Tuscarora New Year's Festival
Though the pre-Revolutionary Tuscaroras, living in Oneida territory, had had some slight contact with Christianity as a result of French Catholic and Anglican missionaries among the Confederacy tribes, it was not until Samuel Kirkland
came as a missionary to the Oneidas that the Tuscaroras had a fulltime Protestant missionary resident nearby. Note 5 Kirkland's ministrations to the Tuscaroras were only sporadic, for his primary work was among the Oneidas, and he never mastered the Tuscarora language, but there was, nevertheless, a small Christian congregation among the Tuscaroras as a result of Kirkland's efforts.
Samuel Kirkland. [Photo Courtesy of Walter Pilkington, Hamilton College.]
Mission work among the Tuscaroras was largely disrupted as a result of the Revolution. After the war, the Tuscarora nation gradually moved westward to settle on the Niagara Frontier, where some of their pro-British brethren had moved earlier. This took them even farther from Christian ministrations. The Christian faith was maintained by a small group of Tuscaroras but there was no regular organized Christian church among them. In 1800 the New York Missionary Society sent Elkanah Holmes as a short-term missionary to the Tuscaroras and to the Senecas at Buffalo Creek. He returned after a few months and agreed to spend another short term of nine months among these Indians. In 1802 he agreed to a third trip and was appointed a permanent missionary to both tribes, charged not only with the religious oversight of these Indians, but also with the responsibility of supervising their educational needs. Note 6 As a result of his work, a church was organized among the Tuscaroras in 1806 with approximately eleven members.
The church was organized in July 1806 by Dr. John McKnight, who had been sent by the New York Missionary Society specifically for this purpose, over the opposition of the pastor, Elkanah Holmes, whose Baptist principles on matters of infant baptism and church organization caused conflict between him and the Missionary Society. McKnight gave a list of eight persons who had been previously baptized and were in full communion at either of the places where the Tuscaroras had formerly received mission services-Oneida and New Stockbridge. These eight were Nicholas Cusick and his wife, Paulus (Apollas?), Peter, Jacob, Christian, Molly, and Margaret. He also baptized four others: Sacharissa (Sagwari'thraeh, or "Spear Trailer," a Turtle Clan sachem) and his wife, Captain William Printup, and George. The church then elected and McKnight ordained Cusick, Sacharissa, and Paulus as ruling elders. John Elliot, who came.to the Tuscaroras as schoolmaster in 1827 and was later licensed as a minister, gave a slightly different list of the original members in his 1828 report to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which had taken over charge of the church. His list included: Sacharissa and his wife, Nicholas Cusick and his wife Elizabeth, Apollas, Mary Pembleton, William Henry, and Catherine. Note 7
After 1800, the religious pressures on the Tuscaroras became quite intense, for this was the period of the great revival of the traditionalist religion. In 1799 there was a revival of the white dog sacrifice at Oneida, after an absence of thirty years, as a result of the preaching of a prophet from the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. Note 8 In a letter dated March 17, 1800, the noted Tuscarora leader Nicholas Cusick wrote to his friend Samuel Kirkland:
One thing is I feel oneasy to hear from my neibours the oniadah the[y] made feast of old heathen way[.] I fear some will draw away there minds from Religion which the[y] go hear.
I wish some Body would prevedet [prevent] this Ceremony.! Note 9
Between 1811 and 1820 there was a long struggle between Christian and non-Christian Tuscaroras. The mission was destroyed as a result of the Tuscaroras' support of the Americans during the War of 1812. Toward the end of December 1813, their entire village was burned by invading forces from Canada. The missionary, Andrew Gray, did not return; and there was no mission work on the reserve from 1814 to 1817. The traditionalists, meanwhile, increased their strength, ridiculed the Christians, and, during a great traditionalist revival in 1820, sought to break up the mission work permanently by moving the tribe to Canada and leaving the missionary without a flock or any potential converts. Only seventy persons finally joined the emigration party to Canada. At this period, the church membership consisted of only sixteen persons. Note 10
The church membership remained fairly steady at about fifteen persons throughout the 1820's, despite a gap in regular missionary oversight between 1823 and 1827. Note 11 By 1833 the church had fifty-three members and a much larger number of attendees. The total number of Indians admitted to church membership between 1833 and the organization of the church in 1806 was seventy-four. Note 12
The New York State Indian Census for 1845, taken by Henry Schoolcraft, listed 63 Christians on the Tuscarora Reservation and 247 traditionalists. Gilbert Rockwood stated that his charge, the Tuscarora Mission, which was then a Congregational church, had a membership of 53 and an average attendance of 70 persons. If the Census figures were accurate, then there were only 10 members of the Baptist church; however, there seems to be a serious discrepancy in the enumeration. The Baptist pastor James Cusick, in a letter to Schoolcraft dated August 4, 1845, claimed that his church had then "in good standing fifty members . . . ." In 1844 it had had 64 members. The Baptist church was actually in steady decline because of the plans of most of the members to emigrate to Kansas. Cusick was the leader of the emigration movement and was absent in Washington and elsewhere during all the winter of 1845-1846 arranging for the emigration. During his absence, no meetings were held at the Baptist church. Note 13 The Christian potential on the reservation was actually greater than the Census implied. Schoolcraft's method of enumeration was very faulty. Children of church members and church attendees who had not as yet become members were automatically included in the Census under the traditionalist heading. Note 14 Whatever the actual count may have been, the traditionalists were still a force to be reckoned with at mid-century. Note 15