In brief (and it’s actually a very long story), Uncle Alvan was an early Methodist missionary who left Elba, New York in 1839, departed on the ship Lausanne from New York City with his wife and three children, sailed around Cape Horn, made a brief stop in Hawaii, and finally arrived after seven months in the territory of Oregon in the summer of 1840. Along with 50 others on board, Alvan and his family were reinforcements for the earliest Methodist missionaries who had arrived in Oregon 5 years earlier. For the next eight years Alvan served as missionary among the aboriginal peoples and had many noteworthy adventures. In 1848, Oregon became a part of the United States, and Alvan’s missionary work among the Indians came to an end, but he continued to do God’s work, helping to build several Methodist churches in Oregon and playing a crucial role in the founding of Willamette University. But more on the actual details of Uncle Alvan’s life in later entries. Here I want to give you a brief description of the fun I’ve had tracking down his literary remains.
Flash forward to early 2013, about 25 years after I first rapidly read Uncle Alvan’s journals. I received a letter from my mother asking that I get my butt in gear. “I’m getting Old,” she wrote. “Please go back and read those journals more thoroughly.” So, given this polite nudge, I returned to the Rosenbach about a month ago and began to reread the journals. Wonderful stuff. Wait till I tell you about them in later entries (but not yet).
As I was chatting with the librarian, she suggested that other papers having to do with Waller might have survived. She told me to check the archives of Willamette University, which is one of the Western Methodist repositories; she also told me to check out the archives of Drew University in New Jersey, which is the repository for the Methodist archives nationally. She essentially said, “start digging.”
I went home after that and told Christine Farina, my partner, about the journals. She commented, “Think about it, you Kinsellas, or Taylors, or Bakers, whoever, you all write, write, write. You know, don’t you, that your Uncle must have written like that too.” So, I began to write archives asking about Uncle Alvan, and I began to go on-line, and what I have found so far has staggered me.
First, I find that the Oregon Historical Society in Portland has at least two more journals from the period when Uncle Alvan was an active missionary (they may have as many as four more journals, although two may be copies of the Rosenbach journals, I’m not sure yet). They also have several letters to and from Uncle Alvan. The University of Puget Sound in Washington has no journals, but they have at least 5 letters from Uncle Alvan. I have seen copies of these letters, which are reports back to the Missionary Society in NYC. They are fascinating. Willamette University wrote me back and said that they have no letters from Uncle Alvan, although many letters to him. They asked whether I knew (I did not) that the oldest building on campus, for years the only building -- essentially the heart of the college -- was built with money raised from the local community by Uncle Alvan, and that it was named Waller Hall in his honor.
Waller Hall at Willamette University, Oregon
Uncle Alvan is mentioned in dozens of histories of Oregon and of the Methodist Missionaries in that state, sometimes very extensively. And there is an on-line repository of Oregon’s Historical newspapers that when searched, also turns up many articles about him.
So, I am heading to Philadelphia about every other week to continue carefully rereading the original journals, and I am planning an early summer trip to Oregon to read the materials in Portland and to visit Uncle Alvan’s university. There are many, many interesting details of his missionary life that I have already turned up and more to come surely. Let me simply close by suggesting that our Uncle Alvan was in the middle of history making (good & bad) on the west coast. I’ll report more soon.