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Indian Missions of the Southern States

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All of this region, and even as far north as Virginia, was loosely designated as Florida in the earlier period, and was entirely within the sphere of Spanish influence until about the end of the seventeenth century. The beginning of definite mission work in the Gulf territory was made in 1544 when the Catholic Franciscan Father Andrés de Olmos, a veteran in the Mexican field, struck northward into the Texas wilderness, and after getting about him a considerable body of converts led them back into Tamaulipas, where, under the name of Olives, they were organized into a regular mission town. In 1549 the Dominican Father Luis Cancer with several companions attempted a beginning on the west coast of Florida, but was murdered by the Indians almost as soon as his feet touched the land. In 1565 St Augustine (San Agustin) was founded and the work of Christianizing the natives was actively taken up, first by the Jesuits, but later, probably in 1573, by the Franciscans, who continued with it to the end. Within twenty years they had established a chain of flourishing missions along the coast from St Augustine to St Helena, in South Carolina, besides several others on the west Florida coast. In 1597 a portion of the Guale tribe (possibly the Yamasi) on the lower Georgia coast, under the leadership of a rival claimant for the chieftainship, attacked the neighboring missions and killed several of the missionaries before the friendly Indians could gather to the rescue. In consequence of this blow the work languished for several years, when it was taken up with greater zeal than before and the field extended to the interior tribes. By the year 1615 there were 20 missions, with about 40 Franciscan workers, established in Florida and the dependent coast region. The most noted of these missionaries is Father Francisco Pareja, author of a grammar and several devotional works in the Timucua language, the first books ever printed in any Indian language of the United States and the basis for the establishment of the Timucuan linguistic family. In the year 1655 the Christian Indian population of North Florida and the Georgia coast was estimated at 26,000. The most successful result was obtained among the Timucua in the neighborhood of St Augustine and the Apalachee around the bay of that name. In 1687 the Yamasi attacked and destroyed the mission of Santa Catalina on the Georgia coast, and to escape pursuit fled to the English colony of Carolina. The traveler Dickenson has left a pleasant picture of the prosperous condition of the mission towns and their Indian population as he found them in 1699, which contrasts strongly with the barbarous condition of the heathen tribes farther south, among whom he had been a prisoner.

The English colony of Carolina had been founded in 1663, with a charter which was soon after extended southward to lat. 29°, thus including almost the whole area of Spanish occupancy and mission labor. The steadily growing hostility between the two nations culminated in the winter of 1703-4, when Gov. Moore, of Carolina, with a small force of white men and a thousand or more well-armed warriors of Creek, Catawba, and other savage allies invaded the Apalachee country, destroyed one mission town after another, with their churches, fields, and orange groves, killed hundreds of their people, and carried away 1,400 prisoners to be sold as slaves. Anticipating the danger, the Apalachee had applied to the governor at St Augustine for guns with which to defend themselves, but had been refused, in accordance with the Spanish rule which forbade the issuing of firearms to Indians. The result was the destruction of the tribe and the reversion of the country to a wilderness condition, as Bartram found it 70 years later. In 1706 a second expedition visited a similar fate upon the Timucua, and the ruin of the Florida missions was complete. Seine effort was made a few years later by an Apalachee chief to gather the remnant of his people into a new mission settlement near Pensacola, but with only temporary result.

In the meantime the French had effected lodgment at Biloxi, Mississippi, (1699), Mobile, New Orleans, and along the Mississippi, and the work of evangelizing the wild tribes was taken up at once by secular priests from the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Quebec. Stations were established among the Tunica, Natchez, and Choctaw of Mississippi, the Taensa, Huma, and Ceni (Caddo) of Louisiana, but with slight result. Among the Natchez particularly, whose elaborately organized native ritual included human sacrifice, not a single convert rewarded several years of labor. In 1725 several Jesuits arrived at New Orleans and took up their work in what was already an abandoned field, extending their effort to the Alibamu, in the present state of Alabama. On Sunday, Nov. 28, 1729, the Natchez War began with the massacre of the French garrison while at prayer, the first victim being the Jesuit Du Poisson, the priest at the altar. The “Louisiana Mission,” as it was called, had never flourished, and the events and after consequences of this war demoralized it until it came to an end with the expulsion of the Jesuits by royal decree in 1764.

The advance of the French along the Mississippi and the Gulf coast aroused the Spanish authorities to the importance of Texas, and shortly after the failure of La Salle’s expedition 8 Spanish presidio missions were established in that territory. Each station was in charge of two or three Franciscan missionaries. with several families of civilized Indians from Mexico, a full equipment of stock and implements for farmers, and a small guard of soldiers. Plans were drawn for the colonization of the Indians around the missions, their instruction in religion, farming, and simple trades and home life, and in the Spanish language. Through a variety of misfortunes the first attempt proved a failure and the work was abandoned until 1717 (or earlier, according to La Harpe), when it was resumed—still under the Franciscans—among the various sub-tribes of the Caddo, Tonkawa, Carrizos, and others. The most important center was at San Antonio, where there was a group of 4 missions, including San Antonio de Padua, the famous Alamo. The mission of San Sabá was established among the Lipan in 1757, but was destroyed soon after by the hostile Comanche. A more successful foundation was begun in 1791 among the now extinct Karankawa. At their highest estate, probably about the year 1760, the Indian population attached to the various Texas missions numbered about 15,000. In this year Father Bartolomé Garcia published a religious manual for the use of the converts at San Antonio mission, which remains almost the only linguistic monument of the Coahuiltecan stock. The missions continued to flourish until 1812, when they were suppressed by the Spanish Government and the Indians scattered, some rejoining the wild tribes, while others were absorbed into the Mexican population.

In 1735 the Moravians under Spangenberg started a school among the Yamacraw Creeks a few miles above Savannah, Ga., which continued until 1739, when, on refusal of the Moravians to take up arms against the Spaniards, they were forced to leave the colony. This seems to be the only attempt at mission work in either Georgia or South Carolina from the withdrawal of the Spaniards until the Moravian establishment at Spring Place, Georgia, in 1801.

The great Cherokee tribe held their mountain region of both Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and for our purpose their territory may be treated as a whole. Dismissing as doubtful Bristock’s account, quoted by Shea, of a Cherokee mission in 1643, the earliest missionary work among them appears to have been that of the mysterious Christian Priber, supposed, though not proven, to have been a French Jesuit, who established his headquarters among them at Tellico, East Tennessee, in 1736, and proceeded to organize them into a regular civilized form of government. After 5 years of successful progress he was seized by the South Carolina authorities, who regarded him as a French political emissary, and died while in prison. In 1801 the Morarians Steiner and Byhan began the Cherokee mission of Spring Place, north west Ga., and in 1821 the same denomination established another at Oothcaloga, in the same vicinity. Both of these existed until the missions were broken up by the State of Georgia in 1843. In 1804 Rev. Gideon Blackburn, for the Presbyterians, established a Cherokee mission school in E. Tennessee, which did good work for several years until compelled to suspend for lack of funds. In 1817 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, under joint Congregational and Presbyterian management, established its first station in the tribe at Brainerd, not far from the present Chattanooga, Tenn., followed within a few years by several others, all of which were in flourishing condition when broken up in the Removal controversy in 1834. Among the most noted of these missionaries was Rev. S. A. Worcester, one of the principals in the founding of the ‘Cherokee Phoenix’ in 1828, the author of a large number of religious and other translations into Cherokee and the steadfast friend of the Indians in the controversy with the State of Georgia. He ministered to the tribe from his ordination in 1825 until his death in 1859, first in the old nation and afterward at Dwight, Ark., and Park Hill, near Tahlequah, Indian Territory. Of an earlier period was Rev. Daniel S. Buttrick, 1817-47, who, however, never mastered the language sufficiently to preach without an interpreter. A native convert of the same period, David Brown, completed a manuscript translation of the New Testament into the new Cherokee syllabary in 1825.

In 1820 the American Board, through Rev. Mr. Chapman, established Dwight mission for the Arkansas Cherokee, on Illinois Creek, about 5 mile above its junction with the Arkansas, near the present Dardanelle, Arkansas. Under Rev. Cephas Washburn it grew to he perhaps the most important mission station in the south west until the removal of the tribe to Indian Territory, about 1839. From this station some attention also was given to the Osage. Of these missions of the American Board, Morse says officially in 1822: “They have been models, according to which other societies have since made their establishments.” As was then customary, they were largely aided by Government appropriation. On the consolidation of the whole Cherokee nation in Indian Territory the missionaries followed, and new stations were established which, with some interruptions, remained in operation until the outbreak of the Civil War.

In 1820 a Baptist Mission was established at Valleytown, near the present Murphy, west North  Carolina, in charge of Rev. Thomas Posey, and in 1821 another of the same denomination at Coosawatee, Georgia. A few years later the Valleytown mission was placed in charge of Rev. Evan Jones, who continued with it until the removal of the tribe to the west. He edited for some time a journal called the ‘Cherokee Messenger,’ in the native language and syllabary, and also made a translation of the New Testament. The mission work was resumed in the new country and continued with a large measure of success down to the modern period. Among the prominent native workers may be named Rev. Jesse Bushyhead.

After many years of neglect the Muskhogean tribes again came in for attention. In 1881 the Congregational-Presbyterian American Board, through Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, established the first station among the Choctaw at Eliot, on Yalabusha River in north Mississippi. Three years later it was placed in charge of Rev. Cyrus Byington, the noted Choctaw philologist, who continued in the work there and in the Indian Territory, for nearly half a century, until his death in 1868. The Eliot mission in its time was one of the most important in the southern country. In 1820 a second Choctaw mission, called Mayhew, was begun, and became the residence of Rev. Alfred Wright, also known for his linguistic work. On the removal of the tribe to Indian Territory, about 1830, it became necessary to abandon these stations and establish others in the new country beyond the Mississippi. Among the most noted was Wheelock Academy, organized by Rev. Alfred Wright in 1832. Others were Stockbridge, Bennington, Mt Pleasant, and Spencer Academy. The American Board also extended its effort to the immigrant Creeks, establishing in their nation, under the supervision of Rev. R. M. Loughridge, Kowetah (Kawita) mission in 1843, and Tullahassee shortly after, with Oak Ridge, among the removed Seminole, a few years later. Most of these continued until the outbreak of the Civil War, and were reorganized after the war was over. The school at Cornwall, Conn., was also conducted as an auxiliary to the mission work of the earlier period. Among the Presbyterian workers who have rendered distinguished service to Muskhogean philology in the way of religious, educational, and dictionary translation may be noted the names of Byington, Williams, Alfred and Allen Wright, for the Choctaw, with Fleming, Loughridge, Ramsay, Winslett, Mrs Robertson, and the Perrymans (Indian) for the Creeks.

The Baptists began work in the Indian Territory about 1832, and three years later had 4 missionaries at as many stations among the Choctaw, all salaried as teachers by the United States, “so that these stations were all sustained without cost to the funds which benevolence provided for many purposes ” ( McCoy) . In 1839 they were in charge of Revs. Smedley, Potts, Hatch, and Dr Allen, respectively. Missions were established about the same time among the Creeks, the most noted laborers in the latter field being Rev. H. F. Buckner, from 1849 until his death in 1882, compiler of a Muskogee grammar and other works in the language, with Rev. John Davis and Rev. James Perryman, native ministers who had received their education at the Union (Presbyterian) mission among the Osage. As auxiliary to the work of this denomination, for the special purpose of training native workers, the American Baptist Board in 1819 established at Great Crossings, in Kentucky, a higher school, known as the Choctaw Academy, sometimes as Johnson’s Academy. Although intended for promising youth of every tribe, its pupils came chiefly from the Choctaw and the Creeks until its discontinuance about 1843, in consequence of the Indian preference for home schools.

Work was begun. by the Methodists among the Creeks in Indian Territory about 1835, but was shortly afterward discontinued in consequence of difficulties with the tribe, and was not resumed until some years later.


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