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Journal of the Early Republic 26.3 (2006) 353-376

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"We Wish to Do You Good":

The Quaker Mission to the Oneida Nation, 1790–1840

In January of 1800, Samuel Kirkland, the Presbyterian missionary to the Oneida Nation, watched a small group of Philadelphia-based Quakers formally close their own mission to that people. Pondering the scene, Kirkland wrote, "A true history of the Quaker enterprize among the Oneidas, would really be entertaining as well as a little ludicrous. It would present a picture of ignorance, pride, superstition & bigotry curiously blended."1

As a competitor for the Oneidas' attention, as well as for the support of the federal government, Kirkland had remained at arm's length from the Quakers for the three-and-a-half-year duration of their mission. Kirkland's relationship with the Quakers was little warmer than the loaf of bread he couldn't use to perform the sacrament one February morning because it was frozen. When he asked the Quakers to loan him one, they declined on the grounds that "it is to enable thee to perform a ceremony in a manner different from what we believe essential." In Kirkland's mind, this must have been a perfect example of what he considered the "bigotry, self confidence, & preciseness for which the Quakers are distinguished." Now they were calling it quits, [End Page 353] and Kirkland could indulge himself in a bit of Presbyterian schadenfreude.2

But Kirkland's scathing postmortem on the Quaker mission, combined with the Quakers' own letters and diaries, document more than the continuation into the early republic of longstanding Quaker–Presbyterian antagonism. As historian Robert S. Cox has pointed out, "Although short-lived, the Oneida mission was significant in formulating a model for nearly all of the later missionary efforts of Quakers." Indeed, several missionaries who visited or served the Oneida were involved in the famous Seneca mission, the history of which was the subject of anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace's classic The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca.3

Wallace's brief mention of the Oneida mission makes it seem more successful than it really was. The Oneidas hoped the mission would [End Page 354] provide legal and political assistance that would limit the pressure to abandon traditional economic activities and gender roles. However, despite the Quakers' own ambivalence toward politics and the market, those were precisely the changes they hoped to promote. Thus, the Quaker mission largely ignored its clients' definition of their needs in favor of Quaker definitions of those needs. To the disappointment of missionaries and missionized alike, the Quakers' foray among the Oneida was plagued by cultural miscommunication, and there was no mediator like the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake to salvage the relationship. A somewhat more positive legacy emerged only decades later, when the Oneidas' very presence in upstate New York was threatened.

An examination of the Quakers' failed mission among the Oneidas reminds us that the fate of missionary efforts was determined by much more than the superior strategy or training often attributed to Quakers or Jesuits. As William McLoughlin, Clara Sue Kidwell, Rebecca Kugel, Mark Nicholas, and others have demonstrated, missions were always deeply implicated in native community politics, and were more successful when natives perceived the missionaries helped them meet political objectives, either internal or external.4

The Quakers were key figures at the inception of the federal Indian policy that guided every administration from Washington until Jackson, and their failure at Oneida presaged larger problems. This plan was early on dubbed "expansion with honor." Through agents and missionaries, the federal government would provide technical assistance to transform native peoples into agriculturists in the European mode. Once weaned from the land-extensive search for game, natives would lose interest in their hunting territories and peacefully exchange them for a modest amount of cash or goods. Although simple, the logic of this policy was deeply flawed. For example, as natives came to a greater apprehension [End Page 355] of the concept of...


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