Cherokee Messenger: Samuel Worcester (1798-1859)
If the courts of Oklahoma history were to assemble their own company of founding fathers for the state, surely Samuel A. Worcester would stand in the front rank. His decades-long dedication to the Cherokees helped lift, strengthen, and grow them in an era where so many influences conspired to shatter them. The Cherokees’ actions in turn impacted the whole of Indian Territory and eventually the state of Oklahoma and all of the United States.
The Vermont native hailed from a stalwart line of New England Puritans. They included numerous ministers and his namesake uncle, Rev. Samuel Austin, President of the University of Vermont, from which Worcester graduated in 1819. One of the most important contributors to Worcester’s early life, Rev. Jeremiah Evarts, came from outside the family. That renowned missionary, social activist, and editor-publisher helped spark in his young charge a passion for marrying sturdy Reformed theological doctrines with the sacrifice for and humility toward others of Jesus.
The combination proved unstoppable, and Worcester accomplished the rare feat of not only parlaying his advantages into great spiritual fruit, but catapulting beyond them into fields of service never attempted by his forbears.
Following graduation from the Calvinistic bastion of Andover Theological Seminary (future Yale University), ordination, and marriage to New Hampshire native Ann Orr, Worcester traveled with his young bride to the Cherokee mission field in Tennessee, where they served at Brainerd Station from 1825-1828. After those years of learning and ministerial seasoning, they moved to the Cherokee nation’s capitol of New Echota, Georgia to helm an ABCFM mission station. Here, Worcester’s most famous works unfolded.
Cherokee Newspaper Publisher
Among his many labors, he accepted his best friend Elias Boudinot’s (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 4) request to partner with him in publishing the Cherokee Phoenix, authorized by the tribal council and not only the first newspaper in history printed in a Native language, but also, in alternating columns, English. Among other duties, Worcester cast the type for the newspaper’s printing press. He employed both English language letters and those of Sequoyah’s celebrated 86-character syllabary.
Worcester and Boudinot’s grand vision for the publication included:
Helping teach the largely-illiterate tribe to read in two languages
Solidifying the loose Cherokee community
Establishing and promoting a Cherokee Nation
Aiding Cherokee success in white-dominated America
Spreading and teaching the Christian gospel
Despite opposition from both inside and outside the tribe, they succeeded in their quest. Providentially birthed in the wake of Sequoyah’s immortal Cherokee language triumph, the Phoenix during its 1828-1834 tenure revolutionized Cherokee life and helped equip the tribe for the landmark ordeals to come.
Imprisoned for Cherokees
For all Worcester’s decades of service and accomplishment, he is perhaps best remembered for his legendary defense of the Cherokees during one of the darkest periods any American people group has ever experienced. Gold discovered on their north Georgia land in 1828 only intensified hunger for that land among Georgians and other Americans (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 3). In early 1831, Georgia put into force a law requiring all whites residing on Cherokee lands to swear an oath of allegiance to the state.
Worcester and other Christian missionaries, virtually alone, had stood up publicly to oppose the aims of Georgia, the Jackson Administration, and much of the American public to remove the Indians west. They recognized the edict as aimed at scaring them off Cherokee lands, thus depriving the besieged Natives of their lonely succor and counsel. They refused to leave.
Georgia threw Worcester and others in jail. He and fellow missionary Elizur Butler still refused to vacate after their release. More threats and jailing followed.
The gifted young Cherokee John Ridge recounted Worcester’s brutal circumstances at the hands of Georgia militia and U.S. troops:
“These unoffending and guileless men were ignominiously received like felons—they were chained with horses’ trace chains around their necks and fastened, one to the neck of a horse, the other to the tail of a cart, and thus dragged with bleeding feet, through the rough and tangled forest, over brake and bush and bog and fen, at the point of a bayonet, and even in sickness, with wounded feet, refused the privilege of riding their own horses.”
The drama electrified America and gathered to itself historic proportions as Worcester and Butler still refused to bow to the Georgians, whereupon a state court sentenced them to four years hard labor in the penitentiary. Continuing to do all he could to peacefully protect the Cherokees, Worcester allowed a suit challenging Georgia’s Cherokee-related oath, Worcester vs. Georgia, to proceed through the justice system.
Other Southern states, meanwhile, clashed with the Federal government over different matters, and the issue of “Nullification”—the Jeffersonian act of an individual state rejecting particular Federal laws as unconstitutionally injurious to it—arose, as well as the specter of civil war.
So besieged was the Worcester home front that the family and their friends perceived in the unprecedented events evidence of ruthless spiritual welfare, involving stakes of unknown but likely vast extent. The ordeal endured by Worcester soon reached far beyond his loss of freedom. Not only did his wife and children grievously lament his absence, but their treasured spiritual mentor Evarts died, followed only three days later by Dempsey Fields, one of the mission’s most valued Cherokee Christians.
Most momentous of all, Samuel and Ann’s baby Jerusha died and Ann narrowly survived a related illness. Nonetheless, her burden escalated with Samuel’s absence. She tended the family’s home, raised the remaining children (who would grow to seven in number), and shouldered more duties at the mission, yet continued to practice the hospitality that encompassed frequent and long visits by an array of Indigenous friends.
Let my name be sounded abroad as a weak, misguided enthusiast, yet a sincere lover of Jesus…Yet after all, it is a light thing to be judged of man's judgment. We stand or fall at a higher tribunal."
Prisoner vs. President
Samuel spearheaded many of his mission’s operations from prison. While he continued advising Boudinot on editing the Phoenix, Boudinot aided Worcester’s ongoing translations of the New Testament, hymns, and other Christian literature into the Cherokee language.
He and Butler, meanwhile, revolutionized life inside their prison. Morning and evening, they preached, taught, loved, and aided the hardened men they encountered. Inmates flocked to them.
While separated from his family and facing the prospect of years more imprisonment, Worcester wrote words evidencing the trusting faith that guided him through a lifetime of drama, danger, and adventure:
“Let my name be sounded abroad as a weak, misguided enthusiast, yet a sincere lover of Jesus, ANYTHING consistent with sincere devotion to the cause of the Redeemer, rather than told with the highest commendation man can bestow, and yet withhold the reputation of being a servant of Christ. Yet after all, it is a light thing to be judged of man's judgment. We stand or fall at a higher tribunal.”
Worcester vs. Georgia, meanwhile, barreled all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In one of American history’s most audacious judicial decrees, Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the court majority, declared that the treaty between the U.S. and the Cherokees trumped Georgia’s controversial new law and invalidated it.
Worcester, Boudinot, the Cherokees, and many Americans—including Georgians—thrilled at the momentous verdict. Their joy died when they learned President Jackson had no intention of enforcing the Court’s decision, and in fact had responded with words to the effect of, “John Marshall has made his decision. Let him enforce it now if he can.”
To top it off, the Georgians kept Worcester and Butler incarcerated—where they continued to minister to prisoners.
As so often happens, blessing came amidst hardship and injustice. For a variety of reasons, the Cherokees as a whole had until recently not favored Worcester or the other missionaries. Observing the beleaguered prisoners and their suffering not for themselves but for the tribe, the Natives’ skepticism melted away. Forever after, the tribe would prove fertile spiritual ground for Christian missionaries, and many of its own would rise up in Christian service and other supportive work.
Imprisoned for Cherokees
Ironically, Worcester’s and Butler’s simple if difficult following in the way of their Savior now simmered as a flame ready to torch America into civil war. The afore-mentioned nullification controversies burned in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and—because of the state’s defiance of Worcester vs. Georgia—Georgia. Both the state and Federal governments trembled at the specter of civil war. Representing the interests of both administrations, Georgia Governor George Gilmer and his agents rolled out a series of schemes to secure Worcester’s and Butler’s release of their suit. The missionaries refused, even though doing so kept them imprisoned when Gilmer had offered them freedom.
When Worcester and Butler moved to pressure the Marshall Court to take further action to enforce its Worcester vs. Georgia verdict, Gilmer’s agents beseeched the missionaries to relent on their suit, in return for admitting no wrongdoing and gaining release from prison, freedom to resume ministering among the Cherokees, and assurances of protection for the tribe from white encroachers. All this, and they would defuse the civil war powder keg by removing Georgia from the mix, without which the other states did not likely have the critical mass to stage an insurrection.
Even then, Worcester and Butler, willing to remain in prison, consulted with their ABCFM officials for direction. Reckoning nothing more could be gained than was already offered even if the missionaries remained incarcerated, the officials advised them to accept the state’s offer. Thus, Worcester and Butler went free with a full pardon after nearly 1½ years in prison, and gaining all they had hoped for the Cherokees—except that neither the Jackson nor Gilmer regimes intended on honoring their commitments to the Natives.
Observing the beleaguered prisoners suffering for the tribe, the Natives’ skepticism melted away. Forever after, the tribe would prove fertile spiritual ground for Christian missionaries, and many of its own would rise up in Christian service.
Indian Territory & Temperance
Worcester and Boudinot continued their historic translation efforts in Indian Territory. Legendary Cherokee leader Major Ridge commented about Worcester’s new Christian almanac, written in both Cherokee and English:
“I found this extensively in circulation amongst the Cherokees, and, in fact, I was pleased to find that religious tracts, in the Indian language, were on the shelves of full-blooded Cherokees, and everyone knew and seemed to love the Messenger, as they called Mr. Worcester.”
One of the great crusades of Worcester’s life was his championing a powerful movement among the Cherokees called the Cherokee Temperance Society. After expanding to include children, the name changed to the Cold Water Army. As Worcester biographer Althea Bass wrote, it urged Christian commitment among children as well as adults and opposed the consumption of alcoholic beverages, which was devastating the social life and morals of the Cherokees and other tribes.
The catastrophe grew worse yet with the removal of the Natives to the West, as white whiskey peddlers preyed on the disheartened Natives, thrusting liquor at them—often in return for their few remaining possessions—as a temporary relief from their confusion and dejection.
The pestilence pursued the tribe all the way to Indian Territory, as chronicled in 1837 by the Acting Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the Western Territory:
“The Cherokees show a great degree of improvement and are still improving and bid fair at no distant day to rival their white brethren of the west, in point of wealth, civilization, moral and intellectual improvement, did there not exist one great hindrance, that of intemperance, not only a vice itself, but the prolific parent of almost every other vice. There are immense quantities of whisky in the country, and being introduced daily, and unless the intercourse law is rigidly enforced, the evil of intemperance will spread its wide reign, and its effect will be ruinous to the morals of the natives, and dangerous to the peace of the country. The Cherokees more than any other tribe are disposed to traffic in ardent spirits.”
The Superintendent advocated military intervention against the colossal bootlegging scheme, but Worcester wisely reckoned the outrage a moral one, needful of a moral remedy. He marshaled every spiritual resource he could muster to confront the pestilence. He organized rousing events, wrote songs, poems, and tracts, and of course preached and ministered to the Cherokees’ needs—felt and unfelt.
Cold Water Army
Worcester even quashed the Presbyterian practice of using fermented, or intoxicating, wine, in the communion services that church practiced more regularly than most in the churches and mission stations under his aegis. Evidencing discernment that might perhaps have benefitted his fellow denominational clergymen then and since, he declared, “I prefer to use very little fermented wine, for the sake of members formerly addicted to intemperance.”
“We hereby solemnly pledge ourselves, that we will never use, nor buy, nor sell, nor give, nor receive as a drink, any whiskey, brandy, gin, rum, wine, fermented cider, strong beer, or any kind of intoxicating liquor,” swore Cold Water Army members. One of the songs Worcester composed for them, set to the tune of Yankee Doodle, went thus:
See us children full of glee,
Marching with our banners;
Drunkards we will never be;
Nor follow drunkards’ manners.
Chorus: Come and join us, one and all.
Hear our invitation;
Come and fight King Alcohol,
Drive him from the Nation!
We will not fight with guns or swords,
Nor kill one son or daughter;
Our weapons shall be pleasant words
And cool, refreshing water.
Just what impact the temperance movement exerted on Cherokee life and history remains difficult to determine. Alcoholism and the myriad problems flowing from it survived in the tribe to the present day and no doubt will continue. Yet, as Worcester wrote in 1844 while witnessing the Temperance Society membership multiply into the thousands, including hundreds of whites and African Americans, “It seems evident that the cause is gaining ground. It is acknowledged on all hands, I believe, that there is much less whisky drinking than formerly.”
Lessons and Legacy
As he did throughout his life, upon the death of Ann, the love of that life, from another difficult childbirth in 1840, Worcester saw beyond the seen to the unseen:
“While I do not by any means feel that the loss which I and my children have sustained by the removal of my first companion is now or ever can be fully repaired, yet I feel that I have much reason for gratitude that Providence has thrown in my way so excellent a woman to be a partner for me and a mother to them…The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Modern Christian leaders might learn, too, from one of the keys to Worcester’s deep and enduring impact on the Cherokees and other Americans: his refusal to grow enmeshed in the political conflicts around him. Few such battles in the 21st-century United States rival the danger and brutality of those involving the Cherokees of Worcester’s generation. He witnessed the pitiless murder of his close friend Boudinot by rival tribesmen, and the loan of his own horse likely saved his friend Stand Watie from a similar fate. Yet he continued to minister among all factions of the tribe.
The divisive issue of slavery likewise did not deter him from a good witness across the tribal spectrum. Like most of his Indian Country missionary peers, though he did not support the notion of human slavery, he did not turn back from ministering to those who engaged in the Constitutionally and, according to many Americans of the era, Biblically-sanctioned practice.
Upon his own death in Indian Territory in 1859, Samuel Austin Worcester left a legacy in no way encompassed by, but perhaps glimpsed at, in the sobriquet bequeathed him by the Cherokees he loved so well: “The Cherokee Messenger.”
The Cherokees had not favored Worcester or the other missionaries. Observing the beleaguered prisoners and their suffering not for themselves but for the tribe, the Natives’ skepticism melted away.
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