Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 12, No. 1
CHRISTIAN MISSIONS TO THE OVERHILL CHEROKEES.1
BY SAM'L C. WILLIAMS
The early governments and leaders of the South-Atlantic Colonies showed no concern to civilize or Christianize any portion
of the redmen of the Cherokee nation. Their contacts with these Indians were for selfish ends—commercial and martial. The
main concern was for profits from the trade in peltry; and the Cherokees, particularly those living west of the Alleghanies,
were valued as martial pawns and allies in contests between the Colonies and the French and other Indian tribes in the French
This was in sharp contrast to the policy and practice of the French who saw to it that Roman Catholic missionaries accompanied
their explorers and established missions among the Indian tribes that traded with the French. As one Carolina trader observed:
"To the shame of the Christian name, no pains have ever been taken by the English of the seaboard to convert them to Christianity;
on the contrary, their morals are perverted and corrupted by the sad example they daily have of its depraved professors residing
in their towns," as traders. Adair, an honest trader, described in stinging words the other type which predominated: "Most
of the Indian countries swarm with white people who are the very dregs and off-scourings of our colonies."
The credit and high honor of first attempting to found a mission to the Overhill Cherokees goes to the Presbyterians of Virginia,
and primarily to Rev. Samuel Davies, of Hanover County, later President of Princeton College, who formed a society in Hanover
County, Virginia, to further such a mission, and a young
1An address delivered at the dedication of the restored Brainerd Mission Cemetery, near Chattanooga, Tenn., on November 1,
1933, in the presence of delegates to the annual convention of the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution of
Tennessee and a large number of the citizens of Chattanooga. The Daughters were favored by the presence of Mrs. Russell William
Magna, of Holyoke, Mass., president-general of National Society, D. A. R. A substantial and artistic stone fence and entrance
gateway had just been completed, enclosing above five acres of land deeded to the Association formed for the preservation
of the spot. (Judge Williams is a distinguished lawyer and historian living in Johnson City in east Tennessee who by his indefatigable
research and industry has contributed greatly to the known history of his state and of the Cherokee Indians. G. F.)
Virginia clergyman, Rev. John Martin, was sent out in 1757 to reside among the Overhills on the Little Tennessee River, the
first Protestant to preach the gospel in the Tennessee Country or in the Southern Trans-Alleghany region. He, finding the
Indians not to be receptive, retired; and a successor, young Rev. William Richardson, was sent out to take his place in 1758.
Richardson left a diary which shows that he preached to the soldiers of the Carolina Fort Loudonn and to the Indians who would
attend on his ministration; but he soon noted the sulkiness of the Cherokees and an oppressive lull that preceded the cyclone
which struck and destroyed the white garrison, when it was besieged by the Indians under French incitement.2 Seeing the war cloud gathering, Richardson left for South Carolina, where in the Waxhaw settlement he became the pastor of
young Andrew Jackson and his mother.
The next missionary came to the Overhills from Europe. In 1765 a group of Cherokees was in London where they had been conducted
by Lieut. Henry Timberlake. On February 14th the Indians were taken before the House of Lords and there expressed a desire
that learned men be sent to their people "to teach them writing, reading and other things.3
Doubtless these occurrences led an Alsacian enthusiast then in London, John Daniel Hammerer, to engage in such a missionary
enterprise. Hammerer set about the preparation and publication of a pamphlet—Plan for Civilizing the North American Indians.4 Hammerer encouraged by Lord Hillsborough, accompanied the Cherokees back to America. At Williamsburg, Va., he awaited the
arrival of the great chief, Attakullakulla (Little Carpenter) by whom he was conducted to the towns of the Overhills. The
missionary made little headway there and soon went to reside with the Lower Cherokees with whom he labored for some years,
finding them less warlike and more teachable.5
4Paul Leicester Ford issued a reprint of the tract (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1890). Ford, in error, conceived that the tract was printed
originally between 1730 and 1740; and, in the statement: "I presume that its author never even attempted to carry out his
scheme." See, also, Williams, S. C. Memoirs of Lieut. Henry Timberlake, n. pp. 173-4; Fries, A. L., Records of the Moravians, I, 304, 311, 337.
At the end of the War of the Revolution, the Moravians at Salem, N. C., thought the time was ripe for planting a mission among
the Cherokees in the Tennessee Country. Brother Martin Schneider volunteered in 1783 for the service and made the arduous
journey in the winter of that year to the towns on the Little Tennessee, only to find the Indians by no means ready to receive
teachers of the Gospel.6
As early as July, 1796, President John Wheelock, of Dartmouth College, an institution founded in New Hampshire having in purpose
the education of Indian youths, was endeavoring to persuade the Society for Propogating Christian Knowledge, of Scotland,
that funds could be wisely used in founding a mission among the Cherokees. He was instrumental in sending to Tennessee a graduate
of the college, Moses Fisk, who made efforts in 1799 to establish such a mission, but, though he had the aid of ex-Senator
William Bount, his plan failed of realization.
The father of the celebrated chief, John Ross, then living at Maryville, Tennessee, presented to the great council of the
nation a request that a school for the children of the Cherokees be established on his premises, which was granted. John Barber
Davis was brought to Tennessee as teacher and the school began near the close of the eighteenth century. Under Davis, John
Ross there received his first instruction. Davis removed the school later on to Kingston, Tennessee, and John Ross and his
brother, Lewis, attended his academy there, John Ross serving at spare times as clerk to a merchant of the village, William
D. Neilson. Under Davis "John Ross laid the foundation for good English which in his later life often astonished statesmen,
baffled politicians, and served him well in his long career in Cherokee national affairs."7
The zeal of the Moravians had only been dampened, and it broke again into flame in 1799, when Brothers Abraham Steiner and
Frederick C. Schweinitz volunteered as missionaries, but they too found that the time was not ripe; and the establishment
7Eaton, R. C., John Ross, 4. Davis's academy was in operation at Kingston as early as 1799, and in the following year there were about a dozen pupils,
mostly of mixed blood. Moses Fisk MSS., Dartmouth College Archives; see, also, Williams, Early Travels, 500.
mission was delayed until 1801 when Steiner, along with Brother Gottlieb Byhan, established the first Moravian mission among
the Cherokees at Springplace in Georgia, near the Tennessee line.
In 1804 Rev. Gideon Blackburn, pastor of the Presbyterian church at Maryville, Tennessee, felt the call to teach and Christianize
the nearby Cherokees. He opened schools among them and it is said that in the five years of his labors he taught from four
to five hundred Indian youths to read the English Bible. It is due to this remarkable man that the mission at Brainerd was
planted by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. In 1807 Blackburn toured New England to appeal for funds
in support of his schools, and in Salem the home of the Board's Secretary, Rev. Dr. Samuel Worcester, the seed-thoughts were
planted. The story is thus told in the Life of Doctor Worcester:
"An extraordinary impulse was soon given to the missionary spirit of Salem and the eastern section of Massachusetts generally,
by the timely visit of Rev. Gideon Blackburn.
"On Wednesday evening, July 1, 1807, the tabernacle was opened to hear his narrative and appeal; such was the rush of the
people that every nook and corner of the building was occupied, while hundreds stood without, pressing close at the doors
and windows. His whole soul was on fire with his theme. With a voice all but equal to Whitefield's, and an eloquence, which
they, who remembered Whitefield, could scarcely consider inferior to his, this honored servant of the Redeemer addressed that
congregation of more than three thousand souls; and produced a sensation which was beyond anything which was ever known in
"There have been other missionary sermons, and by men who had been personally employed in missionary service. But the sermon
of Dr. Blackburn, in behalf of his Indian Schools among the Cherokees, caused everyone to say,— 'We never saw it on this fashion.'"
The success of Blackburn's continued efforts led to the founding of the mission at Brainerd in 1817. The mission, great in
its results, thus sprang in a very true sense from the heart and brain of the truly great Tennesseean.
The site of the mission was selected by Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, of New Hampshire, and at first the mission was called the Chickamauga
Mission. Soon it received the name of Brainerd in honor of an early missionary to the Delaware Indians, Rev. David Brainerd.
The story of this mission is too long to give in detail here. It has been adequately told by two local historians—Miss Armstrong
in her History of Hamilton County and Robert Sparks Walker in his Torchlights to the Cherokees. It existed from 1817 until the Cherokees were removed by orders of the Federal Government to the West in 1838.
The Methodists came into the field belatedly but with enterprise and power. In 1822, at the Tennessee Annual Conference, Rev.
Andrew J. Crawford received appointment to the "Cherokee Mission," and in the following year Rev. Thomas L. Douglas was appointed
superintendent of the Indian Missions, with Richard Neely in charge of the Lower Mission and Nicholas D. Scales of the Upper
Mission. In 1823 a third—the Middle—mission was added, and by 1827 there were seven charges and appointees—among the latter
Turtle Fields, a native preacher. The most notable of the seven, however, was John B. McFerrin, destined to become the Great
Commoner of Southern Methodism. McFerrin was not twenty at the time of this appointment by Bishop Joshua Soule. His circuit
for two years was four hundred miles in circumference and included the site of the present city of Chattanooga.
Some of the qualities that made McFerrin in later life a master of assemblies he attributed to his experience among the Cherokees:
"it led me to be plain, pointed and perspicuous in my style. Preaching through an interpretor produced these results."8
The missions waned as factional strife arose among the Cherokees over the question of entering into a treaty with the General
Government for a cession of their lands and their removal to the West.
From the mission at Brainerd there resulted a literary output that was not inconsiderable for the time and place, and is worthy
A volume, A Cherokee Spelling Book by D. S. Buttrick and David Brown was prepared and printed by a Knoxville press, in 1819.
The Memoir of Catherine Brown, a Christian Indian of the Cherokee Nation, by Rufus Anderson, appeared in 1824 and went through several editions.
The Little Osage Captive, by Elias Cornelius, appeared in 1822 and another edition in 1824.
Buttrick and Washburn left other printed volumes which are deemed valuable today by ethnologists for their treatment of Cherokee
history and customs.
The Memoir of John Arch, a converted Cherokee, educated at Brainerd, was published in 1832.
The remains of the remarkable John Arch lie in the cemetery alongside of which were laid the mortal remains of the supporting
Board's secretary, Dr. Samuel Worcester, who on a visit to Brainerd died there June 7th, 1821, as a nearby monument evidences.
A number of the missionaries and teachers at Brainerd accompanied the Cherokees to their new home west of the Mississippi.
On this historic spot wrought, in behalf of the red men and in unselfishness of purpose, men who deserve to be remembered;
such men as Daniel S. Buttrick, Cephas Washburn and Samuel A. Worcester who, in the West continued their devoted labors, which
tended no little, in the event, to make Oklahoma a great State of the Union.
Upon the closing of the mission the buildings went to wreck and the premises into disrepair. Filial affection led the son
and biographer of Dr. Samuel Worcester, Rev. Dr. Samuel M. Worcester, to this spot in 1844, and he left a description of it
as it then appeared: "There were but two families at the place. The chapel was going fast into decay. The trees were thriving
luxuriantly in the burial ground. An oak has struck its roots deep and very near the sacred dust. The weeping willow that
had been planted, at the widow's request, had withered away. When a few more years shall have come, who will be there to resist
the forest and preserve the monument unmutilated and unharmed?"
In these remarks of the son there was an implicit appeal, deep in pathos, to coming generations to take care of the hallowed
place. Generation followed generation without any sort of heed. But there comes at last, this day, a band of noble women of
Chattanooga and its environs intent that no longer shall the appeal be in vain. They have formed an Association of D. A. R.
and S. A. R. Chapters, the sole purpose of which is to restore and adequately care for this sacred spot, which typifies the
earnest efforts put forth in behalf of the Cherokee people in days now long with the past.
These women are honored today by the presence of the President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution and many
other Daughters and Sons of the Revolution. May I remind them, and all others here assembled, that President James Monroe
deemed it an honor and a privilege to visit and give aid to the mission at Brainerd when on his Southern tour in May, 1819.
The previous year the Governor of Tennessee, Joseph McMinn, paid a call of respect to the mission.
We stand almost within the shadow of a great ridge which received its name "Missionary Ridge" in honor of the devoted men
and women who worked here during the years 1817-1838—in recognition of their labors of mercy, tending strongly to peace. But
as if to deride and mock the name, white brothers during the Civil War fought on its slope and crest the desperate battle
of Missionary Ridge. So, now, the name "Missionary Ridge" stands for both peace and war.
This spot, too, lies between two other battlefields, one where was fought one of the battles of the Revolution in the West
in which the forces of Col. Evan Shelby in 1779 engaged the Chickamauga Indians a few hundred yards west of this spot, while
but a short distance up Chickamauga Creek the great and bloody battle of Chickamauga between the Federals and the Confederates
was fought September 19-20, 1863.
The Nation and States have vied in the erection on that field of battle of costly monuments memorializing in granite and bronze
the events of those fateful two days of titanic struggle. The strong contrast between Chickamauga Battle Ground Park and
this beautiful but humble memorial to the missionaries of 1817-1838 is a matter for serious thought.
I esteem it a signal honor to have been chosen to dedicate anew this cemetery, trusting that not a few of those of coming
generations who shall throng the great state highway nearby may, in passing, pause and gather at least a measure of inspiration
for unselfish and noble endeavor from this historic spot.
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