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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,147

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This is the grave of Samuel Worcester.

Born in 1798 in Peacham, Vermont, Worcester grew up in a super-religious family. In fact, he would become the 7th straight generation of men in his family to be a minister, taking the family all the way back to England. Worcester went to your regular schools and then on to the University of Vermont. founded in 1791. So this wasn’t an elite person. He was really more middle class. Again, like his father, he became a minister. But rather than stay in Vermont, he became interested in missionary work. He went to Andover Theological Seminary to continue his ministerial education. He wanted to go to Asia, which is where most of the missionaries were sent. But the American Missionary Society threw him a curveball–they assigned him to work with the tribes.

He was newly married at so in 1825, he and his new wife moved to work with the Cherokee. And they were all in. He was a serious missionary and whether he looked down on tribal culture–which is almost certainly assured–that the Cherokee elite were so trying to parrot white southern ideology in order to maintain their land absolutely impressed missionaries like Worcester. The AMS was most definitely a cultural genocide kind of agency. His specific instructions was that these people couldn’t become real Christians until they learned English. But Worcester quickly learned from the missionaries that proceeded him that this was not going to fly. He had to learn Cherokee and he set his mind to it.

Worcester became best friends with Elias Boudinot, the young Cherokee convert who went whole hog into Christian values, including changing his original name to something English. Worcester’s father was a printer as well as a minister. So the young Worcester had been trained in the basics of the art. Worcester agreed to help Boudinot establish his newspaper in Cherokee. Specifically, Worcester had the connections to pay for the capital investments in printing equipment that Boudinot needed.

Now, we can criticize missionaries and we usually should. But at the very least, I do want to give Worcester some credit here. The state of Georgia wanted to steal all Cherokee land. The Georgians hated these missionaries, who have what they saw as cultural capital and political power to people they saw as savages who had no rights to the land. So when Georgia tried to crack down on the missionaries activities, Worcester and some other missionaries resisted. Georgia passed a law in 1830 banning white men from living on Cherokee land, an explicit effort to get rid of the missionaries. Worcester led the resistance against this, gathering all the missionaries together at the Cherokee capital of New Echota to announce they would not follow this law. So the governor of Georgia ordered Worcester’s arrest, as well as ten other missionaries. And Georgia was not messing around here. After two trials, the state convicted Worcester and the others and sentenced them to four years of hard labor. This is pretty crazy, but it gets at just how determined Georgia whites were to eliminate any Native power.

Now, Georgia didn’t really want to send white ministers to do hard labor, which was basically slave work. So the state offered them all pardons if they would leave the state. Nine say yes, but Worcester and one other, Elizur Butler, refused. They were willing to do the time, even if it killed them. Moreover, Cherokee allies encouraged this so that they could take the case back to the Supreme Court, which was much more favorable to the tribe than the rest of the American political system. The Court did intervene. John Marshall and his men wrote an opinion that the case had no validity because the Cherokee were an independent government and had every right to have whoever they wanted on their land. But of course Andrew Jackson ignored this as he had Worcester v. Georgia. The governor of Georgia ignored it too. Worcester and Butler remained in prison.

The next year, Wilson Lumpkin became governor of Georgia. He really didn’t want this to continue. Lumpkin offered them a deal that would release them from prison if they would stop proselytizing in Georgia. With the Supreme Court case in hand and the principle established, they agreed and were released. Seeing the writing on the wall, Worcester and his family moved to Indian Territory along with the first of the Cherokee to volunteer to relocate rather than be forced to do so in what became known as the Trail of Tears. This meant he established his church there before most of the Cherokees got there and from his position, he was in a position to serve the people. That his buddy Boudinot was central to the relocation side of the Cherokee power structure certainly only helped him make his decision.

Worcester went back to his usual stuff. He started a printing press in Indian Territory and continued proselytizing the Cherokee. He tried to help work out the differences between the people who had promoted removal, such as his now assassinated friend Boudinot, and those who remained furious at the traitorous actions of their leadership. During his entire career, Worcester, like most of the other missionaries, had to make their peace with the reality of Cherokee slavery. The vast majority of missionaries thought slavery was an abomination. But they also knew there was no way they were going to make progress with the Cherokee if they pressed them on slavery. Meanwhile, Cherokee slavery became more like the white slavery of Africans all the time. This was not easy for Worcester but he prioritized saving Cherokee souls over freedom for Black Americans. Typically, freedom for Black Americans was at the very bottom of the white priority list, even that of most reformers. What did Worcester get so upset about to challenge someone about? It was the Baptists, also entering the Cherokee Nation. He didn’t think they translated the Bible correctly. That upset him a lot more than internal Cherokee politics or slavery did.

For the Cherokee though, Worcester was a highly respected figure. That was both because of what he did in Georgia and because he stayed out of their internal struggles. A mediating figure who focused primarily on translation and missionary work, he became known as the Cherokee Messenger among them.

Worcester stayed in Indian Territory for the rest of his life, which ended in 1859. He was 61 years old.

Samuel Worcester is buried in Worcester Cemetery, Park Hill, Oklahoma. Named after him, obviously.

If you would like this series to visit other missionaries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Peter Parker is in Framingham, Massachusetts (stupid Spiderman reference get an automatic ban) and Elisabeth Elliot is in Hamilton, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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