Sketch of Dwight Mission at Russellville (Pope County), the first formal Protestant effort directed at the education and conversion of Native Americans in Arkansas; 1824.
From Historic Arkansas, courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System.
This week’s column continues an ongoing series highlighting entries from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture that pertain to the region. Driving down Highway 64 along the Illinois Bayou, there’s a boat ramp that provides access to Lake Dardanelle and sign for a place called Dwight Mission. Today it’s nothing but a cemetery, but from 1820 until 1829 the site was home to a school and mission for Cherokee children and adults, a place where missionaries from New England attempted to convert members of the tribe to Christianity and a more Anglicized culture.
The Western Cherokee had moved to the region in the late 1700s and early 1800s, having been pushed off of their original lands in eastern Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia. Creation of the school was requested by Chief Tahlonteskee, the Principle Chief of the Western Cherokee after he visited a similar mission in Georgia. While some members of the tribe supported their children attending such a school, many others were opposed, knowing it would lead to the eradication of traditional culture. Chief Tahlonteskee never lived to see the school’s creation, and subsequent chiefs were less approving. According to Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, War Chief Takatoka, who opposed the school, “suggested the eventual site of the mission to be located not far from his own headquarters at Sparda Creek so that he could keep it under observation.”
During operation the mission housed up to one hundred children and contained twenty-four log buildings, including housing for missionaries, pupils, staff and visitors, a dining hall, craft centers like a blacksmith shop and carpenter shop, a smoke shed, a stable, and a combination post office/library/drug shop, just to name a few. According Stewart-Abernathy, students took classes in “reading, arithmetic and deportment. For the girls, instruction was given in household skills such as sewing and cooking. The boys were taught farming skills, carpentry, and blacksmithing. On Sundays, adults and children were instructed in Christianity in “Sabbath School,” thus ensuring the melding of the secular and the sacred.” Efforts to convert the children were apparently successful. Cephas Washburn, a young, New England missionary who helped to choose the school’s location, revealed in his memoirs that adults, however, seldom converted.
Named after Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale University and one of the first members of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions, the mission closed in 1929 after the Cherokee, once again forced out of their homes by European settlers, moved to Oklahoma as part of the Treaty of 1828 and the Trail of Tears.
You can learn more about the “New Dwight” in Oklahoma as well as the complex and diverse lives of the Western Cherokee in Arkansas by reading Stewart-Abernathy’s articles at wwwEncyclopediaofarkansas.net. Have you heard stories about Dwight Mission? Did someone in your family attend? You can share these stories in the comments section of the Encyclopedia!