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Did you know? Slain ND missionaries became the 'Walhalla Martyrs'

On the evening of Aug. 30, 1854, Cornelia Spencer was awakened by the fussing of her 8-month-old son. As she picked him up, she could hear a tapping sound at the kitchen window, and with the infant in her arms, Cornelia went to investigate. As soon as she opened the curtains, three shots from point-blank range struck her—two in the throat and one in the chest.

She fell to her knees, still carefully cradling her baby. The three armed culprits discussed rushing inside to scalp her, but Cornelia's husband, the Rev. David Spencer, scrambled from his bed and barricaded the front door. For the next several hours, while her three small children looked on, her husband tried to comfort her before she died from her fatal wounds.

Cornelia's death marked the second time, in slightly over two years, that a missionary in St. Joseph—now Walhalla—had been murdered. On June 28, 1852, Elijah Terry, a Baptist pastor/missionary, was killed in the woods near the mission school/church that he was constructing.

Cornelia Leonard was born Aug. 3, 1825, in Rochester, N.Y. She grew up in Ohio and attended nearby Oberlin College, a liberal arts institution founded by Presbyterian ministers. David Spencer, who grew up in New Haven, Conn., also attended Oberlin at about the same time.

Two of Spencer's uncles, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, were major benefactors of the college, and, Lewis co-founded the American Missionary Society in 1846. The society's main purposes were to abolish slavery, educate African and Native Americans, and promote racial equality and Christian values.

The Tappans had helped fund the Rev. Frederick Ayers and his wife in their missionary work with the Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota Territory, and in 1842, Spencer joined the couple in ministering in the Red Lake area.

The Ayers left in 1843, but Spencer was soon joined by Alonzo Barnard and his wife, Sarah. Alonzo was a good friend of James Tanner, the man who later convinced Elijah Terry to join him at St. Joseph.

In 1846, the Barnards and Spencer moved the base of their missionary work to the Cass Lake area, and a short time later, Spencer attended missionary classes at Oberlin. In 1848, Spencer and Cornelia were married and they went to Cass Lake to work with the Barnards.

In 1850, Norman Kittson, a prominent fur trader in the Pembina-St. Joseph area, journeyed to Cass Lake to try to persuade the Barnards and Spencers to relocate to what is now northeastern North Dakota. Early in 1853, Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey secured a $500 grant from the federal government to facilitate the transfer to St. Joseph and both couples agreed to move in May.

Sarah Barnard soon experienced health issues and died on Oct. 25, 1853. In the spring of 1854, Alonzo Barnard left St. Joseph and took his children to Ohio, where they could be raised by Sarah's mother. The Spencers tended to the ministerial needs of the Chippewa near St. Joseph.

After Cornelia Spencer was murdered, it was reported that a group of Métis captured the three

Sioux/Lakota Indians who had committed the crime and brought them before Kittson and David Spencer. Spencer told them that he was willing to forgive them and that he would not press charges if they converted to Christianity. Later that year, he left St. Joseph with his young children, but continued to serve as a missionary until his death in 1884.

In June of 1885, Mrs. Spencer's grave site was found, and a special ceremony was held in Walhalla on June 21, 1888, when her body, along with those of Elijah Terry and Sarah Barnard,

were reburied in the Presbyterian cemetery. Collectively, they became known as the "Walhalla


"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at