October 10: The Trail of Tears

An Injustice Which Found No Excuse

Related here is a brief account of Presbyterian missions among the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians, just prior to and immediately following the grave injustice of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Removal Act resulted in what is now known to history as “The Trail of Tears,” in which tribes were forcibly relocated to the West. It could be argued that the Presbyterian mission never recovered from this setback, though efforts continued, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth century:—

In 1816, the Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury was sent out under the direction of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, to visit the destitute portions of Tennessee. After spending some months in discharging his commission, he repaired to the Cherokee country. At a full council of the Cherokees and Creeks, at which Colonel Meigs, the Indian agent, and General Andrew Jackson, in behalf of the United States Government, were present, Kingsbury proposed to the Indians his plan of missions. It was favorably entertained. The chiefs invited the establishment of mission schools, and Mr. Kingsbury, in conjunction with a representative of the tribes, was directed to seek out a fit location. The result was the selection of the mission station known thenceforth by the name of the devoted missionary “Brainerd.” This project had previously been frustrated by the War of 1812 and by the removal of key men. It was now revived under better circumstances. In 1817, additional workers came, among them the Rev. Ard Hoyt, who was for some years pastor at the Presbyterian church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

In the following year the mission to the Choctaws began, of which Rev. Kingsbury was invited to take charge. The laborers among the Cherokees were increased in number by the addition of laymenAbijah Conger, John Vaill, and John Talmage, along with their respective families, and all from New Jersey. The removal of the tribes to the region beyond the Mississippi, though sorely opposed to their own desires, had already commenced; and in the latter part of November, 1817, Alfred Finney and Cephas Washburn set out on their journey, through a wilderness rendered almost impassable by flooded swamps and overflowing creeks, from Brainerd to Eliot in Arkansas.

The laborers in the mission field at Brainerd were for the most part connected with the Presbytery of Union, in East Tennessee. Robert Glen was a licentiate, Christopher Bradshaw a candidate, and “Father” Hoyt a member of it. The meetings of the Presbytery were to them “refreshing seasons.” Especially was this the case at the present juncture. “The Lord had recently poured out His Spirit in many parts of this Presbytery, and the friends of Zion” were “looking up with rejoicing.” The Presbytery had six young men under its care as candidates for the ministry, most of them, doubtless, the pupils of Anderson.

The missionaries were visited and cheered, among others, by members of the Presbytery and missionaries sent out by the Assembly. Saunders and Moderwell visited them on their tour. Erastus Root from Georgia, and Vinal and Chapman, sent out by the United Foreign Mission Society at New York on an exploring tour among the Indians west of the Mississippi, called upon them. Numerous and refreshing were these repeated visits from members or ministers of Presbyterian churches throughout the land. But a special interest was taken in the progress of the mission by the churches of Tennessee. In 1819, Isaac Anderson, Matthew Donald, and William Eagleton (of Kingston) were the visiting committee of the Presbytery, and signed the report of the examination of the mission schools.

From year to year the reports were generally favorable. In 1822 the large establishment at Brainerd was divided, and its members distributed abroad throughout the bounds of the tribe. In the following year nearly one hundred persons gave evidence of hopeful conversion, and at Willstown a church “on the Presbyterian model,” consisting of nine converted Cherokees, was organized on October 10th, and connected with Union Presbytery. Already in September of the same year the churches at Brainerd, Carmel, and Hightower had been received, so that on the list of the Presbytery were four churches within the limits of the Cherokee mission. The number was increased by the organization of another church at Candy’s Creek in the following year.

But already the plan was formed which was to result in disaster to the mission by the removal of the Cherokees beyond the Mississippi. Georgia took the lead in the harsh and cruel measures by which this plan was carried out. The missionaries were indignant and disheartened at the perfidy which violated repeated and most solemn treaties. They saw their own labors interrupted; they saw those whom they had been encouraged to hope would soon be brought to embrace the gospel, outraged and alienated by an injustice which found no excuse but in the sophistry of unscrupulous avarice, while the prospects of future success for the mission were becoming more dark and gloomy continually.

Still, they did not remit their efforts. Amid sad discouragements they labored on. Portions of the tribe were from time to time depairingly forsaking their old hunting grounds and their fathers’ graves for new homes in the distant wilderness. Yet, till actual violence was offered, and by the arrest of their persons the resolute purpose to effect a forcible removal of the Cherokees became too obvious to be longer questioned they remained faithful to their work. But from 1829 to 1835 the odious project was pushed forward to its disastrous results. Yet for nearly twenty years the Cherokee mission, largely sustained by the sympathy of the Presbyterian Church in Tennessee, presented a noble example of self-denying Christian effort,the more striking when contrasted with the greed and injustice of men who viewed the native tribes only in the light of their own mercenary projects.

[The above account is excerpted, with some editing, from E. H. Gillett’s very readable History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. (1864), Vol. II, pp. 320-323.]

Words to Live By:
There are perhaps no easy answers when faced with such situations. One thing is clear, the Church is tasked by her Lord with the charge of proclaiming the Gospel, irrespective of opposition.  “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19b-20). Pray that we might be spared such trials, but if they come, may we be found faithful to the One who bought us with His own blood.

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