The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic

The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic

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by John Demos

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The astonishing story of a unique missionary project—and the America it embodied—from award-winning historian John Demos.

Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest

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The astonishing story of a unique missionary project—and the America it embodied—from award-winning historian John Demos.

Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest of mankind into the redemptive fold of Christianity and “civilization.” Its core element was a special school for “heathen youth” drawn from all parts of the earth, including the Pacific Islands, China, India, and, increasingly, the native nations of North America. If all went well, graduates would return to join similar projects in their respective homelands. For some years, the school prospered, indeed became quite famous.  However, when two Cherokee students courted and married local women, public resolve—and fundamental ideals—were put to a severe test.  

In The Heathen School, John Demos marshals his deep empathy and feel for the textures of history to tell a moving story of families and communities—and to probe the very roots of American identity.  

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Editorial Reviews

One way of looking at the story of the Foreign Mission School, or "Heathen School," of Cornwall, Connecticut, is that it was founded in presumption and ended in hypocrisy. Established in 1817, the tiny institution sought to convert "heathens" into Christian missionaries and produce spokesmen for American principles. The school, however, operated for only nine years before being closed down in 1826, after two American Indian students became involved with local (white) young women. But this crude summary ignores the welter of other conflicting, competing, and augmenting aspects of the story set forth by John Demos in The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic. Instead of a simplistic illustration of specious do-gooding, the work is a complex account of a number of linked episodes in American history and their tragic aftermath, 1,500 miles away from their point of origin.

The founding of the Foreign Mission School reflected not only the upwelling of Christian fervor for spreading the Word at home and abroad that attended the Second Great Awakening, but also the young republic's burgeoning conviction that it was in the vanguard of a new age of self-government and freedom. Demos, who has a gift for the telling quotation, gives a wealth of examples of this exultant rhetoric, including that of John Adams, who saw the country's recent history as "the opening of a grand scene...for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."

The school's first students included a number of Hawaiians, a Canadian Indian, two Indians from India itself, and a couple of Yankees, already Christian and English speaking but seeking to gain experience with "heathens" before being sent off on missionary work. In the years that followed nearly 100 students attended the school, an increasing proportion of which were American Indians from the Southeast; these were followed in number by Pacific Islanders and East Asians. A few Europeans, including a German Jew, also attended, as did one Mexican and a dozen Yankees. All the students were instructed in English (which, of all languages "contains more of the elements of civilization and moral reformation than all others united") and religion. Beyond that the subjects ranged from Latin and Hebrew to natural history and mathematics. Manual labor, chiefly agricultural, was expected of all the students.

As important as anything going on within the school, however, were public relations and fundraising. These are aspects upon which Demos devotes much warranted attention, and indeed the mood of the new republic included a large note of boosterism, with many Christians in this religiously aroused era seeing the independent, self-governing nation's very existence as a harbinger of the glorious millennium. Rosy reports of the school's progress and missionary promise were issued by its supporters, and its greatest publicity coup emerged from what had seemed at first a terrible blow: the death of the most charismatic and highly touted of the original students, a Hawaiian. But nineteenth- century spin transformed the tragedy into an inspirational event and the young man into a martyr who "had come to this country to teach Christians how to die."

The school's message was not aimed solely at those who agreed with its aims and might be persuaded to open their wallets but was also designed to offset the diverse objections of its detractors. In fact, as Demos points out, critical views of the school and its goals grew in tandem with the school itself. At one end of the spectrum was the objection that institutions like this would undermine the separation between church and state. At the other, less edifying end, was the argument that savages were simply incapable of civilization, and that the project was futile and delusional. Other critics were convinced that all the attention paid to the students was puffing them up beyond reason; others that these "scholars" were sunk in luxury and indolence; and yet others again, that the whole thing was an "Indian show," a mere spectacle put on to bilk the credulous of donations. Then there was the more general point made in some circles that women, who by their nature were especially prey to "the great missionary delusion" and thus more active in missionary causes than men, were developing an inflated view of their power, becoming filled "with all manner of conceits, pride, vanity, self- consequence, haughty and domineering propensities."

The public image of the school was a good deal more propitious than the reality from any point of view. During its entire run, only about a quarter of its students were converted to Christianity ("the madness of paganism" clearly "enwrought into the very structure of their minds"). Moreover, many of those sent out as missionaries relapsed into "heathen" ways, and a number went so far as to fall into drunkenness and sexual license. Within the school itself, some students felt too dislocated from their communities to thrive; others presented disciplinary problems, chiefly dissipation and thievery. Factions and resentments arose, much of this a consequence of galling inequalities, the result of many of the American Indians having come from well-off families who provided them with fine clothes, luxuries, and a superior attitude.

Soon enough, the Mission Board itself began to have reservations about the school and took the opportunity to close it down when John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, two Cherokee students, become engaged to two white women, whom they subsequently married. Demos tells the story of these difficult romances and the upset they caused — in the school, missionary community, town, and nation — in fascinating human detail.

It is in noticing countercurrents, complexities, and contradictions that Demos's greatness as a historian lies, and his consideration of all aspects of unfolding events shows to truly arresting effect in the rest of the story told here. He follows the careers of Ridge and Boudinot, who had returned with their wives to the Cherokee Nation in Georgia: in Ridge's case to take up farming, to which end, it might be added, he worked a dozen or so slaves; in Boudinot's, to run the nation's newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.

Both men assumed leading roles in the Cherokee struggle against their impending removal from Georgia to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, an eviction designed to open their land to white settlers. But in time both men switched sides, claiming that it was better to submit to the inevitable in the hope of receiving compensation and assistance and to avoid bloodshed. This did not sit well with the majority of their fellow Cherokee, nor does it sit especially well with the reader — safe at home, to be sure, in the twenty-first century. The two men went so far as to court the favor of that notorious Indian killer in the White House, Andrew Jackson, Ridge even naming one of his children after him. Both Ridge and Boudinot signed the treaty that preceded the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the infamous Trail of Tears. In another painful detail, Ridge went on to capitalize on the forced transfer, operating a general store and setting up as a moneylender to the beaten-down Cherokees trudging into Oklahoma. And the story, told by Demos with such scrupulousness, erudition, and talent for illustrative quotation, does not end there. But I shall leave the last, terrible chapter of this intricate, multifaceted history for you to confront on your own.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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American Tragedy: Renascence and Removal
“Removal” lies at the heart of the story we commonly tell about Indians in the nineteenth century. At first glance, removal and the grand project of “civilizing” heathen peoples appear to be opposites. Yet on the deepest level, they were joined—were, indeed, different expressions of the same impulse. For the civilizing process imposed a complete renunciation of traditional lifeways; as such, it was another form, a cultural form, of removal. In the case of Indians, it meant essentially this: Let them become farmers instead of hunters, Christians instead of pagans, cultured in the manner of white people instead of “savage.” Then maybe—just maybe—they can be absorbed into the national mainstream. However, by the 1820s and 1830s, many whites had already given up on that possibility—at best it seemed impractical; at worst, dangerous—and were coming to favor actual physical removal. Just drive them out, send them far away—across the Mississippi River at least—and leave them entirely to themselves. (And then let us have their land.)
    One way or another—through either kind of removal—the native presence would be finished; hence the increasingly prevalent trope of “the vanishing Indian.” To be sure, this supposed “vanishing” was cause for regret, even guilt, among a certain portion of whites, mostly “benevolent” reformers on or near the East Coast. Farther inland, and especially among those living close to the frontier, neither regret nor guilt would be much in evidence. There, the prevalent attitude could be reduced to a single phrase: Be gone! That suggests another, much sharper term—drawn from our own twenty-first-century world—to replace the more neutral-sounding removal. In short, “ethnic cleansing.”

Removal—in the straightforward sense of relocation—had been part of American history from the settlement years onward. In its earliest phase, it was irregular, haphazard, ad hoc, and closely tied to warfare. Thus, in seventeenth-century Virginia, sporadic outbursts of violence (especially in 1622 and 1644) between white settlers and the so-called Powhatan Confederacy led to a treaty confining local Indians to a small part of the territory previously theirs. Farther north, in New England, a similar outcome followed the conclusion of the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1676). In Carolina, after defeat in a bloody conflict with colonists (1713), thousands of Tuscarora Indians migrated north to join the Iroquois Confederacy.
     As time passed, the transfer of lands and the movement of native peoples could also be accomplished peaceably, through a combination of formal purchase, negotiation, and government pressure. This was repeatedly the case, for example, in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, where Shawnees and Delawares ceded one large tract after another, by deed or treaty, before moving on to what is now eastern Ohio. In the 1740s and 1750s, the Ohio country itself became a scene of contest between colonists and native tribes—until the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) secured major Indian land cessions and established a new “line of settlement” roughly following the course of the Ohio River. Here, the Delaware (or Lenapi, as they originally called themselves) were directly involved once again. Indeed, the story of this particular group, spreading across many generations, was especially remarkable for serial removals. After relocating from Pennsylvania to Ohio, the Delaware would go on to Indiana (Treaty of Greenville, 1795), to Missouri (several more treaties, 1818–26), to Kansas (1829), and finally to Oklahoma (1850s and 1860s). One might well say that removal became central to their very identity.
     At the start of the nineteenth century, the vast territory obtained through the Louisiana Purchase appeared to open new avenues for removal. And the process itself became more organized, more systematic, with governmental authorities—at both federal and state levels—increasingly in charge. Thomas Jefferson, as president and prime mover for the Purchase, was especially active this way. In 1804, Congress formally authorized him to negotiate with “Indian tribes owning lands on the east side of the Mississippi [to] exchange lands [for] property of the United States on the west side.”
     The results of such initiatives were profound. To the north, there began a complex process of relocating various tribes in the vicinity of the Great Lakes: Chippewa, Ottawa, Pottawattamie, Wyandotte, Menomenie, Winnebago, Sioux, Fox, Sac (among others). The overall direction of this movement was from the east side of the lakes (especially the Michigan Territory) to the west side (Wisconsin, which had also gained territorial status), and then to sites fully across the Mississippi. In the meantime, too, some native groups had moved to Wisconsin from much farther east—for example, Iroquois from upstate New York, and the Stockbridge (Massachusetts) Mahicans.
     But it was in the Southeast that removal would have its most dramatic enactments—and would most fully approximate ethnic cleansing. There, what were known as “the five civilized tribes”—Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee—remained relatively well entrenched into the early nineteenth century. However, a series of treaty-based land cessions, begun long before, had eaten away much of their territorial base. Then, in the 1830s, all five were subject to federally mandated relocation in the newly designated Indian Territory (what is today the state of Oklahoma). Some ten thousand Choctaws were forced from their homes in Mississippi between 1831 and 1833. The migration of the Chickasaw from southern Alabama was spread out over a longer period, roughly 1837–50. The Creek mounted a strong resistance, but even so they were driven out (also from Alabama) during a three-year stretch, starting in 1834. The Seminole fought removal with extreme tenacity, retreating from their original settlements along the coast of Florida to its swampy interior, from where they conducted sporadic guerilla warfare against federal troops, lasting well into the 1850s. Most were eventually put to flight or killed, but enough remained to support several reservations, which are part of Florida to the present day.
     And then, the Cherokees—the most famously removed group of all. Considered whole, theirs is a story of remarkable, but doomed, achievement. As such, it shadows, on a vastly grander scale, that of the Foreign Mission School—high hopes, valiant effort, leading to eventual tragic defeat.
     Indeed, by 1825, the Cherokees were widely considered “the most civilized tribe in America.” This description included both a salute to all they had accomplished and the seeds of their destruction. “Civilization” remained the official goal. But success with the goal might under-mine other interests crucially important to whites. Success would mean accepting them, on equal terms and with equal rights. Success would mean competing with them for valuable resources. Success would mean including them as partners on the route to America’s “manifest destiny.” Was the country at large ready for all that?

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The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
PeachesRR More than 1 year ago
Hated it! Could not get through it! Put it down several times - Finally abandoned it.