Massachusetts-born missionary Samuel A. Worcester spent his adult life working at various missions located in Tennessee, Georgia and Indian Territory. After graduating from Andover Theological Seminary and receiving his ordination in 1825, he spent the remainder of his life among the Cherokees.
He began his work and his marriage to Ann Orr at Brainerd Mission in Tennessee. After three years, the Worcesters moved to the Cherokee capital of New Echota, Georgia, to assist the nation in setting up a printing press. In 1835, Worcester left Georgia, joining Cherokees moving west. He worked at Dwight, Union and Park Hill Missions in Indian Territory.
Few missionaries had a greater impact upon a native nation than Samuel Worcester. He was quick to learn Cherokee, and at his own expense had the syllabary created by Sequoyah cast into type. As the son of a printer, he put his knowledge of the printing press to good use.
Besides helping his friend Elias Boudinot publish the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, Worcester also printed thousands of pages of materials translated into Cherokee and other native languages. For his work at bringing the gospel and education to the Cherokee people, he was given the name Atsenusti – meaning “messenger.”
His belief in the rights of sovereignty for Native American nations was so strong, Worcester spent over two years in prison in Georgia. Political officials were making every effort to force the Cherokees and Creeks from their state.
Passing laws meant to undermine native authority, the state demanded that white missionaries working among the Cherokees sign an oath of allegiance to the state. Worcester and other missionaries refused to do so and were jailed. These men were offered a pardon and ordered out of Georgia. Worcester defied the order and was arrested and convicted again. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The justices acquitted Worcester, stating Georgia had overstepped its authority within the Cherokee Nation. Still, Georgian officials let Worcester languish in prison for months after the ruling. When he was finally released, he too was given no choice but to leave the state. So he and his young family made the trek to Indian Territory, bringing his printing press with him.
Though Worcester’s sacrifice and subsequent court ruling did not spare the Cherokees their forced removal from Georgia, his case was important. It influences matters of tribal sovereignty even today. For this and for his tireless efforts in publishing and education, Worcester is one of the most respected of all the missionaries who worked among the tribes in Oklahoma.