MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

May 12, 2012

Mother and missionary among the Cherokees

— In 1852 a young Vermont woman left her home to serve the Cherokees at the Dwight Mission in what is today Sequoyah County. Her name was Jerusha Swain and she came to Indian Territory to teach Cherokee girls. Though many frontier school districts required their school teachers to be single, among the mission schools it was rare for a single woman, such as Swain, to come to the “wilderness” to teach.

At first, Jerusha found it difficult to adapt to her new home. She had to make do on a very meager pay of $50 per year (far less than what married male missionaries were paid). She was also working with students who often spoke only a little English. She brought with her the patronizing attitude towards Indians that was common in her New England surroundings.

Mission newsletters reported that Swain had a class of 25 students and that her work was well received by the Cherokees who sent their children to the school. In addition to these teaching duties, she also directed a Thursday evening Bible study for the older Cherokee girls. She was also involved with the Maternal Association, an organization of Cherokee mothers and other area missionaries.

Despite the difficulties of mission life on the frontier, Swain stayed at Dwight Mission for 10 years until it was forced to close at the outset of the Civil War. Such a long tenure was rare for mission teachers; most only stayed for a year or two. Jerusha learned over time to love her students and to truly enjoy the sense of independence she found in an environment far less strict than her New England home.

She lived in a log cabin, but described it in letters to her mother as being “quite comfortable.” She enjoyed entertaining other single women missionaries and reveled in the role of hostess. She also led a bi-weekly sewing group among her Cherokee neighbors and a regular prayer meeting among the converts the mission made.

Swain also took in Cherokee girls to live in her home. One named Rosilla Tally stayed with her probably because her home was too distant for her to commute to school each day. Another, Nancy Watts, was an orphan. Though she felt a little uncomfortable and even overwhelmed at suddenly being a “mother” to girls who were culturally very different from her, in time, Jerusha came to love her surrogate daughters.

As these girls grew up and Rosilla moved to a home of her own, Swain took in other girls, one named Ellen Coval and another, Mary Whirlwind. It was with great sadness that Swain left these girls when the mission closed. She would have taken Nancy, the orphaned child, with her but could not afford to do so.

The long years of service took its toll on Jerusha’s health, and the missionary who embraced motherhood on the frontier died shortly after returning to her parents’ home. She had left New England to work at a mission out of a sense of duty, but had found freedom and a mother’s love out on the frontier.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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