Indian Missions

views updated


INDIAN MISSIONS represented an important form of contact between Indians and Europeans from the 1500s through the 1900s. No Native group escaped contact with Euro-American Christians seeking to restructure and transform Native beliefs and societies into Christian ones. Mission work provided the underpinnings of conquest for all three major European groups and the Americans: Spanish Catholics, French Catholics, English Puritans, and American Protestants. All saw the missions as a means to convert the Indians not only to Christianity but also to the missionaries' culture and society. Most apparently successful missions operated where Native culture had been decimated by disease and warfare. And through their writings, dictionaries, and other printed works, all missionaries ended up preserving cultural aspects of Native cultures.

The Rise and Decline of Missions: An Overview

The earliest missions to the Indians were Spanish and French Catholic and were staffed by the holy orders (Jesuit, Franciscan, and Augustinian). The monarchs of Spain sponsored their missions while those of France merely tolerated their own. By 1760, their missions had spread throughout the Spanish borderlands and New Spain. In the 1650s, John Eliot, an English Puritan, began praying towns in Massachusetts Bay. By 1717, small missions also became established in the southern colonies. Other efforts followed, including those of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Presbyterian-Congregationalist), the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Baptist Missionary Union, and other Protestant groups. The Presbyterian-Congregationalists ran the largest of the American missions, followed by the Methodists and then the Baptists. Protestant missionaries often remained blissfully unaware that many of the groups with whom they worked had already been exposed to Christianity through Catholic missions.

By the 1850s, the Protestant missionary societies had begun to ask the U.S. government to subsidize the mission system. It supplied money for teachers, equipment, and buildings. In return, it expected a pacified and cleared frontier. Because of their reliance on government money, some Protestant missionary societies and individual missionaries, like the Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple of the Dakotas, became great advocates for the Indians to Congress. But groups like the Indians Rights Association, founded in 1882, fought for what the missionaries wanted, not necessarily what the Indians wanted. Some missionary groups abandoned mission work to the Indians. Although the Presbyterians split over slavery, they maintained a steady mission presence. But as the Methodist and Baptist missionary societies split over missionary activity, both reduced the number of their missions.

The close relationship between the Protestant missionary societies and the federal government reached a pinnacle during the Peace Policy, which President Ulysses S. Grant established in 1869. It essentially turned the Bureau of Indian Affairs over to Christian missionaries. Using the Society of Friends, or Quakers, as the leaders, Grant hoped that the policy would both reduce frontier problems and end missionary complaints against government policy. However, corruption continued and missionary groups fought over policy within the bureau. (Largely ignored, the Catholics formed their own Indian mission organization.) By 1876, the Peace Policy was dead and missions to the Indians were in decline.

From then until the early twentieth century, Indian missions were marginalized by the federal government so that they had to seek private funding. Their focus also shifted away from the Indians and toward groups outside of North America, as in Africa and India.

As Indians were forced onto reservations, both Protestant and Catholic missionary societies sought permanent inclusion within Native society through treaties giving the societies permanent land grants. However, as the government began to take over more of the functions previously filled by missionary societies, such as education, they lost influence both with the Native groups and the government.

The Southwest

Beyond the general history of mission work in the United States, regional differences existed. The Indians of the Southwest first experienced the mission system of the Spanish Catholics. Inspired by their expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1492, the Spanish sought to bring Catholicism to the newly discovered "heathen" of North America. They established missions throughout northern New Spain (West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California). The Spanish Catholics structured their missions around agricultural work, spiritual work, and an aggressive transformation from Indian to Spanish culture. The Spanish missions suffered from a conflict of interest because their two sponsoring institutions, the church and the state, did not always agree about the fate of the Indians. The missions provided the Spanish with agricultural laborers and a way to secure the frontier. The Indians gained close contact with the Spanish, learning Spanish and Spanish ways. Although the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 disrupted New Mexican missions, those in southern California thrived. From the mid-1700s through the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Catholic missionaries maintained a presence in California. After the war, American Protestants began to make incursions but had limited success converting the Indians.

The East

More competition for souls existed in the East. French Catholic and English Puritan missionaries invaded eastern North America with quite different approaches to the Natives and the mission system. The French Catholics lacked state sponsorship, while the Puritan state sponsored its missions. The French missionaries dealt with a vibrant mixed blood community of French trappers and Native women, both of whom often eschewed Catholicism. Without French military backing, Jesuits relied on the patience and support of the Indians they were trying to convert. The Jesuits tenaciouslyclung to their missions, in some cases for several hundred years, slowly achieving converts. While more tolerant of Native culture than the Protestants, the Jesuits emphasized the importance of the Madonna, given the importance of women in Native society.

The English Puritans worked with a Native population under attack by both the English and other Indian groups. Disease and warfare had decimated the Northeast tribes, leaving the remnants of some of the smaller tribes vulnerable to conversion. In 1650, John Eliot began establishing a system of praying towns. These replicas of English Puritan communities were intended to transform the Indians completely. Unfortunately, praying towns were also targets for English settlers when tensions erupted in the colonies. Angry English colonists attacked praying towns during many of the colonial conflicts, including King Philip's War in 1675 and 1676. Renewed epidemics and Indian efforts to migrate and build wider kin networks doomed these towns.

The Southeast, Northwest, and Great Plains

In the Southeast, Virginia and other southern colonies initially sought to convert the Indians. But when the Indians proved less than enthusiastic, the English abandoned the efforts. Overall, the English colonies offered some incentives for conversion. Converted and "civilized" Indians could own property and participate in trade and civic life. The so-called Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole) exploited these advantages by bringing in missionaries to help educate their people in the early nineteenth century. But Indian converts remained second-class citizens and vulnerable to changing political tides.

Indians along the Northwest Coast encountered Catholic missionaries through the French Canadian trading routes. While few converted, many adopted some of the concepts and language of Christianity, using French words to describe issues of sin and salvation. Protestants later took these words to mean that the Indians might once have been Christians. Beginning in the 1840s, American Protestants invaded in earnest. Marcus Whitman led a team of missionaries into Cayuse territory. With the tacit support of the federal government, he brought in white settlers. They, in turn, brought smallpox and tensions overland. In 1847, the Cayuse revolted against the missionaries, killing most of them, including Whitman, and attempting to eject the white settlers from their land. The Whitman Massacre galvanized the Protestant missionary movement to pacify the frontier by civilizing the Indian.

Later missionaries to the Northwest fought to outlaw large parts of Native culture, including the potlatch. Protestant missionaries, in particular, saw the potlatch as a waste of wage labor. With a growing number of Northwest Coast Indians working in salmon canneries and other industries after 1870, many missionaries hoped they would settle into Christian life. The potlatch defeated that purpose. American missionaries eventually convinced the U.S. government to outlaw the potlatch.

Unlike the other groups, the Great Plains peoples remained untouched by missionaries until well into the nineteenth century. The 1830s saw the invasion of Protestant missionaries, such as Stephen Return Riggs and Gideon Pond, into the Dakotas, Minnesota, and the Kansas-Nebraska Territory. They worked with both Plains Indian groups and those groups forced into the region by the federal government. Several of these missionaries became involved in policy, including Riggs of Minnesota and S. D. Hinman of the Dakotas. They acted as Indian agents and treaty negotiators, using their language skills to help settle the Indians on reservations, which the missionaries viewed as a necessary step toward Christianization.


Beaver, R. Pierce. Church, State, and the American Indians: Two and a Half Centuries of Partnership in Missions between Protestant Churches and the Government. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 1966.

Berkhofer, Robert. Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

Devens, Carol. Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Higham, C. L. Noble, Wretched, and Redeemable: Protestant Missionaries to the Indians in Canada and the United States, 1820–1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Vecsey, Christopher. The Paths of Kateri's Kin. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

Carol L.Higham

See alsoIndian Policy, Colonial ; Indian Policy, U.S.: 1775–1830, 1830–1900, 1900–2000 ; Indian Religious Life ; Jesuits ; Mission Indians of California ; andvol. 9:A Dialogue between Piumbukhou and His Unconverted Relatives ; Letter Describing Catholic Missions in California .

About this article

Indian Missions

Updated About content Print Article