The Plow and The Bible

Rev. James H. Wilbur

August 15, 2011

James Wilbur, one of the most influential White people on the reservation in the last half of the 1800’s, came to the Yakama Reservation in 1860 to teach at the Fort Simcoe School (Developed by the Yakama Indian Agency after the military left the fort.).  A man of large stature—six-foot-four and 200 pounds—Wilbur would dominate Yakama life “for the next twenty-five years.”

Wilbur, a Methodist pastor, cared for the health and wellbeing of the Yakama people.  More than once he argued for additional money and resources to enhance the health and nutritional needs of the people.  Far too often, he experienced malnutrition and deaths on the reservation while the bordering White communities lived well.  Additionally, he fought to maintain reservation land for the Yakama’s and to hold off White settlers from appropriating the same.

Christianity drove Wilbur and his work on the reservation.  Wilbur believed Christianity as the earth’s only correct religion and only through conversion is ones salvation assured.  He strayed little from this viewpoint during his tenure and “governed the reservation with a strong hand…under the standard of ‘The Plow and the Bible’”—treating the Yakama people as children whose eternal wellbeing is based in learning and adopting the virtues of Christianity, education, and physical work.”  Wilbur’s beliefs arise in his 1878 report to the Commissioner on Indian Affairs,

The Indians of the Yakama Agency were as low at our beginning with them as humanity gets without getting into the pit that is bottomless.  They were taken from the war-path, gathered upon the reserve,…clothed with annuity blankets and goods, living in idleness, using the goods furnished as a gambling-fund, drinking whisky, running horses on the Sabbath, stealing each other’s wives, and carrying out the practices of the low degraded white men to great perfection.  The Bible and the plow (which must never be divorced) have brought them up from the horrible pit, and put a new song into their mouths, and new hopes into their hearts.  They are washed and clothed and in their right minds.  Between five and six hundred are accepted members of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The U.S. government held Wilbur’s mindset in good regard throughout his tenure.  In the Indian Commissioner’s 1871 report on the Yakama Reservation, Felix R. Brunot’s notes,

The school has been under the direction of Rev. J.H. Wilbur; at first as teacher, and subsequently as agent, for about ten years, and has been very successful.  It has been conducted as an industrial boarding-school, the boys being taught to labor, and the girls, while being instructed in the elementary English branches, to sew and so housework….The results upon this reservation, which I have briefly attempted to describe, are due to the ability and Christian zeal of Mr. Wilbur and the policy he has pursued, the latter being identical to the wishes of the President [Grant], and that recommended in the first report of the board of Indian commissioners…He manages the Indians in ‘a kindly and benevolent spirit, yet with firmness and without fear.

Wilbur ruled with a heavy hand during his twenty-five years never straying from his focus of civilizing and Christianizing the Yakama people.  Wilbur chastised Indians who lived and worship traditionally.  Stories were told of Wilbur traveling days to end traditional services and ramrodding Yakama’s back into his influence.  The hand by which he ruled led him to give preference (“he was reprimanded for not equitably distributing the treaty-mandated goods”) to Methodist converts over Indians of either Catholic or Traditional faith.

However, though Wilbur carried a tremendous amount of power and authority on the reservation, he could not control everyone…

© David B. Bell 2011


  1. David, I appreciate this series of historical notes. One of the tragedies is that people like Wilbur and some of the leaders of the Yakama Christian Mission that Disciples established at White Swan were unable to recognize the effective and efficient economic system that actually was functioning. Many people on the land when Euro-Americans arrived lived well, with greater leisure, than the discoverers recognized. It came as a surprise to me when I began reading about southern Arizona peoples who had developed a healthy diet and comfortable way of life in the desert.


    1. Thanks Keith. Working through this series (I’ll take it up to the beginning of the Yakama Christian Mission) continually reminds me to look around myself and wonder what is holding me from effectively recognizing systems which encourage me to be blinded to the hurt I am inflicting in the world around me. Like many of the folks in the stories, the mindset I have developed encourages me to do what I believe is right, but not to question those same actions for what is wrong.


  2. My daughter and I visited Mary Hill Museum of Art August 20 and enjoyed the exhibit “Beside the Big River” art and images of Columbia River Native Americans. There was an extensive collection of 1950’s-1960’s photographer JW Thompsons slides of tribal life, pre-hydro fishing, costumes, etc. One picture in the exhibit that caught my eye was of Chief White Swan and the curated info tells he was converted to Christianity by Rev. Wilbur (I believe). If you have a chance to go to Mary Hill to see this collection, I recommend it.


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