A Hidden History

by | Apr 1, 2014 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Many River Valley residents have heard of  Dwight Mission, one of the first Protestant Missions west of the Mississippi. But much of its history is hidden in the fog of time and the waters of Lake Dardanelle.

From 1820 until 1829, Pope County was home to a large Cherokee school known as Dwight Mission. It was located near present day Russellville on the west bank of the Illinois Bayou and about four miles from the Arkansas River. The site housed at least 24 structures, including multiple residence halls, a post office, carpentry and blacksmith shops. Today only a portion of the cemetery remains, located on a hill that once overlooked the settlement. A small sign on Highway 64 marks the historic location, but otherwise this history has long disappeared from the public discourse. Though many of the buildings were sold off of the property when the Cherokee were forced into Oklahoma, the foundations of those buildings were likely buried deep under water when the Corps of Engineers created Lake Dardanelle in 1965.

Dwight Mission was inspired by Brainerd Mission, an onsite residence school for Cherokee children near the Tennessee/Georgia border. Like other mission schools of the early 1800s, and hundreds of others that would come later, Brainerd’s central purpose was to convert Native American children to Christianity and western culture. Operated by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, a Presbyterian organization, Brainerd School employed New England missionaries like Cephas Washburn who would eventually make his way to Arkansas to found Dwight Mission. Cherokee students were expected to learn English and Anglo traditions, but missionaries seldom made any efforts to learn Cherokee or communicate with their students in their native tongue.

In the early 1800s, the western Cherokee who populated the River Valley area were not originally from the region. They moved to the territory in the late 1700s and early 1800s escaping war and strife in their homeland of Appalachia. According to J.W. Moore, editor of Cephas Washburn’s book Reminiscences of the Indians, 1793-1860, by the time Dwight Mission was constructed, the western Cherokee were living all along the Arkansas River “from Pointe Remove to where Van Buran now stands.”

Cherokee Principle Chief Tahlonteskee (also known as Tolluntuskee) was originally from western South Carolina, but by the early 1800s was one of a handful of leaders who made his home in what would eventually become the Yell and Pope County area. According to historian Charles Russell Logan, author of The Promised Land: The Cherokees, Arkansas and Removal, 1794-1839, Tahlonteskee (spelled Tolontuskee in Logan’s article), traveled back to the Cherokee homeland in 1818 to “lobby for eastern support for the Arkansas reservation.” It was there he visited the Brainerd Mission and requested a similar mission be created near his own home in Arkansas. The missions board met and agreed to send two Presbyterian ministers in to the Arkansas “wilderness,” as they described it. Rev. Cephas Washburn and Rev Alfred Finney were dispatched along with two assistants, Jacob Hitchcock and James Orr.

It’s hard to say why Tahlonteskee requested a school focused on the eradication of traditional Cherokee ways of life, especially after he had moved to Arkansas at least partially to distance himself from Anglo settlements in his homeland. Most likely, says Leslie Stewart-Abernathy of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, his decision was based on keeping his people safe. “It was not an easy thing to be a Cherokee in the early 1800s,” Stewart-Abernathy explains. “The Cherokee had been on the wrong side during the American Revolution. There had been a great deal of pressure on settlements. There were thousands of Cherokee and so thousands of opinions on what way to go. Do we go hide someplace? Do we become white people? What do we do?” And because the Cherokee were still new to the region, they were often engaged in fighting with the Osage as well. Creating a school and settlement would, many believed, helped ward off further dangers from both whites and other tribes.

By the time the missionaries were making their way toward Arkansas, the lines between who were and who were not Cherokee were not always so clear. Cherokees from the eastern and western bands often intermarried with white families and, in some cases, black families. Tahlonteskee himself was the son of a mixed-race couple. Many of these Cherokee owned large homes, pieces of property and even black slaves.

Other Cherokee, including those of mixed ancestry, openly rejected this assimilation, especially slave ownership. “This was one issue,” historian Charles Logan writes, “that divided the Cherokee traditionalists form the assimilationists.” For example, a leader known as the “The Bowl,” also sometimes called Duwali, lived for a short time near the Petit Jean River in northern Yell County and openly discouraged any act of assimilation. Even Tahlonteskee, Logan explains, started out somewhat anti-assimilation but eventually “began to believe in the need for a balance between Euro-American civilization and Cherokee traditions.” It’s essential to note there was not one unified position among the tribe. They’re were upwards of twenty different perspectives just in the River Valley area alone, Stewart-Abernathy explains. “Some say let’s stay with the old and some say let’s combine the two, but how do you really combine the two?”

Chief Tahlonteskee died of natural causes before Dwight Mission was realized. He was succeeded by his brother Ooluntuskee, also known by the anglicized name of  John Jolly, who had mixed feelings about the school and the ways in which it would take children from their homes, their language, and their culture. Chief Takatoka, a leader who made his home near present day Clarksville, was openly against the school and loudly discouraged family members from sending their children. In the end, Chief Takatoka proposed the school be located near Spadra Creek, most likely an effort to keep his eye on what was taking place at the mission. Despite these Cherokee misgivings, by 1820 Cephas Washburn and Alfred Finney chose a site on the Illinois Bayou and began construction. They named the mission after Timothy Dwight, a man who had been the president of Yale University and member of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions.

Information from David Vance’s Early History of Pope County in the 19th Century and Part of the 20th says the school opened on the first day of 1822 with three students present. “By the twelfth of January,” writes Vance, “they had eighteen children, which was a larger number than they were equipped to accommodate.” Two years later the enrollment was over one hundred. The growth of the school brought more missionaries from the east and there were multiple marriages among the missionaries on site, making these the first marriages on record in Pope County. By this time, Finney and Washburn’s wives had also joined the mission and were teaching sewing and cooking classes to young Cherokee girls. Certainly there were marriages and children born to area Cherokee families, but the records of the mission focus only on the experiences of the eastern missionaries and say virtually nothing about the daily lives of the people who populated the school.

During the school’s tenure the settlement was also one of few Anglo outposts in the region. It was home to the first post office in the area, the first ferry, the first doctor clinic and “the destination of the first steamboat to come up the Arkansas River above Arkansas Post,” writes Vance. Maps of the school’s early days give historians an idea of how the community was laid out, which included a sawmill and grist mill located about a mile away on Mill Creek, the area known as Mill Creek Road today.

While it’s possible to gain a sense of what life for the missionaries was like, it’s virtually impossible to find information about the experiences of the young Cherokee children caught between the culture of their parents and life on the school grounds. Converting the adult Cherokees to Christianity was seldom successful, as the early missionaries often lament in their journals. But children were a different story. And while the Cherokee had already become very anglicized, Dwight Mission certainly played an instrumental role in children separated further from their cultural heritage. In an age when many Americans are starved for information about their own native history, the diaries of the missionaries can be difficult to read.

Writing in his journal as published under the name Reminiscences of the Indians, 1793-1860, Cephas Washburn has this to say about his experience working with Native American communities in both Appalachia and Arkansas:  “There is a great chance since we came among them. At that time there were not twenty men in the nation who wore hats and pantaloons. Now there are not twenty who do not wear pantaloons and the great majority wear hats…the people use coffee and sugar daily…there is very little serious regard paid to their heathen rites. The green-corn dance is now observed by a very few, and not as a religious ceremony, but as a scene of amusement and revelry.”

Despite the western Cherokee’s assimilation into Anglo culture, there were large groups of whites in Arkansas territory who continually sought Cherokee removal. Even the Arkansas Gazette supported mass removal and federal officials did little to change public opinion. To address these growing pressures, a delegation of several western Cherokee including Sequoyah—the man who created the Cherokee syllabary and made his home near Russellville for a short time—traveled to Washington to secure permanent access to their Arkansas lands. Amid growing pressure to leave, the meeting eventually resulted in the Treaty of 1828, which ceded all Cherokee land in Arkansas for land in what would eventually become Oklahoma.

Dwight Mission closed in 1829, moving with the Cherokees to a new location near Sallisaw, Oklahoma where Washburn and others continued the school. The Oklahoma Dwight Mission continued to operate as a school for Cherokee children until 1948 and later became a Presbyterian summer church camp and meeting facility. It still stands today and operates as both a church and camp, and is rented out to various groups for conferences and events. Visiting the Oklahoma site today you’ll find little mention of the history of the Native Americans students save for a few photographs which can be found on the walls of the cafeteria building. Histories of the white missionaries, however, can be found in abundance.

It’s hard to say exactly what happened to the Dwight Mission site in Pope County. After the mission was moved, Washburn decided to sell the buildings to white settlers who were coming to the area in increasing numbers. Over the years this history virtually disappeared, making its way into Russellville culture only in small and isolated snippets, such as with the founding of Dwight Elementary which bears the schools namesake.

Though we know virtually nothing about what happened to the Cherokee students who left Dwight Mission to move to Oklahoma, we do know a bit about the missionary families. Cephas and Abigail Washburn eventually returned to Russellville, known as Norristown at the time, and made their home in a two-story log house located near where the Russellville soccer fields stand today. Cephas and Abigail’s son Edward Payton Washburn, a well-known painter, often came to visit his parents and occasionally visited the site of the old Dwight Mission. Historians believe Edward Payton Washburn’s famous “Arkansas Traveler” painting is based on a girl who was living, explains Stewart-Abernathy, “in a cabin at the former Dwight Mission location.” According to oral histories, explains Stewart-Abernathy, the Dwight Mission cemetery was continually used by those with claiming Cherokee ties on up until the 1930s. After the 1930s a number of African Americans were buried in the cemetery. More research is needed to understand this history.

Everywhere in the river valley area you’ll find people in both white and black communities who claim Cherokee ancestry. Are they relatives of students who once attended Dwight Mission? The official stance of the Cherokee Nation, explains Stewart-Abernathy, is that everyone with Cherokee ties left Arkansas after 1828. But local oral histories suggest otherwise. Often people say they’ve heard of Cherokee princesses in their family, for example, most likely a reference to the matrilineal nature of the Cherokee society. While some area families are able to trace their heritage back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, others are unable to prove such a lineage. Of course, proving one’s native ancestry is a controversial subject involving politics, history and race — complex topics this short article can’t even begin to untangle.

It’s possible some families never left. But staying on in Pope County meant denying Cherokee heritage and demanded total assimilation into the growing Anglo culture of the area. Perhaps those families who stayed claimed to be Anglo in the public sphere while passing down stories of their Cherokee history within the privacy of their own homes. What further complicates this history is that Cherokee families, even those who moved to Oklahoma, often changed their names to more anglicized forms, making family histories and genealogy difficult to untangle. It’s also likely, Stewart-Abernathy explains, that at least a few Cherokee families originally left for Oklahoma only to slip back in to Arkansas years later to escape the Cherokee civil war. There are even reports that some Cherokee families returned to the area generations later, he says, seeking to escape the intense poverty and desperation of life on the Oklahoma reservation. “Being on the reservation during the Depression was so bad,” said Stewart-Abernathy. “that one couple got on a boat and went down to Cardon Bottoms and became tenant farmers just for something to eat.”

This article just barely scratches the surface of the complex history of the Cherokee in Arkansas and perhaps poses more questions about Dwight Mission than it actually answers. Although it’s likely that much of Dwight Mission’s history has been lost forever, oral histories, although fraught with problems, can sometimes help researchers flesh out missing pieces.

What do you know about Dwight Mission? Did you hear stories passed down in your family? The researchers at the Arkansas Archeological Survey would love to hear about them and so would I. This article was written in partnership with my work at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and you can find further resources, including a reading reference list, listed online via our site the Boiled Down Juice at www.boileddownjuice.com.

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