'Heathen School' In Cornwall Closed In 1826 Amid Racial Brouhaha

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.