Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number XII. May 1, 1886, pages 75-76.

While the Oneidas were thus improving in Christian civilization, dark clouds were gathering over the tribe. The people were threatened with utter ruin. With every year the lands of the Oneidas improved in value through their own labors. At the same time the adjoining country was filling up more closely with a white population. As a natural consequence of this state of things the greed of speculators increased. The usual unscrupulous cunning was employed to bring about the ends of these covetous men. They declared that the lasting improvement of an Indian tribe was impossible. They boldly asserted that missionary labors among them had been utter failures. The character of the Oneidas was assailed at every point. Their improvement was denied; they were declared to be utterly incapable of all civilization, present or future. All efforts to better their social condition were held up to ridicule, scoffed at as a puerile absurdity, an insult to common sense. Any crime committed on the Reservation, was magnified ten-fold, and received a dark coloring. Strenuous efforts were made to excite the hatred of their white neighbors against the entire tribe. Their legal rights were ignored. They were declared to be utterly unworthy to hold the lands they had themselves purchased, lands the possession of which had been guaranteed to them by the National Government. Their fate was already decreed by these covetous men--they must be driven into the remote wilderness. To decree this removal was to condemn a whole tribe of more than partially civilized people to degradation, and to death. Deep was the anguish in the Oneida homes--those Christian homes--where with every month the plots of their enemies revealed themselves more clearly. Deep was the sympathy of their bishop, of their missionary.

It is a striking fact that at this very period the hearts and hands of the people were occupied with the preparations for building a new church. Since placing themselves under the care of Bishop Hobart in 1816, the Oneidas had built three different churches, with their own means. St. Peter's church, a respectable wooden building consecrated by Bishop Hobart, on their old Reservation in New York; a temporary church of squared logs built with their own hands, as soon as they settled on the lands they had purchased in Wisconsin; and a respectable wooden church built under the direction of the Rev. Mr. Davis, in 1839, and named by the people Hobart church. This building had been enlarged and improved under the successive missionaries, Mr. Davis, Mr. Cadle, Mr. Haff, and Mr. Goodnough. It had now become much too small, and was also out of repair. The Oneidas resolved to build a substantial new church of stone, of good architectural design. They new that it would require a long time to carry out their plan, but they set to work with manly courage and industry. Timber and stone were to be furnished from their own woods and quarries, by their own labors; all the work that they could do was to be cheerfully done by themselves; the finer parts of the building were to be finished by skilled workmen from abroad, paid by the Oneidas.

A little family of children had now gathered about Ellen Goodnough, but devoted mother as she was, her interest in the Oneidas continued warm and active as ever. Several of her children were carried to the font for Baptism, by Indian godparents; one boy had two god-fathers, and a god-mother all Oneidas. The red people were very fond of the children at the Mission House; they gave them Indian names of their own, and received them into the tribe with the same absolute adoption as their ancestors had practiced in former ages. With the superior tribes of the race, adoption was no mere form, it was a strong reality.

With every month the dangers to the Oneidas were now increasing. There was a regular conspiracy to obtain possession of their lands, to drive them far into the wilderness. At the head of this conspiracy was the Indian agent at Green Bay, regularly appointed by the Government for the protection of the Indians. It is a disgraceful fact that in other cases the Indian Agents have betrayed their trust, and proved enemies rather than friends of the red men. The agent holding office at that date came on the Reservation and forbade the people to cut their own timber. He declared that the Government had resolved to remove them from the Reservation. He offered to purchase their land for $2.50 an acre; land of the same character adjoining the Reservation, was at that very hour selling for $12 an acre. He ordered them to sell their land, in the name of the Government. He declared that if they would not give up their lands they would be driven off at the point of the bayonet. For each of these assertions and orders he had not a shadow of authority. The people in general were down-hearted, all but despairing. The chiefs were indignant. Great was also the indignation of the missionary; but it was necessary for him to act with the greatest caution lest he also should be driven from Oneida by the political cunning of the agent. The Church at large, seemed, at that date, to have forgotten the existence of the Oneida Mission, and knew nothing of their wrongs. The country scarcely gave a thought to their responsibilities with regard to the race with whom they had made solemn treaties. That worldly men, the lower order of politicians, selfish speculators, reckless traders, with hearts hardened by the love of lucre, should seek to trample the very life out of the red man without one scruple of conscience, may not be surprising. Such a course is only consistent with that degrading devotion to the service of Mammon only too common in our day. In too many cases that devotion is fanatical, fierce, frenzied. But that the better class of our people, Christian men and women, should have been for so many years utterly indifferent to the fate of the race in our midst, seems incomprehensible. Thanks be to God the Church has now cast off her lethargy in this particular. With such leaders as Bishop Whipple, Bishop Hare, and Mr. Herbert Welsh, she has now aroused herself to the imperative duty of laboring earnestly for the Christian civilization of the Indian. And let us also thank God that during those long years of chilling neglect, of culpable apathy, some thirty years since, there were yet here and there, a few faithful men and women praying and working for the red men, in the midst of the general forgetfulness of duty. Foremost among the friends of the Indian, of that date, we reverently name Bishop Kemper, whose example and influence did so much to keep alive the feeble missionary action as regards the Indians. And foremost among those who shared their bishop's convictions the faithful missionaries at Oneida must be named with respect.

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