The Old New York Frontier/Part 2/Chapter 2

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The Old New York Frontier
Francis Whiting Halsey[edit]

Part 2. Missionaries and the French War (1650-1769)
Chapter 2. Missionaries from New England (1745–1748)[edit]

AFTER the Church of England missionaries came the Non-conformists. First on the list in influence on the Susquehanna Valley is the Rev. John Sergeant, who, at Stockbridge, Mass., in 1736, had founded an Indian mission with Timothy Woodbridge serving as conductor of a school for Indian boys. Sergeant had been engaged by the Boston Commissioners of the Society in Scotland for Propagating the Gospel, and during fourteen years had given much faithful devotion to the cause. He not only taught Indians in and near Stockbridge but went elsewhere seeking fields of labor. On one of these tours, made in 1744, he visited the Susquehanna Valley. He was in a sense the pioneer New England missionary in this field.

    In the neighboring town of Northampton, then lived Jonathan Edwards, who had shown much interest in the Indians, several of whom he had taught. No man more than he had encouraged the noble and successful David Brainerd in his work on the frontier of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania between the years 1744 and 1747. Brainerd’s labors in the main were on the Delaware near the site of Easton, but he labored also on the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. In 1745 he appears to have gone to Oghwaga, since he preached on the Susquehanna to Indians whom he had known at Stockbridge.

    In those days, at Edwards’s house lived the Rev. Elihu Spencer. Brainerd, while in Boston in the very last stages of consumption, recommended Spencer to the Commissioners, who wished to settle a missionary in the upper Susquehanna Valley. Almost the last letters Brainerd wrote related to Spencer’s coming. In 1748, just after Brainerd breathed his last, Spencer set out on his journey. Thus we have Sergeant, Brainerd, and Spencer as the forerunners of that numerous company who in the succeeding twenty-five years made these lands the scene of busy endeavors.

    For the coming of these men credit belongs to Sir William Johnson. As early as Henry Barclay’s time, Oghwaga had become a centre of English influence. Near Fort Hunter, where Barclay had his post, Johnson was then living, and in 1746, when war with France began anew, Johnson opened communication with the Indians at Oghwaga, secured their friendship, and sent them belts. To a council in Albany he was able at this time to summon sixty Oghwaga warriors, "with the usual train of old men, women and children," who came up in charge of Captain Vrooman and Captain Staats. The warriors said they knew several roads to Canada, and wished "to see the hatchet that we may grasp it." Fourteen of them were at once despatched against the enemy in a company of sixty men.

    When Mr. Spencer arrived in 1748, he therefore came to a savage people who were not strangers to English influence, religious, as well as political and military. He was a young man of twenty-seven, a graduate of Yale, and from Brainerd had learned some of the rudiments of the Indian language. In 1748 he had been ordained, and in September, the war with France having come to a temporary close, went to Oghwaga. He remained until spring, and became very much interested in his work, although he had limited success. He made slow progress with the language. "Though I was very desirous of learning the Indian tongue," he afterward said, "yet through my short residence at Ononghquage and the surly disposition of my interpreter, I confess my proficiency was not great." But he acquired enough knowledge to enable him to make a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. It is as follows:

Lord's Prayer

Among Spencer’s converts were two Indians who long remained faithful allies and assistants to the missionaries who followed him to Oghwaga — Peter Agwrondougwas, known as "Good Peter," and Isaac Dakayenensese. Peter was the chief of the Oneidas, and had been born on the Susquehanna. His greatest gift was oratory, in which he had no superior in his time among the Iroquois.

From the correspondence of Edwards it appears that Spencer "went through many difficulties and hardships, with little or no success." His interpreter was "a woman that had formerly been a captive among the Caughnauwaga Indians in Canada, who speak the same language with those Oneidas, except with some small variation of dialect." Edwards explains further in regard to the interpreter, who was Mrs. Benjamin Ashley:

She went with her husband, an Englishman, and is one of the people we here call Separatists; who showed the spirit he was of there in that wilderness beyond what we knew before. He differed with and opposed Mr. Spencer in his measures and had an ill influence on his wife who, I fear, was very unfaithful, refusing to interpret for Mr. Spencer more than one discourse in a week, a sermon upon the Sabbath, and utterly declined assisting him in discourses and conversations in the week-time. And her interpretations on the Sabbath were performed very unfaithfully, as at last appeared.

Spencer’s short residence at Oghwaga was followed five years later by a missionary expedition, which is better known, and has often through mistake been accepted as the earliest of such enterprises in this valley — the one led by Gideon Hawley and Timothy Woodbridge. That Spencer had no share in it is explained by the fact that in the meantime he had left New England and become settled as pastor over a Presbyterian church in Elizabeth, N. J. He was afterward settled in Jamaica, L. I., and finally in Trenton, where he remained from 1769 until 1784, the year of his death. From 1752 until his death, he was a guardian of Princeton College. He was a facile extempore speaker, and his talents in that direction earned for him the familiar appellation of "ready money Spencer." His native place was East Haddam, Conn., and he was a brother of General Spencer of the Revolution.