Indian Missions of New England

The earliest New England mission was attempted by the French Jesuit Father Peter Biard among the Abnaki on Mt Desert Island, Maine, in 1613, in connection with a French post, but both were destroyed by an English fleet almost before the buildings were completed. In the next 70 years other Jesuits, chief among whom was Father Gabriel Druillettes (1646-57), spent much time in the Abnaki villages and drew off so many converts to the Algonkin mission of Sillery as to make it practically an Abnaki mission. In 1683 the mission of St Francis de Sales was founded at the Falls of the Chaudière, Quebec, and two years later Sillery was finally abandoned for the new site. Among those gathered at St Francis were many refugees from the southern New England tribes, driven out by King Philip’s war, the Pennacook and southern Abnaki being especially numerous. In 1700 the mission was removed to its present location, and during the colonial period continued to be recruited by refugees from the New England tribes. About 1685 missions were established among the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy, and in 1695 the celebrated Jesuit Father Sebastian Râle (Rasle, Rasles) began at the Abnaki mission at Norridgewock on the Kennebec (the present Indian Old Point, Me.) the work which is so inseparably connected with his name. He was not, however, the founder of the mission, as the church was already built and nearly the whole tribe Christian. In 1705 the church and village were burned by the New Englanders, but rebuilt by the Indians. In 1713 a small band removed to the St Lawrence and settled at Bécancour, Quebec, where their descendants still remain. In 1722 the mission was again attacked and pillaged by a force of more than 200 men, but the alarm was given in time and the village was found deserted. As a part of the plunder the raiders carried off the manuscript Abnaki dictionary to which Râle had devoted nearly 30 years of study, and which ranks as one of the great monuments of our aboriginal languages. On Aug. 23, 1724, a third attack was made by the New England men, with a party of Mohawk allies, and the congregation scattered after a defense in which seven chiefs fell, the missionary was killed, scalped, and hacked to pieces, and the church plundered and burned. Râle was then 66 years of age. His dictionary, preserved at Harvard University, was published in 1833. and in the same year a monument was erected on the spot where he met his death. The mission site remained desolate, a large part of the Indians joining their kindred at St Francis. The minor stations on the Penobscot and St John continued for a time, but steadily declined under the constant colonial warfare. In 1759 the Canadian Abnaki mission of St Francis, then a large and flourishing village, was attacked by a New England force under Col. Rogers and destroyed, 200 Indians being killed. It was afterward rebuilt, the present site being best known as Pierreville, Quebec. The Abpaki missions in Maine were restored after the Revolution and are still continued by Jesuit priests among the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy.

Among other names distinguished in the Abnaki mission the first place must be given to the Jesuits Aubéry and Lesueur. Father Aubéry, after 10 years’ work among the Indians of Nova Scotia, went in 1709 to St Francis, where he remained until his death in 1755. He acquired a fluent use of the language, in which he wrote much. Most of his manuscripts were destroyed in the burning of the mission in 1759, but many are still preserved in the mission archives, including an Abnaki dictionary of nearly 600 pages. Father Lesueur labored first at Sillery and then at Bécancour from 1715, with a few interruptions, until 1753, leaving as his monument a manuscript ‘Dictionnaire de Racines’ (Abnaki ) of 900 pages, now also preserved in the mission archives. To the later period belong Rev. Ciquard, who ministered from 1792 to 1815 on the Penobscot, the St John, and at St Francis; Father Romagné, with the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy from 1804 to 1825; Rev. Demilier, a Franciscan, who labored with marked success to the same tribes from 1833 to 1843, and the Jesuit Father Eugène Vetromile in the same field from about 1855 to about 1880. Each one of these has made some contribution to the literature of the language, the last named being also the author of a history of the Abnaki and of two volumes of travels in Europe and the Orient.

The beginning of Protestant work among the Indians of south New England may fairly be credited to Roger Williams, who, on being driven from his home and ministry in Massachusetts for his advocacy of religious toleration in 1635, took refuge among the Wampanoag and Narraganset, among whom he speedily acquired such influence that he was able to hold them from alliance with the hostiles in the Pequot war. In 1643 Thomas Mayhew, jr (Congregational), son of the grantee of Marthas Vineyard, Mass., having learned the language of the tribe on the island, began among them the work which was continued in the same family for four generations, with such success that throughout the terror of King Philip’s war in 1675-76 the Christian Indians on the island remained quiet and friendly, although outnumbering the whites by 10 to 1. Thomas Mayhew, the younger, was lost at sea in 1657, while on a missionary voyage to England. The work was then taken up by his father, of the same name, and the native convert Hiacoomes. It was continued from about 1673 by John Mayhew, son of the first named, until his death in 1689, and then by Experience Mayhew, grandson of Thomas the elder, nearly to the time of his death in 1758. Each one of these learned and worked in the Indian language, in which Thomas, jr, and Experience prepared some small devotional works. The last of the name was assisted also for years by Rev. Josiah Torrey, in charge of a white congregation on the island. In 1720 the Indians of Marthas Vineyard numbered about 800 of an estimated 1,500 on the first settlement in 1642. They had several churches and schools, so that most of those old enough could read in either their own or the English language. The last native preacher to use the Indian language was Zachariah Howwoswe (or Hossweit), who died in 1821.

As far back as 1651 a building had been authorized at Harvard College for the accommodation of Indian pupils, but only one Indian (Caleb Cheeshateaumuck) is on record as having finished the course, and he died soon afterward of consumption.

The most noted mission work of this section, however, was that begun by the noted Rev. John Eliot (Congregational) among a remnant of the Massachuset tribe at Nonantum, now Newton, near Boston, Mass., in the fall of 1646. He was then about 42 years of age and had prepared himself for the task by three years of study of the language. The work was extended to other villages, and the reports of his and Mayhew’s success led to the formation in 1649 of the English “Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Indians in New England” for the furtherance of the mission. As early as 1644 the Massachusetts government had made provision looking to the instruction of time neighboring tribes in Christianity, Eliot himself being the pioneer. In 1650 a community of Christian Indians, under a regular form of government, was established at Natick, 18 miles south west of Boston, and became the headquarters of the mission work. In 1674 the “Praying Indians,” directly under the care of Eliot and his coadjutor, Samuel Danforth, in the Massachusetts Bay jurisdiction, numbered 14 principal villages with a total population exceeding 1,000, among the Massachuset, Pawtucket, Nipmuc, and other tribes of eastern Massachusetts, each village being organized on a religious and industrial basis. The Christian Indians of Plymouth colony, in south east Massachusetts, including also Nantucket, Marthas Vineyard, etc., under Revs. John Cotton and Richard Bourne, were estimated at nearly 2,500 more. Most of the converts however were drawn from broken and subject tribes. The powerful Wampanoag, Narraganset, and Mohegan rejected all missionary advances, and King Philip scornfully told Eliot that he cared no more for his gospel than for a button upon his coat. Most of Eliot’s work fell to the ground with the breaking out of King Philip’s war in the following year. The colonists refused to believe in the friendship of the converts, and made such threats against them that many of the Indians joined the hostiles and afterward fled with them to Canada and New York. The “praying towns” were broken up, and the Indians who remained were gathered up and held as prisoners on an island in Boston Harbor until the return of peace, suffering much hardship in the meantime, so that the close of the war found the two races so embittered against each other that for some time it was impossible to accomplish successful results. Of the 14 praying towns in 1674 there were left only 4 in 1684. Eliot remained at his post until his death in 1690, in his 86th year, leaving behind him as his most permanent monument his great translation of the Bible into the Natick (Massachuset) language, besides a grammar and several minor works in the language. Daniel Gookin, whose father had been official Indian superintendent, was Eliot’s coadjutor in the later mission period. Eight years after Eliot’s death the Indian church at Natick had but 10 members, and in 1716 it became extinct, as did the language itself a generation later.

Among Eliot’s co-workers or successors in the same region the best known were Samuel Danforth, Sr, from 1650 until his death in 1674; Rev. John Cotton, who preached to the Indians of both Natick and Plymouth from 1669 to 1697, being “eminently skilled in the Indian language”; his son, Josiah Cotton, who continued his father’s work in the Plymouth jurisdiction for nearly 40 years; Samuel Treat, who worked among the Nauset Indians of the (Cape Cod region from 1675 until his death in 1717, and translated the Confession of Faith into the language; Grindal Rawson, about 1687 to his death in 1715, the translator of ‘Spiritual Milk’; and Samuel Danforth the younger, who labored in east Massachusetts from 1698 to his death in 1727, and was the author of several religious tracts in the native language. These and others were commissioned and salaried by the society organized in 1649.

About 1651 Rev. Abraham Pierson, under the auspices of the same society, began preaching to the Qninnipiac Indians about Branford, west Connecticut, and continued until his removal about 1669, when the work was undertaken by a successor, but with little result to either, the Indians showing “a perverse contempt,” not withstanding presents made to encourage their attendance at the services. A few years later Rev. James Fitch was commissioned to work among the Mohegan, and succeeded in gathering a small congregation, but found his efforts strongly opposed by Uncas and the other chiefs. The mission probably came to an end with King Philip’s war. Efforts were continued at intervals among the tribal remnants of south New England during the next century, partly through the society founded in 1649 and partly by colonial appropriation, but with little encouraging result, in consequence of the rapid decrease and demoralization of the Indians, the only notable convert being Samson Occomn. The English society with drew support about 1760. A last attempt was made among the Mohegan by Miss Sarah L. Huntington in 1827, and continued for several years, chiefly by aid of governmental appropriation (De Forest).

In 1734 a Congregationalist mission was begun among the Mahican in western Massachusetts by Rev. John Sergeant, under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. By hard study and constant association he was soon able to preach to them in their own language, into which he translated several simple devotional works. In 1736 the converts were gathered into a regular mission town, which was named Stockbridge, from which central point the work was extended into Connecticut and New York, and even as far as the Delaware River. In 1743 Rev. David Brainerd, who had been working also among the Mahican at the village of Kaunaumeek, across the New York line, brought his congregation to consolidate with that of Stockbridge. Mr. Sergeant died in 1749, and after a succession of briefer pastorates the work was taken up, in 1775, by his son, Rev. John Sergeant, jr, who continued with it until the end of his life. The westward advance of white settlement and the demoralizing influence of two wars accomplished the same result here as elsewhere, and in 1785 the diminishing Stockbridge tribe removed to New Stockbridge, N. Y., on lands given by the Oneida. Their leader in this removal was the educated Indian minister Samson Occom. Mr. Sergeant himself followed in the next year. The mission was at that time supported by the joint effort of American and Scotch societies, including the corporation of Harvard College. In 1795 the settlement consisted of about, 60 families, mostly improvident, unacquainted with the English language,  and “in their dress and manners uncivilized” (Aborigines Corn., 1844). Besides preaching to them in their own language,  Mr. Sergeant prepared for their use several small religious works in the native tongue. In 1821, with their chief, Solomon Aupaurout, they removed again (their missionary being unable to accompany them on account of old age), this time to the neighborhood of Green Bay, Wis., where about 520 “Stockbridge and Munsee,” of mixed blood, still keep the name. Among the later missionaries the most distinguished is Rev. Jeremiah Slingerland, an educated member of the tribe, who from 1849, served, for more than 30 years. Merged with them are all who remain of the Brotherton band of New York, made up from tribal remnants of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Long Island—Mohegan, Pequot, Narraganset, and Montauk— gathered into a settlement also in the Oneida country by the same Occom in 1786. These in 1795 were reported as  the numbering about 39 families, all Christian, and fairly civilized. Among the  names connected with the Stockbridge mission is that of Rev. Jonathan Edwards, jr, author of a short treatise on the Mahican (“Muhhekaneew”) language (1788), and of John Quinney and Capt. Hendrick Aupaumut, native assistants and translators under the elder Sergeant.

In addition to the regular mission establishments some educational work for the Indians was earned on in accord with a declared purpose at Harvard Collage, Cambridge, Mass., as already noted; at Moore’s charity school for Indians, founded by Rev. .Eleazer Wheelock at Lebanon, Conn., in 1754, and transferred in 1769 to Hanover, N. H., under the name of Dartmouth College, and the Foreign Mission School at Cornwall, Conn., by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, beginning in 1817. The net result was small.

History, Missions,

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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