Peter Dougherty’s Mission

The mission was required by the Treaty of 1836 at the request of the Native Americans in their quest to assimilate and live with the Americans.  Nevertheless, the goal of the mission, to convert them to Christianity, was achieved only in part.  Even so, the members of the congregation were protected from the Indian Resettlement Act, and relations among the Native Americans and the new Americans resettling from Europe in this region were generally amicable.

Excerpts from this book reflect some of the effect the mission had on the Native American population:

Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630–1900
Carol Devens, author
Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1992 The Regents of the University of California
pp 99 to 113

This same pattern of initial success followed by decline held at the BFM’s Omena mission in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, where Peter Dougherty and Rev. John Fleming had settled to proselytize the area north of Grand Rapids. Primarily Ottawa territory, these lands had, according to tradition, been ceded to the Ojibwa in compensation for a murder in the late eighteenth century, although some Ottawa remained.[47] When Fleming departed following his wife’s sudden death in 1839, Dougherty assumed responsibility for the newly established mission.

A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Old School in his orientation and training, Dougherty was conservative and committed to the ideas of work, property, and moral order. The BFM demanded “deep piety, genuine personal holiness, and singleness of purpose” of its missionaries and an unswerving dedication to perfecting the spiritual, moral, and physical condition of the heathens; Peter Dougherty was such a man.[48] Anxious to remedy his lonely status as a bachelor as well as to gain a helpmate, Dougherty wrote to his friend Daniel Wells:

The first and most important and indispensible thing that I need and desire and which you will be pleased to procure and forward with as little delay as possible is a good wife. One of devoted spirit, willing to go anywhere and to do anything for the glory of the Savior in the Salvation of immortal souls. Let her be a person of cultivated mind, amiable disposition, not destitute of personal charm, not too aenal [aenan (brazen)?] or elevated, having energy of character, a good constitution and in age ranging between twenty and twenty-eight.[49]

Within the year he had married Maria Higgins, with whom he raised eight daughters and a son at the mission.

The mission originated at Grand Traverse and included day and boarding schools and a farm; during the next few years the BFM opened satellite stations at nearby Little Traverse, Bear Creek, and Middle Village. When the Ojibwa relocated to Grove Hill in 1862, Dougherty followed them. The Ojibwa called the new mission Omena (“it is so”)—which, they claimed, was Dougherty’s stock response to all their questions. Dougherty eventually capitulated and also referred to the mission as Omena.[50]

Despite some initial opposition from shamans and medicine men, overall Dougherty was roundly welcomed by the local males. When he had been scouting for a site, the chief of a small village at Manistee eagerly asked to have his community included in the mission’s territory; Dougherty reported to Walter Lowrie, corresponding secretary of the BFM, that “the chief is an amiable man who is very desirous to have a school established in his village. He embraces every opportunity of learning, and he is adopting the customs of white men—he would do all he could to induce his people to improve.”[51] Chiefs near Little Traverse were delighted that the BFM was setting up stations near them and expressed great hope that Dougherty would instruct their sons in English.[52]

Once he was established, the men were quick to come by and look over the minister’s offerings. At the first services in his new station, Dougherty had quite a good audience, all male. As he reported to Daniel Wells,

I went over and held a meeting at which there was a general attendance of the men who listened with attention and apparent interest. The second day I opened a School in the little house which the Chief had provided for me. You would have been much interested to have seen how men and children gathered round to receive instruction. They manifest great interest to learn and are untiring in application.[53]

The older boys even came at night for lessons, and the principal men of the community attended worship whenever they were in the village.

At a series of revival meetings in 1842, ten Ojibwa (gender unspecified) declared themselves saved at the first session. A second meeting netted an even greater catch: sixteen came forward to accept the gospel, including Chief Aghosa, a powerful man in the community. The following year, Aghosa was baptized and acquired the unlikely name of Addison Potts. His conversion inspired another leader, dubbed the “Old Chief” by Dougherty, to attend religious inquiry classes with his wife.[54] Although Dougherty only randomly listed converts by gender in his letters to BFM headquarters, correspondence from Andrew Porter. J. G. Turner, and Walter Guthrie at the satellite missions of Bear Creek, Middle Village, and Little Traverse indicate a preponderance of male converts, as did Isaac Baird’s letters from Odanah.[55]

An episode in the late 1850s indicates the intensity with which some men adopted their new faith. For some time Dougherty had had problems with young men “crying and hollowing and making a great noise in the prayer meetings held at Mr Greensky’s” (Edwin Green Sky, a Methodist, was his interpreter). When he finally asked them in 1859 to temper their unabashedly fervent worship, the young men retorted that they “would not discontinue their rowdy meeting but

after mine in the church the[y] would have theirs at Greenskys.” Dougherty then threatened to fire his interpreter if he supported the rebels. When Green Sky brazenly ignored Dougherty’s orders, the missionary had to back down, for he had no other interpreter.[56] Green Sky and the young men soon cut their ties with the mission. Some congregants suspected the Methodist of having planned the split all along. Dougherty pragmatically decided that it was simply the “natural result of excitement they have not properly governed,” but the young men’s betrayal wounded him nonetheless.[57] “I deeply regret the course those young men have taken,” he lamented; “I loved them and do Still for they are the most consistent and intelligent & lively Christians in our church—They have left us, seldom, some never, coming to our meetings.” The schism was never mended, and the separatists later joined the Methodist camp meetings in nearby North Point.[58]

These upheavals seemed to pass women by, however. Although they rarely openly opposed the Presbyterians, in a few instances they made what might have been subtle gestures against the missionaries; for instance, they refused to wear non-Indian dresses sent to the mission for them, preferring their traditional dress.[59] (This attitude was not limited to Ojibwa women. Sue McBeth, Presbyterian missionary to the Nez Perce in Kamiah, Idaho, reported that women there often insisted on wearing “squaw” dress.)[60] When Andrew Porter, a teacher at the Grand Traverse satellite mission of Bear River, solicited contributions for the Presbyterian Choctaw mission in Oklahoma Indian Territory, only two of the twenty-two Ojibwa contributors were women.[61] Dougherty’s letters suggest that at Omena, unlike at Odanah, women generally did not participate in prayer sessions. The women who converted, moreover, were often wives or daughters of leading Christians and probably pressured by their husbands’ example. Others were girls from the mission schools who had accepted Christian teachings; Dougherty and Porter each admitted present or former female students into the church. Even these, however, were few in number. Female students were simply hard to come by.[62]

The missionaries puzzled over the shortage of girls in the schools, having had no difficulty recruiting boys. Starting with

Dougherty’s first contacts in the late 1830s, Ojibwa men had sought to educate their sons. In fact, their openness to the missionaries arose largely from the significance they attached to American schooling, particularly the opportunity to learn English. Even Dougherty realized that Aghosa and others at Grand Traverse wanted him as much for the instruction he could provide as for his ministerial work.[63]

In 1840, Dougherty reported to Henry Schoolcraft that the older boys attended classes twice daily and gladly immersed themselves in evening and daytime instruction. By the early 1850s, his work had elicited widespread interest among the men of Little Traverse; one had even implored the missionary to educate his two sons in Dougherty’s own home. In 1851, ten men decided that their children must learn English, and they petitioned Dougherty to start a school in Little Traverse. Catholic men from Middle Village and a chief from Cheboygan braved excommunication in 1853 to have Presbyterian schools started in their communities. That same year, twenty-three men from Cross Village (a defunct Jesuit mission reopened in 1825) petitioned the BFM to send a resident teacher to give their children an “English education.”[64] In each case, Dougherty attributed the requests to a growing appreciation of the value of American tutelage.

Dougherty did not neglect the girls; indeed, he attempted to lure students to a female school staffed by women teachers and designed to train girls to be good Christians with proper domestic skills.[65] At first the school seemed a hit: the initial enrollment in 1848 stood at twenty-two, and several girls even brought their mothers to afternoon sewing classes. Within two years, however, attendance had dwindled to a handful. While the boys’ school flourished with twenty students at least, the girls’ school had at best ten. Perturbed by the paucity of female students, which he thought might be due to an overall decline in the number of local girls that winter, the minister wrote in 1850: “Since New Years there have been so few girls who attended school I thought it might be as well closed for the present.”[66]

Female recruitment still lagged; when Dougherty opened a manual labor boarding school in 1853, twenty-two boys en-

― 104 ―

rolled, “but few Girls.”[67] The five girls who did attend were far from satisfactory students. “We have had less trouble with our boys than the girls,” the missionary complained. “We have had considerable trouble with some of our larger girls.”[68] Over the next few years, enrollments improved somewhat, but by 1860 Dougherty admitted to Lowrie that while the boys’ school was full, “there are but few girls offering to come.” This predicament continued, with an overall ratio of two boys for every girl student.[69] While it is certainly possible that simple demographics regulated female enrollments, or that women needed their daughters to work at home, Dougherty may have misinterpreted the issues. The BFM’s thwarted efforts at Middle Village suggest that the school’s lack of success in recruiting girls may have reflected women’s reluctance to accept education.

In 1853, at the request of the chief at Middle Village, the BFM hired J. G. Turner to begin a school in the community. To gain a competitive edge over nearby Catholics and to entice students to his day school, Turner fed them free lunches: “Thanks be to God for his mercy: we attribute our success, under Him, to the excellent plan of giving victuals, you know it is the ‘soupers’, who get the blame of turning so many in Ireland . . . it [providing meals] tends to strengthen every tie, and where scholars are scarce, it will bring them in.”[70] The young men of the village soon demanded night classes as well and willingly cut wood and provided lamps for heat and light to work by. When the Catholic bishop threatened to excommunicate any Ojibwa who attended Presbyterian services, Turner was forced to stop all religious instruction so that his students might stay with their lessons; nonetheless, he felt he had gained a foothold. “That first year,” he recalled, “many of the young men and some of the children attended the Sabbath.”[71]

These rather satisfying circumstances deteriorated, however, when Rev. Hugh Walter Guthrie arrived in 1856 to serve as minister to the combined outstations. Within the year, attendance at the school and services in Middle Village had dropped precipitously. Indeed, Turner reported with some irritation, now “the people and children actually think that they are doing us a favor to come to School at all.”[72] Guthrie blamed the nearby Catholic priest; Turner was at a loss. “I felt in hope that

Mr Guthrie would meet with some encouragement here,” Turner wrote Lowrie in a troubled letter. “Last Sabbath there were three out from . . . 10. and 15 make up the usual number that attend. No women or children of this number. All men.” He should, he commented with disgust and frustration, just have stayed in Ohio.[73]

Conditions at Middle Village finally grew so unpromising that the BFM decided to close the station entirely. Very few people attended Sabbath services, and school was canceled after only one day in September 1857 owing to lack of students. Guthrie morbidly wrote the situation off as hopeless: “I am losing mental strength and activity every day,” he lamented, and querulously requested a transfer.[74]

When faced with the impending demise of their school, however, the Ojibwa men quickly rallied. “Our hearts are in distress. . . . We are poor ignorant Indians and did not know our duty in regard to the School,” their spokesman, Gosegwad, wrote in an imploring letter to the executive committee of the BFM.[75] The men, although they acknowledged that the board had ample reason for closing the station, vowed to send the children regularly henceforth. Turner, however, was not persuaded. “I must say for these Indian Men,” he conceded,

that I believe them sincere and that they earnestly desire to have their children come to our school. But the trouble is with the woemen. . . . We can always get the men together at almost any time to talk to them but the woemen we cant reach. Therefore I think that the promises from the men however sincere they may be will not amount to much. (my emphasis)

And he observed once again how discouraging the recent years had been and that “the woemen and children have not attended at all on the Sabbath or but very little.”[76]

Turner now began to accuse the Catholics of causing his problems. He alleged that priests had held the women under their sway ever since Frederic Baraga opened a Catholic mission on the west shore of L’Anse Bay in 1835, hoping to establish a “reduction” based on the French Jesuit plan in Canada. Baraga had purchased some five hundred acres and promised local Christian Indians that he would build houses for them if they became sedentary.[77] Guthrie had long condemned priests and nuns as a “clan of soul destroyers doing their deeds of death and damnation.”[78] And Andrew Porter had worried that they would teach the Indians “all the abomination of their corrupt system . . . since the priests are untirring [sic ] in their efforts to corrupt the minds of these poor people.”[79] Like most contemporary Protestants, Turner and the others brooded that the spread of Roman Catholicism would perpetuate heathenism of a variety more malevolent than the aboriginal. “We have to fight the fearfully parallizing influence of the R. Catholics inch by inch, year in and year out,” Baird’s successor at Odanah would later proclaim, “in its attempt to mix idolotry with true religion.”[80]

The ministers also believed, with some justification, that the priests did not share their conviction regarding the need for congregants to abandon traditional Ojibwa practices. The Catholics had a less rigidly ethnocentric approach to proselytization than the Presbyterian; rather than demanding that Indians totally reject their heritage, they sought common denominators in native religion and emphasized those.[81] Although the BFM missionaries believed that the Catholics were protecting Ojibwa beliefs and had encouraged the women’s hostility to Presbyterian efforts, only after the station closed did the Protestant missionaries broaden the charge to credit the opposition with the power to convert and manipulate all the women.

It is not surprising that Guthrie and Turner quickly blamed women’s resistance on the baneful influence of local Catholics: the priests, after all, provided an easy and familiar scapegoat. Moreover, the situation was undoubtedly a disconcerting one. Women would not participate in Presbyterian services or sanction the mission school. The missionaries, in their search for an explanation, must have found it far easier to castigate the opposition than to entertain the notion that the women themselves spurned their offer of salvation and civilization.[82] Turner may have interpreted the situation correctly; perhaps Catholicism, which had been established in the area for some time, did provoke women’s refusal to patronize the Presbyterian mission. If so, the question remains why women opposed the Protestants while their husbands, brothers, and sons defied
priestly admonitions and attended BFM services and schools. Probably, allegiance to Catholicism allowed women to maintain some native religion and practices, which Protestants demanded they abandon.

By 1861 Peter Dougherty believed that his mission, too, must close within a few years; the previous year had produced no inquiries, let alone conversions. Throughout the Civil War the school operated at a loss, and in 1866 the BFM instructed Dougherty to sell.[83] Reluctant to abandon the forty regular church members, he continued to maintain the church, but by 1870 he had to admit defeat. The Ojibwa population had dwindled owing to relocations and deaths, an oil company was prospecting nearby, and white settlers now controlled much of the area. In 1871, the BFM closed Omena and the Bear River outstation; the organization’s precarious financial status did not allow it to continue supporting Indian missions without Indians. Dougherty’s last letters were peppered with reports that drums and dances still sounded among the remaining Ojibwa; although the women of Omena and Odanah were not blamed for the missions’ demise (unlike at Middle Village), clearly their efforts to keep traditional ways alive had been successful.[84]

Women’s reluctance to support the BFM likely came from concerns about the destructive potential of mission schooling and the threat it posed to their daughters’ socialization and to the cultural integrity of their communities. Although women have no voice in the Middle Village records, a monthly report filed in 1885 from the Round Lake mission by two of the Doughertys’ daughters, Susie and Cornelia, specifically stated that women were indeed fearful. “We have hope that the Angels are rejoicing with us over the conversion of a woman who two or three weeks ago gave herself to Jesus and seems like a new woman. God is very good to us—May this be but the first of many souls to be saved here,” they wrote.[85] They went on to say that this first conversion had led them to hope that they might finally be “gaining a little hold upon the women,” who had so far rebuffed them. The incident proved to be unusual, however. Susie’s postscript to the report supplied a startling commentary on the women’s reticence: “I asked a young [man] one day not long ago how this truth [that they were gaining

― 108 ―

some ground with the women] appeared to him he answered [‘]I think of it—but—I do not know whether it is true—but as our own Christian woman Elizabeth says they are afraid of the thing . Do not be discouraged they will listen and accept the Light in time[‘]” (my emphasis).[86] This young man’s interpretation suggests that women had concerns about the effects of Christianity and education and that men were aware of, but uninfluenced by, women’s fears.

This was not an isolated event. Father Anthony Maria Gachet, a Swiss Capuchin who worked among the Wisconsin Menomini (Central Algonquians who shared numerous cultural traits with Ojibwa) from 1859 to 1862, also observed that women appeared to hate Christianity and its representatives. He described a couple who had fought bitterly over the issue of conversion. “The husband had decided for a long time before to ‘take the prayer’ but the hatred that his wife bore to the Christians prevented him from realizing his vows,” the priest recorded in his journal.[87] The woman finally decided to convert only when it became clear that, as a Christian, her husband could not remain married to a pagan.

Gachet also related the fury of a woman whose newly converted son-in-law had abandoned her daughter for a Christian wife (although his first wife would have converted to keep him). As the man was leaving with his new spouse, Gachet observed that

the mother of the abandoned wife, pagan herself, met them. She is a virago who handles an oar and hunting piece as easily as our warriors. With eye on fire she addressed to the culpable Christian these words: “Infamous girl, I am very glad to meet you. . . . Ah, fortunate for you that I fear the Mékata-Koneia (black robe, missionary), otherwise I would tear you to pieces. Thank him that I fear him, but take care if I meet you again. This fear may not find itself in my heart. Then nothing will restrain me.”[88]

It seems that while men viewed education and conversion as an advantage, women saw Christianity, schools, and clergy as a threat, and the mission schoolhouse became a silent battleground. Even a cursory examination of the nineteenth-century mission school suggests its impact on children suddenly removed from native life-styles and the menace it presented to women who abruptly lost control of their daughters’ educations. Their distrust of missions and schools was not unfounded. Protestant missionaries, and Presbyterians in particular, wanted “to bring the depraved and degraded people around them under the influence of the Christian religion.”[89] By removing children from their parents’ influence, missionaries could create a new, assimilated generation for whom Ojibwa culture no longer existed. Isaac Baird, for example, banned Ojibwa language in the classroom; to him it represented ignorance and superstition. He believed that if the school rigorously demanded English, Ojibwa would be obsolete within twenty years. “The children [must be] gotten clean out of all their own old wild ways & immured to the customs of civilized life,” he concluded. “This can only be effectually accomplished by taking them away from the demoralizing & enervating atmosphere of camp life & Res. surroundings & concomitants.”[90]

The Presbyterians saw the obliteration of traditional culture not as a destructive process, but as a crucial step in creating Westernized individuals who conformed to the social expectations and gender roles of American culture. Although convinced of the degradation of “heathen” culture and the need to replace it with gospel truths, many evangelists did not think Indians were inferior as persons. As Andrew Porter, arriving in Grand Traverse in 1847 en route to Little Traverse, informed his uncle, Walter Lowrie,

This people are very interesting, their simplicity of manners, their accommodating disposition, and their general good nature makes them, not only objects of pity, as I was ready to suppose, but also of esteem. Many of them are men of good sense, and great discerners of character: and those who act right toward them, may hope to gain their friendship and love.[91]

Because the missionaries were sure that the native population was disappearing, they assumed responsibility for averting this impending disaster and for rescuing Indians from extinction. Isaac Baird wrote from Odanah that “the Indians are fast fading away. What is done for them must be done quickly. It seems to me,” he optimistically estimated, “if the Presb. Church of this land, would only stir herself just a little, all the Agencies open to her evangelizing effort might be Christianized before 1,900 A.D.” He concluded by imploring that the church send its “munificent gifts” for “these perishing heathens at our doors.”[92] Baird wanted to prepare Ojibwa for school, work, and church in white America. Insisting that “isolation for the Indian will hereafter be impracticable,” the missionary maintained that “he must be absorbed must meet and become part and parcel of American civilization. The problem of his admixture with the white race presses for speedy solution.”[93]

Ministers and lay teachers instructed children in a broad range of subjects geared toward a mainstream American lifestyle: grammar, history, natural sciences, and other standard courses for white children were combined with instruction in farming for boys and in domestic skills such as sewing, knitting, and housekeeping for girls. The mission schools’ goal for girls was to direct them away from the world of the native woman, away from the autonomy and prestige of females in traditional life, and toward the responsibilities of Christian womanhood with its emphasis on female piety, domesticity, submissiveness, and the patriarchal nuclear family. This aim required that girls be removed from the influence of their mothers as much as possible, placed under the direction of white women, and introduced to Western gender roles, values, and work.

As far as the missionaries were concerned, native women were “ignorant of work and careless and dirty in their habits,” and their influence on daughters was strictly negative.[94] Although women’s responsibilities were many and varied, seasonal nomadism and its concomitant light household inventory left Ojibwa women without the daily grind of domestic upkeep that was so much a part of middle-class American life. “An Indian female has but little of the work to do about house, which we missionaries think ought to be done, if we would retain the rudiments of civilized life,” reported one minister. “She has no house to clean—few clothes to make, none to mend and none to wash.”[95]Missionaries, convinced that the more “home comforts” native women had, the more industrious and civilized they would become, were determined to change this situation for the rising generation by familiarizing them with permanent housing, Western dress, and a desire for manufactured material goods.[96] What the ministers did not take into account, however, was that once a child had left school and returned to the village or reservation, most students had little opportunity to apply the domestic and academic instruction to which they had been exposed; girls, in particular, unless they lived in the rare frame house, could exercise their newfound housekeeping skills only by becoming domestic servants for whites in nearby communities or at the missions themselves.

Formal religious instruction in Christianity was, of course, integral to the curriculum, which constantly promoted Protestant beliefs and values. This separation of religious doctrine from the general activities of daily life contrasted greatly with the native belief system, which saw no division between the material and spiritual worlds. Values, rituals, and techniques for communicating with supernaturals were woven into the fabric of daily life rather than isolated and organized into dogmatic primers.

Missionaries measured the success of religious instruction by the number of converts among pupils. This indoctrination apparently often succeeded at least in securing the students’ submission to its dictates, as compositions by Indian children published in the Presbyterian journal Foreign Missionary suggest. A young girl’s reaction to a traditional burial ritual bore witness to the impact of her education: “On one occasion when a woman had died,” she wrote, “two of these mourning women came and commenced wailing so mournfully that the children were very much annoyed, and as they had been at the mission they were ashamed of this heathen practice.”[97] Removed from intimate daily contact with their mothers and placed in schools for long days or even months, this child and her classmates felt compelled to deny the rituals and beliefs that their mothers’ generation observed and cherished.[98]

The expectation that converts would renounce native practices compounded the threat of mission schools. “As soon as any individual bows to the authority of Gods Word and accepts Jesus Christ as a personal Savior, that person at once abandons all the old heathen ways,” Baird explained to a government Indian agent, “and at once enters upon the duties and activities of civilized life, in so far as they are accessible.”[99] Although Baird undoubtedly exaggerated the degree to which converts repudiated tradition, his comment made it clear that Ojibwa Christians were to embrace civilization along with the Savior. As Francis Spees, Baird’s successor at Odanah, observed, Ojibwa themselves believed that those who attended prayer meetings had discarded native religion.[100]

Another challenge faced by girls and their mothers was the classroom itself. Native education was not confined to a schoolhouse but took place constantly, in lectures and councils, through listening, in working with elders or imitating their activities in play. Little girls helped their mothers carry water or clean dishes; they mimicked women skilled in tanning, beadwork, gathering and preparing medicinal plants, and other tasks. Mother and child worked closely and companionably together as the daughter learned the skills of female life. Grandmothers played an important role in girls’ education as well, particularly in advising them and in telling stories that illustrated traditional values and history. Often during the winter a woman sent a child to her grandmother with a present of tobacco in exchange for instruction in the myths that explained to the girl her place in the Ojibwa world.[101]

The interest that many Ojibwa men expressed in education indicates that they agreed with Baird’s assessment that American civilization had to be accepted, at least in part. While it is unlikely that most men either desired or anticipated complete absorption into white society, they apparently concluded that schooling would enable them to deal more successfully with the growing white population. Men, rather than women, interacted most closely with whites through transactions in lumber, mining, or land and negotiations with government Indian agencies. It was clearly to their advantage, therefore, to cultivate a relationship with Presbyterian missionaries, who could give them access to the powerful tool of literacy. By 1860, for example, Andrew Porter reported from Bear River that virtually all the men could read. His classes always had more males than females, often more than twice the number.[102] Less than half the women in the community could read, and those only poorly; they evidently did not share the men’s desire to acquire

― 113 ―

skills in English. As a result, males and females increasingly diverged in the value they placed on native culture, as the missionaries’ reports of men’s wish to marry girls from the schools suggests.[103]

At heart, however, the last experiments had failed. Women’s reluctance to accept mission education or Christian beliefs encouraged continued adherence to native ritual practices, especially among the female population. Indeed, early-twentieth-century ethnographies suggest that as male and female interests and needs further diverged—largely as a result of differences in the nature and degree of Indians’ interaction with the dominant society—both sexes increasingly viewed women as the conservators of traditional ways.