Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number VIII. March 20, 1886, pages 768-769.

It was a son of Nashotah who in this extremity offered himself for service among the Oneidas. There has been something of a peculiar interest in the connection between the Oneidas and Nashotah, which we pause for a moment to consider.

In 1841 the Rev. J. Lloyd Breck, the Rev. William Adams, and the Rev. John Henry Hobart, a son of the Bishop, students from the Theological Seminary in New York, and all recently ordained deacons, went to the wild region on the shores of Lake Michigan, for the purpose of founding an associate mission to preach the Gospel in what was then a forest wilderness. They entered on the work under the auspices of the Board of Domestic Missions. Their plan included a common home, itinerant preaching and teaching, with a daily life of prayer, study and manual labor. Some twenty miles westward from the petty hamlet of Milwaukee, there lay two lovely little lakes of limpid water in the heart of the wilderness, the twin lakes of Nashotah. A rude shanty had been loosely put together by some frontiersman. This tract of land was for sale. The young missionaries were poor as most missionaries are; but Mr. Aspinwall and Mr. Minturn of New York, and others, purchased 365 acres surrounding the twin lakes, in behalf of the mission. A solemn consecration of the ground and the work became the first step of the young deacons. They moved onward, a staff in each hand--"faith and prayer"--says an experienced clergyman. Many were their hardships. A small house 16 x18 was built and painted blue. Plain was the fare, and strange were the cooks; salt pork, potatoes and rutabagas were the fare month after month. The young deacons cooked their food, washed their own clothes, and mended them too after a fashion. They slept on the floor. During the first months of the mission ten different parishes were founded, all still existing. They young men often walked through the forest forty miles, along rough cart tracks, or Indian trails, to preach at some small cluster of log cabins, now among the English emigrants, now among Welsh, or it might be among Swedes and Norwegians, and frequently of course among the rude frontiersmen of our own people. Everywhere they were kindly received. Everywhere some impression for good would appear to have been made. On one occasion a Confirmation was to be held at the English colony of St. Albans. The service took place in a barn, the devout missionary bishop officiating. So great was the crowd that a number of young men climbed up into the hay loft above. Among these was one so deeply impressed by the service that the following week he knocked at the door of the "Blue House," and expressed his wish to enter the mission as a student of divinity. In late years he became the respected rector of St. John's church, Milwaukee, where he officiated for more than a quarter of a century. Many of these services in the forest were followed by the appearance of students at the "Blue House." It soon became necessary to enlarge the buildings. A dining-room 12 x18 was added to the kitchen. In addition 14 feet square was divided between a store-room and a tailoring room, while in the half story above the students slept. The library 14 x18 contained two recitation rooms, while its shelves contained at one time nearly all the theological tomes to be found in that region fifty years since. Another addition called "Lazarus Row" from its rough poverty-struck appearance, was 12 feet wide, and 50 feet long, it was divided into eight rooms, each opening into a neat little yard, paled in for flowers and shrubbery, with a wicket gate to the open grounds beyond. The chapel was 18 x24, afterwards doubled in length, and still later provided with a chancel. The young deacons and the students rose at five. There was a short religious service at a quarter to six. Then came breakfast. A bell arrived from New York. The belfry was a noble old oak near the chapel. At nine the bell rang from the old oak for daily morning service. Then came work and study. In winter the young men worked two hours in the morning, and the same in the afternoon, studying in the interval. In summer they worked eight hours, and studied four. At noon they dined. At six there was evening service. At nine there was also a short service.

One day, after the bell had been hung in the old oak, the sound as it rang for morning prayers was borne on the breeze to some distance, into a part of the forest where a young lad was cutting wood for his father who lived not far away. The sound was unusual--it was startling. Few indeed were the bells then heard in Wisconsin. The lad paused, and listened. Again at noon, and again in the evening he heard the same unusual sound, from the same direction. This continued for some days. At length the youth resolved to look into this new mystery of the forest. He set out, and by taking the direction of the sound, gradually drew nearer and nearer until he found that it came from the banks of Nashotah Lakes. Taking courage he went boldly on until he reached the "Blue House," and saw the bell enshrined in the old oak tree. Ere long that lad, Edward Goodnough, became a student of divinity at the mission. Some ten years later, he answered Bishop Kemper's appeal for a missionary to the Oneidas, and entered on his duties at a moment of sore trial to the tribe. For thirty-two years he has continued to serve them with most honorable fidelity. Mr. Haff, the predecessor of Mr. Goodnough, was also a student of Nashotah.

The young deacons in charge of the associate mission were of course anxious to be ordained to the priesthood. As soon the younger had reached the canonical age they applied to Bishop Kemper for examination, and Ordination. There were then but two Church buildings in Wisconsin; one at Green Bay, the other at Oneida. Bishop Kemper appointed the Indian church at Oneida for the Ordination. The journey from Nashotah was made in a lumber wagon. It was 150 miles to Oneida and several days were passed on the road. There was first a belt of timber twenty miles broad, then over high rolling prairies to Fond du Lac at the foot of Lake Winnebago; and again through the heaviest forest of the whole region, along the entire eastern shore of the Lake, until they reached the Neenah River and Green Bay. Here, crossing the river, they drove to Oneida, twelve miles to the westward. The Rev. Solomon Davis was then officiating at the mission. Sixty Oneidas rode out as usual on horseback to greet their bishop and escort him to the Mission House. On Sunday the whole reservation was in motion; at the call of the bell, men, women, and children came flocking from all directions to Hobart church. Many of the people were still quite wild in garb, wrapped in blankets, the infants hanging in their bark cradles from their mothers' backs. Soon the solemn service began; it was of a mixed character, partly from the Mohawk Prayer Book, and partly in English. The Oneidas sang very sweetly the familiar chants and hymns in their own liquid dialect. There were on this occasion 160 Indian communicants gathered in the little church.

The small chapel at Nashotah had been for some time in a ruinous condition, but absolute poverty prevented the building of a more appropriate place of worship. Books were needed, food was needed, clothing was needed, and when these more pressing wants were supplied there was nothing left in the treasury. The little chapel was patched up as well as possible, here a plank or two, there a few shingles, but gradually the weak spots enlarged so much that a winter thaw or a summer shower would send the water dripping through the old roof, upon the congregation praying beneath it, but there was no break in the services on account of this state of things. Morning, noon, and evening, every day in the year, the chapel was filled with devout worshippers. Among these, at different times, were three young Oneidas. In the year 1857 Bishop Kemper held an Ordination in the chapel under circumstances somewhat trying. A severe storm of wind and rain was raging without. The congregation collected; the Bishop and clergy took their places in the chancel; the candidates for Ordination were at the chancel rail; the solemn service began. Drip, drip, the water began to fall through the old roof. This was nothing new, but presently still heavier clouds swept over the building and the rain began literally to pour down through the leaks. Still the solemn services went on. The garments of the Bishop and clergy were wet; little pools formed on the floor; water was dripping over the whole body of the chapel, but in the chancel it was falling freely. The service went on unbroken--prayer and praise, chant and hymn, arose as though the storm were unheeded in the solemn purposes of the hour. At length umbrellas were raised in the body of the church, and before the final close of the services they were held also over the heads of the Bishop and officiating clergy, whose garments had become heavy with the water fallen upon them from the roof.

Meanwhile the young clergy were zealously employed in rendering faithful missionary service within a wide circuit. Scarce a log cabin within many miles which they did not visit on some pious errand. They carried the Holy Bible and the Prayer Book into many a pioneer home, where these became eventually the bread of life to parents and children. They were too poor for wagons and horses, and walked regularly to different stations at a distance of twelve miles. Occasionally these journeys on foot extended to a distance of sixty miles. At that date a forest twenty miles in depth, and two hundred in length, covered the western shore of Lake Michigan. On one occasion the services of the missionaries were needed by an individual one hundred and twenty miles from Nashotah. The Rev. Mr. Breck set out, knapsack at his back, and the first day walked forty miles through the forest and over wild prairies; the second day he also walked forty miles. He had hoped to complete the remaining forty miles the third day, Saturday, but tangled tracks amid the Winnebago forests led him astray. Night surprised him. He heard the cry of the wild beasts roaming through the wilderness. Happily he came to the door of a rude cabin where an Indian family received him kindly. Sunday at nine o'clock he arrived at his destination, and began the day with morning service.

Early in the history of Nashotah, two Indian missions were entrusted to its graduates; of these, the most important was Oneida, to which we now return.

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