Edward von Valseck was born into a Catholic family in Poland. When he became a Lutheran, his outraged father disinherited him and forbade him to use the family name any longer. And so Edward took the name Baierlein, "Little Bavarian." If you've heard of him at all, it is almost certainly by that name.
Edward was a soul-winner. On this day, September 6, 1849, he was ordained and installed by his denomination as a missionary to America. Originally Edward had planned to go to India, but sickness kept him from sailing at that time. Instead, he was reassigned from the Mission House in Leipzig, Germany to work among a different Indian race on the other side of the world: the Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indians, not far from today's little city of St. Louis, Michigan. (You can find it on a map near Alma, about 45 miles west of Saginaw.)
At his first meeting with the Chippewa on their home ground, Edward (whom the Indians called Black Coat) promised two things: to teach the tribe about eternal life and teach its children reading, writing and arithmetic, so they could read the Bible for themselves and so that they could keep accounts and no longer be cheated by traders. He also asked two things: that they send their children to his school and that they appear in church each Sunday. The Indians thought about it and agreed, shaking his hand so long and hard that his arm ached for days afterward!
Unlike most missionaries, Edward and his wife (a cousin) didn't expect the Indians to adopt white ways. On the contrary--the pair went to live in a bark hut with the Indians. They ate the Indians' food and shared their own supplies with the red men. His idea was that if he lived with the Indians, he could demonstrate at first hand what it meant to be a Christian and draw them into a Christian atmosphere. This attitude was so different from the normal white snobbishness (as expressed, for instance, by the critical attitude of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in Oregon) that they were deeply loved by the Indians, who inducted them as members of their tribe.
Edward quickly learned Chippewa and translated and printed parts of the Lutheran catechism in the language. He also taught the Indians practical skills, such as how to build log cabins. He cleared land at a place he named Bethany, and built a cabin, but it had only one room to live in; the other room was for church use. He set apart part of the cleared land as "God's acre."
Michigan's climate undermined Edward's health. After working with the Indians for five and a half years, he had to leave. Now he fulfilled his original plan and went to sunny India, where he labored for many years. The man who replaced Edward had little sympathy for Indian ways. He made his home ten miles from the tribe which was suffering a great deal because of hard times. Edward would have shared his resources with them, but the new missionary did not, saying they were just "bread Christians" (that is, people who pretended to be Christians just so that they could get food). The tribe had to scatter to hunt for food and many died. The mission work closed.
Edward wrote an informative little book titled In the Wilderness with the Red Indians. He died in a retirement home in France on October 12, 1901.
- Baierlein, E. R. In the Wilderness with the Red Indians. Translated by Anita Z. Boldt. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1996.
- Various short internet articles and book reviews.
Last updated July, 2007