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Abolitionist Missionary - Evan Jones (1788-1872)

“Big men make big mistakes.” So goes a common adage. Whether or not Baptist missionary Evan Jones made big mistakes, he certainly made lots of them. Quarrels—big quarrels—strode through life with Jones like an unshakable plague. So did accusations of financial, political, ecclesiastical, and moral misconduct, including adultery and murder. His legions of foes, at various times, included the U.S. Government, the Cherokee Treaty Party, Presbyterian missionaries including Samuel Worcester, his own Baptist Mission Board, successive Cherokee Principal Chiefs, and white men opposing the Christian faith in order to enrich themselves at the expense of the Cherokees Jones so loved.

Yet, examining the issues animating those conflicts usually reveals strong, if controversial, grounds for the positions Jones took. In the end, he lived amongst and served the Cherokees he loved for half a century. That his son John, acquainted with him from birth, followed in his footsteps, with nearly as enormous an impact, itself speaks to the power and Christian conviction of Evan Jones’s private character. Father and son converted more Indigenous people to the Christian faith than any other missionaries.

Serving Full Bloods

Jones’s accomplishments loom all the more remarkable when considering he began his earthly life across an ocean in Wales, spent 13 years as a London merchant, and did not take up the gospel ministry until 33 years of age, nearly the life expectancy of a white man in that era of America. He threw himself into the cause of the Cherokees with all the formidable passion and intellect he possessed. He pastored, founded new churches, learned the tribe’s language, translated entire books of the Bible into it, and defended the Cherokees’ cause against any of the vast suspects he perceived to threaten it.

Jones’ influence among the Natives in Indian Territory proved wide and deep, but nowhere did he forge a greater impact than among the full-blooded Cherokees. Like that element of others among the Five Civilized Tribes, those of the Cherokees, with notable exceptions, generally embraced the language, education, commercial practices, culture, and religion of white American civilization more slowly than did their part-white kindred. A shining exemplar among those exceptions for Jones was Cherokee Pastor Jesse Bushyhead.

Bushyhead became perhaps Jones’s most celebrated Christian protégée. The two—one the mixed-blood son of a Scots father and Cherokee mother, the other a Welshman—ministered among the Cherokees in their ancient homelands of the southeast, as well as after their removal to Indian Territory. Bushyhead blossomed into the best interpreter in the Cherokee nation, one of the best preachers, and one of the few men accepted and respected by both the Treaty and Ross Parties.

So passionate did Jones grow in his bold efforts on behalf of the Cherokees that he was driven or kept from their country three different times. The first of these evictions occurred from North Carolina in 1836, due to his staunch opposition to the U.S. Government’s determination to force the tribe west—though he labored his entire career for their acculturation into American society. His defying the army to force him to persuade resistant Indians to leave triggered his own forced removal.

Trail of Tears

Relocating amongst the Cherokees in Tennessee, Jones—along with Bushyhead—each led thousand-strong caravans of the tribe on the 1838-39 Trail of Tears. Jones had now lived 50 years, a ripe old age for the era, as he guided his contingent—“They have been dragged from their homes,” he lamented—across the perilous and bitter winter wilderness of the South and Midwest. Only two white missionaries besides Jones accompanied the Cherokees on their removal. Few Native exile groups suffered through a more traumatic pilgrimage than did Jones’s and Bushyhead’s. Disease, exposure, malnutrition, and winter cold decimated their ranks, especially women, children, and seniors.

When Jones reached the Mississippi River with his party from Missouri, masses of ice choked the mighty waterway itself and barred the emigrants’ crossing, despite the bitter cold. “I am afraid that with all the care than can be exercised with the various detachments, there will be an immense amount of suffering, and loss of life attending the removal,” Jones wrote. “Great numbers of the old, the young, and the infirm will inevitably be sacrificed. And the fact that the removal is effected by coercion, makes it the more galling to the feelings of the survivors.”

Upon arriving in Indian Territory, he mourned, “I have no language to express the emotions which rend our hearts to witness their season of cruel and unnecessary oppression.”

Yet, the spiritual influence of Jones and Bushyhead on the tribe manifested itself in countless ways during the historic odyssey, not least their faithful observance of the biblical Sabbath, or day of rest, long since then ignored by most white and other Christians. A white traveler from Maine who witnessed Jones and his party recalled that “One fact which to my own mind seemed a lesson indeed to the American nation is, that they will not travel on the Sabbath…when the Sabbath came, they must stop and not merely stop—they must worship the Great Spirit too, for they had divine service on the Sabbath—a camp-meeting in truth.”

Comprehensive Servanthood

After all Jones’s sacrifice, the Cherokee Treaty Party—angry with his public denunciation of their agreement to removal, his defense of the Ross Party’s murder of Treaty Party leaders (“Having commenced further interruptions, they {the murdered leaders} sealed their own fate.”), and their belief in his own guilt as a murderer—succeeded in preventing his admittance to Indian Territory for two years as a missionary.

Finally gaining government sanction to enter the new Cherokee country in 1841, Jones located in present Westville and engineered the rise of the Cherokee Female Seminary, along with a church and shops. He rode an arduous circuit that encompassed numerous Baptist churches and mission stations and reached well over 1,000 Cherokees.

In 1844, he carried forward Elias Boudinot’s and Samuel Worcester’s vision for a Cherokee newspaper as a blessing and unifier for the tribe in founding the Cherokee Messenger, the first newspaper printed in present Oklahoma. Jones summarized the importance of the publication’s inclusion of Scripture and other theological content: “I have known aged Cherokees who would not go to hear the Gospel preached until some friend put the printed Word into their hands (in their own language).” His continuing publication efforts included Bible translations, religious tracts, and hymn books.

Jones and Bushyhead, like many of their missionary peers but few 21st-century American clergy, considered the Bible’s admonitions against strong drink—including wine, beer, and liquor—a key component to Christian living. They labored for years even before the Cherokees’ removal west to persuade the tribe of this “temperance” position. They continued those efforts in Indian Territory.

“Temperance is gaining ground,” Jones wrote there, with words that shine as a beacon of hope to the despairing, even hopeless person who fears that change from any ruinous practice in his or her life might prove impossible. “All the members of the church are also members of the temperance society. There are many instances of the most inveterate abstinence in which a radical reformation has been effected, and apparently hopeless victims have been restored to respectability and usefulness in society.”

Champion of Abolition

As slavery and other sectional issues heated up in the 1840s and 1850s, Jones’s bold stand for abolishing slavery made him a lightning rod of profound proportions. He influenced the thousands of mostly full-blood Cherokees among whom he ministered—most of whom resided at or near poverty status, few possessing sufficient means to own slaves—toward abolition and the Union, some more toward one than the other.

At the same time, Jones’s uncompromising views drew the wrath of some pro-slavery Cherokees and even U.S. government officials. For instance, his stance grew so radical for the time that he prohibited slave owners from church membership, a position for which many if not most Americans from any geographical section in that era found neither Constitutional nor biblical warrant. His opponents tried to close his school and remove him from Indian Territory, and some apparently hatched a scheme to assassinate him.

A group of Texas officials who traveled to the Cherokee country to assay the sentiments of Principal Chief John Ross and other tribal leaders regarding their plans for the burgeoning War Between the States, reported:

“The fact is not to be denied or disguised that among the common Indians of the Cherokee there exists a considerable abolition influence, created and sustained by one (Evan) Jones, a Northern missionary of education and ability, who has been among them for many years, and who is said to exert no small influence with John Ross himself.”

These dangers, along with the coming of the war in 1861, yet again drove Jones, and son John, from the Cherokee country during the years of fighting. No doubt guided by his father’s staunch abolitionist beliefs, another Jones son, Samuel, located in Lawrence, Kansas during the war. Lawrence stood as a Western bastion of pro-Federal nationalism, Northern culture, and abolitionism. When Federal military atrocities against Southern civilians in nearby Kansas City and Missouri triggered a murderous rampage through and burning of the town by William Quantrill and pro-Confederate irregulars, Samuel died along with 150 other townsmen.

“My family,” Jones said, also has been made to drink the cup of sorrow.”

Incredibly, a daughter of Jones’s died a few weeks later—the sixth of his children to precede him in death.

Post War Peacemaker

A measure of the stature of Evan Jones as a Christian man grew with John’s stalwart ministry to the Cherokees. Even while exiled during the war, John preached to Cherokees serving in the Federals’ First Indian Brigade. Following the war, he returned to Indian Territory, as did his father, and established a school for black freedmen.

The war had devastated the Cherokees’ schools and culture of learning, as well as the means to support them. Evan, now almost 80 years old, labored to rebuild all of these. He also promulgated scientific methods of farming, to incent the often-poor full-bloods of the tribe toward the prosperous, self-sustaining lives agriculture could and needed to provide them. He continued his translation work in various Old and New Testament books of the Bible, as well as his powerful evangelistic and preaching efforts to Native, white, and African American alike.

One of Evan and John’s greatest post-war feats was spearheading the 1867 election of Lewis Downing as Principal Chief of the Cherokees, following the death of John Ross. In doing so, Evan Jones turned away from the traditionalist candidate of many full-bloods, Ross’s nephew Will, as well as his own often-divisive partisanship. Though a Ross Party leader and pro-Federal during the war, Downing recognized the peril to his tribe should they not reunite as a single people. The Cherokees, in the wake of New Echota, the Trail of Tears, Indian Territory assassinations of Treaty Party leaders and others of both factions, and their own civil war within the War Between the States, had continued after the war as separate, vengeful “Northern” and “Southern” factions.

Evan recognized the importance of reconciliation and reunification, too, and in supporting Downing, he risked the alienation and even wrath of many of his long-time full-blood friends, and overcame his own animus toward the Treaty and Southern Party factions, who had been at least loosely allied with the pro-Confederate Bushwhackers who murdered his son Samuel at Lawrence. Indeed, Downing, influenced by Jones and others, intended to welcome Southern Party, or Watie, faction members back into the tribe and its leadership, and they in turn would recommit themselves to the governance of a single Cherokee nation.

Downing’s election proved a brilliant and historic turning point in the Cherokees’ post-war resurgence. He and Jones, despite enormous obstacles, especially during the victorious United States’ harsh Reconstruction program, led the tribe’s long-successful delay of American territorialization.

Finishing the Race

If ever the Scriptures “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” applied to a person’s life, so it did to Jones’s. Toiling for the Cherokees until his 80s, he died in 1872. Theological and political conflict, slavery, war, and even the loss of his first wife, Elizabeth, and six children, had posed only some of the challenges to his happiness and success. Following Elizabeth’s death in 1831, he had married Pauline Cunningham, a family maid. Whispers of pre-marital sexual relations between the two—a shocking notion about a missionary pastor in that era—had not been uncommon.

Shortly thereafter, Pauline’s unmarried sister Cynthia died in the Jones’s home. Family members discovered a heretofore-unknown newborn dead under the bed covers at her feet. Certain circumstances led many people inside and outside the tribe to believe Jones guilty perhaps of fathering the child, perhaps even of murdering it—or conspiring with its mother to do so—and perhaps of both.

A contentious series of trials declared Jones innocent, but he was roundly chided for his strange, deceptive behavior in attempting to hide the existence of the dead newborn. Despite evidence that key accusers of Jones harbored mercenary motivations for doing so, these tragic events rendered him guilty in the eyes of many, especially among the Treaty Party, and haunted his steps for the remainder of his life. Still, Evan Jones’s accomplishments, courage, and examples of love and devotion to a vast company of people from every walk of life, stretching across a half-century of time, surely mark him as one of the great men of early Oklahoma history. One of his many epitaphs declared:

“He was a man of scholarly attainments and acquired the Cherokee language and spoke and wrote it freely. The confidence in which he was held among the Cherokees who venerated him as a father, was never impaired. Even in the hours of his last illness, (the Cherokees) came from far and near to hear a few last words of comfort in their native tongue from their revered friend… He was sick only a few days. The previous Sabbath he attended church and heard his son preach.”


These tragic events rendered him guilty in the eyes of many, especially among the Treaty Party, and haunted his steps for the remainder of his life.


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Oklahomans Vol 2 :


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