Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number XI. April 24, 1886, pages 60-61.

Years passed on, bringing with them steady growth to the work of Oneida. There is nothing brilliant, nothing startling, in the record of this mission. But quiet, healthful, progress is shown as the blessed result of loving charity, and patient perseverance, in sound Christian training. Examples of humble duties in a lowly field, faithfully performed during a long course of years, are less common than one could wish in our own time, and our own country. But such examples are found, and respectfully acknowledged, at Oneida. There was often hardness to be endured in that field. There were peculiar trials; but every effort was made with cheerful Christian patience. The hearts of both husband and wife were deeply interested in their duties among the tribe to whose service they had given themselves. "I love the people!" exclaimed the missionary with great earnestness, at a time of peculiar trial and great danger to the Oneidas. "I dearly love to teach those children!" said Ellen Goodnough within a few hours of her death. And the affection so generously given was warmly returned by the Oneidas.

The Reservation, twelve miles in length, was not entirely occupied by the mission of the Church. About the year 1829-30, wandering Methodist preachers appeared on the ground, the first coming from Canada, it is said. They were generally, at that date, very ignorant, and very prejudiced. As a rule they could neither read nor write. It may be doubted whether those who first came were in regular connection with the Methodist organization. These men were in those early days a trial to the missionary at Hobart church; they came as intruders, stirring up strife among his flock, much given to abuse of the Church, and to praise of their own superior piety. The course of one individual of that class was long remembered; he called himself the Rev. Mr. Sundown, and came especially to convert the people at Hobart church. He stirred up no little trouble; had a small fanatic following; proposed building a meeting-house for his adherents, and actually began the work, but ere long was compelled to leave the Reservation in disgrace from his own misconduct. He could neither read nor write, but was very abusive of the Church. He probably was not a regular Methodist minister. The Methodist settlement owed its origin to the "Orchard Party;" it occupied the western end of the Reservation. Their regular mission dated from 1835, and in 1840 a place of worship was built. They occupied about three-fifths of the Reservation and had about the same proportion of the population. There is now a kindly feeling between the two missions, each doing their own work quietly without interfering with the other. It is needless to say that the course of the Church mission was always peaceable, even under abuse. As documents are wanting, and accurate information on the subject cannot easily be obtained, this brief mention of the Methodist portion of Christian work on the Reservation is all that can be offered in these sketches. The Methodists have always used the Oneida Prayer Book, and other translations of the Church in their services.

Very decided improvements became manifest at the end of ten years of faithful labor at Oneida. The number of children attending school increased largely, and they came from a greater distance. The church filled to its greatest capacity. Baptisms were of very frequent occurrence. The Bishop confirmed large classes; the communicants increased to 146. During Lent the little church would be well filled for prayers, the men leaving their work for the service and returning again to their labors afterwards, an example to some white men.

The general appearance of the country bore witness to the improvement. The people became more industrious, and orderly. Heathen practices and superstitions were dying out. There was no person suspected of absolute paganist left on the mission ground. The general respect for the Lord's Day was very striking. The farms increased in size and in the manner of cultivation; saw-mills, a grist-mill, and blacksmiths' shops were all worked by the people, who also did a good share of carpenter's work. The number of log cabins increased, and better frame houses were built. The number of cattle and horses increased. The men were no longer ashamed of farm-work. The women only helped in the lighter out-door labors. There was one task however that wives and mothers would not give up; they always worked in the corn fields with the men; planting, hoeing, and harvesting the maize they considered their privilege by birth-right, a holiday task bequeathed to them by their Konoshioni mothers of bygone ages. The maize, that beautiful plant, and sweet grain, has always held a very important place with the red men, and we who have succeeded them count it a great blessing also. The Iroquois tribes are said to have had twelve different ways of preparing the maize for food.

The first invitation to Ellen Goodnough, as a bride, was often recalled by her in later years. A worthy old woman of the congregation invited her to supper, and with true hospitality gave the minister's wife the best she had to offer, a kindly greeting, and succotash, made of the fresh young beans, and new maize, eaten out of an iron kettle, placed on the earthen floor, with a wooden spoon. There was no bread. The shiftless untidy way of living in the Oneida cabins greatly distressed Ellen Goodnough. They had no regular hours for meals. Their bedsteads were rude bunks; the beds in many houses were left unmade all day. The washing was irregularly done; ironing often entirely neglected. Tins and woodenware--few in number--were never properly scoured. Their bread was cakes of maize often baked in the ashes. Ere long, almost unconsciously, instinctively, as it were, Ellen Goodnough took the first steps in a course she afterwards pursued steadily until the last days of her life. Naturally bright and cheerful she attracted the Oneida women as visitors to the Mission House, making them kindly welcome, and often entertaining them with a practical lesson in housekeeping, the making of yeast, the kneading of bread, the scouring of a tin, the ironing of a garment, so many object lessons to the shy, but closely observant visitors. Kindly example and friendly teaching in these first steps of civilization gradually produced good results. There was no lack of intelligence in her pupils, the women were generally quick-witted, and their slender fingers were skillful in any task which interested them. But their minds were undisciplined. They could not enter readily into the importance of steady application bodily and mental, at the same time. They were bewildered by the blended regularity and variety of the work of civilized life, and slow to persevere in conquering the difficulty. But ere long, encouraging signs of interest and progress appeared. The women could speak but little English, but kindly feeling has a language of its own; a pleasant smile, a friendly gesture, a bit of fun helped on the instructions. The Oneidas enjoyed a little joke very decidedly, in spite of their quiet shy ways. After the first practical lessons in useful work, gentle guidance and teaching in more important manners followed. To raise the moral and religious tone of the women and girls became the great object of Ellen Goodnough, and her loving efforts in their behalf were greatly blessed for good. "Her constant desire and aim," said one who knew her intimately, "was to endeavor to improve the condition of the Oneida women in regard to their morals, and their general behaviour, as well as in their households and their clothing. She neglected no opportunity of instructing them by precept and example. Her influence became almost unbounded. She impressed upon them her own strong, noble principles, which have influenced their character for life."

A visitor to the mission has left on record her impressions of the condition of things at that date. We give a portion of her remarks showing the great improvement.

"The Oneidas have made choice of a fine country. We drove through noble woods. But the roads might be improved. Some of the farms seem to be quite nicely cultivated, and indeed the whole valley looks rich and fertile now, under the summer crops. The houses are small, but many of them are nicely built. I was pleased to see so many little gardens, and flower-borders too. We went into several houses where they received us very kindly, with smiling faces, and pleasant ways. At one house the young woman was ironing; the clothes were beautifully washed, and starched, and the sewing seemed very good. I never saw a neater house than that was, you might have eaten your dinner from the floor. And there were books lying about. They offered us cake here. I like the way the women dress, with a short calico gown over a long skirt, it is peculiar and pleasing. And what nice shoes and stockings they wear fitting so neatly on their small feet. The young women we met wore gipsey hats, very neat and pretty. But we met several old women with shawls over their heads this warm weather. We saw many men at work in the barnyards and fields, in their white shirt sleeves. Several times the farmers we passed invited us to take seats in their wagons. At one house we found an old woman spinning; she could not speak English, but kindly made us welcome, and gave us delicious buttermilk. I noticed her little buttery looked very clean. The people we passed greeted us kindly. We saw several mowing and reaping machines in the fields, with tall, dark-haired farmers working them. The people in general seem more slow in their movements than Yankees are. We walked behind two young men who had rakes on their shoulders, they went slouching along at a slow pace, talking together in Oneida. It seems strange that the people should be so very slow to learn English, and cling so to their own language. In one house we saw an old grandfather petting two little grandchildren at a great rate; they are very fond of their children, and very kind to them. In the cottage I noticed bright tins, and neat shelves. There was a drawing framed, done by an Oneida girl. They have a taste for drawing, and music, and the young men are going to have a grand brass band. In passing several small houses we saw earthen floors; these mud floors were the common rule twelve years ago. We passed a barn door hanging awry; they say all strangers notice some barn door awry, or fence half down; they are slow to make small repairs, but improve every year. We saw Oneida books in several houses, and the prophecy of Isaiah was taken down from a shelf to show us. They gave us a beautiful bunch of flowers at one house, from their own garden, and at another house they set before us beautiful raspberries and rich cream. When I offered the little girl who set them on the table, fifty cents, as we came away, she blushed, and looked at her mother, the mother flushed, and made the child hand the money back. They are very hospitable, and as a rule not mercenary. Since the people have lived in houses, away from the smoke of wigwams, and have learned the use of soap, they have become much lighter in complexion, not darker than Mexicans. They are very kind in sickness, very gentle in all the relations of life. The men are tall plain farmers, simple in their ways. The women are smaller 61 than the men. Nothing but the coarse straight hair, and strange speech recall the Indian."

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