Brought the first printing press to Hawaii

Elisha Loomis (2958), born December 11, 1799, son of Nathan and Dorcas Pratt Loomis of Middlesex Township, Ontario County, New York, was the seventh child in a family of eleven. Half a mile from the village that later took the name of Rushville, he spent his first sixteen years like any frontier boy born at the turn of the nineteenth century. He learned to ride, to plow and plant, to build and -- though school terms were brief and teaching often inept, to read, write and cipher with assurance.

At sixteen, when J. D. Bemis of Canandaigus advertised for an apprentice, Elisha persuaded his father to bind him out to learn the printer's trade. The indentures promised that for five years, until he was twenty-one, he would "faithfully serve" his master, "his secrets keep, and his lawful commands everywhere obey." He would not "go to taverns or any other places of resort or otherwise absent himself day or night from his master's service without his leave."

Elisha, however, did not serve out his articles. With his master's permission and encouragement (for J. D. Bemis was a man of good will) Elisha offered himself as missionary printer to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands) in the spring of 1819 and soon afterward departed to attend the summer term at the Foreign Mission School.

In September, when he was returning from Connecticut to say his farewells in Rushville, he stopped over in Utica to avoid traveling on Sunday. And in Utica he met Maria Sartwell. Maria was twenty-three, well educated for a girl of that day, attractive, skilled in the household arts, particularly in the weaving of linen. She had taught school, but in 1819 her occupation was the folding of books for the publishing house of Seward and Williams.

Somehow the boyish printer destined for the Sandwich Islands and the young woman who had "long been wishing to engage in a Mission" were introduced. On September 16, Elisha wrote to Samuel Worcester of the American Board; "I have now spent several days with her, could not be more pleased with a person...I cannot but regard what has taken place as a particular interposition of Divine Providence." Elisha and Maria were married in the vestry of the Presbyterian Church, September 27, and had "a sort of reception" at the home of Publisher Seward. 

Just four weeks later, on October 23, the newlyweds would join fifteen other members, including five children, of the mission party aboard the Thaddeus to depart for the Sandwich Islands. Prior to the sailing, Elisha was instructed to seek out and purchase a printing press with which he would then use to print a variety of spellers and language books of the Hawaiian language. This would be the first printing press to come to the islands. The voyage lasted five months and landed on the big island of Hawaii. 

A complete telling of this Hawaiian saga is told in the "Grapes of Canaan" by Albertine Loomis.

When, in 1827, the Hawaiian adventure was over and Elisha brought Maria and their three children back to Rushville to his father's house, he grasped at whatever offered a livelihood. There was an opening with the Rochester Observer, a religious weekly in the raw community on the Genesee River. In the two years that followed he not only spent hours at his own type case and press but pushed forward, in the face of harassing delays and blunders, the printing elsewhere of 125,000 tracts and thousands of pages of the gospel according to Matthew, Mark and John. In that period he talked almost incessantly for the cause of the Hawaiian Mission, visiting missionary societies and church meetings in scores of upstate villages. He wrote, too, answering some of the hostile articles that appeared in the quarterlies and weeklies. 

By the fall of 1830 Elisha's health would no longer permit him to work as a printer. He closed up his business (with assets "about eighty dollars in money and some household furniture") and left Rochester. By canal packet and lake schooner he made his way to Makinac Island, where at the American Board's Indian mission he taught young Ojibways their letters, edited a spelling-book and tried to rid himself of the illness which he sometimes thought was a liver complaint, sometimes called a disease of the spine and finally diagnosed as consumption. Increasingly he longed for Hawaii and wrote of returning there some day. But the Board had seen the folly of sending any but the most rugged into the foreign field.

In 1832 Elisha was again in Rushville, where he opened a "select" school in the upper story of the dilapidated district schoolhouse. To shelter his family, which now consisted of Maria and five children, he built himself a small frame house, which stood among apple trees on a two acre lot he had "bought" from his father. Before the new venture was two years old, however, he was forced to suspend his school. His disease now had the best of him.

For two years more, Elisha, ill and without regular income, strove to provide for his family But despite economy and resourcefulness the ends would not meet. He wrote to the American Board. What could the Board do for a disabled missionary? Rufus Anderson, the new corresponding secretary, was kind but cautious. The Board, as always, had more claims on its funds than it could meet.

About three hundred dollars in all was eventually granted, the last hundred dollars to enable Elisha to spend the winter of "35-'36 in Florida in quest of health. It was June when he got home to Rushville, "greatly fatigued." In New York he had caught a severe cold. For the next two months he was much of the time in bed, taking morphine to quiet his racking cough. He passed away on August 27, 1836 at the age of only 36.

*The genesis of GRAPES OF CANAAN: HAWAII 1820 is more romantic than that of most novels. some years ago, a teacher of literature and creative writing in Detroit inherited a little red trunk that had twice traveled around Cape Horn. In it Albertine Loomis found the journals of her great-grandparents, Elisha and Maria Loomis, missionary pioneers in far Hawaii. Through half the night she sat on the floor, avidly reading the trunk's contents, and before morning knew that she must write a book about these adventurous ancestors.

After virtually learning by heart these journals, Miss Loomis began a long search to illuminate their casual or cryptic references to fellow missionaries, ship captains, traders, American relatives, Hawaiian chiefs, and customs and events in the Hawaii of the 1820's.

Her quest took her to many libraries in New York and New England. She spent two chilly days in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, where a friendly librarian sacrificed a New Year's vacation to make the archives available to the visitor. What had been at first a tale of mission endeavor branched out into accounts of adventures in fur trade, the sandalwood gathering boom, the whaling days, and the fight by a weak Polynesian Kingdom to maintain its independence from island grabbing great powers. In an alcove in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., she was thrilled to peruse the hand-written transcript of the inquiry into the conduct of Lieutenant John Percival, captain of the first American vessel of war to enter Hawaiian waters, and his amorous crew.

Finally came the first summer Miss Loomis was able to spend in Hawaii. She sighted the coast glimpsed by the people of the Thaddeus in 1820 and viewed the regions where her great-grandparents had dwelt. Much of her material, in fact, was obtained at the Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library on King Street in Honolulu, in the very complex, still open to visitors, where Elisha Loomis set up his printing office and struck off in battered type in the Hawaiian language the damp pages of the first books that were to guide the people of a Stone Age kingdom toward membership in the sisterhood of American states.

This research, transmuted by Albertine Loomis's imagination and craft, become the novel "Grapes of Canaan."

          © 2010 Loomis Families of America