Mar 18, 2006

Missionaries and Medicine Men: Competition For Potawatomi Souls In The Great Black Swamp

Left: The Reverend Cutting Marsh

The Presbyterian Church built a missionary outpost near present-day Perrysburg in 1821, and this facility served both the Indian and white communities. Dresden W.H. Howard, whose family was part of the first substantial wave of white settlers in the Maumee Valley, noted the significance of the Potawatomi in the mission’s work:

The Presbyterian Missionary Society of Massachusetts…established the Mission for the purpose of educating and civilizing the Indians of the surrounding country, principally the Ottawas, Pottowatomies, Chippaway, and Delaware tribes. There were several large villages in the vicinity: Tontoganee, at the mouth of the creek; Nawash village on the island immediately opposite the Mission; Anpatonajowin or Kin-jo-i-no’s Town on the Indian reservation, opposite my father’s at the head of the rapids; San-Wa-co-sack on the Auglaize above Fort Defiance; a large village at the mouth of the Maumee River; and lesser villages located on the banks of streams all over the country.

A missionary stationed at the Maumee outpost in 1829-30, the Reverend Cutting Marsh arrived full of religious zeal and hope that he would make a difference in the lives of the Indians with whom he would come into contact. Many of his diary entries contain references to the Potawatomi, and he made detailed observations about what he saw and heard. In the following passage, he described Native American visitors to an unnamed trading post somewhere between present-day Monroe and Perrysburg :

But the most dreadful effects of it [white interference] are manifest in the poor Indians, a party of whom I saw bringing in their venison for sale. Pretty much all of it goes for whiskey [emphasis in original]. They will often refuse goods or even money for their articles of trade, because they will have whiskey, and very often there is no proportion between the value of the article for sale and the quantity of whiskey received or asked for it. For instance, they have sold articles worth perhaps a dollar for a quart of whiskey. Those who I saw here, perhaps 15 or 20 in number, belong to the Pottawatomy Tribe. Oh! The injustice which has been practiced upon these ignorant sons of the forest. What will ye do who are thus guilty in the Great Day?
Marsh noted the importance of alcohol in the trade networks that sprang up in the Old Northwest as it began to be infiltrated by white settlement. It is difficult to determine the degree to which the Potawatomi were falling victim to alcoholism in the previous passage, as Marsh was a self-admitted proponent of the prohibition of alcohol; his writings on the subject must be considered within this context. Perhaps the reason that the Potawatomi traded with whites in large measure for alcohol was simply due to the fact that they were able to produce or obtain their other material needs on their own. Marsh, however, may indeed have presented an accurate portrayal of a group of Native Americans in the destructive grip of distilled spirits.

Map approximating ancestral lands of Great Lakes indigenous groupsLeft: Map approximating ancestral lands of Great Lakes indigenous groups (click image for larger map)

Marsh next recorded contact with the Potawatomi as a group arrived at the Presbyterian Mission on the Maumee. He spent the first part of the day going “to Maumee to form a Temperance Society,” and returned to the mission in the afternoon. While watching the flurries of a December snow in the Swamp, Marsh and the Presbyterian Mission were visited by a group of Potowatami:
A company of them [Potawatomi] passed coming in from their hunting grounds, and camped near the station. Called with Mr. Holmes and visited with them. The whole number 9 or 10. One chief, an old man yet very pleasant, I found sitting on his mat in his tent, spread near a fire. He received me very cordially, arose and spread his mat out and invited me to sit down. I conversed with him considerable time with my interpreter. He listened with attention and appeared somewhat solemn, while I spoke to him of Jesus Christ and of the way of salvation.

It was indeed novel to see him sitting in his tent with no clothing below his thighs, a chicken two-thirds grown admitted to the same privileges with himself, with their cooking apparatus, pigs and dogs all with them about – and in their tents! When shall these poor wanderers be civilized and have the Gospel preached to them?
The cultural differences between whites – especially Protestant missionaries from New England – and indigenous peoples such as the Potawatomi stand out in this passage. Marsh was taken aback by the manner in which the Potawatomi dressed, and found odd the idea that humans could cohabitate with domesticated animals. Neo-European notions of cultural superiority seep through in Marsh’s writings, despite his obvious concern for the welfare of Native Americans.

His solution was much in keeping with that of most colonial whites: groups like the Potawatomi needed to adopt white culture in order to become “civilized.” Marsh, as a Christian missionary, believed that the Gospel was the path by which civilization could best be attained, while many in the American government believed that Indians needed to take up the agricultural lifestyle espoused by the Jeffersonians to achieve white ideals of civilization. Neither view, of course, entertains the idea that Native American groups already possessed a form of civilization with which they were satisfied, or that peaceful coexistence with groups like the Potawatomi was a possibility.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming article of mine in Ohio History.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Converting Native Americans is still a major pastime for many churches, though it's often done with much more respect and interest in their own culture now.