Monday, December 22, 2008

Thelma Davids Putnam

Algonkian church history would be incomplete if it were not for Thelma [Davids] Putnam (1901-1993).

As a Stockbridge Mohican elder, Thelma Putnam was satisfied with Rev. J.N. Davidson's tribal history, except that his account ended in the 1890's - just about the time when the Stockbridge Mohicans seemed to go from Calvinist to Lutheran. So Ms. Putnam (or "Aunt Thel" as some people still refer to her today) took up the task of writing an updated tribal church history.

A photo from page 18 of her book --->

A descendant of the Millers and Yoccums on her mother's side and David Naunauneekanuk on her father's side, Thelma Davids was born in 1901 (Davids Family Genealogy). She grew up in the town of Red Springs, just across the road from the Lutheran mission. As a result, she "grew up with personal knowledge of and [was] a personal friend of many of the pastors, teachers, and employees of the Lutheran Mission" (Putnam, page 2).

Reflecting back in her later years, Thelma Putnam was realistic enough to understand that not everybody had loved the mission the same way that she did, but the descriptions she gives us of her childhood memories leave no doubt that the mission church was the center for "all social life" for many of the Stockbridge Mohicans (page 15).

As her nephew, Steve Comer, tells it, Thelma Davids was the first Stockbridge Indian he knew of that "went off the Rez and made her name in the world." When Thelma Davids was growing up it wasn't common for rural people (not just Indians but also whites) to attend high school. But Thel attended and graduated from Milwaukee Lutheran High School and went on to serve as a missionary/teacher to the White Mountain Apache Indians in Arizona.

<----After returning to Wisconsin, Thelma married Steve Putnam. They raised eight daughters and one son.

Nobody that I had a chance to ask was able to confirm this, but Thelma Davids Putnam appears to have followed in the footsteps of the German-born Rev. Francis Uplegger, who began his ministry in Shawano County, and later became the "Director of the Lutheran High School in Milwaukee" and missionary at the White Mountain Apache Reservation (page 31).

While there was one mission church at Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the 1700's (and it was supported by wealthy and powerful people overseas), the situation was very different in the 1900's. In the twentieth century, a number of small, scattered Indian congregations sprang up in Shawano County. The credit for preserving the history of those congregations goes to Thelma Putnam. Her book, Christian Religion Among the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican Indians (written in 1978 and self-published) tells of the many comings and goings of ministers and their families. It also tells in detail how various church communities lacking financial resources began without the benefit of a church building and met in people's homes, the cook shack from an old logging camp, the tribal headquarters, and even in a converted saloon.

The book is for sale ($15) at the Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library-Museum.

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