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Missionary Work and Indian Policy
Digital History ID 241

Author:   William Dickson


One major goal of American missionaries was to Christianize and assimilate Native Americans, to make them, as one missionary put it, "English in their language, civilized in their habits, and Christian in their religion." Yet missionary work among Native Americans was largely unsuccessful. By 1829, only about 1500 Native Americans had been converted to Christianity.

In the following letter to his children, William Dickson, a missionary among Illinois Indians, discusses his work.


A line from your affectionate Father, who is now 7 or 800 miles from you in a strange and a far western land I trust will not be unacceptable. I left home on the 5 day of this month and am now seated in the Town of Ottawa [Illinois] 80 miles south west of Chicago. I will give you a short account of my journey.... We traveled in a light wagon and brought our saddles with us. Some part of the road was somewhat difficult, however we got along very well we traveled through part of Penna, the length way of Ohio & Michigan and across the end of Indiana. We are now about 100 miles into the state of Illinois, and I must say that I believe we are in the Garden of America--the Country from Chicago to this place is at least 3/4 Prairie, in some places as far as the eye can see it is nothing but a beautiful field covered with grass, which is now about 6 or 8 inches high waving with the wind. The soil is rich and the most of the ground is rolling with an abundance of beautiful springs, the streams run rapid, the timber is rather scarce, but lime stone & sand stone for building is plenty....

I was no little astonished when I came here to find that God had established a church in this almost entirely new country with here.... There is also a Sabbath School and a Temperance Society.

At Chicago I had the pleasure of being introduced to the principal Chief of the Potawatamie Indians, and I had a long talk with him, in regard to his people, the conversation was very interesting, he seemed to cast off all reserve and gave his opinion freely as to the best plan to Christianize the Indians, he says it never can be done until white men are prevented from taking the Strong Water (liquor) among them, and he likewise said that the wicked traders had done more to destroy his people than the bad spirit had--and when I told him that Congress had passed a law prohibiting all men from taking liquor across the Mississippi, he rejoiced as he said his nation was about to remove west of that river. I gave him my views respecting the Indians and the best way to cultivate their morals. He said it was the best way he had ever heard of, which was to settle near them and bring their children among ours, and teach them to read and to labor, and deal honestly with them and give them no whisky. He said it would not be long until the old ones would die off, and the young ones would become good. I told them it was my intention to visit some of the tribes near the Mississippi. He expressed a great deal of gratitude, and said he was wishing to do all in his power to forward my wishes, he gave me a reference to Keokuk, the principal chief of the Sauks, who he said I would find at their village on the west bank of the Mississippi....

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: William Dickson to his children

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