Elias Boudinot loved Harriet Gold, and Harriet loved Elias. In June 1824, 190 years ago this month, the Georgia man wrote a letter to the Cornwall woman asking her to marry him. She wrote back to say yes.
But Harriet didn't tell anyone her happy news until the fall. They knew that once word got out, the news would rip apart their families, their community, the whole state of Connecticut and Boudinot's alma mater, the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall. They knew this because it had happened already to Boudinot's cousin and classmate, John Ridge.
Several months before, on Jan. 27, 1824, Ridge married Sarah Northrup in Cornwall, and the state erupted in fury that a Cherokee man dared to choose a bride from the white community of Cornwall.
And now it was happening again. The Boudinots eventually did marry, after months of objections, rallies and threats from family, friends, strangers, editorial writers and community leaders.
The marriages of the Ridges and the Boudinots were the beginning of the end of the Foreign Mission School, an academy founded in 1817 to educate young men from "heathen" worlds — including Native Americans, Chinese, Hawaiians and Jews — to become Protestant missionaries, go back home and spread the Gospel.
It was assumed that the scholars would wait to find wives until they had gone home and were among their own people. The Boudinots and the Ridges upset that expectation. The townspeople of Cornwall — who were once so enthusiastic about the school that civic leaders outbid other towns to bring the school to Cornwall — turned against the school, and the school turned against its students and alumni.
The school and community "were reaching out to these people, but it had to be on their terms, on the terms of their outreach," said John Demos, a Yale University professor emeritus of American history.
Demos' book, "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic" (Alfred A. Knopf, 337 pp., $30), was released in March. Demos points out that from a 21st-century perspective, the behavior of the Cornwallites would be seen as racist, even at the beginning, striving to "civilize" non-Christians. But for their time, Demos said, they were progressive.
"They believed the people of these other races could be improved and elevated to the same status as white folks. Many other people in the country didn't believe that was possible," said Demos, of Tyringham, Mass. "Other people thought the whole missionary project was misconceived because these very different races and cultures simply were forever below quote unquote 'civilized' white Christians."
The progressiveness ended, he said, when Ridge and Boudinot crossed the invisible boundary that separated the races.
"Ridge and Boudinot had been greeted warmly. ... When they arrived they were embraced and treated as star students," Demos said. "Then they had the rug pulled out from under them."
The "Heathen School" was founded by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The board came into being during the Second Great Awakening, a nationwide revival of Protestant evangelism in the early 19th century.
"This school was the first of its kind. ... What was unique about the Foreign Mission School was its totally multicultural aspect," Demos said. "Many different groups were all gathered in one place."
The school's opening was greeted with elation. "We rejoice to learn that in this state there is ... a Seminary for the education of heathen youth, at which there are twelve of this description from different countries," The Connecticut Courant wrote on May 13, 1817. Donations of money and supplies poured in from around the world.
This excitement notwithstanding, administrators seemed to predict the brouhaha that ultimately doomed the school. Initial correspondence regarding the school's formation warned that "mingling promiscuously" between scholars and locals might "expose them to be corrupted in their moral principles." At the time that the school opened, visits to local families were forbidden.
But mingling with locals was inevitable. The students went to church on Sundays and ran errands in town, where they stood out among Cornwall's approximately 1,600 residents, almost all of whom were white. The town was fascinated by the exotic strangers, as was the outside world. The school and its students became a tourist attraction. Some Cornwallites resented all the attention the scholars got.
The school started with Hawaiians and one Native American in its classes, then grew in popularity and breadth: Chinese, a German Jew, a Tahitian, a Malaysian, a Mexican, some from India, some Greek Orthodox men. Some were sent away for misconduct or lack of Christian devotion. Some died from diseases exacerbated by the harsh New England winters. Teachers struggled with how to teach people of divergent backgrounds, languages and experience levels in the same small space, and sometimes racial rivalries sprang up. Still, the mission moved forward, buoyed by optimism and its few successes.
Often, students were given new, Anglicized names, reflecting the student's personal benefactor or another prominent Protestant. Sometimes, a big donor to the school could request that a student be renamed in his or someone else's honor. "The changing of names epitomizes the plan to completely transform these individuals as people and make them something that they weren't," Demos said. "That's the hubris that lies at the heart of the project."
The Cherokee Gallegina became Elias Boudinot, after a former U.S. congressman from New Jersey. John Ridge had a Cherokee name — Ska-tle-loh-skee — but the name John Ridge reflected his father, Cherokee politician Major Ridge.
Boudinot and Ridge traveled from Georgia and enrolled at the school in 1818. By 1819, Native Americans dominated the student body, mostly Cherokees and Choctaws. Boudinot and Ridge became model scholars. As upstanding alumni, they were a source of pride to the school.
Then the marriage scandals erupted.
When Ridge married Northrup, the backlash was swift. Newspapers editorialized against the marriage, the school, its teachers, its missionary goals. Isaac Bunce, editor of the Litchfield American Eagle, wrote that it was the school's ambition "to break down all objections of colour, and make our daughters become nursing mothers to a race of mulattoes." Citizens threatened to destroy the school and force the students to go home. The coach taking the Ridges back to Cherokee country in Georgia was stopped by angry mobs.
Race-baiting and fear-mongering followed. Bunce's paper asked, "Does it not promise to hundreds of other respectable families in this country, a simliar bitter and heartrending pang, that will cease only with death?" A few voices spoke in the couple's defense, but they were drowned out by the outrage.
Donations to the school dropped, at the same time that student recruiting was stagnant. Several months later, word got out that Elias Boudinot and Harriet Gold were in love and planning to marry. Tension throughout the state rode high again and dragged on for months. In the midst of the renewed furor, two Choctaw scholars were expelled, reportedly in connection with "a proposed matrimonial union."
Family and community protests didn't stop the Boudinot nuptials. They married on March 28, 1826. They spent their wedding night at an inn in Washington, Conn., reportedly protected by armed guards.
The "marriage crisis" wasn't the only factor in the academy's demise, but the public outcry was exploited to seal the fate of the Foreign Mission School. Within months, all the students were sent elsewhere, and the school closed in 1826.
"It is my pretty strong opinion that the school was failing. ... They knew, even if they couldn't admit it publicly, that it was very hard going what they had proposed to do, and it wasn't working out. The students were not really improving and developing the way they expected," Demos said. "Then the marriage crisis dropped out of the sky and, as painful as it was, now they had a reason to close the school without admitting fault."
The story of the Ridges and the Boudinots didn't end there. Back home in Georgia, the two young husbands became Cherokee political activists. Boudinot founded The Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper by and for Native Americans. The majority of Cherokees turned against them when Ridge, Boudinot and Major Ridge supported compliance with the U.S. government's desire that all Cherokees be moved from Georgia to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Boudinot, the Ridges and a handful of other Cherokee diplomats believed that if the Cherokees resisted, they would eventually be wiped out. The men gave their support to the Treaty of New Echota, which established terms for the transfer of Georgia land rights and removal westward of the land's inhabitants.
In 1836, Harriet Boudinot died after giving birth to her sixth child. Boudinot remarried and the Ridges and the Boudinots voluntarily moved to Indian Territory. In 1838 they were followed, involuntarily, by the rest of the southeastern U.S. Cherokee community. Twelve thousand embarked on the forced relocation, and 4,000 died on the way. The Cherokee removal was one of a yearslong series of Native American ethnic cleansings now known collectively as the Trail of Tears.
In the Cherokees' new home, hatred for the Ridges and the Boudinots still ran high. On June 22, 1839, John Ridge, Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot were assassinated in three separate incidents.
Boudinot's second wife, Delight, moved to Manchester, Vt., with Harriet's children, but left two of the girls with their maternal aunt in Washington, Conn. Sarah Ridge, overwhelmed by grief and in fear for her life, moved with her children to Fayetteville, Ark., where she died in 1856.
Demos said the lessons learned from the Heathen School go beyond the facts of the story itself. The Heathen School is a story, he said, about overreach.
"It's the hubris of thinking you can do much more than is reasonable," he said. "There is the racial undercurrent there, but the issue of overreach has been present in American history almost from the beginning until the day before yesterday."Copyright © 2015, CT Now