Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
Main Contents & Search
Tame Indians

Selections from Susan Fenimore Cooper's "Missions to the Oneidas."

These passages from her account are interesting in relation to Sarah Orne Jewett's account of her visit in "Tame Indians." The complete texts may be found at: http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/susan/missions.html

Rev. Edward Goodnough and the Oneida of Duck Creek, Wisconsin

     When Rev. Goodnough came to Duck Creek, "The parish had been vacant about two years. The people had lost ground sadly. A half-wild tribe are in the mental condition of children; they may have made a promising beginning, even decided progress in the right direction, but if abandoned by their guides they must inevitably fall back. When the brave young deacon came among the Oneidas everything was looking very dreary. He was a stranger among a wild race whose language he could neither speak nor understand. The majority of the people were very shy and suspicious. A few of the better men and women, however, received him very kindly. He was living alone in the mission house; they brought him bread, game and fish, washed his clothes and provided him with firewood; but there were others who hoped to drive him away as they had already driven two missionaries off the field. At night they would come about the house, making hideous cries, and savage yells. The Saturday nights were fearfully disorderly. They would go to Green Bay to trade and come back dreadfully intoxicated, shouting, fighting and yelling like so many fiends."
     Of the conditions and people Goodnough found on his arrival, Cooper says: " they were found by their young missionary, in 1853, living on small farms, in separate cabins, on each side of the Duck Creek, which was crossed by six bridges, cabins and bridges being alike built by themselves. The farms were very roughly worked, and carelessly fenced. The cabins, chiefly of logs, were comfortless and untidy. It was surprising how little English was spoken by the people, after two centuries of intercourse with an English-speaking race; there were few men who spoke the language with any facility, and among the women, with one or two exceptions, there were none who could say more than a word or two. It was at first difficult to find a good interpreter; while the Oneida Prayer Book was used, of course, in church, the sermon was interpreted; on one occasion, early in Mr. Goodnough's ministry, he quoted the text relating to the widow's two mites; this was interpreted: 'She threw into the treasury two little worms'! The church building was in a very dilapidated condition, needing many repairs, while the white paint had been almost entirely washed away by the rain. The congregation was at first very small. At the first celebration of the Holy Communion there were only thirty present. Two years earlier there had been 150 communicants. At the first Confirmation there were only five to receive the rite. The school house was an old tumble-down shanty, with a door at each end, and for chimney an old stove pipe running up boldly through the roof. There were often heavy drifts of snow on the floor during the winter months. The average attendance was only fifteen. The mission house about 800 yards from the church was small, a story and a half high; there were out-houses about it, and a glebe of eight acres. Everything was out of order.
     To this desolate mission house, in April '54, came a brave young girl not yet seventeen, the newly married wife of the missionary, to whom she had been betrothed for some time previous. Blessed was the day when Ellen Saxton Goodnough came among the Oneidas, with her brave spirit, her warm generous heart, her cheerful, vigorous, healthy nature, and her good judgment. From the day when she first crossed the threshold of the mission house, she scarcely left the reservation even for a few hours, during her busy Christian life, of more than sixteen years."
     Cooper describes the church services and participants: "When the young missionaries entered on their duties in 1853-4, the aspect of things was wild, and not a little discouraging. But at the end of a few months matters improved very perceptibly, and many of the people learned once more, as in earlier times, to look upon their minister as their best friend. They resumed former habits. Larger numbers came to church and gathered at the mission house. The parsonage was made more comfortable. The church was improved by painting, and the repairs most needed were attended to. But there was neither chancel, nor vestry-room, the roof was leaky, and the floor was paved. There was a good bell, the gift of a chief, and the people at a distance attended to the call, and came more regularly. The sun poured in upon the dusky flock through unshaded windows, the men sitting together on one side, the women on the other. The men were roughly clothed, generally in coarse blue cloth, very carelessly put together. The women came in with their invariably noiseless, gliding step, in very wild garb; they were shrouded in blankets, their heads closely covered with various wrappings, occasionally bead-work, or porcupine work, appearing as trimmings on their cloth leggings and moccasins. Mothers brought their babies in bark cradles, hanging at their backs suspended by the regular burden strap passing around the forehead. When an infant Baptism took place the child was brought up for the service strapped to the cradle board, godfather and godmother in due attendance. The congregation was always respectful, and some of the elder ones were very devout, making all the responses with much feeling and reverence. There was an organ of good tone, well played by the regular organist, one of the chiefs. The singing was always very sweet. Never indeed were the services carried out without the sweet, plaintive voices of the women being heard in the chants and hymns, in their own wild speech. Not a few of the men had also good voices. The people seemed to have a natural taste for music. The prayers were read in Oneida. The sermon though prepared expressly for the mission was translated by the regular interpreter."
     About dealing with language difference, Cooper says: "He never attempted to speak to the people in their own dialect which he did not understand. His sermons and addresses were translated by the interpreter; they are said to have been always very simple, very earnest and impressive. He delivered them with fatherly dignity, and much feeling. The people always listened with fixed and reverent attention, and were evidently much edified by them. He generally alluded especially to the sentence of Confirmation and explained it very clearly and impressively to the people.
     When a Baptism took place all the addresses to the congregation, to the candidates or the sponsors, were given in Oneida; the prayers were in English, the people being familiar with them from their own Prayer Book. At marriages portions of the service were given in Oneida, the prayers in English, and they were instructed that solemnly joining the hands as in the presence of God and before witnesses was a binding pledge. At funerals the services were held partly in English, partly in Oneida; the opening sentences and the lessons were given in Oneida, the psalm was generally read responsively in English, the younger people soon learning enough to follow the American Prayer Book in this way. They have however the whole service in their own language.
     The library of Oneida books, if not large, was of very great value to the people. There was a translation of the New Testament, complete with the exception of Second Corinthians; portions of the Old Testament; the prophesy of Isaiah; a hymn book compiled chiefly from our own; and three different editions of the Prayer Book. The Rev. John Henry Hobart, son of the revered Bishop Hobart, and one of the founders of Nashotah, who had been ordained priest in the little church at Oneida, had inherited the Bishop's interest in the people, and gave them an improved translation of the Prayer Book, published at his own expense. The translation was prepared by the skilful interpreter, Baptist Doctater. The people valued this last translation greatly, and often read it in their homes with pleasure."
     Of the mission school, Cooper observed: "The school was taught by the missionary, who considered this task one of his most important duties. After his marriage the young wife assisted with much zeal in the good work, and during those first months laid the foundation of her deep and affectionate interest in the children. The little dark-eyed, red-skinned, creatures were as wild and shy as the chipmunks and fawns of the forest. The girls were gentle, low-voiced, and timid; they generally came with their heads closely covered in a wrap of some kind. Boys and girls kept carefully apart, it was impossible to coax them to recite in the same classes. But they soon became attached to their bright-faced, kindly, pleasant-mannered teacher, and ere long she acquired very great influence over them, and over their mothers also. The school opened with a short religious service; the general confession, the Lord's Prayer, and the Creed. They were taught to read, and write, and cipher, from the American school-books in general use. Many of the children were bright, and learned rapidly, others were very dull. After some years of experience the missionary became convinced that the children of parents who could read learned more rapidly than those whose parents had never received any instruction."
     During Rev. Goodnough's tenure, Cooper says the Oneida settlement changed and prospered: "The farms increased in size and in the manner of cultivation; saw-mills, a grist-mill, and blacksmiths' shops were all worked by the people, who also did a good share of carpenter's work. The number of log cabins increased, and better frame houses were built. The number of cattle and horses increased. The men were no longer ashamed of farm-work. The women only helped in the lighter out-door labors."

     In discussing the conflict of the 1860s as local whites attempted to gain control of Oneida lands, Cooper quotes in full an open letter from Cornelius Hill, future priest of Holy Apostles:

    Editors of the Green Bay Advocate:
    I am surprised and grieved to read, as I do in the Gazette of June 5, such language as the following concerning the Oneidas. I quote from an article in the Gazette, written by a correspondent of the Chicago Republican, with whose opinions I have nothing to do, and about which I care nothing, but this correspondent brings in the name of the Hon. M. L. Martin, and refers to him as an old resident of Green Bay and as the U.S. Indian Agent, as being the source from which he received his information. Mr. M.L. Martin informs this correspondent that--
     "All efforts to civilize the Oneidas have failed; that the Oneidas are thriftless, reckless and beastly people; that they are, every five of them, the useless consumers of the subsistence that would sustain a thousand white men; that the Oneidas are a nuisance and an obstacle to the progress of Green Bay, and that the government of the United States ought to accede to the wishes of the people of Green Bay and remove the Oneidas to some place where they may be no longer such a hindrance to the welfare of Green Bay."
     Now, I am a member of the Oneida tribe, and do not feel disposed to permit such slanders of my people to pass uncontradicted. Mr. Martin is an honorable gentleman, an old resident of Green Bay, and the U.S. Agent, having charge of my tribe; he ought therefore on each of these accounts, to be the last person to depreciate the Oneidas in the estimation of the citizens of the United States but should give them the full benefit of all the praise for all the real progress they have made in civilization, which a regard to truth with justify.
     Mr. Martin is brought forward endowed with all the above qualifications for a truthful and impartial witness, and really his testimony ought to be received as true, and no more ought to be said on the subject, but truth and honor demand that this testimony be proved to be basely false and slanderous.
     I am but a young man, yet since I can remember, the Oneidas have advanced a great deal in civilization. Instead of "all efforts made by good men to lead my people on in civilization having failed," these efforts are now actively carried on in the tribe and no thoughts of failure disturb those who support and carry them on; in fact greater success is attending those efforts to-day than ever before. It was but a short time ago that my people were sunk in the depths of barbarism; this fact is not their fault. All nations were once in barbarism and many far lower in the scale of human existence. Not many years ago my people all lived in bark or mat wigwams; now they all have houses of some sort, many of them have good and comfortable dwellings, and a ride through our settlements and through any other town of white farmers will convince anyone not blinded by prejudice and avarice that our houses are ten times better and more comfortable than the wigwams of a few years ago.
     My people used to eat out of a common wooden dish placed on the earth floor of the wigwam, each one of the family or company squatting around it, armed with a wooden ladle, and dressed in nature's own garb; now we all have tables to eat from, chairs to sit on, plates, cups, knives, forks, spoons, clean food cooked for the most part on good cooking stoves, instead of in the smoke and ashes of a wigwam; we are clothed in civilized garments, and most of us implore the blessing of our Heavenly Father upon our food and ourselves before partaking of what we all realize to be the good gifts of our God.
     We used to sleep on the ground or on skin or a mat spread on the floors of our huts; now we all have civilized beds to sleep on and take our rest between civilized sheets as other men do.
     Once we lived on the game and fish we caught and killed; now we have large farms, raise wheat, corn, rye, oats, peas, potatoes, beans and other crops suitable for cultivation in this climate. We live, for the most part, on what we raise on our farms, and can furnish forth as good a meal of victuals and one as well cooked as can be furnished in any white farmer's house.
     Our women can make good bread from wheat flour, and they can cook all kinds of food in a civilized way; can set a clean table, make butter, and their own and their children's clothes, after a civilized manner. We have good barns, cows, horses, oxen, wagons, plows, harrows, axes, hoes, pitchforks, a reaping {108) machine, and two eight horse power threshing machines.
     We have churches; the Lord's day is regularly observed as a day of rest and Divine worship, and our people contribute liberally towards the support of their churches, in labor, in money, and in kind. We have schools where our children learn to read and write and cipher. There are now over 200 of your children being instructed in our schools.
     The family tie or relation is sacredly regarded. We no longer have two or more wives, as in our wild state, but every man has his own wife and every woman her own husband, and we bring up our children at home in the family in a civilized way. Many white people and all uncivilized Indians have more than one wife, and this custom is well known to be a sign and test of barbarism, which cannot be found amongst the Oneidas.
     There is not a jail, a grog-shop, or a house of ill-fame amongst my people; all of them exist where Mr. Martin lives at Green Bay, whose civilized progress must not be arrested by the presence of the Oneidas in its vicinity.
     Mr. Martin ought to view his own people, they have for more than a thousand years been under the influence of civilization, yet how many reckless, thriftless white people there are. Look at this Green Bay whose progress must not be impeded by the presence of Indians; how many drunkards, gamblers, adulterers, shameless women, liars, thieves, cheats, idlers, consumers, slanderers there are there.
     They have all kinds of religion in Green Bay, yet the greater part of the people appear to be a godless set. The whites have had great opportunities to advance in civilization, yet thousand of them have failed to become civilized; the Indians have had but a short time to become so, yet because they do not all at once become refined and civilized in a day, Mr. Martin says they are a nuisance and ought to be removed!
     The efforts to civilize the Oneidas have failed no more than the efforts to civilize the whites. The whites are not willing to give us time to become civilized, but must remove us to some barbarous country as soon as civilization approaches us. The whites claim to be civilized; from them we must learn the arts and customs of civilized life, but our people learn to become drunkards of white people; if a civilized white man gets drunk, why should not a red Indian? The whites teach our people all their vices and learn them to despise virtue. The whites should try to elevate instead of trying to degrade and destroy us. Mr. Martin ought to assist us, he is the authorized agent of the United States to us, and ought, therefore, to see that our people do not obtain the means of intoxication of the whites, which is the greatest hindrance to our advancement in civilization, but he does not lift a finger towards warding off this curse from us. Instead of devising plans for our advancement in civilization, he bends all his energies to the work of depriving us of our homes.
     Instead of helping us to improve our condition, he is not willing that we should peaceably enjoy our own possessions, yet he is our white friend, and represents to us the kindly interest and benevolence which the white race as personified in the U.S. Government feels in our welfare.
     Such sentiments and actions, Mr. Martin no doubt considers the very natural outgrowth of that civilization he speaks of, and to which he has been subjected all his life. If such be really the case the less my people have of it the better.
     But I am well aware that such feelings cannot find place in the mind of a truly civilized man, be he white, black, or red, but are the offspring of that rapacious and utterly selfish spirit which has stripped us of our former homes, and which unconsciously to themselves influences the minds and good judgments of many, otherwise, decent men.
     The civilization which I and the greater part of my people aim at is one of honor and truth; one that will raise us to a higher state of existence here on earth and fit us for a blessed one in the next world.
     We intend to strive after this civilization, and strive after right here where we are now, being sure that we shall find it no sooner in the wilds beyond the Mississippi.
     Our progress may be slow, and with the adverse circumstances surrounding us, it cannot well be otherwise, but progress is our motto, and those who labor to deprive us of this small spot of God's footstool will labor in vain. Mr. Martin and his white friends had better try to improve rather than to remove us, and thus benefit us and themselves at the same time.

     A Chief of the first Christian party of Oneidas.
    Oneida Reserve, June 13, 1868.

     Of the death of Ellen Goodnough, Cooper writes:

"Ellen Goodnough, with warm-hearted, generous indignation, wrote her last letter. There was a wail of the deepest grief throughout the Reservation when one who had been as a mother to the people breathed her last. The Oneidas were heart-broken. Many gathered about the Mission House during her last hours, praying and weeping day and night. From the moment of her death they kept vigil about the house, singing mournful chants and hymns from the Church services, until the hour of the funeral. When the simple and most touching procession moved from the house, husband, children and weeping people, the Oneidas began a beautiful, but most mournful chant, singing in their own melodious and musical tones, until the church door was reached. The service was performed by the Rev. Mr. Steele of Green Bay. His sermon was translated for the Oneidas, and is said to have given them much comfort. Ellen Goodnough was laid to rest, in the quiet mission cemetery, beside the little boy she had lost, whose stone bore the Indian name his Oneida friends had given him, and surrounded by many Christian graves of the people she had so faithfully served. Strangers who had come from a distance to offer their sympathy and respect to the bereaved missionary, were much impressed with the respectable appearance, the depth of feeling, the devotional manner, and the very touching singing of the Oneidas."

     Cooper reveals a good deal about the Oneida's plans for a new church building. Not many years after Goodnough's arrival, the tribe determined that the church would need to be replaced and began to plan a stone building to replace it. The work and planning were made difficult by persecution in the 1860s and the great fires of 1871. Led by the Indian Agent in Green Bay, local whites made a strong effort to appropriate the reservation and move the Oneida further west. Much of the tribe's energy and resources went into defending against these efforts. Cooper describes the plans as they existed shortly after Ellen Goodnough's death: "And now they were very anxious to build a substantial stone church of good architectural design, and large enough to accommodate eight hundred people. For years the men had given one day in every week to the labor of preparing the lumber and quarrying the stone needed for the new building, while the women, and even the children were bringing their small earnings to the missionary to be added to the church fund. The men also raised about $200 in money every year, to be given to the fund. This money was invested at interest, in the Savings Bank, at Green Bay. An excellent plan was prepared by the Rev. Charles Babcock, the architect, as a gift to the mission. The church was to be in the early English style, with low massive walls, heavy buttresses, and a steep roof. It was to be 48 by 68 exclusive of porch and chancel."

     The failure of a savings bank and other problems delayed the construction until 1886.

Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College

Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
Main Contents & Search
Tame Indians