Project Canterbury

Missions to the Oneidas

By Susan Fenimore Cooper

Serialized in The Living Church

Number XIV. May 22, 1886, pages 123-124

When Mr. Goodnough first took the duties of missionary at Oneida a party had been formed among the people against all Christian work in the tribe. One of the leading chiefs declared that he had driven away two missionaries already, and intended to drive away the third. This chief had at that time a small fanatical following among the Pagan party whose cry it was that the Great Spirit had made them Indians and that they intended to remain Indians, and would not become civilized and Christians. "We mean to have Indian ways, and live and die Indians," was the cry of this party, in 1853. Their leader encouraged them, by way of keeping up his own influence. It was through this party that the missionary in the early stages of his work met with many trials. Their leader had been to Washington on business for the tribe; he told the Oneidas that religion was only fit for women and children, he added: "The great men of Washington never go to church, they drink and play cards all day Sunday." Gradually however, the influence of the missionary increased, and for a time the Pagan element was silenced. But when the agent had decided to drive the people to sell their lands, he turned to the chief referred to, and made an ally of him. This chief was induced to approve of the sale, and to persuade some others to adopt his views. After receiving the letter from the President stating that the Government had no intention of removing them, or selling their lands, there was quiet on the Reservation for a time. But the conspirators had not lost sight of their plot. The following summer the crops failed, especially the Indian corn on which the Oneidas depended in a great measure for food. The people had therefore no other means of substitute than cutting wood from the forest for sale. They made shingles, cut firewood, square timber, and railroad ties. The women made baskets and brooms. By these means they lived comfortably, although the crops had failed. Suddenly the agent called a general council. Here he read what he declared to be an order from the Government forbidding the people to cut a single stick of timber excepting for their own firewood or building purposes, and threatening them with prison if they disobeyed. In dismay the Indians again applied to their missionary, telling him that they must starve, or beg, unless they could cut their timber and sell it. Mr. Goodnough told them he thought the order was written by the agent to frighten them into selling their land; he advised them to go on cutting their timber as this was their only means of support at the time. Again the agent called a general council, reading the same order, and threatening to march soldiers on the Reservation if the people disobeyed; he also forbade their consulting the missionary, or asking him to write letters for them. The agent alone must write all their letters to the Government. He warned them that if the missionary gave them advice, or wrote letters for them, he, the agent, would drive him from the Reservation. Here the young chief Onontquago, Cornelius Hill, said they had always consulted their minister about their affairs, why not continue to do so now? "If he writes a word for you, or gives advice about temporal business, I will drive him off the Reservation at once," was the answer. Here the old chief, the ally of the agent, exclaimed: "We must cut the minister's head off!" meaning the threat in a figurative sense, of course. Onontquago then exclaimed with great indignation: "I put my arms around the minister! You must cut my head off first, before you cut the minister's head off!" Loud applause followed this speech of Onontquago, the building resounding with "Toh! Toh! Toh!" hear! hear! hear! and "Yoh! Yoh! Yoh!" right! right! right! Some days passed. Then the agent wrote to the missionary saying he had received an order from the Department forbidding the Indians to cut their timber, and if the missionary advised the people to disregard this order he would be removed from the Reservation. The missionary wrote in reply asking for a copy of the order. The agent answered he was not bound to show the orders of the Department. The missionary then wrote to the Indian Commissioner at Washington, enclosing copies of the agent's letters, and his own, and asking for a copy of the order forbidding the cutting of timber. The Commissioner immediately forwarded copies of the whole correspondence with the agent relating to the subject, showing clearly that the agent had urged the Department to forbid the Indians to cut their timber, but the Department had refused to do so. The plot was thus discovered. But the conspirators only increased their activity. The agent called secret councils of his own adherents. His hatred of the missionary increased. Suddenly the agent left for Washington. His object was at first a secret, but soon it was discovered that he had gone to make final arrangements for selling the Reservation. Without delay Onontquago called a council at the Mission school-house; the chiefs dictated a letter to the missionary for the authorities at Washington protesting in the strongest manner against the sale of their lands. Seven chiefs, and all the men present, signed this letter. The agent, while telling the commissioner that "a large majority of the Indians desired to sell" was met by this letter containing their strong protest. He returned a defeated man, but was more abusive and violent in his threats than ever. But the joy of the Indians was unbounded at being allowed to retain possession of their own lands! for a time they were happy. Again the agent called a general council. He told the people he was authorized to remove their missionary from the Reservation. "For what cause?" inquired Onontquago. "For writing letters to Washington, and interfering with the business affairs of the tribe." This man's object was now to frighten the missionary and the people into quiet, by the threat of removal. Artful men were employed to spread evil reports about the missionary: among other things he was accused of speculating with the Indian timber! All this was easily disproved. But the people were kept for months in an uneasy, restless condition, summoned to councils, and "talks," with the agent, to the neglect of their farms and crops. Another device was now adopted. The agent announced to the people that he had been instructed by the Department to take down the names of all in favor of selling, and if the number proved a majority, the lands would be sold, in spite of any protest. He appointed two men to go through the Reservation taking down the names. These men began their round, but were compelled to give up the task, owing to the opposition of the people. Again the missionary was asked to write to Washington, by the chiefs, complaining of this fresh trouble. Soon after to the great joy of the Oneidas this agent was removed. The facts connected with these procedings have been given in detail, as they are a specimen of the character of other trials of the same nature, in other agencies among the Indian tribes. These troubles lasted at Oneida for some years, with more or less force, under two successive agents. But at length the Government was aroused to a more just policy as regards the Oneidas, unworthy agents were no longer allowed to follow their own covetous plots on the Reservation. The tribe are now living in peaceful possession of the lands they purchased nearly sixty years since. They are no longer in fear of being removed into the wilderness. And the same missionary who has watched with fatherly interest and affection over the flock at Hobart church is still laboring faithfully among them, after nearly thirty-three years of service.

Not only public disturbances, but all private troubles of the communicants were brought to the Mission House for settlement--and continue to be so. Quite early in Mr. Goodnough's ministry, four men of good character in the parish were appointed as his advisers. They are chosen by the communicants. They watch over the conduct of the communicants, and make monthly reports to the missionary. There have frequently been nearly 200 communicants in good standing. Rules were drawn up by the pastor for the direction of the people, and were adopted by a vote of the communicants. If a rule is broken by a communicant, he or she is suspended for the length of time specified by the rule connected with that particular offence. The suspension takes place publicly, in church, on Communion days, and at the same time persons who are worthy are publicly admitted to Communion. When these rules were first adopted there would be some suspensions every month, but later, they became much less frequent, for the public suspension was dreaded, and the communicants were careful in their conduct.

The interest of the people in their church building continued undiminished. They were becoming anxious for a larger and better church, of stone, but in the meantime made frequent repairs on the wooden church built in 1839. There had never been a proper altar at Hobart Church. The Communion table in used until 1868 was a common wooden table, no longer in good condition, and covered with a square cloth once red, but long since faded to a dingy gray. The people now decided that it was a duty to have a more suitable table for the Holy Communion, and threw themselves, men and women, earnestly into the task of providing an altar. The money was raised by the women by selling berries, making baskets and mats, while the men gave freely from their earnings. They were all very anxious that the altar should be in place for the next visitation of their venerable Bishop, which was close at hand. They were not disappointed. The $80 required were raised in time, the missionary prepared the design, and the altar was made at Green Bay, and placed in the church for the next visitation of the Bishop. He was now an aged man, nearly four-score, and growing feeble, but he still filled his appointments with regularity. "Our Bishop never disappoints us," was a common saying among the people. The congregations were now too large for the building. The attendance was always good. Not only did the people gather at the sound of the bell on Sundays, but at week-day prayers, and festivals. During the services of Lent, the church would often be well filled, the men coming in from their work, joining devoutly in the service, and then returning to their labors.

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