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Missionary Bookcase

Delaware Misson bookcase

Indian pupils made this bookcase for a missionary, the Reverend John Pratt, at the Delaware Baptist Mission.

"The sacrifices and inconveniences were forgotten by us when we considered the great object for which we lived and labored--the conversion of the Indians and their advancement to civilization."
--Olivia Pratt, Delaware Baptist Mission

The U.S. government made a decision in 1830 that had devastating effects on Native American culture. It forced all eastern tribes to move west of the Mississippi River, opening new lands for white settlement. Accompanying the tribes on their westward trek were missionaries whom the government believed could "civilize" the Indians. This bookcase is an ironic symbol of their efforts. It represents the destruction of the tribes' traditional way of life, but also embodies the sentiment "knowledge is power." In bringing written language to the tribes, missionaries also gave them the tools to succeed in a white man's world.

The bookcase was made for the Reverend John Pratt by Indian pupils under his charge at the Delaware Baptist Mission in northeastern Kansas (then Indian Territory). The Delaware people's original homelands were on the East coast, but over the course of two centuries they had been forced westward to a reservation just north of the Kansas River. There, in the 1830s, the Baptists established a mission for them near the Grinter crossing.

Chaos often was the rule in Indian Territory. Treaty money poured in from the nation's capital, to be paid to the tribes in exchange for their old lands. Unscrupulous Indian agents, land speculators, and even factions within the tribes all vied for this money. The sale of liquor was forbidden but nonetheless a major part of illegal trade. In this complex climate, the government helped finance mission schools for Indian children because it believed missionaries were the best people to bring order. Most missions were manual labor training schools. According to this educational model, teachers trained students in manual labor as well as standard classroom disciplines. Boys fed livestock, worked in the fields, and learned trades such as blacksmithing and carpentry. Girls were instructed in food preparation, housekeeping techniques, and needlework. Both sexes learned reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Shawnee language pamphlet printed by John Pratt, 1837

Life at the Missions

Given the missionaries' charge to Americanize the Indians, it is perhaps surprising that not all reading and writing was done in English. Inspired by Jotham Meeker, an early Kansas missionary who had developed the first written language for several tribes, John Gill Pratt arrived in Indian Territory with his new wife Olivia in 1837. An experienced printer, he immediately took over operation of Meeker's press and continued publishing textbooks, gospels, hymns, and other works in Indian languages.

After nine years with the Shawnee and a short stint with another tribe, Pratt was put in charge of the Baptist's Delaware mission. This school had opened a decade earlier when the tribe directed the federal government to set aside a portion of their annuities for education. Pratt would minister to the Delaware for 20 years, from 1848 until 1868, using the same texts he had earlier printed in their native tongue.

As with most Indian missions, the number of pupils at the Delaware school varied greatly. Students suffered from homesickness at the boarding school, and had a difficult time adjusting to regimented days. Clara Gowing, one of the teachers, expressed her frustration from a missionary perspective:

"Unused to restraint at home, the discipline of school life was very irksome to the children, and not easy for us, especially out of school and in winter when they could not exercise out of doors. A room full of lively children, jabbering an unknown tongue, was very trying on one's nerves."

Despite such cultural tensions, many lasting friendships developed between Indians and missionaries. The latter often tried to do what was best for the tribes so long as it didn't interfere with the missions' avowed purpose. In 1860, Pratt argued against a treaty he believed the tribe was coerced into accepting. That same year, his oldest son married a daughter of a Delaware chief. In 1862, Pratt accompanied Delaware leaders to Washington where they negotiated improvements to the reservation; unfortunately, the government did not deliver as promised.

John and Olivia Pratt at the Delaware Baptist Mission, ca. 1895

Ultimately, all Indian missions in Kansas failed. A low percentage of Native Americans actually attended mission schools because many were threatened by efforts to erase traditional culture. Sickness among the tribes increased feelings of resentment. Money promised by the government usually arrived late or not at all, and the outbreak of the Civil War further exhausted funds earmarked for missionary work.

John Pratt lost the focus of his missionary zeal when the Delaware were moved to a reserve in present-day Oklahoma in 1867-68. He devoted the remainder of his life to farming and stock-raising, with a little preaching and home missionary work near the old Delaware school. He died in 1900.

Pratt's bookcase, made of native cherry wood by his Delaware pupils in the 1840s or '50s, is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History where it can be seen on display in the main gallery. The museum collections also include a communion set and globe used at the Delaware Baptist Mission.

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Entry: Missionary Bookcase

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2007

Date Modified: February 2024

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.