The early 1800s brought rapid changes across the frontier. Farms, communities, schools, and churches were established. Some thrived while others faltered. One of the leaders in these efforts was Rev. Cephas Washburn, a New England transplant who founded one of the first schools and the first Presbyterian mission in the Arkansas Territory.
Cephas Washburn was born in Vermont in 1793. He spent most of his early life working on his father’s farm. A serious injury at a young age limited his abilities on the farm, so he turned his energies to education.
He attended both the University of Vermont and the Andover Theological Seminary in Connecticut. Washburn was formally ordained in January 1818. Not long afterward, he was assigned to a Presbyterian mission to the Cherokees in eastern Tennessee.
Many of the Cherokees had already seen the writing on the wall and knew that their time in the Appalachians was limited. By the 1810s, many were already moving West, settling in what is now western Arkansas and portions of eastern Oklahoma.
As many Cherokees moved west, Washburn moved with them, arriving in Arkansas in 1819. A number of Cherokee leaders requested that the Presbyterian Church establish a mission school, and the church directed Washburn to do so. Washburn dutifully founded the Dwight Mission School near what is now Russellville in August 1820, naming the school after Rev. Timothy Dwight, a respected minister and president of Yale College and a founder of Washburn’s alma mater, Andover Seminary. In the process of founding the mission school, Washburn founded the first Protestant school in Arkansas, even ahead of the territorial capital then at Arkansas Post. In 1821, Washburn also delivered the first Presbyterian sermon in Little Rock. Though many of these missionary schools provided as satisfactory an education as could be found on the frontier of that period, the tribes learned that the price was often that of their language and their heritage. Many of these schools shunned tribal beliefs and shamed any attempt to speak any language except English. Though Cherokee culture was not a part of the curriculum, the Dwight Mission School was an exception in many ways. Washburn treated Cherokee culture and the people with a respect rarely seen in the early nineteenth century as he worked with the Cherokee community and defended Cherokee claims to the area.
While the school was relatively successful with the education of the children, their parents remained wary of the school’s intentions and attempts to convert their children to Christianity. Nevertheless, they continued to send their children to the school. Washburn actively worked to ease their misgivings and learned all that he could about the Cherokees while recording his findings.
By 1824, the school had expanded to a campus of two dozen buildings, offering lessons in skilled trades as well as math, reading, and writing. However, events continued to turn against the Cherokees, and the tribe had to move again as pressures by settlers and government authorities grew. The mission relocated to an area near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, in 1829, as the Cherokees’ time in Arkansas neared an end. In 1831, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing all remaining Native American tribes in the Southeast to move to the new Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), which was created by splitting the Arkansas Territory in half. The eastern band of Cherokees attempted to fight removal in federal court, even getting the Supreme Court to agree in the case Worcester v. Georgia in 1833 that the tribes had a legal right to their lands through treaties with the federal government. Congress and President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and forced the tribes out, initiating what became known as the Trail of Tears. The remaining tribes in Arkansas were also stripped of their territories. By 1835, all the Native American tribes had been pushed out of Arkansas.
He continued to work with the tribe until 1850. At that point, he began serving as the preacher at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith. He held this position for six years as the community and church grew.
Washburn was active up to his final days. In early 1860, he began a long trip across the state for a church meeting in Helena. The long journey in the unforgiving elements of late winter were too much for a man just shy of 67. He contracted pneumonia and was forced to stop in Little Rock. He died in Little Rock on March 17. A historical marker today sits at the site of the first school near Lake Dardanelle. The mission school he founded continued to operate off-and-in until 1949 and continues today as a museum and Presbyterian summer camp. Nine years after his death, Washburn’s memoirs of his years with the Cherokees, Reminiscences of the Indians, were published. The record of the missionaries was mixed, but the efforts of Washburn helped give valuable insights into the Cherokee community of the time and the early settlement of the Arkansas Territory.