"I said to some ladies the other day, as I showed them a beautiful volume, ‘I have just had the crowning joy of my life in receiving the Muskokee New Testament entire.’ But I immediately added as I thought of (my) four children, all of whom God had made earnest workers for himself, ‘Should a mother say that?’”
Thus spoke Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson (1826-1905), a giant among that dauntless company of white American Christian missionaries who trekked into early-nineteenth century Indian Territory to devote their lives to people of different races, tongues, cultures, and worldviews, amidst rigorous and sometimes life-imperiling conditions. She held in her hands a copy of the complete New Testament, translated for the first time ever—by her—into the language spoken by the Creeks to whom she ministered for nearly forty years, the Seminoles, and other tribes of the Muskogee confederation.
Born into a family of stalwart Christian heritage, she entered this life at the Brainerd Mission to the Cherokees in Tennessee, daughter of Ann and Samuel Worcester, the latter one of the great missionaries of American history. She and the rest of her family accompanied the Cherokees west to Indian Territory on their Trail of Tears. Upon arriving, her father established a mission at Park Hill, in present-day Cherokee County, where Ann Eliza attended classes.
As a girl, she accompanied her father on annual travels through the various districts of the Cherokee Nation in present-day northeastern Oklahoma. During these trips, she played the melodeon (similar to an accordion) and seraphine (resembling a piano) during the singing of temperance songs by the Cold Water Army, an influential temperance organization founded by her father and comprised of Cherokees, whites, and African-Americans. The Cold Water Army aimed to end the ruinous sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the Cherokee country.
Ann Eliza’s love for music, meanwhile, remained her entire life. “Every night, until she was too frail to walk to her instrument, she sang and played,” her daughter Ann Augusta recalled.
Tragedy spawns growth
Historian Althea Bass’s biography of Ann Eliza’s missionary father Samuel Worcester, Cherokee Messenger, includes the following portrait of his daughter as a young teen:
“Ann Eliza was not yet fourteen when her mother (Ann) died…but a single event may seem to bring a child’s years to the flower of maturity; Ann Eliza, suddenly motherless and overwhelmed with a feeling of affection and sisterly pity for her smaller brothers and sisters, grew quickly out of childhood into young womanhood. Her father, looking at her with the surprise that every parent feels when he realizes that his child will not always remain a child, saw all of Ann’s graces promising to repeat themselves in Ann Eliza.
“She had an unusual sweetness and gentleness in her manner, but she had deeper qualities than these. She learned eagerly and rapidly; she had a keen power of analyzing people; she had, in spite of her lack of experience in the world of sophisticated affairs, an ease and graciousness that sprang from complete sincerity and confidence. She disarmed people, and had her way with them without being aware of any conquest.
“Already, Ann Eliza had begun to indicate her unusual powers as a teacher, for she had helped in the schoolroom at times when the teacher was ill or when some additional assistance was necessary, and she had instructed classes in the Saturday and the Sabbath schools. Indian children and white children alike fell under her spell; they responded without any question to whatever she asked of them.”
At age fifteen, Ann Eliza continued her education at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont. Five years later, in 1846, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sponsored her return to Indian Territory to teach school to Cherokee children at Park Hill. Before embarking on the long ship voyage from New York City to New Orleans, she wrote a friend:
“I hope I may not in the confusion of preparation for the journey itself forget the weight of responsibility which rests upon me, and bring dishonor upon the cause in which I am engaged. May I not ask now & then to be remembered in your prayers, that it may be indeed for the glory of God that you with the others have seen fit to accept me as laborer in such a work.”
While serving at Park Hill, Ann Eliza met William Schenck Robertson, a Presbyterian minister and teacher, and later longtime Superintendent at the Tullahassee Presbyterian Mission and Manual Labor Boarding School in the Creek nation, in present-day Wagoner County near Muskogee. They married in 1850, beginning a blessed and eventful union that lasted until the death of William over thirty years later. They produced seven children together, three of whom died in infancy; they labored in close concert throughout their decades of companionship; and she called his support of her and her literary translations to the Creeks “remarkable.”
Ann Eliza persevered in mentoring the young ladies of the Creek nation even while raising her own four children, teaching Latin, arithmetic, and other courses—often for six hours a day—and training the youngsters in homemaking practices. Historian Hope Holway catalogued some of the latter: “making the soap over outdoor fires, dipping the candles, drying the apples, smoking the meat, and washing and ironing the clothes for the whole school.”
All this she accomplished while translating the entire New Testament from English to Greek to Creek (Muskogee)—or sometimes directly from Greek to Creek; the Old Testament historical sections, Psalms, parts of Isaiah, and Song of Solomon; and numerous hymns, catechisms, Christian tracts, vocabulary studies, articles, and other works—all while bearing constant and painful illness. Small wonder that her husband declared her “amusement” was the study of the Creek language!
References to Ann Eliza’s constant ill health, ranging from malaria to tonsil problems, fill her husband’s letters. Yet God apparently worked even these maladies to her good and that of many others, as her long hours indisposed as a younger woman helped spur her practice of studying and translating Creek. She also overcame the United States Government’s long discouragement of her translation efforts. Only a small fraction of the tribe had the opportunity to learn English, she told federal officials.
Translating the New Testament into Creek took Ann Eliza twelve years. One of her most trusted interpreters, N. B. Sullivan, marveled: "If we finish a page a day we do well. We worked on one verse three hours."
The War Between the States drove the Robertsons out of Indian Territory just like it did most other missionaries in the area. They returned five years later to find Tullahassee and the surrounding country in a near shambles. Unlike the missionaries, most of the Creeks had had nowhere to retreat. Ann Eliza wrote an article for children describing how the post-removal tribe was “just becoming fairly settled and prosperous once more, when the Civil War, which began in 1861, drove them hither and thither, and for five years they were homeless again, and their graves are scattered from southern Kansas to Texas. On their return they again had to build new homes, or rebuild the old ones.”
The Robertsons set about helping rebuild the ruins, as well as those of Tullahassee’s ministry to the Creeks. They succeeded. Tullahassee educated most of the Creek nation’s leadership from the mid-nineteenth century onward. In 1868, William launched the first Creek language newspaper, Our Monthly. Ann was one of the primary contributors, with hymns and Scripture passages she had translated into Creek.
Fire destroyed most of Tullahassee in 1880. William’s longtime assistant died around the same time. Age, sorrow, stress, and exhaustion conspired to end his life a few months later. Ann Eliza overcame this tragedy as well. She continued her translating efforts. Her three daughters taught at Indian mission schools, one of them (Alice) later extending the family’s illustrious history with election as Oklahoma’s first female Congresswoman and only the second in America. In 1892, Wooster University bestowed upon Ann Eliza the first honorary doctorate ever awarded to a woman in the United States.
Like other missionaries from various denominations who worked amongst assorted tribes and people groups, and whose efforts God crowned with success, Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson honored not only the spiritual conversion and devotion of the Creeks, but their dignity, heritage, and unique customs and folkways. She indicated her respect and esteem for them when she recounted “rejoicing to give encouragement to any work which shall either benefit or perpetuate the name of the tribes to whom God gave this country before Columbus’s great discovery.”