Contextualizing Objects in the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection

Logan in Chuuk

In 1884, Robert Logan traveled to the Caroline Islands yet again, this time to lead the first official missionary movement in the Chuuk Lagoon. Aboard the Jennie Walker, Logan traveled with his wife and infant daughter, Beulah, from Honolulu to Chuuk.20 From 1884 until his death in 1887, Logan would dedicate his life to bringing Christianity and Western practices to the Chuuk peoples.

Chuuk, also known as Truk or the Chuuk Lagoon, is a group of islands in the central Pacific. The Lagoon contains over 57 islands. Today, Chuuk makes up one of the four modern states of the Federated States of Micronesia. As part of the heterogeneous Caroline Islands, Chuuk has a vast array of linguistic and cultural diversity. In prehistory, the Chuuk peoples sustained themselves primarily from fishing and local plant products, such as kava root, arrow root, coconut, and taro.21 The Chuuk peoples were also developers of impressive maritime technology and were capable of traveling considerable distances in canoes. This technology made it possible from them to participate in an immense Pacific trade network long before Western explorers arrived.22




Map drawn by Robert Logan of the Chuuk Lagoon

Map drawn by Robert Logan in his Journal aboard the Jennie Walker from Honolulu to the Chuuk Lagoon in 1884.

Unlike the other island groups in the Caroline Islands, Western voyagers largley overlooked Chuuk until the 19th century.23 One factor driving this oversight was fundamental social and structural differences between Chuuk and neighboring island groups. While Yap, Pohnpei, and Kosrae all developed complex architecture and large stratified chiefdoms, Chuuk remained a politically segregated and relatively small population. In Chuuk, raiding and intertribal warfare persisted on a greater scale throughout the history of the Caroline Islands. This was primarily due to the geographic organization of the Chuuk Islands; the Chuuk Lagoon consists of small, dispersed atolls. This structure inhibits political centralization and population growth.24 All these facets combined meant that Chuuk remained a mere footnote in Western imperialism until the twentieth century.

In the history of early contact, many historians have considered Robert Logan's missionary work to be the first continual contact between the peoples of the Chuuk islands and Westerners.25 However in 1884, when Logan established the first official missionary base in the Chuuk Lagoon, the Chuuk peoples already had a long history of interaction with numerous Western groups. The first documented account of contact occurred in 1565, when the Spanish vessel San Lucas explored the region and a short but violent encounter ensued. Other than occasional drifting ships boarded by European explorers and Spanish missionaries, Western contact is altogether absent from the historical record until the early 1800s. At this time, explorers began purposely investigating the region using maps drawn from neighboring Native accounts. From these interactions the Chuuk region received a reputation as a dangerous area with incredibly violent Natives. One account claimed the locals flaunted weaponry and wore headdresses that doubled as weapons.26 For the most part, this Western mythology of Chuuk deterred many European colonizers, entrepeneurs, whalers, and missionaries. However, despite this deterrance, the Chuuk peoples did experience many encounters with Western groups, often ending in physical and sexual violence. This pattern of violence escalated in 1868, when two British vessels razed several villages and burned many canoes on the Island of Fefan, in retaliation to Native attack. Four years later, another British vessel came and kidnapped 50 Chuukese and took them to Fiji as enslaved labor. Some of these men were returned to Chuukese in 1881, and spread accounts of their enslavement amongst the Native Chuuk peoples. It was in this climate of violence and fear of Westerners that Logan entered in 1884.27



Although the peoples of Chuuk had great reason to fear Westerners, it was by Native request for a missionary that Logan traveled to Chuuk in 1884.28 Some Native Micronesian missionaries, trained in Pohnpei, had already introduced Christianity to the region. By Logan's arrival, four churches had been built in Chuuk.29 Robert Logan's journal aboard the Jennie Walker provides insight into the earliest encounters Logan had with the Chuuk people. Once he entered the Chuuk Lagoon, he spent some time moving from island to island before he decided to set up his base on Uman. Logan writes that Natives would frequently sail their canoes up to his ship and beg him to visit their islands. One particularly moving account tells of his visit to Fafei. He writes that a chief begged him to come and consider settling in his village. Logan visited the chief, and the chief told him he wanted a missionary because he was tired of fighting. Logan declined the chief's offer, stating that Fafei didn't have a good location for the missionary base of operations. After Logan left, a chief from a different tribe came and begged Logan to consider settling in his village, on his half of the Fafei Island. Logan told him the other chief had already seen him, and that Logan declined the offer. Logan retells that they then left “seeming not to be afraid,” perhaps suggesting that some conflict or violence over the issue was expected. Logan notes that one of the canoes was covered in blood, insinuating that warfare and murder were prominent on the island.30

Logan failed to grasp that where he established his base had great cultural significance for the Chuuk peoples. Logan's choice of settlement held significance because missionaries were considered prestigious for a tribe to have. What is more, missionaries in Chuuk took on the tribal affiliation of the group they settled with. Logan took on the tribal affiliation of his base island, Uman, and this interfered with his attempts to act as a neutral party.31 Logan found that his Native companions took special care to prevent Logan from being captured by enemy tribes.32 In this way, Logan's presence in Chuuk had a strong political significance. Although Logan continuously attempted to bring peace amongst the Chuuk peoples, these early encounters framed a pattern in which Logan could not achieve total neutrality in intertribal conflict.


In later reports sent to Reverands in Oberlin, Logan paints a greater picture of the state of indigenous life at the time of his arrival. He writes that on every island the Chuuk peoples were suffering from an “epidemic influenza” and that many died from these illnesses. From Logan's report, it seems that disease, likely brought from growing European contact, had pervaded the Chuuk peoples.33 While Logan likely had good reason to exaggerate Native illnesses to his overseers and funders, these illnesses could have made Natives feel a more desperate need for a missionary. Missionaries could represent Native peoples in the face of growing colonial and merchant infiltration. Indeed, Logan spent much time in Chuuk acting as a diplomat to Spanish and German colonizers fighting over the islands. Logan also fought with merchants who traveled to the region for trade with locals. With Logan's influence, many of the Chuuk peoples abstained from products once used as overvalued commodities by traders to take advantage of Natives. Traditionally, the Chuuk peoples would cover themselves in a red paint, which they would pay high prices in trade to acquire. One of Logan's greatest personal triumphs was convincing the Chuuk peoples to abstain from this practice, a development that greatly angered merchants. Logan also convinced the Chuuk peoples to stay away from tobacco, another product that allowed merchants to take advantage of Native demand.34 In this way, Logan acted as both a force of Western assimilation and defender of Natives against Western interests.

Robert Logan's Letter to the Reverends of Oberlin

Letter written by Robert Logan to the Reverends of Oberlin, detailing his missionary activity 1886-1887.