Cherokee patriots, those who shaped the Nation in Georgia, then rebuilt it in Indian Territory, were not just native Cherokees. Although many like John Ross, Stand Watie or Major Ridge are well known and were dominant in shaping what became the modern Nation in Georgia, later in Indian Territory, they were assisted by another effective source, Christian missionaries. Traditionally, missionaries enter a foreign country focused on seeking converts to their mode of worship. Undoubtedly that was the purpose of those who arrived in the Cherokee Nation, but either because circumstances dictated that were unusually oppressive, or were enculturated within the tribe, they became swept up in the dynamics of a changing nation.
The Cherokee’s first contact with missionaries occurred in 1735 when Moravians from England settled for a decade in Savannah, left then returned in 1800 and established a mission at Spring Place, Georgia. Meanwhile, European traders began to intermarry with Cherokee women, creating a growing number of inter-racial families. These families began to question Cherokee traditions and religious practices and, as their number grew, influenced age old Cherokee customs and governance. In 1817, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent their first missionary, Cyrus Kingsbury, to the Cherokee Nation to establish a church and school at Brainard, present day Chattanooga. Others followed creating churches and schools, a few intermarried, some becoming involved in Cherokee civic and governmental affairs. One incident reflects their degree of involvement and loyalty.
In addition to infringing upon Cherokee national sovereignty, the State of Georgia continually and relentlessly pursued ways of obtaining Cherokee territory. 1n 1829 another opportunity developed when gold was discovered near Dahlonega in the Cherokee Nation. Discovery of gold always creates pandemonium and the Georgia state legislature, seizing on the moment, passed a law requiring any non-Cherokee citizen to obtain a permit from the state to reside on Cherokee land. The law targeted missionaries and eleven, who had lived for some time in the Cherokee Nation, protested. These same missionaries had also jointly signed and published a resolution criticizing the law, which undoubtedly incited the wrath of officials. As a consequence, they were arrested July 7, 1831 by Georgia state authorities and appearing in court, were threatened with four years in prison. Shortly thereafter nine recanted, but two, Samuel Worchester and Elizu Butler refused and, following a trial, were incarcerated. Appealing the decision to the United States Supreme Court while they languished in jail, over a year later the high court ruled in their favor. However, the state of Georgia ignored the ruling buoyed be President Andrew Jackson’s support and his alleged remark that (Chief Justice) John Marshal has made his decision, now let him enforce it. Further appeals to Congress were also ignored. Eventually, in 1833 Governor Wilson Lumpkin did pardon them with the understanding they would leave the Cherokee Nation. Samuel Worcester moved to Dwight Mission in the Western Cherokee Nation and founded the mission at Park Hill. Elizu Butler also went west, to Arkansas, serving in several missions until his death in 1857. Both men served to inspire more resistance among the Cherokee people in Georgia.
While the missionaries mostly served in a supporting role in Georgia, many proved to be inspirational leaders after the Cherokee were forced to move west. Their backgrounds and religious affiliations varied but their ambitions for their adopted nation were unified, focused on its success. Cephas Washburn, a native of Vermont, left before the mass migration west and in 1820, at the invitation of Western Cherokee Chief Tahlonteskee. supervised the building of the first Dwight Mission in Arkansas. Daniel Butrick and his wife Elizabeth, originally from Massachusetts, accompanied Taylor’s detachment on the Trail of Tears and compiled a diary detailing the terrible event. After their arrival, the two dedicated themselves to the ministry at Fairfield Mission, then later at a church on Beatties’s Prairie. Evan Jones, originally from Wales, was assigned to the Cherokee Nation in 1821, beginning a long affiliation with the tribe both through his ministry and as a political activist. Along with Situwakee, the headman of Hiwasee Town, Jones lead a detachment on the Trail of Tears, arriving during February in 1839. Joining another minister, Jesse Bushyhead, he constructed Baptist Mission near present day Westville. Jones organized several schools in the region. Prior to the Civil War, he founded the Keetoowah Society, an organization opposed to slavery. Jesse Bushyhead, born in Tennessee, whose father was Scotch, became an ordained minister under the tutelage of Evan Jones. After his arrival in the new Cherokee Nation he served as an itinerant minister and later, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Stephen Foreman, also a mixed blood, led a detachment on the Trail of Tears. Later, he became superintendent of the Nation’s school system, the first west of the Mississippi River. He was instrumental in the construction of the male and female seminaries.
These are a few of the missionaries who rallied to the Cherokee and will be remembered as courageous and self-sacrificing, committed not only because of their religious vows, but because it was the right thing to do.
Author's Note: Books on the history of Northeastern Oklahoma are available on Amazon.com and BARNESAND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.