years in California. Feeling better, he begged to return to the mission field, and they were sent to the Nez Perce Indians in Idaho. There the Rev. David McFarland died of cancer in a few months. Amanda, now doubly bereaved, went to be near friends in Portland, Oregon. There, Dr. Sheldon Jackson met her and asked her to go to Fort Wrangell. 

In 1898 at the age of 65, Amanda McFarland retired to Oklahoma and then to Fairmont, West Virginia, where she lived with her brother and died at the age of 80. She always spoke and wrote on behalf of Alaska missions.

Sheldon Jackson said of her: 

“All of the perplexities political, religious, physical, and moral of the Indian population were brought to her. Her fame spread far and wide among the tribes. 

Since the Tlingit Indian society was matrilineal, Amanda McFarland had status as a woman – long before we ever heard of the Equal Rights Amendment. This status was an advantage at the time of her most famous and daring exploit.

At Wrangell, two of her girl pupils disappeared from school and word was brought to Mrs. McFarland that they had been accused of witchcraft and were being tortured. In agony of mind, she set out to rescue them. Her pupils implored her not to go. “They are having a devil dance and will kill you!” Sarah Dickinson, the interpreter, threw her arms around Amanda and, weeping, declared she was going to her death. 

But up the beach alone marched the fearless Christian teacher to where her two poor girls were stripped naked with hands and feet tied behind their backs, in the center of fifty frantic dancing fiends who, with yells, cut the victims with knives and tore out pieces of their flesh. Forcing her way to the side of the captives, Mrs. McFarland stood warning and pleading, and threatening them with the wrath of the United States gunboat, and after hours of dauntless persistency, cowed the wretches and took away the half-dead girls. (During the night, one of them was recaptured and killed.) 

Historian Dr. Clarence Hulley, whose book is used in college classes on Alaska history, wrote: 

“For many years after 1880, the Presbyterian mission interests were second only to the great corporations in directing the destinies of Alaska.”

Amanda McFarland was in the vanguard and influenced many Indian leaders in Alaska. She was the first white missionary to Alaska after the Purchase from Russia, and was truly a Doer of the Word. May we be inspired by her example.


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