Chattanooga’s Brainerd Mission School, 1817-1838, unique among such schools, Cherokee historians say

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / A sign at the entry to the Brainerd Mission Cemetery on Friday, July 15, 2022.

Chattanooga's Brainerd Mission School, opened in 1817, was one of the first of more than 408 federally-funded mission schools across the U.S. that boarded Native American children and taught them English and homemaking and agricultural skills.

The school closed with the federal removal of the Cherokee in 1838, and students and teachers alike left on the Trail of Tears. The site of the mission and school are now only marked by a tiny cemetery surrounded mostly by asphalt.

Mission schools across the nation, most opening between 1819 and the late 1800s, were part of a federal government system that stripped away Native American language and culture, according to the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report released in May by the U.S. Department of Interior. More than 500 children died in U.S. boarding schools in 37 states.

But the story at Brainerd Mission School, one of those listed in the report, was different. Cherokee historians said it stands apart from others in that it had such a short life and was sought out by tribal members.

The Brainerd Mission School was the only federally-funded school for Native Americans in Tennessee, established two years before Hamilton County was founded and 21 years before the Indian Removal Act spelled its end, according to the federal report and historical accounts and records.

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Today, most of the Brainerd Mission site lies under buildings, roads and parking lots constructed in and around Eastgate Loop near South Chickamauga Creek in Chattanooga's Brainerd neighborhood. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the Brainerd Mission Cemetery, now surrounded by modern development, is all that remains of the original site.

The cemetery itself lies solemn and quiet under passing jets landing and taking off from the nearby airport. Interstate and city traffic noises compete with songbirds in the rustling leaves of massive southern red oak trees planted almost 200 years ago.

The mission and school were named for David Brainerd, a Presbyterian missionary who gave his life to the service of Native Americans in New York and New England. According to historians, Brainerd, who lived from 1718 to 1747, never saw Cherokee territory, but his legacy among Native Americans remained.

Brainerd and the mission are noted in names of schools and churches and landmarks such as Brainerd Road, Missionary Ridge, Old Mission Road and the Brainerd neighborhood, which extends from Missionary Ridge to South Chickamauga Creek.

Early in the mission school's existence, the area was called Chickamauga, according to historical accounts. The mission was established in 1817 by Cyrus Kingsbury, who was working on behalf of the American Board of Foreign Missions. In January 1817, about 100 Cherokee youth and children were lodged, fed and instructed there, according to information included in the May federal report. The report includes data from the 1820 Report to the Secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs, which states the federal government supported the mission school where 30 to 40 buildings were constructed, including cabins for the children, the mission house, barns, a sawmill and the cemetery.

The Brainerd Mission School is believed to be one of the first self-help schools to be established in America and provided students with practical knowledge, teaching scientific agriculture and domestic arts, according to the federal report. After the Cherokee were removed in 1838, the mission was abandoned.

Closer knit

Members of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma say the tribe wanted the school in Cherokee territory in what would later become Brainerd. The Cherokee Nation is one of three federally-recognized Cherokee Tribes, along with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.

"Brainerd is not a typical example of an Indian Boarding School because of the fact that it was only open from 1817-1838 before the federal government boarding school era," Cherokee Nation spokeswoman Julie Hubbard said Sept. 15 in an email. "Early missionary schools in the Cherokee Nation, such as Brainerd Mission near Chattanooga, were invited in by members of the Cherokee community in order to provide western-style education for Cherokee children."

Classes were taught in English, creating some disparity within Cherokee communities, over time leading to the loss of culture for some families, Hubbard said.

"Boarding schools that were established in the later 1800s were part of the federal government's broader policy to civilize tribes and children within those tribes," Hubbard said. "In many instances, children were forcibly removed from their families and relocated to schools that were far away from their communities."

At the Brainerd Mission School, the missionaries and students were closer knit, she said.

"These educational efforts also forged bonds between the missionaries and Cherokee people as Cherokees advocated for the education of boys and girls, a progressive approach to education," she said. "Some missionaries faced arrest when they stood alongside the Cherokee Nation in its efforts to defend its sovereign rights. A few missionaries even walked the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee people."

The Cherokee were eager to learn.

"The mission's primary purpose was to educate Cherokee children, though lessons were all taught in English," said Krystan Moser, senior manager of the Cherokee Nation's Collections and Exhibits at the Cherokee Nation National Research Center, which opened in December 2021.

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"One student, Catharine Brown, is famously considered to be one of the earliest students and converted to Christianity for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions," Moser said in an email this month.

Because the school was established in what was then Cherokee territory in the Cherokee town of Chickamauga before it was renamed Brainerd, it was part of the community and didn't disrupt or separate Cherokee families and communities, Moser said.

"There is a stark difference in the missionary schools located in Cherokee Nation in the early 1800s and the boarding schools that were established by the federal government as part of a larger 'civilization' policy in the later 1800s," she said.

"Brainerd Mission closed in 1838 as a result of the forced removal of Cherokee Nation from its eastern homelands to Indian Territory in what is now the state of Oklahoma," she said. "Many of the missionaries accompanied the Cherokees at this time. I am not aware of any families descended from Brainerd students speaking out directly about their ancestors' experiences at the school."

Road to healing

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in July launched a yearlong nationwide tour to hear about the painful experiences of Native Americans who were sent to government-backed boarding schools, according to Associated Press reports. Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico.

The "Road to Healing" tour is aimed at giving Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian survivors of the federal boarding school system an opportunity to connect with, support and share their stories for an oral history collection.

It's part of a broader initiative Haaland launched last year to investigate the troubled legacy of Indigenous boarding schools across the U.S., which the government established and supported for decades to strip Native Americans of their identities and language.

"Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know," Haaland said. "Some are survivors. Some are descendants. But we all carry the trauma in our hearts."

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Native American boarding schools. The U.S. government often worked hand in hand with religious institutions to assimilate and convert Native Americans to Christianity.

Parents often were coerced into sending their children to boarding schools. Some survivors have reported their parents were threatened with imprisonment, told that welfare assistance would be withheld or their children would be taken away if they refused to send them to boarding school.

Children were subjected to manual labor as part of boarding school curricula. They were prohibited from speaking the only languages they knew, had their long hair -- sacred in many Indigenous communities -- cut, their names changed and were separated by gender.

Many children endured emotional, spiritual and physical abuse at the schools that included whipping, slapping and being handcuffed when they didn't follow the rules, according to the Department of Interior's investigation. Others suffered sexual abuse.

Congress appropriated money to run the schools, but the federal government also used money held in trust for tribes as compensation for land that tribes ceded.

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Congress is considering a bill to create a truth and healing commission, similar to one established in Canada in 2008. It would have a broader scope than the Interior Department's investigation into federally run boarding schools and subpoena power, if passed.

The Cherokee Nation sees these actions as past due but welcome.

"The conversation about this country's boarding school era, which impacted generations of Native children and families, is necessary and long overdue," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskins Jr. said Sept. 16 in an emailed response.

"We appreciate Interior's commitment to document, record and address the intergenerational trauma caused by the federal government's prolonged use of Indian boarding schools," Hoskins said. "We need to talk about what happened to our children and to give those innocent boys and girls a voice. As humans, and as Americans, we may never be able to fully justify all the pain and suffering this failed federal policy caused.

"Indian families will always have deep scars, and the damage inflicted can never be undone. But our hope and prayer is that Indian Country can begin to move forward and reconcile this history, so that the intergenerational trauma does not perpetuate," he said.

The Brainerd Mission School listing in the federal report notes the school fits the criteria of having existed within the boarding school time frame, having boarded students of both sexes and in providing students an education with federal support. The report's narrative on the Brainerd Mission School, which appears very similar to the narrative in its National Register listing, also notes most of the missionaries went with their Cherokee students to Oklahoma.

Sacred acre

Unlike the sites of some mission schools elsewhere in the U.S., if there were any Native American graves at the Brainerd Mission, including those of children, they are already on what is considered Cherokee homeland as it was territory still technically in the tribe's hands in the early-1800s, according to Cherokee Nation officials in Oklahoma.

The Brainerd Mission Cemetery property has been owned and maintained by local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution since the groups purchased the property in 1933, according to records at the Nation Register of Historic Places.

"The cemetery was the burial site for students, teachers, other staff members and slaves," Moser said. "I am not aware of anyone working to bring any remains to Oklahoma. Anyone buried at this cemetery likely lived in the Chickamauga area and had a relationship to the mission."

The owners, according to National Register documents on the cemetery, dubbed the 1-acre Brainerd Mission Cemetery property "Chattanooga's Sacred Acre."

According to National Register documents compiled by 2010-11 DAR Regents' Council of Chattanooga Chairwoman Bettie H. Purcell, a mission journal notes the first burial taking place on Jan. 11, 1818.

The cemetery is known to contain the 19th century remains of New England-based missionaries, their children, Cherokee students and possible area slaves. A cluster of gravestones organized in two neat rows near the center of the cemetery represents the remaining original markers, with several bronze interpretive plaques having been added in the early 20th century.

The cemetery today is on what would have been the southwest portion of the mission complex along what is now Brainerd Road and Lee Highway but previously had been called Bird's Mill Road and Chattanooga-Graysville Pike. The road connected the Cherokee Agency at present-day Charleston, Tennessee, to Ross's Landing along the Tennessee River in present-day downtown Chattanooga, National Register documents state.

Chattanooga annexed the area east of Missionary Ridge in 1929, and Brainerd Road experienced significant development, the Register document states. A major commercial complex developed on the former mission grounds, leaving only the cemetery as the last sign of the mission.

The whole Brainerd Mission site was once targeted for preservation. In 1944, then-Gov. Prentice Cooper promised a $10,000 appropriation toward the purchase of the property adjoining the cemetery for reconstructing exact replicas of the mission's most noteworthy buildings using drawings and old property records. The Brainerd Mission Foundation, according to DAR Historian and foundation founder Zella Armstrong, had raised $5,000 to match state funds for buying the mission property, according to archives.

Historians and local government officials at the time felt Chattanooga was known only for its role in the Civil War, and its pre-Civil War history was being ignored and lost. Local citizens at the time believed the restoration project, which also included a museum of "Indian relics," would attract travelers.

The project was to take place after World War II but never happened, with the reasons unclear, National Register documents state. However, Cooper lost his 1944 bid for re-election to Jim McCord, who re-evaluated state appropriations. During this review period, the family that owned the property withdrew the land from the project, and McCord reallocated the funds, records state.

Tribally operated

Before a federally-funded school was opened in Cherokee, North Carolina, in the late 1800s, children of the tribe were taught by missionaries operating 11 schools in Cherokee County, North Carolina, by 1831, according to school histories from the Eastern Band. Education came to a standstill during the removal, and other efforts were stalled by the Civil War.

In 1881, a then-recently-created Swain County was under contract with the Eastern Cherokee Agency for 40 boarding students, though other reports show it as a day school, according to the investigative report.

This federally-funded school started in 1881, 60 years after the Brainerd Mission closed, and was instituted as a day and boarding school in 1884. It was operated by the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, for its first 12 years, the report states. The school provided academic classes, like English and arithmetic in the morning, and arts, crafts and vocational training in the afternoon.

Domestic skills such as cooking, sewing and needlework were taught to girls while boys received agricultural training in livestock management, industrial arts, smithing and carpentry, the report states.

In 1896, the school came under direct federal supervision.

From 1890 to 1954, the U.S. Indian Service operated the Cherokee Boarding School at Cherokee, which was closed in June 1954. In 1990, Cherokee Central Schools became a tribally-operated school. In 1962, the community day schools were closed and a central elementary school opened in Cherokee, and in May 1975, the seniors graduated in the new Cherokee High School. In August the same year, grades seven through 12 started their new school year in a new facility.

Today, approximately 1,300 children in grades K-12 attend Cherokee Central Schools, according to a history on the school system website. Cherokee language, culture and heritage remain an important part of education in the tribe.


Earlier history of education in what is now Hamilton County started out with missionaries, too. Gideon Blackburn was the first missionary to the Native Americans in the lower section of East Tennessee, and an important part of his work was the establishment of schools, according to Chattanooga historian Zella Armstrong’s “The History of Hamilton County and Chattanooga Tennessee Volume II.”

His school at Sale Creek was the first school in the section — established in 1807 — that later became Hamilton County. The mission school was successful until the War of 1812, which interfered with support from patrons and forced the mission and school to close.

Around 1800, Daniel Ross, the Scotsman as he’s described in the 1940 historical account, established a school for his children — among them John Ross, who would become chief of the Cherokee — and other children of Cherokee families. Ross appealed to Blackburn for advice and was told to send to Scotland for tutor John Barbour Davis. Davis managed the school until he was unable to continue, and Ross asked Blackburn to choose additional teachers and to offer advice from time to time.

The Ross School was thought to be on the “Chickamauga Creek” but was confused with the Brainerd Mission because it was a continuation of his work but did not have his participation. The mission established in 1817 was the Brainerd Mission.

The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions had established the Chickamauga Mission on 25 acres formerly owned by Scottish trader John McDonald. The area in which they settled was near the northwest boundary of the Cherokee Nation across the creek from a large Cherokee settlement. In 1818 the board renamed the mission in memory of the revered David Brainerd (1718- 1747), an early missionary to Native Americans of New York and New England. The mission closed its doors in 1838, at the time of the removal of the Cherokees.

Source: The History of Hamilton County and Chattanooga Tennessee Vol. II by Zella Armstrong (Lookout Publishing - 1940)

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.