June 22: The Assassination of Cherokee Leader Elias Boudinot

 

The Cherokee leader Elias Boudinot first came to Connecticut in the 1820s to seek a formal western education at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall. Born as Gallegina Uwati into a prominent Cherokee family in 1802, he was sent north with the permission of tribal elders in hopes that his western education would help the Cherokee successfully interact and negotiate with the United States government. During his journey from Georgia to Connecticut, Gallegina befriended Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, then president of the American Bible Society and former president of the Second Continental Congress. Gallegina asked the elder Boudinot for permission to use his name as his own, and after enrolling in the Foreign Mission School, the young Cherokee formally adopted the name Elias Boudinot.

Cornwall’s Foreign Mission School was founded in 1817 to educate young men from “heathen” (non-Christian) communities and convert them to Christianity in hopes that they would return to their homelands as missionaries. Over a hundred young scholars from Hawaii, south Asia, east Asia, and several Native American tribes attended the school between 1817 and 1826. Students endured a rigorous curriculum including classic languages, astronomy, physics, geography, and theology, alongside practical skill training like coopering and blacksmithing.

This 1835 sketch of Cornwall by John Warner Barber shows the buildings once used by the Foreign Mission School, just to the right of the center church.

Elias Boudinot attended the school with his cousin John Ridge, also born to a leading Cherokee family. When both young men, independently of each other, developed romantic relationships and then became engaged to local girls, many residents in the town of Cornwall turned openly hostile toward them. Boudinot and his fiancee, Harriet Gold, were burned in effigy on the Cornwall town green by an angry mob driven by widespread fears of miscegenation (or “race-mixing”).

In spite of the public outcry, Boudinot and Gold married in 1826 and he moved back to Cherokee territory in Georgia with his new wife. There, he became editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual Native American-produced newspaper, and strongly argued in favor of assimilation as the best way for the Cherokee to secure their rights and sovereignty in the rapidly-expanding United States. While Boudinot wasn’t alone in taking a pro-assimilation stance, his outspoken advocacy created a rift between him and supporters of Chief John Ross, who resisted the idea of changing their culture to pacify their non-Indian neighbors. After Boudinot and a handful of pro-assimilation Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which ceded all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi to the U.S. federal government and forced the tribe to migrate to lands in modern-day Oklahoma, he became a marked man. On June 22, 1839, Elias Boudinot was ambushed and murdered outside of his home by an unknown group of Cherokee men — a sudden end to a life spent working toward peace for the Cherokee people.

Further Reading:

An Experiment in Evangelization: Cornwall’s Foreign Mission School,” connecticuthistory.org

Foreign Mission School: 1817 – 1826,” Cornwall Historical Society online exhibit

Zachary Keith and Katherine Hermes, “Young Love at Cornwall’s Foreign Mission School,” Connecticut Explored