Dwight Mission was founded at the request of Western Cherokee Chief Tahlonteskee in 1818. Tahlonteskee expressed to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), an extension of the Presbyterian Church, the desire for a mission school to educate the Western Cherokees. The Western Principal Chief knew if his people were to weather the ensuing changes before them it was imperative they be educated. And Dwight Mission became the first mission west of the Mississippi River to serve the Cherokee people.
The mission was to be located in the newly created Territory of Arkansas which in part became the Cherokee Reserve as part of the Treaty of 1817. The Treaty of 1817 was an agreement between one group of the Cherokee tribe which would give up their lands in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama and in exchange would receive an equal portion of land in Arkansas. This group of Cherokee became known as the “Old Settlers”. The Cherokee Reserve was situated in the northwestern part of the Arkansas Territory between the Arkansas and White Rivers.
The Founding Missionaries
The ABCFM moved quickly to find missionaries that would answer the call of service to educate the Western Cherokees. The call was answered by two ordained ministers and two assistants and after being approved by the Cherokee tribal council, Rev. Cephas Washburn, Rev. Alfred Finney, Jacob Hitchcock, and James Orr began to make preparations for the new mission.
Rev. Cephas Washburn
Cephas Washburn was born July 25th, 1793 at Randolph, Vermont. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1816. Washburn had "looked to the bar for a profession" while attending college but eventually chose to enter the ministry. He was licensed to preach in January 1818 and married Abigail Woodward in October of 1818.
Rev. Alfred Finney
Alfred Finney was born at Harvard, Massachusetts in 1790. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1815. After entering the ministry he was appointed as a missionary to the Cherokees in Georgia in 1819. Finney married Susanna Washburn the sister of Cephas Washburn.
A decendant of pioneer Massachusetts stock, Jacob Hitchcock was born September 7, 1792 in Brimfield, Massachusetts. Hitchcock was considered in todays terms "a jack of all trades" and proved to be invaluable in carving Dwight Mission out of the rugged Arkansas wilderness. He would also go on to serve Dwight for forty years—longer than any other individual in the Mission's history.
James Orr was born May 19, 1791 in Hancock, New Hampshire. His family moved to New York when he was young where he learned mechanics. In 1819 at the age of 28 he offered himself as an assistant missionary and was accepted to serve at Dwight Mission.
Against All Odds
In the autumn of 1819 the missionary party consisting of Rev. and Mrs. Washburn and son, Rev. and Mrs. Finney and baby, and Miss Minerva Washburn, a cousin of Rev. Washburn and Mrs. Finney started the 1,500 mile journey to the Arkansas wilderness. The first leg of their journey would take them to Brainerd Mission, near present day Chattanooga, where Washburn would receive instructions in the operation of a successful mission before heading West. After leaving Brainerd Washburn and Finney had been instructed to travel to Elliot, a mission for the Choctaws in Mississippi, and leave the women and children and then proceed on to Arkansas Territory. They would return later for their families.
The journey to Elliot was a difficult one—through swampland, over swollen creeks, quicksand, and a wilderness where no roads existed. They were hampered by cold and rain and at times were forced to cut down trees to lay across deep creeks in order for their wagons to cross. Sometimes the missionary party only covered a mile and half a day due to traveling perils otherwise they averaged from three to seven miles each day. On January 3, 1820 they arrived at Elliot ending a six week journey from Brainerd to Elliot.
In February Washburn and Finney said goodbye to their families and started their trip to the Western Cherokee country only to return five days later because there was no way to cross the Mississippi River. They would remain at Elliot working among the Choctaws, until May 16, 1820, when they would resume their journey to Arkansas Territory. Washburn and Finney traveled by steamer down the Mississippi to the mouth of the White River. They then purchased a skiff and rowed to Arkansas Post, a journey of two and a half days marred by "myriads of mosquitoes that made sleep impossible." Upon reaching Arkansas Post Washburn was surprised to meet James Orr and Jacob Hitchcock. He had been unaware that the ABCFM had appointed the two men to assist him in the founding of the mission and he later described it as a "most joyful meeting".
The party of four pushed on traveling the Arkansas River by keel boat, traveling through swamps and making slow time because of the twisting bed of the river. Travel through the wilderness on land was difficult and all but Washburn became ill with malaria slowing their journey by several days. On July 3, 1820 they landed on the eastern bank of the river opposite 'The Rock'. Here they found a trading post where they purchased medical supplies. The trip continued and on July 12 they arrived at the Cherokee settlement where they were greeted by Chief John Jolly, brother of the late Tahlonteeskee. Rev. Washburn wrote to the Mission Board describing his meeting with the Cherokee leaders:
However the four missionaries, having suffered severe fever enroute and being weak and exhausted from the rigorous trip, were in no physical condition to start work on a mission. A place to stay was found for them in the settlement home of Mrs. Persis Lovely, widow of the former Cherokee agent, Major William Lovely. It was here the missionaries spent five weeks recuperating from their illness.
On August 25, 1820, a site was selected near the Cherokee agency, on the west bank of the Illinois bayou, in the Cherokee reservation. On August 28 the first tree was felled to clear land and work began on the initial structure, a 20 square foot log building.
Dwight Mission was named after Timothy Dwight IV (1752-1817) the president of Yale College (Yale University after 1886) and was the first corporate member of the ABCFM. He made many contributions to education and became a pioneer of higher education for women, assigning his female students the same advanced studies as those pursued by the boys. Dwight was a devout Christian with a heart of service. He once refused a nomination for Congress to pursue a clergy position. Timothy Dwight's dedication to education and Christian service was his legacy and continues to be Dwight Missions today.
Dwight Mission's Beginning
The missionaries faced many challenges as they cut Dwight Mission out of the rugged Arkansas wilderness. Some of these challenges were personal ones like sickness, death, lack of food and supplies, being cut off from family, friends, and many of the comforts they had known on the East coast. Other challenges hindered their work among the Western Cherokees such as a language barrier, the distrust felt for the missionaries and their efforts to educate and evangelize the Native Americans. Also the increasing hostility between the Osage and Cherokees often put Dwight Mission in the middle of the two warring tribes and the missionaries reported that "doubt and perplexity attend our course".
By May 10,1821 the missionaries had cleared over 20 acres and nearly completed two log homes with stone chimneys. The first worship service was held on May 13, 1821 with the sermon preached by Rev. Cephas Washburn.
The next several years was a whirlwind of activity as the missionaries laid the foundation for the mission and its operations. The site now included 22 acres of planted fields, several new buildings which included a dining hall, more staff housing, and the school. Chief John Jolly showed particular interest in the completion of the school and took pride in the realization of Tahlonteskee's dream that the Western Cherokee people would be educated.
Dwight Mission 100995 S. 4590 Rd. - 918-775-2018 (phone/fax)