The humble-looking mission church in the middle of a cemetery was built two centuries ago with $1,333 and Native Americans’ labor.
John Stewart, a Methodist and the son of slaves, had dreamed that God told him to travel north from his home in Marietta, Ohio, until he met a people who needed him. Inspired by this message he believed was from God, Stewart walked until he reached the city of Upper Sandusky in the state’s northern region and encountered the Wyandotte Nation.
Stewart began preaching and singing to the Wyandottes in 1819 and soon was joined by the Rev. James Finley, who asked the U.S. government to fund a church for the natives on tribal land. The government provided the money, and the Methodists’ Wyandotte Indian Mission was born. For the next two decades, the Wyandottes worshiped and learned at the church, which doubled as a school.
When the Indian Removal Act in 1843 forced the Wyandottes to move west, they sold about 109,144 acres in Ohio and 4,996 acres in Michigan to the U.S. government. They also deeded 3 acres of their land to what is now the United Methodist Church to secure “the house and the place where we have buried friends from being desecrated,” according to the deed.
Two centuries after the Methodists first encountered the Wyandottes, the church last weekend returned the historic site to the tribe.
“This is monumental,” said Billy Friend, chief of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. “I think when our ancestors left, they always thought that someday they would be back and, of course, that never happened.”
The transaction is unusual; although Native Americans have frequently been forced to give up their property, land transfers rarely move in the other direction. No money will be exchanged for the tract, which includes the mission church and part of what is now the Old Mission Cemetery. Methodists continued to use the church until 1847 and then temporarily abandoned it due to its poor condition. They restored the building in 1889.
“I think the Wyandottes knew that the Methodists were the ones that built the church and they were the ones that showed genuine compassion toward them, so who better to leave it in the hands of than the UMC?” Friend said. “And looking back, I think that was the best thing that we had done.”
The Wyandotte Nation, based in the town of Wyandotte, Oklahoma, has about 6,600 members. The Oklahoma members make up the federally recognized tribe, while other Wyandottes who live across the United States are not federally recognized.
The tribe left Ohio two centuries ago only after several failed attempts by the U.S. government to convince them to move west of the Mississippi River. The Wyandottes eventually came to feel that acquiescing to the government’s demands offered their only chance at maintaining their tribal identity.
Deeding the three acres of land back to the Wyandotte Nation acknowledges the tribe’s historic relationship with the United Methodist Church and the suffering its members weathered when the government made them leave. An event celebrating the transfer featured a march through town, a pipe ceremony — asking the Creator to bless the ground — a tribal dance exhibition and the tribal princess reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” in tribal sign language.
The UMC this year is celebrating 200 years of missions, of which Stewart’s ministry among the Wyandottes was the first. The anniversary made Thomas Kemper, the church’s general secretary of global ministries, pay a renewed attention to the deeded land and decide it was time to return it to the tribe.
Although the Methodists’ interactions with the Wyandottes were largely positive, Kemper said giving back the property is partly an act of repentance for times when Methodists mistreated Native Americans — sometimes badly. Col. John Chivington, for example, was a Methodist who led a group that killed about 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.
“People have been killed, and we have been complicit in this,” Kemper said.
“This giving back of land is not taking anything away from this responsibility that we have as Methodists in this system.” To fulfill its responsibility to Native Americans, the church also works on preventing suicide among native young people, among other causes.
A group of Methodists in Upper Sandusky has been caring for the mission church and the surrounding cemetery, where Stewart is buried, since the Wyandottes’ departure. Weekly services are still held at the church in the summers.
After the Wyandottes regain ownership of the property, they plan to apply for the U.S. government to hold the land in a trust. This ownership arrangement, which is the most common one for tribal land, provides legal safeguards for the property. The Wyandottes also intend to seek National Historic Landmark status for the land.
Since 2007, Friend said Wyandotte high-school and college students, as well as tribal elders, have traveled to Upper Sandusky from the reservation in Oklahoma to learn about the Wyandottes’ history. Members of the tribe learned to read and write at the mission church, Friend said, and two tribal chiefs became ordained missionaries themselves.
Stewart met the Wyandottes at an important time for the tribe. A highly respected chief had just died, Friend said, and the aftermath of the War of 1812 created a sense of the unknown. Stewart’s preaching made the Wyandottes think perhaps God was watching over them and had sent someone else to lead them.
”Nobody knew what the future held for Indian people,” Friend said. “So when John Stewart came and began to preach hope and compassion and love, I think that was something that our people needed to hear at that time.”
Many Wyandottes previously had converted to Catholicism when missionaries from the Jesuit religious order visited, said Mary Stockwell, author of “The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians.” So when the Methodists came, she said the tribe members found their Christianity comfortingly familiar. They appreciated the missionaries’ emphasis on non-violence, strong marriages and temperance.
Unlike later generations of missionaries who considered indigenous peoples to be beneath white settlers, Stockwell said the Methodists respected the Wyandottes’ culture and traditions.
”This generation of missionaries, they didn’t have that (superior) mentality,” she said. “They had a mentality of ‘We’re all equal. We’re all the same.’”
At the mission school, boys learned to be commercial farmers who grew corn, tended to orchards and raised livestock. Some families used the knowledge to start their own individual farms, Stockwell said. The girls learned to sew and to take care of a household, just as non-native girls were learning at that time.
By the time President James Monroe left office in 1825, relations between Native Americans and white Americans across the country were uneasy. Members of both groups were telling the president they couldn’t coexist: The whites complained the Native Americans were failing to assimilate. The Native Americans worried the white Americans would overwhelm them.
President Andrew Jackson in 1830 signed the Indian Removal Act, forcing indigenous tribes to move west of the Mississippi River. He sent volunteers to negotiate with the Wyandottes three times over the next several years, and the Wyandottes repeatedly refused to budge.
When one of their young chiefs was killed by white hunters, the Wyandottes decided they had to leave so they could retain their tribal identity. In their final weeks in Ohio, Stockwell said the Wyandottes frequently prayed at the mission church before they moved to Kansas.
”There’s 573 tribes in our nation, and all of us have our own Trail of Tears,” Friend said. “This was kind of the beginning of our Trail of Tears in Ohio.”