Dwight Mission and the Cherokees

Dwight Mission and the Cherokees

In the history of Christian missions, those intending to share the gospel have taken several approaches in doing so. Early on, during the Catholic European expansion period, missionaries were regularly sent out with explorers. They sometimes exploited indigenous peoples as they claimed lands and resources, forced baptisms, and eradicated original cultures and languages. Later, some Colonialists strategized similarly, importing Western music, forms of worship, and liturgy. Still later, some missionaries defended indigenous peoples from enslavers, governmental encroachments, and inhumane treatment of indigenous peoples around the world. This is a story, however, of missionaries of a different kind, closer to home in place and time, who loved the people and became "family."

At the turn of the 19th century, there was no formal denominational mission-sending agency among American Protestants. But in 1810, Congregationalists in America, due to the work of Adoniram and Ann Judson, Timothy Dwight, and several others, established the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Four years later, the Judsons were instrumental in the formation of the Baptist Triennial Convention that sent out missionaries to other lands. Congregationalist Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, became a significant figure in the Second Great Awakening (1810-40).

As a result of God's work of Awakening, global evangelism emerged as a passionate goal of many Christians in America. "Domestic," or Home missions was included in that fervor. As white settlers moved west, some Native Americans resisted their presence. Others welcomed the changes settlers were bringing. For example, the ABCFM received a request in 1817 from Cherokees who lived on the Chickamauga River, near what is today Chattanooga, Tennessee. They wanted to learn English. Two missionaries were sent to clear land and settle a forty-acre site in southeastern Tennessee, and went to work. Within a short time, the missionaries and Cherokees had built separate schoolhouses and dwellings for boys and girls, a cemetery, sawmill, blacksmith shop, wash house, smokehouse, corn house, and stables. They also built a missionary home. By the end of the year, they had fenced land and created a farm. They called this Brainerd Mission, after David Brainerd (1718-1747), the famous early Presbyterian missionary to the Delaware Native Americans in New England.

The mission was intended to provide a basic education to Cherokee children, while also sharing the good news of Jesus. They learned to read and write the English language, using the Bible for one of their textbooks. The missionaries also taught life skills: for the girls, spinning, knitting, and sewing. The boys learned animal husbandry, farming, and mechanical skills. In turn, the missionaries also learned better techniques for hunting, food preservation, textile dying, brain-tanning of leather, and basket-weaving.

One day, a visiting Cherokee leader named Tahlonteeskee, living in northeast Arkansas, came to observe the community at work, and took this idea back to his people. He was one of the first of the "Old Settlers" of the new Cherokee Nation—West, which was established by the US government in then "Arkansas Territory." He became the third Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1817 and was the first western Chief to allow Christianity to be taught to his people. He invited missionaries from the ABCFM to come to live among them and open a new site, which came to be called Dwight Mission, after Timothy Dwight. They opened three new communities on the Illinois River. In 1828, however, a new treaty between the US Federal Government and the Cherokees forced the Old Settlers even further west, into the area of what was then "Indian Territory" (now Oklahoma). All of the missionaries made a decision together to move with the people they had grown to love as family.

In 1829, Dwight Mission was reestablished on Sallisaw Creek, in Sequoyah County, near Marble City, in the foothills of the Ozark mountains, about twelve miles above the confluence of Sallisaw Creek and the Arkansas River. The other two missions moved west as well, becoming the villages of Fairfield and Park Hill, located nearby. Quickly, the Dwight Mission family erected a double log house for a teacherage and girls' schoolroom and several one- and two-story log houses for the staff. Eventually the facility had twenty-one houses, a large dining hall, a barn, and outbuildings. A school opened on 1 May 1830. Its primary mission was to provide an education to Cherokee children and teach them about Christ, as their leaders had requested.

Samuel Worcester arrived at the mission in 1835, after having come with Cherokee tribes from Georgia as they were removed westward. He created the type for the Cherokee syllabary, similar to an alphabet, for their first newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix. In 1837, the first Cherokee language printing press in the Indian Territory was moved from Union Mission (near Maize, forty-two miles east of what is now Tulsa) to the Dwight Mission, which Worcester used to publish the Cherokee Bible, hymnals, and textbooks. By 1839, the majority of the Cherokee Nation from the southeast had arrived, by the Trail of Tears, to the area.

At its height, Dwight Mission was home to more than a dozen staff, including preachers, teachers, industrial instructors, and eighty students. During the Civil War, several buildings were burned by soldiers from both sides. In 1886, however, the Cherokee National Council reestablished the school, and the Presbyterian Women's Board of Home Missions provided funds to erect a large residence for Cherokee girls. In 1900, boys came to live and study, too, and Dwight remained open as a boarding school until 1948. In 1944, Dwight Indian Training School consisted of nine buildings on eighty-six acres, operating under the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church USA, and served seventy-one students, mostly Cherokee and Choctaw. Generations of Native Americans grew up and went to school at Dwight Mission. In 1950, the property was purchased by the Presbyterian Church USA, and was used as a Presbyterian summer youth camp and retreat center for the next half century.

In 2021, however, the Presbyterian Church initiated a dialogue with the Cherokee Nation. The offer was to return the long-cherished land to the Cherokee people who lived there before the state of Oklahoma ever existed. The transfer of Dwight Mission, with its more than 200 acres, took place in June of that year. The grateful Cherokee Nation pledged to preserve the legacy of this treasured and sacred place, and to ensure public access and continued ministry opportunities for the Presbyterian Church, who loved them, lived with them, and brought the gospel of Christ to them.

We celebrate and give thanks to God for this example of "incarnational" missions. We are grateful for all of those who walk the journey in others' moccasins, who choose to embrace, who learn better the way of Christ when in community with brothers and sisters, and who purposefully practice His peace together.
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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