Way-Back Wednesday: Fearless Reverend John Roberts, Episcopal Mission, School and Church at Fort Washakie

John Roberts was born on March 31, 1853, in Wales. His passion was serving the church in the missionary field, and this interest took him first to Nassau in the Bahama Islands.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

December 22, 202113 min read

Way back reverend
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

In 1868, a treaty was signed with the Shoshone people establishing for them a reservation in the west central part of Wyoming Territory. In 1878, they would be joined by their longtime adversaries the Arapaho on what would become the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The following year, the new American president Ulysses S. Grant moved to put religious denominations in charge of overseeing Indian reservations throughout the west. 

On April 10, 1869, “Grant’s Peace Policy” went into effect. It was also known as the “Quaker Policy” because the Quakers were said to have influenced the enactment. This new policy rewarded those tribes that settled down, took up agriculture and stayed out of the way of encroaching white settlements. Indian people who continued to live away from the reservations would be considered “hostile.” Most importantly, the policy stated, “The church groups were to aid in the intellectual, moral and religious culture and thus assist in the humanity and benevolence which the peace policy meant.”

In Wyoming, The Episcopal Church was given responsibility for the Shoshone Indian Reservation. In the 1870s, the church was poor and lacked clergy leaving it ill-prepared to serve the nearly 1,500 Shoshones who would reside there. It wasn’t until 1883 that the first missionary clergyman, Reverend John Roberts, was sent to the reservation.

John Roberts was born on March 31, 1853, in Wales. His passion was serving the church in the missionary field, and this interest took him first to Nassau in the Bahama Islands. It was there that he was ordained to the priesthood. 

During a smallpox outbreak at Pueblo, Roberts showed his courage, working in the infirmary. When his apprenticeship was done, he desired an even greater challenge. The opportunity presented itself when Episcopal Bishop John F. Spalding, who served Colorado and Wyoming, appointed the thirty-year-old priest to the Shoshone and Bannock Indian Agency in Wyoming Territory (later renamed the Wind River Indian Reservation). 

Thankfully Roberts was driven, spirited and fearless in his passion to serve. He rode the train to Green River and then boarded a stage coach to travel the last 150 miles. Traveling in winter, he traveled in the middle of a blizzard with temperatures plummeting to near 60 degrees below zero. Several travelers and stage drivers had died or lost limbs to frostbite. Undeterred, Roberts traveled with a mail carrier for eight days through the intense cold and snow to reach the location to which his bishop had assigned him, arriving on February 10, 1883 at his new home. 

While serving in the Bahamas, Roberts had become engaged to a young church organist named Laura Brown. They kept up their relationship by exchanging letters until she was able to come to Wyoming. She arrived in Rawlins by train on Christmas Eve, 1884. Roberts met her at the train station and they were married the very next day – on Christmas – at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church. They would raise five children during their years together.

At Fort Washakie, Roberts went to work serving the people, becoming the first superintendent of the government school. School attendance was required for Indian children, and many attended against their will. In 1885, Roberts established The Church of the Redeemer that would serve the Shoshone people and other area residents.

In 1884, the Reverend Sherman Coolidge was assigned to the reservation to assist Roberts in his ministry. Coolidge was a full-blooded Arapaho priest who had been separated from the tribe as a young boy and raised by Captain Coolidge from the military post. He was educated in Minnesota and then sent back to his people. Both Roberts and Coolidge left enduring legacies through their work with the Arapaho.

Roberts recognized that the reservation wasn’t the only place where an Episcopal presence was needed. He went about organizing congregations in the nearby communities of Lander, Dubois, Crowheart, Riverton, Thermopolis, Milford, Hudson and Shoshoni. Except the latter three towns, all have active congregations to this day, due in large part to “Father Roberts.” He became known as a friend to those he served, spending countless hours visiting those fledgling churches and traveling on horseback in all kinds of weather. He officiated at numerous baptisms, communion services, weddings and burials.

Roberts also became a close personal friend of Chief Washakie of the Shoshone. Washakie was in his early 80’s when Roberts arrived and was viewed as a fair but autocratic leader. 

During his years of service, Roberts never lost his boldness. To save the life of a man from a botched surgery, Roberts drove poorly tamed horses through darkness and bitter cold some sixteen miles to the nearest garrison where he found a military doctor who would save the man, just in the nick of time as he was bleeding to death. 

Much of Roberts’ work was educational, and he taught at the government school and girls’ school. He respected the cultural differences and pride of the Indian people and worked to strike a balance between two very different worlds. 

From the Christian History Institute: In his desire to preserve Native American culture, Roberts worked with Michael White Hawk to translate parts of the Bible into Arapahoe. Luke 9:25–26 in that translation reads, Hauddusedau henane, vahesedanauaugu hath?auauvadenee, nau hanahadagu, nauwau?the haus?guthadagu? Daun naudauthedaun?de nau nadanadedaunau, nananenith Heau Henane haudnaudauthedaunaunith, h?enauusathe nehayau hadauvas?thanith, nau Henesaunaune hadauvas?thanith, nau vadanee hautheaunauau hadauvas?thanethe. (For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits his own self? For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed, when he comes in his glory, and the glory of the Father, and of the holy angels.)

One legendary tale has been told about the relationship between Father Roberts and Chief Washakie. The chief’s son, Jim Washakie, was shot and killed in 1885 by a white man in an argument over a liquor purchase. It is said that when Chief Washakie heard of this, he became distraught and reacted to his son’s death with a vow to kill every white man he saw until he himself was dead. When Roberts learned of this, he visited Chief Washakie. 

It’s widely reported that in an attempt to talk him out of it, the clergyman offered his own life instead. Washakie reconsidered and said, “I do not want your life. But I want to know what it is that gives you more courage than I have.” Roberts used the occasion to talk about his personal faith and converted Washakie to Christianity. 

While this story says much about the character of both men, it is probably a tall tale. The Roberts family tells a different story, that instead Father Roberts paid a visit to the chief after the incident, but that Washakie’s comment was much different. According to the Roberts family, Chief Washakie’s response had been that, “The white man did not kill my son. Whiskey killed him.”

Roberts identified the need for a Christian school on the reservation. The government school served mostly boys, and he felt it was important to also educate girls. His vision became possible in 1887 when Chief Washakie made a personal gift of 160 acres as a site for a new school. Washakie valued Roberts’s presence, and felt it was important for his people to receive an education so that they would be prepared to live within the quickly encroaching white society. The land along Trout Creek southwest of Fort Washakie was the site for a girls’ boarding school and supporting farm. In 1908–1909, by an act of Congress and by agreement of the Arapaho and Shoshone Tribal Councils, the Episcopal Church was given legal title to the land on which the mission was located. The donated site on Trout Creek was long considered sacred ground by the Shoshone.

The school was built with the assistance of Episcopal Bishop Ethelbert Talbot, who raised funds for the complex. The bishop thought very highly of the Reverend Roberts and his dedication to Indian ministry. He once offered Roberts the opportunity to have a more prestigious position, but Roberts declined, saying, “Thank you, Bishop, but I hope you will never take me away from my Indians. I prefer to spend my life here among my adopted people.”

The Northern Arapaho tribe, led by Chief Black Coal, was allowed to settle on the Shoshone reservation in 1878. Roberts did not hesitate to expand his ministry to the Arapaho people. 

The Shoshone Episcopal Mission was the first Episcopal mission boarding school for girls established in the Wyoming Territory. Roberts was charged with establishing Episcopal churches and schools for the Shoshone and Arapaho Indians.

Shoshone-Episcopal Mission (also known as Shoshone-Episcopal Mission School for Shoshone Girls), a historic mission and school in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. The school was built from 1889 to 1890 by Rev. John Roberts, the minister and teacher on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Roberts built the boarding school to teach the Shoshone girls living on the reservation; as many of the students lived up to 20 miles away from the school, it was necessary to build a boarding school to teach them.

The school, called the Shoshone-Episcopal Mission Boarding School (also known as the Shoshone School for Indian Girls and the Roberts School), was a two-story, Georgian, red-brick building with a sandstone foundation and a symmetrical five-bay facade.

The school later became the headquarters of the entire Episcopal mission on the reservation.

 The original building measured approximately 40 feet wide and 33 feet deep, though several additions were later added to the rear. The corners of the building were picked out with paneled brick pilasters; otherwise, the exterior was quite plain. The main entrance on the east facade was a semicircular arched opening flanked by paneled brick pilasters with stone caps. The double-leaf door was topped by a two-light, semicircular transom.

The hip-roofed, screened-in frame porch was added circa 1900. Windows in the four side bays were two-over-two, double-hung sash with brick segmental-arched lintels and sandstone sills. The central second-floor window consisted of two round-arched, two-over-two windows topped by a two-light semi-circular transom, set in a rounded-arched opening. The school was topped by a hipped roof sheathed with painted standing-seam metal and featured a boxed cornice and eave. Interior end chimneys with decorative brick paneling and corbeling rose from the center of each side wall of the original structure.

Soon after the school was completed, additions were built onto the rear of the building. A one-story brick kitchen was added circa 1895. Five years later, the girls’ dining room was added behind the kitchen, connecting the formerly freestanding laundry with the main building. Another school room of brick and random ashlar sandstone was added behind the girls’ dining room in 1930, bringing the ell to its present 71-foot length. At the same time, another dormitory room was added above the kitchen.

The building served as the school, boarding facility, and the home of Roberts and his wife. A large dining and classroom were on the north side of the central hall, with two smaller rooms on the south side for the Roberts family. Upstairs, the Roberts’ family and mission employees occupied two bedrooms on the south side of the hall, while the boarding students shared a dormitory room on the north side.

The building ceased to function as a school in 1945. Gwen Roberts, a daughter of Reverend Roberts, continued to live in the building until 1960, when it was converted to a parish center. 

The mission was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 1973.

The building fell into serious disrepair, which continued for decades. 

The Shoshone Episcopal Mission School, later referred to as “Roberts’s Mission,” began operations in 1889 and served numerous reservation girls until it closed in 1945. On March 17, 2016, the building was destroyed by a fire.

The fire was reported on March 17th at 5:00 a.m. and within days the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced a $10,000 reward for information about the Roberts Mission fire in Fremont County. 

ATF reportedly determined the fire to be human caused, but could not determine if it was intentionally set ablaze. The fire required most of the remaining walls of the building, quite old and not structurally sound, to be removed for safety. However, the foundation and some of the more recent additions remained. Some of the bricks were saved. 

Investigators denied rumors that a body had been found inside the building during the fire investigation.

Also, on the property provided by Chief Washakie, is Holy Saints John Chapel, a tiny 15 x 40-foot log church, was built by Roberts in 1899–1900 for church services and classroom space. Services were held regularly in the thirty-seat chapel until the 1960s, when the mission at Fort Washakie was closed and the old Mission School property became the mission seat.

The Reverend John Roberts officiated a funeral service on April 10, 1884. On that day a woman was buried and he was convinced she was Sacajawea, famous for accompanying the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803–1806. 

Reverend Roberts with his friend, Chief Washakie at the Sacajawea Monument located in the Sacajawea Cemetery at Fort Washakie

The woman, known as “Wad-ze-wipe,” mother of Baptiste and stepmother of Bazil, died at about age 100. According to Shoshone tradition and early Wyoming historian Grace Raymond Hebard, this was Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Many modern scholars argue that Sacagawea died shortly after her historic journey and is buried in what’s now South Dakota. Roberts believed that “Wad-ze-wipe” was the true Sacagawea and recorded her as such in the church burial records.

Roberts also officiated at the funeral service of Chief Washakie, on February 22, 1900. In 1897, before his death, Chief Washakie had summoned Roberts to his home for a visit. There, on January 25, Washakie officially became a Christian through baptism at the age of 97. He became active in this faith for his remaining years he encouraged other Shoshones to become Christians as well.

Chief Washakie, said to be 102, was buried with full military honors at the post cemetery. He had served the United States Army for many years as a scout. The Reverend Coolidge assisted Roberts in the service. 

Grave site of Chief Washakie, “A Wise Ruler”

Roberts served his people for as long as he was able. He became a bridge for Indian people with the white culture that surrounded the reservation. His style could best be described as “loving paternalism.” 

In Robert’s later years, a congressional commission stated: “He has done more toward advancing these Indians in education, farming, and mechanical pursuits than all other agencies combined.” 

His Wyoming ministry lasted 66 years. 

In his later years, he suffered from blindness. It was said he could identify visitors to his log home by the sound of their footsteps on a creaking floor. 

Roberts died on January 22, 1949, and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Lander. 

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter