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Christian History Home > Issues > Issue 66 > The West That Wasn't Won

The West That Wasn't Won
Protestant missions to Native Americans had few shining moments.
Bonnie C. Harvey | posted 4/01/2000 12:00AM

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The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners. They have been dragged from their houses and encamped at the forts and military posts all over the nation." Thus Baptist missionary Evan Jones described the beginning of the forced removal of the Cherokees in June 1837.

By the early 1800s, the Cherokees of northern Georgia had a highly developed culture. Their legal system was patterned after that of the United States, and they printed their own books and newspapers. White missionaries—Moravians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists—mingled among them to share the gospel and inculcate Christian values.

Then gold was discovered in the north Georgia mountains, and white settlers looked longingly at the Cherokees' land. The eventual outcome: the government's decision to move the Cherokees beyond the Mississippi.

Though some white missionaries objected fiercely to the government's action, most acquiesced to the order. Jones further described the outcome: "In Georgia especially, multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them except the clothes they had on. Well furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers who, like hungry wolves, followed in the train of the captors . …Many of the Cherokees, who a few days ago were in comfortable circumstances, are now victims of abject poverty. Some who have been allowed to return home under passport to inquire after their property have found their cattle, horses, swine, farming tools and house furniture all gone."

By March 1838 the last group had arrived in Oklahoma, their new home, but at least one-third had died along the way.

This is one of the saddest chapters in American history. It helps explain why white attempts to evangelize American Indians in the West met with so much resistance, and why missionaries had relatively little to show for their efforts.

Civilizing the natives

From the beginning, Christians had mixed attitudes toward Native Americans. Puritan Cotton Mather called them "the veriest Ruines of Mankind" and believed that first they "must be civilized e'er they could be Christianized." Even early missionaries to Indians, like John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew, Jr., believed that Indians must, in Eliot's words, "have visible civility before they can rightly enjoy visible sanctities in ecclesiastical communion."

This attitude was shared by the U. S. government, which in the early nineteenth century worked hand-in-hand with churches to "civilize" the natives. In 1819 Congress passed a bill establishing a Civilization Fund, making $10,000 available annually for instructing Indians in agriculture, literacy, and other such pursuits. Much of the money was given to church agencies that worked with Native Americans.

The dilemma of churches, and of the country, was whether to assimilate the Indians into the prevailing culture or simply remove them to other areas when they got in the way of the country's westward movement. The latter course of action eventually prevailed—often with missionary approval. Isaac McCoy, for example, a Baptist missionary to Native Americans in Kansas, favored not only removal but complete separation from whites for the security of Native Americans against white abuse.

Choctaw success

Though most missionaries could not see beyond their cultural assumptions, some made efforts to move at least part way toward the people to whom they ministered. One example is Cyrus Byington, who, along with some colleagues, organized the Presbyterian Mission to the Choctaw Indians in 1818. Like Eliot and Mayhew before him, Byington laid great emphasis not only on preaching the gospel but on teaching Native Americans to adapt to white culture and learn the English language.

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