Thursday, November 5, 2009

Death of the Tribal Church: Summary of Tribal Church History, 1734 to 1844

Death of the Tribal Church:
The Stockbridge Mohicans and the ABCFM
I. Introduction
II. Today's post: Summary of Tribal Church History 1734-1844

As this crude map shows, what is now the state of Wisconsin was part of the Michigan Territory in 1830, the year that Cutting Marsh began his ministry to the Stockbridge Mohicans.

During Cutting Marsh's time as the missionary to the Stockbridge Indians, when people out east spoke of "Green Bay," they weren't referring to the modern city of Green Bay, but, rather, much of what we would now call eastern Wisconsin. The Stockbridges' first settlement was known as Statesburg and it was located within today's city of Kaukauna.

By the 1730's the once-mighty Mohican Indian nation was devastated by diseases, warfare, and other aspects of more than one-hundred years of white contact. Not only had their numbers decreased dramatically, but the Mohican hunting and gathering economy and their traditional religion were greatly weakened. In 1734 two Mohican chiefs were approached by two clergymen who represented the New England Company, a philanthropic mission society based in London. A Christian mission was proposed by the two ministers. This proposal was later debated in a local council and ultimately at a council of the Mohican nation. It was decided that the new religion "should be preached in one certain village and let every man and woman hear it and accept it if they think best" (Hendrick Aupaumut, "Extract From an Indian History," in Massachusetts Historical Collections, pages 99-102). A missionary and a schoolteacher were successful enough to attract Mohicans and other Indians and the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts was incorporated in 1739.

Aspects of white contact continued to cause more suffering among the Stockbridge Mohicans in the decades after the mission town was established. Many of their best men died while fighting for the British (against the French) and for the young United States in the Revolutionary War (See Frazier's The Mohicans of Stockbridge for more about this period of time). There is not space here to describe all of the tribe's struggles and losses except to note that they were pushed west, to New York State by the 1780's, and by the mid-1820's most of them had settled along the Fox River in what is now Kaukauna, Wisconsin.

Despite their hard times over the years, tribal leaders prided themselves on being "civilized" Christian Indians. However, they had left their missionary back in New Stockbridge, New York. They addressed the issue of being without a missionary in an undated draft of a letter they intended to send to a mission society.

We hold meetings for divine worship regularly every Sabbath, conferences on fridays, concerts for prayer every first monday in each month. The meetings are conducted by the members of the church by prayers and reading a chapter with the notes and observations in Scott's Bible.

And we would also inform you that here is an extensive country where the people are absolutely without any means whereby they might attain to the knowledge of a true God, a great field indeed where much improvement is wanting in all respects [the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago Indians and the Menominees] are all in a spiritual sense sitting in the regions [of the] shadow of death. May God in his allwise providence dispose the hearts of the heralds of the cross to come into this distant country to sound the glad tidings of the gospel not only to us but may it also reach our Menominee and Winnebago brethren who have no knowledge of our blessed redeemer (found in the John C. Adams Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison).
While it is not clear exactly where that letter wound up, Rev. Jesse Miner who was serving the remnant of the tribe in New York State visited the Fox River settlement in 1827. A year later, Miner was instructed by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to move his ministry permanently. However, Miner died after serving the Stockbridge Mohicans on the Fox River for only several months.

Under the auspices of the ABCFM, Rev. Cutting Marsh began his ministry among the Stockbridge Mohicans in 1830. A few years later, Marsh moved along with the tribe to some good agricultural land on the east shore of Lake Winnebago. Their settlement there - as it was in Massachusetts - became known as "Stockbridge" in English and "Muhheconnuk" in their native language. While it appears that Marsh had something of a honeymoon period with the tribe, he was not as tolerant as some of his more successful predecessors had been. Marsh, of course, was also unfortunate to be serving the Stockbridges at a time when inter-tribal political tensions - largely resulting from federal Indian policy - were coming to a head.

This is part of a continuing series.

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