Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number VI. March 6, 1886, pages 736-737.

Important changes were at hand. The rapid encroachments of the white race, the sudden rush of civilization, began to trouble the Oneidas grievously. They were amazed and bewildered at the extraordinary changes going on about them. In past generations the advance of civilization had been gradual. But they were now hearing every day of some fresh track in the old forest, of some new towns springing up as if by magic among the stumps of ancient woods, where they had hunted the deer and the bear only a few years earlier. The four winds of heaven, as they swept over the Oneida cabins, seemed to bring every hour the echoes of this new life rushing into the wilderness, and with every rising sun they seemed to hear the strides of civilization coming nearer and nearer. They were greatly disturbed. Many were the talks and councils held among the chiefs; the red people have strong local attachments, they dreaded leaving their old home-ground, and the graves of their fathers; but they felt the dangers of their position, the whites were very powerful, they were weak and helpless. At Kunawaloa they were surrounded by evil-minded traders, and speculators, who coveted their lands. "They stand in the way of the whites; they must be swept out!" was the cry of these unprincipled men. Ere long the question was decided. The Oneidas resolved to move into the wilderness, towards the setting sun, beyond the great lakes.

It was in the year 1823 that the first band moved westward. Their catechist, Mr. Williams, went with them. A tract of land had been purchased for the tribe not far from the village of Green Bay; to pay for the new ground the Oneidas sold their lands in New York. The position chosen by their chiefs was a valley, some ten miles to the westward of Green Bay, through which ran a small stream. Here they could fish; here they found water-fowl in abundance. The little river they named "Ta-lon-ga-wa-nay," the place of the many ducks. The great arm of Lake Michigan, known to us as Green Bay, became in their speech "Haw-ha-la-lik-ong-gay," (the home of many men.) The land they had purchased was an unbroken forest, and the streams which threaded this wilderness had worn for themselves deep channels, from which the timbered land rose in easy elevation on either bank, assuming here and there the dignity of hills. The forest was chiefly composed of pine, oak, chestnut, and maple.

The first step of the red people was to build wigwams of bark along the banks of the streams; then came the clearing of a small space in the forest for the little fields of maize, beans, potatoes and pumpkins. The toil of the first year was severe, and it fell chiefly upon the women. The Oneida men, at heart, still despised field labor. They supplied the families well with game, however; venison, wild turkeys, ducks and fish. The missionary was there to give the work a tinge of civilization. After a time the men went to work more in earnest; cows and oxen and swine were purchased; the plough was set in motion; steps were taken for housing the people in log-cabins.

Every Sunday the little flock gathered for public worship beneath the shade of the old trees. Other small bands arrived, from time to time, from their old home. A little church was built, of hewn logs. The task was undertaken with a good will, men and women, all were ready to lend a helping hand. The timber was chosen, standing; in the old forest the trees were felled, the bark was removed, and the logs were neatly squared. When the little building was completed, a name had to be chosen. The Oneidas wished to know if their little rude church of logs, so far away in the wilderness, might bear the honored name of their "Father," Bishop Hobart. Their wish was complied with, and their church still bears to-day the name of "Hobart church."

Matters went on quietly and steadily in the new country. The bark wigwams disappeared, cabins of unhewn logs took their place. The size of the little fields increased. The number of cattle and sheep increased. A few horses appeared on the largest farms. Still the people were very poor and had many hardships to contend with. They mourned for the old gardens, and orchards, and fruit trees they had left behind them.

Although small bands were frequently arriving from Kunawaloa, there still remained a considerable number of the people on the old ground. A new missionary catechist was sought for this portion of the tribe. Our Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society received its final organization in 1821, and the Oneidas were placed under the charge of the Foreign Board. When Mr. Williams removed to Green Bay in 1823, a candidate for Orders, Mr. Solomon Davis, was sent to Oneida Castle, where he became the missionary catechist, and schoolmaster, with a salary of $500 from the government. He proved very faithful in his duties. Bishop Hobart in his frequent visitations to the Oneidas confirmed large numbers. At one of these visitations on the 18th of June, 1826, Mr. Williams, who had returned for the purpose, was ordained deacon in St. Peter's church, Oneida Castle. The Bishop's visitation in 1827 was peculiarly interesting. On the morning of June 21st, a singular procession half wild, half civilized, was seen moving from the village; fifty or sixty Indians mounted on horses of their own, headed by their chiefs and interpreter, set out to meet their much loved bishop. To send out a delegation to meet an honored guest had always been the custom of the Five Nations. On this occasion they rode for miles to meet their bishop. After a little loving talk, and a great deal of hand-shaking, the whole party turned about, and followed the Bishop in the direction of the church. Among those horsemen, were stalwart men, the descendants of fierce savage chiefs, about to received the rite of Confirmation after due preparation by their catechist. Groups of women and children were meanwhile seen hurrying from all directions towards the church. The services were particularly impressive. They began with a few verses from one of the psalms, translated into Oneida, and very sweetly sung by a choir of one hundred Oneidas, in the gallery above, the red people in the church below uniting with them. The services were in English, translated by the interpreter. Ninety-seven Indians who had been well prepared were confirmed. About fifty received the Holy Communion, including a few Onondagas. The Confirmations during the Episcopate of Bishop Hobart, between the years 1818 and 1830, exceed 500. During the same period more than 1,000 were baptized.

The Rev. Eleazar Williams continued his services among the emigrant Oneidas after his Ordination. He married a half-breed Menomonee woman from Green Bay, and had a family of children. But a cloud began to lower over his ministry; there were complaints made against him; his course in some particulars became unsatisfactory to the Board of Missions. Charges were drawn up against him, but they were never presented for trial. How much of truth, or how much of error, there may have been in those charges we cannot say. In 1828 Mr. Williams withdrew from the mission. His career was most extraordinary. Suddenly a few years later the Indian missionary appeared before Europe and America as the rightful heir to the throne of France!!! He claimed to have been born in the purple--to be the Dauphin of France--the son of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette! He declared that he had been privately taken from prison and brought to America by French royalists, who for greater safety placed him among the Mohawk Indians on the St. Lawrence. Volumes have been written with regard to this astounding claim. Many shrewd and highly-educated people believed his story. He became a lion in our great cities, preaching as a clergyman on Sundays, and figuring in drawing-rooms during the week, equally ready to give information regarding his royal parents at Versailles, or his Oneida parishioners in the wilderness. The writer of this sketch met him in society at Washington, in 1856, and could certainly see in his face something of the Bourbon cast of features familiar to us from portraits. His face was remarkably like that of Louis XVI. A sermon preached by him in the church of the Epiphany, at Washington, at this time, was very impressive. But with these passages of his life this sketch can have nothing to do. As Dauphin he passes away from the Oneidas. The fact that the wife of Thomas Williams solemnly swore that he was her son, would seem to settle the question. He was never ordained to the priesthood, but served as a missionary to the St. Regis Indians, connected with our Church, and died among them. His Menomonee wife survived him; and he had a son in business at Oshkosh, in Wisconsin, a short time since. There are those now living at Oneida who consider his early services to the tribe to have been important. He took great pains with their musical instruction. He prepared two different editions of the Prayer Book for the especial use of the Oneidas, the old Mohawk book being the foundation of these revisions.

Mr. Williams place at Duck Creek was soon supplied by a very worthy clergyman, the Rev. Richard F. Cadle, who labored faithfully on the same ground from 1829 to 1835. In 1829 the Oneida mission passed under the direction of the Domestic Board, where it more naturally belonged. When Mr. Cadle entered on his duties there were 150 communicants in the parish. There were no Confirmations for there was no bishop in that region. The Baptisms were only 36 in seven years. Some of the prominent men had become lukewarm, and threw obstacles in the way of the religious instruction of the people, from selfish reasons, believing that they could control the tribe more entirely if there was no missionary on the grounds, and no doubt the cloud which hung over Mr. Williams had a very bad effect on many of the people.

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