Just a piece of local history


IMG_2270In 1994, John Demos wrote “The Unredeemed Captive: a family story from early America.”  He traced the life of Eunice Williams, a captive from the 1704 French and Indian raid on the frontier town of Deerfield, MA.  An amazing story.  On a recent trip to Deerfield, I found another Demos book.

In 1996 the author was visiting an old friend in Cornwall, CT.  A dinner guest told a story claiming it’s “just a piece of local history.”  Demos was “transfixed.”  He pulled on the thread which unraveled a fascinating, tragic, story, local, national even international.  His book following years of research was “The Heathen School: a story of hope and betrayal in the age of the early republic” (2014). It documents his journey and tells the story he discovered.

Diane and I have passed through and stopped in Cornwall CT several times.  It’s picturesque, a covered bridge over the Housantonic River, historic houses, and a few crafts shops — a potter and cabinet maker. On our next visit, we will search for traces of “the heathen school.” That “piece of local history.”

In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries were active, attempting to convert non believers throughout the world.  One missionary group decided to establish a school for heathens in Cornwall.  It’s first student was a Hawaiian, Henry Obookiah.   Henry became a Christian and proselytized.  But he died prematurely and became an ikon, a martyr.

Henry and others from the Pacific islands came to America as baggage, part of the China Trade. Investors in New York, Boston and Philadelphia filled ships with American- European goods, including opium to trade for the silks, spices and arts of the Orient. Obookiah and other islanders were picked up on the side.


The Cornwall school would attempt to educate, civilize, and Christianize heathens — about 100 students from the Pacific islands, Asia, and American Indian tribes would attend.  The “experiment” as it would eventually be called, failed. The plan was for students to learn in Cornwall and then take Western, American, Christian values back to their home country. Few did. Some became caught up in American culture. Good intentions were easily drowned in alcohol. Or more seriously love and sex.

The Cornwall Heathen school failed; it lasted about a decade. The reason for failure was clear — inter-racial marriage. In the 1600s, the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was accepted, even celebrated. But by 1820 the marriage of an American Indian and a white girl was unacceptable.


John Ridge, son af a Cherokee chief was a good student and growing Christian. When he took sick he was nursed for an extended time in the house of the school steward, John Northrop. Northrup’s daughter, Sarah and John fell in love, would announce their plans to marry, upsetting family, the Cornwall community, missionary societies and the country at large. Her family eventually gave in. Sarah and John would  leave Cornwall and settle with the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. But in the next year another marriage in Cornwall would further rock  believers.

Elias Boudinot (another Cherokee, named after a NJ delegate to the Continental Congress) and Harriet Gold, daughter of a prominent Cornwall family, formed an attachment that would lead to marriage. This was too much for town residents and the mission community. The school was closed; and the experiment of educating heathens together in an American school wouldn’t be tried again. Elias and Harriet  followed John and Sarah to Georgia.


Ironically, not surprisingly, John and Elias were successful. Both become leaders among the Cherokees who were facing the “removal” policies of the Jackson administration. Both supported “removal” hoping it would help in the maintenance, the saving of Cherokee culture and traditions. Sadly, both were killed in Oklahoma, in 1839, by Cherokees angry at the treaty that signed away their Georgia homelands.



Harriet and Elias.

In addition to the “local history story,” I was taken in by Demos’s writing style. He describes his trips to Cornwall searching for  traces of the “heathen school.” He visits the Northrop house where John and Sarah fell in love. He finds the home of Col. Benjamin Gold and family during the time his daughter, Harriet, and Elias Boudinot formed an attachment. Other school buildings have been torn down. Interesting, Henry Obookiah, the first Hawaiian student was buried in the Cornwall cemetery with a large gravestone in 1818; his remains were dug up and removed to Hawaii in 1993. Demos also  travels to New Echota, Georgia, home of the Cherokee Nation.


The Gold House in Cornwall.

A footnote: in 1814 the Boston Missionary group, who sponsored Henry Obookiah and the Cornwall school, supported the education of Eleazer Williams, great grandson of Eunice Williams, the “unredeemed captive.”

Small world; local history.  Maybe some lessons for today.  You decide.