Robbins: Brainerd Mission and the Cherokee Removal

Robbins: Brainerd Mission and the Cherokee Removal

March 16th, 2014 by By Frank (Mickey) Robbins in Opinion Columns

More than 175 years ago, Brainerd Mission members and their Indian converts wept as they gathered around a crude altar to take a final communion. On that Sunday, Aug. 19, 1838, the mission closed its doors.

Gen. Winfield Scott's proclamation three months earlier gave the mission little choice: "The full moon of May is already on the wane, and before another shall have passed away, every Cherokee man and woman and child must be in motion to join their brethren in the Far West."

During its 21 years, Brainerd Mission, with its enrollment of 80-120 youths, achieved national recognition for education and religious enlightenment in the community. Indians, people of mixed race, slaves, freedmen and whites worshipped together on Sundays at nonsectarian services.

It was the first school in America where homemaking skills, trade and scientific agriculture were taught in a predominantly Christian atmosphere. It was considered to be the first co-educational institution in the South and the first industrial and domestic arts school in the country.

Historian Vicki Rozema in "Voices from the Trail of Tears" wrote, "In spite of the peace that had been in place for nearly three decades, Georgians and some whites in surrounding states felt threatened by the Cherokees' economic and success in formalizing their government.

"Many state and federal authorities had designs on Cherokee lands as part of their plans for western expansion. Issues of sovereignty were also a consideration, as state and federal legislators tried to cope with the anomaly of a tribal government with its own laws and courts being located inside state and national boundaries."

Moreover, Cherokee youngsters had discovered "shiny pebbles" -- gold nuggets. Thousands of prospectors flocked to gold fields near Dahlonega, Ga., showing little respect for Cherokee customs or rights.

Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828 encouraged those with sights set on Indian lands. Jon Meacham's "American Lion" described Jackson's views: "As a people, Indians were neither autonomous nor independent but were to be manipulated and managed in the context of what most benefited Jackson's America -- white America. Missionaries and humanitarian reformers struggled to make the case for the innate rights of the Indians, but the white agenda -- more land, fewer Indians, complete control -- took precedence in the North and South."

The Indian Removal Act passed in 1830.

Meanwhile, Georgia turned its sights on missionaries, the last advocates for the Cherokees. The state required white men residing in the Cherokee Nation to take an oath of allegiance to Georgia and to obtain a license from the governor to remain on Cherokee lands.

For the Brainerd missionaries, many of whom ministered in Georgia, the new law was unconscionable. Several were arrested multiple times for refusing to acknowledge Georgia's sovereignty over the Cherokees. Two from the Mission -- Rev. Samuel Worcester and Dr. Elizur Butler -- were sentenced to four years of hard labor. They entered the Milledgeville prison September 1831 and were pardoned by Gov. Wilson Lumpkin in 1833, almost a year after the U.S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, nullified the law under which the missionaries were arrested.

One historian related: "Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road; women were taken from their wheels and children from their play."

The Mission's Rev. Daniel S. Butrick commented: "It is evident that from their first arrest they were obliged at night to lie down on the naked ground, in the open air, exposed to wind and rain and herd together, men, women and children, like droves of hogs ... many are hastening to a premature grave."

A number of missionaries and teachers from Brainerd accompanied the Indians on the Trail. It took almost six months to make the long winter journey. Thousands died. Once in the West, several members of the Mission resumed their education and religious work.

The cemetery at today's Brainerd Village is a trace of the mission that once included 40 buildings. Brainerd Mission lent its name to the Brainerd community and Missionary Ridge. Among the missionaries that stayed was Ainsworth Blunt, who founded First Presbyterian churches in Chattanooga and Dalton.

Frank (Mickey) Robbins, investment adviser, Patten and Patten, is a CAHA board member. For more, visit or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090. Special thanks go to Chattanoogan Steve Marsh, author of "The Brainerd Mission: Steadfast Love in an Age of Betrayal."