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Mission Impossible

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Minnesota is known as the "land of ten thousand lakes. Missionaries come in second.

Ever since the French and English first ascended the Mississippi as far as Minnesota to trade and explore, missionaries tagged along, giving religious names to real estate. Father Louis Hennepin named St. Anthony's Falls when he was there in 1680. It must have been missionary influence that changed a small settlement near Fort Snelling from the colorful Pig's Eye Island to the bland St. Paul.

After the War of 1812, American missionaries turned toward Minnesota. In 1823, the “Virginia,” the first steamboat to ascend the Mississippi as far as Fort Snelling carried a lady who had felt the call to become a missionary to the Indians in Minnesota.

She was like a small leak in a levee. Just a trickle growing unnoticed. By 1828, there were thirty-one missionaries in Minnesota with an annual budget of $2,400. A religious revival in the United States that year breached the levee in one great flood. By 1850, 570 missionaries—half of them women—had felt the call establish missions among the several Indian tribes in Minnesota, financed by groups such as the American Board of Missions. To this number add 2,000 preachers and helpers who came to Minnesota to build churches and schools for the converts. By 1850, eight years before Minnesota would become a state, various Christian denominations had already built more than a thousand churches—one for every 40 of the estimated 40,000 Indian converts. Some four hundred schools enrolled 30,000 Indian children. Printing presses were turning out Bibles, tracts, and other works in thirty native languages.

The tremendous drain on missionaries flooding to Minnesota must have created a drought of uttermost darkness in other parts of United States. In Illinois, for example, the Methodist Peter Cartwright was forced to cover the Mississippi Valley from St. Louis to Galena all by himself.

Nor were all those missionaries terribly welcome in Minnesota. Indian commissioners and government officials generally gave them a cold shoulder. After all, Minnesota was already trying to promote itself as a new Eden. And in Eden, why would you need missionaries?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.