Author: Katherine Cotuc
It was a usual busy day on January 22, 1776 for Joseph Johnson. Back in Mohegan, Johnson was living on a farm and spending most of his time completing everyday chores. He looked over his horses, worked on construction around the house, cut wood, and questioned the state of his immortal soul.
Mohegan meetinghouse, 1831
Johnson was born and raised in Mohegan, Connecticut as a Christian Indian. He was baptized in a Christian church and sent to Eleazar Wheelock’s Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut, commonly known as Moor’s Charity School (named for the donor of the land). During the eighteenth century many colonists were investing their time and money in creating Indian schools where they could assimilate Native Americans into European culture. While at Moor’s Charity School, Johnson learned English, Greek, and Latin, and studied the Bible. Johnson also participated in chores around the school and worked in the fields or washed dishes. His time at the Charity School was rough. He constantly found himself feeling alone and confused about the kind of person he was. His teacher, Eleazar Wheelock, constantly made him feel inferior because of his Native American roots. In many of Johnson’s letters to Wheelock he closes them by referring to himself as his “poor good for nothing Black Indian.” With doubt filling his mind, Johnson constantly wondered what his purpose in life was. He questioned his faith and whether he would ever be able to amount to anything, like his teacher Wheelock.
During 1769, Johnson began his travels throughout the colonies. Stepping into different towns and encountering new tribes, Johnson realized how distant he felt from his Native American roots. Finished with collecting money for the Charity school, Johnson wanted to do something for himself. Later in the year he signed onto a whaling ship as a sailor and was able to travel without the expectations to preach or teach. With the sea and whole world at his feet, Johnson could not stop thinking about God. He constantly found himself questioning whether God would be able to forgive him for his sins and whether he would be able to fully accept God and His plan. Late in 1771, after his personal battles, Johnson decided to return back to Mohegan where he had an epiphany about his true identity.
In Mohegan, Johnson kept various diaries describing his every day activities and thoughts. Even though he grew up in Mohegan and viewed himself as an Indian, it was tough to identify with the community. Wheelock’s teachings about Native Americans instilled in his mind that the traditional Native American lifestyle was demonic. Wheelock’s teaching made Johnson believe he was a savage. Even with his internal doubts, he kept attending church and practiced Wheelock’s teachings. He had always managed to keep his faith in God even though he knew that he rebelled against Him many times. Throughout his writings he constantly called for God to give him an answer on how he could be saved.
On May 24, 1772, Johnson declared his dedication to God. Throughout his whole life Johnson had wondered whether he would ever be worthy to accept God. He questioned if he was ready to take on the responsibility of preaching and truly place his life in God’s hand. Knowing that he is not perfect and will never reach perfection, he believed that with constant help from God one day he will be able to go to heaven and live in peace. This epiphany made him realize that it is not about being perfect or a certain race, it was about being ready to change into a holy person. Johnson was ready to embark on a whole new phase in his life, and he did so in Farmington, Connecticut.
The Tunxis Indians, who were indigenous to the Farmington area, sold their land in 1640 to the governor of the Connecticut Colony. The Tunxis’ relationship with the English settlers was uneasy. They found it difficult to keep their identity and customs as they constantly found themselves in disputes with neighboring tribes. Local farmers eventually bought the land they owned in Indian Neck and they lost their livelihood. Since conversion was a goal for many settlers, in 1706 the General Assembly of Connecticut prepared a plan to assimilate the Tunxis Indians. In 1727 it was ordered that all Tunxis Indians parents had to teach their children how to read in English and catechize them.
Throughout the years the relationship between the Tunxis and the settlers of Farmington did get better. With the help of assimilation they were able to communicate and work out their differences. The settlers stated, “…the greater part of Indians, descendants of s[ai]d tribe that now continue in said Farmington are persons duly taught the use of letters and are well instructed in economy and are well able to bargain and contract for themselves.” Joseph Johnson visited Farmington in 1772 and was accepted by both the white population and Native Americans. After Johnson gave a sermon, written by Christian Indian Samson Occom, on the execution of Moses Paul, a Native American who was tried for murder, he was offered a teaching position in the local Indian school. The entire town was inspired by the sermon’s explanation of sin eventually led to death. Johnson was given work at a school in Farmington and kept a diary about his experiences both in the school and his time in Farmington.
As the colonists began to create Indian schools, they each had a specific goal in mind. Depending on where the schools were located, the goals were different. For example in New England many of the Indian schools focused on spreading Christianity because of the Puritan population. In the south they were more focused on teaching Native Americans about trade and business. Margaret Szasz, a historian of Native American education, found three common major criteria to the success in most Indian schools. First, each organization focused on, “the need to Christianize and civilize the natives.” Second, a colonist advertised the importance of Indian schools and willing to visit different Native American tribes to retrieve students. Finally, the most important aspect of success for an Indian school was the support and involvement of a Native American student. Having a Native American who had extensive knowledge in European culture, language, literature, and Christianity was vital. It created a middle ground between the colonists and Native Americans. Being able to relate to an instructor created a safer environment where students showed willingness to participate and learn. Joseph Johnson became a middleman between the two cultures and showed the benefits of assimilating into European culture.
During Johnson’s time at Farmington he taught at the Indian school in the west end, near a bend in the Farmington River, in a classroom that started off with nine students.
Currently a public school district, this area was once home to Joseph Johnson’s Indian School.
Johnson opened and closed the school day with prayer, making Christianity the core of all lessons. He also prepared songbooks for his students because enjoyed music. He held practices where his students prepared for upcoming performances. His students performed for several people around Farmington and by the end of ten weeks he had sixteen students in total. Johnson’s experience at the Farmington school set forth his final mission.
Johnson noticed that Native Americans had the chance to advance in the changing world around them. He began to communicate with Samson Occom about opportunities for Christianized Indians. He believed that a new settlement composed of Christianized Indian could succeed using European laws and regulations. Occom did not see a place for Christianized Indians in European settlements. He believed that even though they successfully acquired knowledge from their teachers and were fluent in English and dedicated Christians, the settlers still viewed them in a negative light because of their heritage. Occom believed that Christianized Indians were capable of doing more than farming or taking orders from settlers. Both Johnson and Occom decided to use their relationship with the Native Americans from Oneida to acquire land and start the new settlement of Brothertown in New York. In 1797, 14,662 acres were bought for Brothertown.
Current Oneida Indian Reservation was the eastern border of Brothertown; the Falls were the western border.
Almost all of the Tunxis Indians followed Johnson in his new mission and moved to Brothertown. Brothertown’s government closely mirrored the Connecticut Colony. Brothertown was not successful in their attempts of creating a new settlement and Johnson died in 1776 before being able to name the settlement. Yet he inspired several Native Americans, not only with Brothertown but also with teaching and preaching. At Occom’s funeral, over 300 Native Americans from different tribes attended. Even with the failed mission, it motivated other Christianized Indians to find a voice of their own.
Johnson, Joseph, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren the Writings of Joseph Johnson, 1751-1776, ed., Laura J. Murray. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Johnson, Joseph. “Joseph Johnson’s Diary: Manuscripts Related to Samson Occom and Eleazar Wheelock’s Early Indian Students.” October 9, 1771. http://libarchive.dartmouth.edu/cdm/ref/collection/occom/id/3271.
Samson Occom, “Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian.” Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800, http://0-docs.newsbank.com.www.consuls.org/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:EAIX
Ava Chamberlain, “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut,” New England Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2004): 414.
Julius Gay, Farmington Papers. Salem, Massachusetts: Lockwood and Brainard Co., 1997.
Lopenzina, Drew. “‘The Whole Wilderness Shall Blossom as the Rose:’ Samson Occom, Joseph Johnson, and the Question of Native Settlement on Cooper’s Frontier.” American Quarterly 58, no. 4 (2006): 1119-1145.
For more information about Native American literacy:
“On the Education of Indian Youth,” The Theological Magazine, or, Synopsis of Modern Religious Sentiment. American Periodicals, http://0-search.proquest.com.www.consuls.org/docview/88878433?accountid=9970
Wyss, Hilary E. “Mary Occom and Sarah Simon: Gender and Native Literacy in Colonial New England.” New England Quarterly 79, no. 3 (2006): 387-412.
Wyss, Hilary E. English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.