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Ancient Chickasaw domain

Ancient Chickasaw domain. Map from Arrell M. Gibson’s The Chickasaw, 1971

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ChickasawMap/Mississippi section

Map of the lands in Mississippi ceded by Chickasaws in 1832 and 1834. Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, File 8152-1-map.

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Young Chickasaw warrior

Young Chickasaw warrior

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Monroe Mission Station along the Natchez Trace near Tupelo.

Monroe Mission Station along the Natchez Trace near Tupelo. Photo courtesy of Otis W. Pickett.

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Grave of T. C. Stuart in Pontotoc Cemetery.

Grave of T. C. Stuart in Pontotoc Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Lynn Ellis.

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Feature Story

Mission Churches and Multi-Ethnicity on the Mississippi Frontier: T. C. Stuart and Presbyterian Missionary Activity Among the Chickasaw, 1820-1837

When many people think about religion in the history of Mississippi, they usually think of a racially segregated religious worship service. Indeed, due to segregationist activities following Reconstruction and the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s, whites worshipped in their historic churches, while African Americans fled those spaces in search of their own autonomous congregations. However, there was a brief moment in the beginning of Mississippi’s statehood when whites worshipped alongside Native Americans and enslaved African Americans. These multiethnic churches existed in the northeast and north central portions of the state where the Chickasaw historically resided. Missionaries sent from the Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina settled among the Chickasaw and built churches, homes, and schools. These missionaries ministered there until President Andrew Jackson’s policies removed the Chickasaw from their ancestral lands in Mississippi and relocated them to a new and unknown terrain in the unorganized Oklahoma territory. What is found through a close inspection of these mission churches complicates prior understanding of Mississippi’s religious history and reveals that the southwestern frontier was a multiethnic and multinational space where a variety of ethnicities and nationalities worshipped together with some appearance of ecclesiastical equality.

Complex religious experiences in early Mississippi

To be sure, the Mississippi territory in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was one of the most thoroughly globalized spaces of the early republic. People from all over the Atlantic world met and interacted with one another along the Mississippi River. The French, British, and Spanish all previously held settlements in Mississippi, and each left a unique footprint on the landscape and among the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez nations that occupied much of the territory. Also, thousands of enslaved Africans from across the continent of Africa lived and labored in the Mississippi territory during the early nineteenth century prior to statehood. Most of these individuals were owned by white settlers, but some belonged to mixed-blood Choctaw and Chickasaw slaveholders, who were descendants of British or French men who had taken Chickasaw or Choctaw wives. These slaves brought notions of property ownership and accumulated wealth to the Native American nations.

What is fascinating about Christian church history in Mississippi is that white missionaries, as well as Choctaw, Chickasaw, and African peoples all worshipped together in the same churches for the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. When one thinks of religion in the South, one often envisions white churches with enslaved Africans sitting in balconies and participating on the margins. However, religious experiences in Mississippi were actually far more complex. White Presbyterian missionaries originally traveled to Mississippi in order to minister to Native Americans. However, these missionaries, like Joseph Bullen, William Blair, James Smylie, Cyrus Kingsbury, and Thomas C. Stuart, all found themselves preaching to, ministering among, and teaching African Americans in mission churches and on plantations in the Natchez District. Indeed, more African Americans ended up worshipping in and becoming members of the mission churches than Native Americans. Further, enslaved Africans and Native Americans enrolled in mission schools or members of mission churches spread their knowledge by teaching and ministering autonomously in their own communities. Eventually, many Native Americans became elders in these churches, and African American men and women held important roles in ecclesiastical life.

Thomas C. Stuart and the Monroe Mission

In 1819, the United States Congress passed the Civilization Act, which urged churches to cooperate with federal and state governments in teaching Native Americans agriculture and other techniques that would help them adapt to white society. Also in 1819, the South Carolina Synod resolved, “that it is expedient to form a society for the purpose of sending the Gospel to the destitute within our bounds in South Carolina and Georgia, and for promoting the civilization and religious instruction of our aborigines in our southwestern border.” A young candidate named Thomas C. Stuart was licensed to preach by the South Carolina Presbytery on April 19, 1819. Stuart left with the Reverend Donald Humphreys in 1820 with the intent of establishing a mission among the Native Americans just east of the Mississippi River.

In late May of 1820, Stuart arrived at Cotton Gin Port along the Tombigbee River. The Chickasaw council, held on June 22, 1820, granted the missionaries permission to stay, and on January 27, 1821, Stuart and various families from South Carolina reached the site which would be the residence of the Presbyterian mission in Mississippi, called the Monroe Mission. The families built houses, started self-sustaining farms, and preached to the Chickasaws. Within a month, a school opened and was home to sixteen new students from the Chickasaw nation. In 1823, the school, which was opened to both boys and girls, expanded to fifty students. Despite boarding school obstacles throughout the mid-to-late 1820s, the church grew to be twelve times its original size just prior to Indian removal. One acquaintance recalled that Stuart “earned the appreciation of all, regardless of color or condition or creed.” Mission records further display a multiethnic membership with twenty-nine whites, sixty-nine African Americans, and twenty-five Native Americans in the late 1820s.

Enslaved African American participation in the Monroe Mission

While many Chickasaws were cautious to join the mission early on, records display, on the other hand, an eagerness for membership among enslaved African Americans. Church session records revealed that an African American “woman named Dinah, belonging to Mr. James Gunn, applied to be received into the newly-organized church.” This situation displayed that the South Carolina Presbyterians in Mississippi were indeed supporters of and participants in the institution of slavery. It also indicates that enslaved Africans were a part of what was becoming a racially diverse ecclesiastical community. While the institution of slavery was supported, Stuart also found places of prominence for these early, enslaved members. For instance, Stuart recalled the aforementioned Dinah as being “the first fruit of the Chickasaw Mission,” who, “being a native of the country, spoke the Chickasaw language fluently; and having the confidence of the Indians, [Stuart] employed her as my interpreter, for several years in preaching the gospel to them.” For Stuart to employ an enslaved African woman in a place of such prominence was no doubt unusual. However, sometimes the drastic nature of mission work allowed missionaries the freedom to maneuver even some of their own limited notions concerning race. Many enslaved Africans became members at the Monroe Mission and walked several miles to attend service.

One of the first Native Americans to become a member of the Monroe Mission was also a woman, Tennessee Bynum, who joined on December 4, 1824. Described in the session records as “a native,” Bynum joined, along with Esther, an African American “woman belonging to Mrs. Colbert.” A few years later on May 7, 1826, Molly Colbert, “a native” of the influential Colbert family, joined. On September 29, 1827, William Colbert, became the first male Chickasaw admitted to membership. Colbert was “a scholar in the school and on the 5th of April, 1834, was elected and ordained a ruling elder in our Church.” This was significant. To have a multiethnic member of the Chickasaw nation serve in such a prominent, ecclesiastical, leadership role displayed the mission’s notions of ecclesiastical equality in contrast with broader societal notions of racial distinctions throughout the South. To be sure, Colbert’s mixed-blood, Native American ancestry would have no doubt prevented him from serving as an elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Charleston or Natchez. The nature of a frontier mission could not afford such discrimination.

This feature of Native American missions was why Esther could have persuaded Mrs. Colbert, the second Chickasaw to become a member of the church, to attend the Monroe Mission. This seemingly unrestricted relationship between the Native American owner and the African slave may have affected Stuart’s own categories of race. By late 1830, Stuart began changing designations of African descendants in the church records from “a black” slave (male or female) to “colored people.” Regardless, Stuart continued recording the racial designations and distinctions of both Native Americans and Africans in the church records. Whites were the only members in his church without a marked racial category. However, Stuart was admitting African American ecclesiastical equality in his de facto usage of the enslaved African American membership’s language, intelligence, prayer, earnestness, and relationships with the Chickasaw to bring Native American members into the Monroe Mission. The Monroe Mission, given its initial size, grew exponentially in the nineteen years of its presence. Further, the multiethnic church functioned harmoniously, peacefully, and practically with a multiethnic population. The Monroe Mission, therefore, challenges some conventional notions of multiracial ecclesiastical activity in the nineteenth century South. At least in the southwestern frontier mission context, there was far more fluidity and ecclesiastical equality than previously thought.

Julia Daggett Harris left her remembrances of “Father” Stuart and the Monroe Mission in the Minutes of the Presbyterian Historical Society of the Mississippi Synod in 1907. She recalled that after Indian removal, Stuart “never lost interest in his Indian converts, and frequently visited them in their western home.” Stuart would ford rivers and travel across country with his daughter, Mary Jane Stuart, to visit his old Chickasaw flock in Oklahoma. Stuart died in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1883. He was buried in the Pontotoc Cemetery, and it “probably appealed to him,” undoubtedly because “in 1852, a government deed conveyed the ground to the ‘Chickasaws and their white friends forever as public burying ground.’” The Reverend T. C. Stuart’s epitaph appropriately reads, “For many years a missionary to the Chickasaw Indians.”

Otis W. Pickett is an assistant professor of history and director of the B.S. Ed. programs in social studies education at Mississippi College. This article has been adapted from “T. C. Stuart and the Monroe Mission among the Chickasaws in Mississippi, 1819–1834,” Native South 8 (2015): 36-88, which contains a more lengthy discussion of this topic. Native South is a publication of the University of Nebraska Press, and anyone wishing to read more information should consult the following sites:

University of Nebraska Press

Project MUSE

Posted August 2015

Sources and suggested readings:

Atkinson, James R. Splendid Land Splendid People: The Chickasaw Indians to Removal. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Berkhofer, Robert F. Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787-1862. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1988.

Ethridge, Robbie F. From Chicaza to Chickasaw: European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippi World, 1540-1715. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Howe, George. History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. Columbia, SC: Duffie & Chapman, 1870.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Sparks, Randy. Religion in Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Thompson, E. T. Presbyterian Missions in the Southern United States. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1934.

Winston, E. T. “Father” Stuart and the Monroe Mission. Meridian, MS: The Press of Tell Farmer, 1927.

Other Mississippi History NOW articles:

Religion in Mississippi

Flags Over Mississippi

Mushulatubbee and Choctaw Removal: Chiefs Confront a Changing World

Chickasaws: The Unconquerable People

The Natchez Indians

Betsy Love and the Mississippi Married Women’s Property Act of 1839

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