PIONEER SOCIETY OF MICHIGAN
By Martin Heydenburk, of Marshall
Read February 5, 1880
Vol - 3 1883
1903 2nd Edition
To the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan:
Many interesting papers have been written and read before your society at previous meetings, giving valuable historic facts, and discussing men and measures that have contributed to make Michigan what it is.
Protestant Indian Missions have contributed their share, but I do not remember to have seen any notice of this work in any of the papers presented. Having been identified with this department for some time, and with the religious interests of Michigan for more than fifty years, I thought it would not be out of place to give a short outline of what has been done by this agency and those who had the work in charge.
These missions and missionaries did much to change the social customs of the people in localities where settlements were commenced, and to overturn the semi-barbarous legal codes and practices that then prevailed. Up to that period the general sentiment was , that “might made right.” Contracts were enforced by the use of the whipping-post. If a man of ‘higher caste” declared that a common laborer had promised to serve him and refused to meet his engagement, he was taken ou in the public street, stripped, and flogged into compliance; but this soon faded away before the remonstrances of the missionaries, and the better influences they brought to bear upon legal practice and common justice. Many other practices prevailed that were equally unjust and absurd.
Detroit and Mackinac were the only places of much note in the State when I came to Michigan, and the few families of any pretensions in either of these places, were so identified with, and influenced by the missionaries, that a controlling influence, and a high social and moral code was soon established, and from these places many of the new settlements took their type.
In giving the history of these missions and those who managed them, and the societies that sustained them, I do not pretend that all the dates are historically accurate or that my statements embrace all the missionary work in the State, or all the influences that I helped to mold society, or give character to it; I only speak of what I know.
There were two stations sustained by the Baptist; one at Grand river, and the Cary mission at St. Joseph. As I know but little of them I will pass them without comment. Aside from these, the first, “Protestant Indian Mission” in the State was established at Fort Gratiot, in 1822. Dr. Andrew Yates, of Union College, visited Michigan about the year 1820, and on his return home organized a society in the region of Albany, N. Y., called the “Northern Missionary Society,” and sent John S. Hudson and wife, and Miss Eunice Osmer to open a mission at the foot of Lake Huron. They embarked at Buffalo late in the autumn on the “Walk-in-the-water,” the first steamer that floated on the lakes, and the boat was wrecked the first night out, near Buffalo. They then bought a team and went by land through the wilderness of Canada, which took them till late in the winter before they reached their destination. This mission continued about two years, and was then transferred to the Mackinac mission which was established in 1823.
In 1822, the Rev. William M. Ferry was sent to explore this region, and he was deeply affected by the moral degradation that prevailed. The next year he was commissioned by the United Foreign Missionary Society of New York and came with his wife and Miss Betsey McFarland, and commenced a mission for the “Indians of the Northwest” at Mackinac. This location was not intended to be permanent, but simply a boarding school to educate Indian children for teachers and interpreters for future work of the missions in the interior. This location was chosen because it was the seat and center of the fur trade of all the northwest. It was not owned or occupied by any one tribe, but it was mutual ground on which all the tribes met as friends twice a year when they went to the British trading-posts to receive their annual presents for services rendered that government in the war of 1812. This mission was transferred to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1826. This mission had in it children from almost every tribe in the northwest, and their friends always visited them on their annual excursions, and thus gained some knowledge of civilized life. I joined the mission in 1824 as a teacher, and had the control of the educational department, both in the mission and the town. I spent nine years at Mackinac, and had from seventy to one hundred boarding scholars, and from thirty to fifty day scholars from town.
The mission was in operation about twelve years. In that time not less than five hundred children of Indian blood and habits, had received a good common school education. They were trained in habits of industry, in cultivating the soil, and many of them learned trades which they have practiced successfully since. When they finished their education they returned to their friends and were widely separated, but judging from the few that I have since been able to keep track of, they have turned out as well, and been as successful as the same number of white children would have been under more favorable circumstances.
The Mackinac mission was successful as far as it went, but it did not fully meet the hopes and expectations of its friends: Before the experiment had been fully tested the lands of Michigan were wanted for settlement and the Indians had no rights that could stand in the way. There was a pretense of a “treaty” but probably not one Indian in a thousand consented to it, or knew anything about it; but it was sufficient to take them by force and march them off to the western wilderness; and that ended the possibility of carrying out the plans and designs of the mission.
When the Mackinac mission closed, a number of families and individuals that composed it, went to different places and tried to continue the work, but the tribes were broken up and the constant interruption they met with soon discouraged them and but little has been done since. There were many whom I have not mentioned that were engaged in this work who deserve honorable mention, but my object is simply to bring the subject to notice as a part of the early history of Michigan.
Where there was nothing more for the missionaries to do in that capacity many of them settled as citizens and exerted their influence in favor of morality and good order, and did much to elevate and adorn society. All will appreciate the valuable services of the Ferry family at Grand Haven; those services would probably never have been rendered in Michigan if the mission work had not called them here; the same might be said of others to a very large extent.
Another result of the mission work here has been to shed a ray of light on the Indian question. That question is now forcing itself on the American people as never before. While there was a vast wilderness unoccupied we could drive the Indians back, and by the aid of the army hold them in check, but that day has gone by, and now the question comes, what shall we do? Shall we conquer and subdue them? That process has been going on for a long time, and it has proved very expensive and unsatisfactory, and frequently disastrous. Some say exterminate them; but this nation is not yet prepared to stand up before the world as murderers of the original inhabitants and owners of this great country, simply because they will not peaceable surrender their rights to us. Conquest and extermination will be found a very difficult problem to solve. What then can be done with them? Can they be civilized and made citizens? Our experience proves that they are as susceptible of improvement as any other people, if proper instrumentalities are employed; but it requires favorable circumstances and influences to accompany the effects. We found the Indian children as apt to learn as any other children, and habits of industry were secured by the same means by which they are secured in others; they must be trained up in those habits until reached and made permanent.
Whisky is the bane of the red man, but is easier for him to abstain from the use of it after a life of intemperance, than it is for a white man who is addicted to the same habit. I have known old Indians who were converted after a long life of dissipation; they left their cups without any apparent struggle; they had fewer barriers to break over to become drunkards, and reform is less difficult when they resolve to leave it off; but with all these facts before us the question, what shall we do with the Indians, still remains. I do not pretend to be wise above other men, but from my experience and observation I would venture to say, deal with them as individuals and not as nations; make each one responsible for his own acts; treat them like children, kindly and justly, but firmly. Distribute to them what is necessary to sustain life until they can get their living by their own efforts, but clothe the hand that feeds them with ever present power to enforce obedience. Settle them on fertile lands easy of cultivation, and furnish them with facilities for their work and teach them how to cultivate the soil. Do not ask them to leave the chase until you can furnish them a substitute better adapted to their condition, and guard them as far as possible from change or influences adverse to their condition and future prosperity.
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