The early nineteenth century was a period in which American Indians came into contact with non-Indian explorers and missionaries.
One of the central themes of United States policies with regard to American Indians is the need to convert them to Christianity and to repress traditional Indian practices. While many Indians have been jailed for practicing traditional religions, it is interesting to note that one of the landmark Supreme Court cases in Indian law stemmed from the arrest of Christian missionaries among the Cherokees. The missionaries were not arrested by tribal authorities, but by the state of Georgia.
The State of Georgia in 1831 passed a law forbidding non-Indians to live in Cherokee country without a license and notified the missionary boards serving the Cherokees that it was now illegal for a non-Indian missionary to be in Cherokee country unless he had taken an oath of allegiance to Georgia and had obtained a special permit from the governor.
The Georgia Guard, a paramilitary group created specifically to impose Georgia law on the Cherokee, invaded the Cherokee capital of New Echota and arrested several non-Indians, including missionaries. The missionaries were soon released because they served as postmasters at their missions, and were, therefore, federal agents and not subject to the laws of Georgia. One of the missionaries who was arrested and then released is Samuel A. Worcester, whose friendship with Elias Boudinot (also known as Buck Wati, or Galagina), the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, had earned him many enemies in Georgia.
Worcester was arrested again after he returned to New Echota to be with his sick wife. Along with ten other non-Indian missionaries, Worcester was tried for violating Georgia law, quickly found guilty, and sentenced to four years of hard labor.
The eleven missionaries were chained together and forced to march to prison. In spite of their religious principles which forbade travel on Sunday, they were forced to march on Sunday and were refused religious services. When they reached the prison at Milledgeville, the eleven were offered a pardon in exchange for taking an oath to sustain the efforts of Georgia against the Cherokee or to abandon their missionary efforts and leave the state. Nine of the men took the pardon. Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler did not. In her book Althea Bass Cherokee Messenger,describes the attempt to have these two men agree to the pardon:
“For hours the two men were urged to accept the terms accepted, for the sake of expediency or necessity, by the others; and at intervals the gate of the prison was opened and closed again, grating on its iron hinges with a sound intended to produce terror in the hearts of the listeners.”
In spite of having a sick wife at home, Worcester maintained his support for the Cherokees and was assigned to prison labor. Prior to his arrest, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had written to Worcester, telling him that if he were to be arrested and imprisoned this would rouse the whole country. According to the Board:
“You would not only benefit the Cherokees, but your case would be known through the civilized world. You would do good to the poor and oppressed everywhere.”
The missionaries appealed their conviction. This became the vehicle for bringing a test case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court:
The case of the missionaries reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832. In Worcester versus Georgia, the Supreme Court decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, maintained that the Cherokee were a nation separate from the jurisdiction of the state. In his book In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided, attorney Walter Echo-Hawk reports:
“Rejecting the South’s dark version of Indian law, the Marshall Court ruled that Georgia had no right to tread on the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation or to take its land.”
The Court described Indian nations in the same sense as all other nations of the earth. According to Chief Justice Marshall:
“The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter, but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress.”
Marshall also stated that the Georgia was “repugnant to the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.” Chief Justice Marshall wrote that
“the settled doctrine of the law of nations is, that a weaker power does not surrender its independence—its right to self-government, by associating with a stronger and taking its protection.”
He went on to say that the relationship between the United States and the Cherokee
“was that of a nation claiming and receiving the protection of one more powerful, not that of individuals abandoning their national character, and submitting as subjects to the laws of a master.”
In summarizing Marshall’s view of Indian relations within the United States, in his book American Indians and the Law, law professor Bruce Duthu writes:
“Marshall’s opinion makes clear that the Constitution contemplates two sets of bilateral relations, one bilateral relationship between the national government and the several states, and another between the national government and Indian tribes.”
In the same decision Justice McLean wrote:
“The exercise of the power of self-government by the Indians within a State, is undoubtedly contemplated to be temporary.”
The Cherokees were elated by the decision. Elias Boudinot wrote to Stand Watie:
“It is a great triumph on the part of the Cherokees so far as the question of their rights were concerned. The question is forever settled as to who is right & who is wrong.”
While the power of law seems to be in favor of Cherokee sovereignty, the political reality is quite different. In his book Native American Tribalism: Indian Survivals and Renewals, D’Arcy McNickle points out:
“Unfortunately for the Cherokees, the executive branch of the government was not obliged, or interpreted to oblige, to uphold the decision of the Court.”
Althea Bass puts it this way:
“The supremacy of the Supreme Court, it appeared, was not a matter for the President’s concern.”
Attorney Mark Scherer, in an article in Chronicles of Oklahoma, writes:
“With President Andrew Jackson’s implicit indulgence, the state of Georgia effectively annulled both the letter and the spirit of the Court’s decision.”
Ignoring the ruling of the Court, Georgia refused to release Worcester and the other missionaries from prison.
The European invasion of the Oregon Country began in the late eighteenth century and intensified in the early nineteenth century. In 1818, the United States and the United Kingdom, ignoring any possibility of the sovereignty of Indian nations and relying on the legal concept of the Discovery Doctrine (stating that Christian nations have a right, if not an obligation, to rule over non-Christian nations), signed a treaty declaring Oregon Country to be a joint occupation area. Under this treaty, both the United States and the United Kingdom could claim land and both were guaranteed free navigation throughout.
Oregon Country was the American name for the region; the British called it the Columbia District. The area stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide; it was bounded in the north at Fort Simpson in what is now British Columbia; and in the south at what would now be the Oregon-California border. It encompassed the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho; western Montana; and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
While the initial invasion of the Oregon Country was led by fur traders, the English Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian Nor’Westers, and the American Astorians, by the 1830s the missionaries began to arrive.
The first of the missionaries was Jason Lee who had been originally sent by the Methodist Missionary Board to establish a mission among the Flathead in western Montana. The Flathead had astonished the Christian world by sending expeditions to St. Louis asking for missionaries. The Flathead had learned about Christianity, and more importantly, about the power of the Black Robes (Jesuit priests) from Iroquois employed by the fur trade. They had come to St. Louis specifically seeking a Black Robe, but the Methodists had decided to reach the Flathead first and bring them the true Christian religion.
Jason Lee met with the Flathead and the Nez Perce at the Green River Rendezvous in Wyoming. He found the Indians deeply unsettling. He concluded that the Indians were slaves to Satan and to alcohol. Instead of establishing an Indian mission, he continued his journey west to Fort Vancouver, a Hudson’s Bay trading post. From here, he went to the Willamette Valley just north of present-day Salem, Oregon where he established a mission and a school in an area with relatively few Indians. There were, however, about a dozen Canadian settlers, former employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, with Native American wives living in the area.
The Flathead’s request for a missionary was answered in 1840 with the Jesuit Pierre-Jean De Smet. In 1840, he was welcomed into a camp of Flathead and Pend d’Oreilles. De Smet envisioned a new Indian society similar to medieval Europe in which the Indians would become Catholic farmers subservient to the Church.
In Oregon, Methodist missionaries set up a mission and farm on the Clatsop Plains west of Fort Clatsop in 1840. The wife of an American settler in the area, Celiast Smith, was the daughter of Clatsop chief Coboway and was able to translate for the missionaries. Ideally, the missionaries wanted to be able to preach to the Indians in their own language, but they soon found learning the Chinookan languages such as Clatsop was beyond their abilities. The Chinookan languages include sounds which are difficult, if not impossible, for English-speaking adults to master. The missionaries, therefore, turned to Chinook Jargon, a pidgin language with a reduced vocabulary and no complexities of verb conjugation or noun declension. As a pidgin language, Chinook Jargon was designed to be learned by adults and to facilitate trade. It lacked vocabulary to translate spiritual concepts.
In 1840, Methodist missionaries Gustavus Hines and Jason Lee decided to visit the Umpqua in an attempt to bring Christianity to them. The Hudson’s Bay Company trader at Fort Umpqua, however, informed them of recent Indian attacks. He warned them not to visit the Umpqua villages. When the missionaries insisted, the trader and his Indian wife accompanied them. The trader later insisted that only the presence of his Indian wife kept them from being killed.
Like the Flathead in western Montana, the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho had heard about the powers of the Blackrobes from fur traders. In 1841, three Coeur d’Alene men traveled to western Montana to see the Jesuit missionary Father DeSmet. They asked him to send the Black Robes (Jesuits) to their people. The following year, the Jesuits sent Father Nicholas Point to establish a mission among the Coeur d’Alene. Jerry Camarillo Dunn, in his The Smithonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States, writes: “The mission had some success, although Father Point himself was dismayed by what he saw as his flock’s dirtiness, idolatry, and ‘moral abandonment.’”
In the nineteenth century there were several competing kinds of Christianity. The Protestant missionaries in Oregon Country resented the presence of Catholic missionaries whom they regarded as atheistic papists. In 1841, the wife of a Protestant missionary among the Nez Perce complained: “Romanism stalks abroad on our right hand and on our left and with daring effrontery boasts that she is to prevail and possess the land.”
Two years later, a Protestant missionary to the Nez Perce blamed his failure to convert Indians on the opposition of the Catholics.
In 1843, the Canadian missionary Father Bolduc established a mission among the Cowlitz in Washington. Bolduc wrote in his journal: “One must develop a strong spirit here. It is important to be kind to the savages, to make them laugh now and then so as not to frighten them, and give them a favorable impression of religion. It is not necessary to show them the severe side at first, but in time and successively to introduce everything, or the end will not be accomplished.” Bolduc also reported: “Since being with the Cowlitz tribe, I have converted only a few. They are unwilling to submit.”
According to Balduc, polygyny, slavery, and gambling were obstacles to conversion to Christianity.
In 1843, Father Nicholas Point and the Jesuit brother Charles Huet established a mission on the St. Joe River in Idaho to serve the Coeur d’Alene. Father Point noted that the Coeur d’Alene were living in 27 villages around Lake Coeur d’Alene.
In 1845, the Jesuits under Father De Smet established a mission at Chewelah, Washington. The mission was called Saint Francis Regis and was intended to serve the Kalispel as well mixed blood trappers who were living in the area.
While the Flathead had asked for a Blackrobe (Jesuit priest), what they were actually seeking was the spiritual power to enable them to defeat their traditional enemies, the Blackfoot who controlled much of the buffalo hunting grounds on the Northern Plains. After five years of living with them, Father De Smet had gained little real understanding of Flathead culture. Feeling that he had been successful in converting the Flathead, he crossed the Rocky Mountains and attempted to convert the Blackfoot. When he returned to the mission among the Flathead he found them angry with him and openly challenging his Christianity. Many of his converts left the church.
In 1846, the United States and the United Kingdom negotiated the Oregon Treaty which divided the territory between the two countries. Oregon Country thus became Oregon Territory.