Peter Dougherty and his Old Mission mission

Stephen Lewis

Last week, after 15 years of fundraising and restoration, the 1842 Dougherty Mission House on Old Mission Peninsula, a major historical structure, was opened to the public. That event provides an opportunity to put Dougherty’s missionary activity into context.

In the beginning of the colonization period, before the Pilgrims had even boarded the Mayflower, as their governor William Bradford recalled, they viewed the natives whom traders had already encountered as “savage and brutish” and therefore their territory as literally “unpeopled."

If they were to share space with the colonists, they would have to be lifted up from their pre-contact mode of living and thus become people. To this end, for example, John Elliot translated the Bible into the language of the Massachusetts Wampanoags and published it in 1689.

But that proselytizing effort had a darker side. After the successful and bloody prosecution of the 1637 war against the Connecticut Pequots, the defeated tribe members were subjected to cultural cleansing, such as being forbidden to use their own language.

An exception to seeing the tribes as requiring transformation or, failing that, to be pushed aside, was the view of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Williams learned the natives’ language, dealt with them on a more or less equal footing, and rejected the notion that a distant king’s charter gave the colonists legal right to the natives’ territory.

As descendants more of Elliot than Williams, 19th-century missionaries like Dougherty aimed to assimilate the tribes, to turn them into a version of the settlers themselves, by converting them to Christianity and instructing them on how to live as farmers, which was how most Americans lived at that time.

As was the case in the early colonial period, in Dougherty’s broad time frame the missionary impulse more and more became subordinate to militarily backed westward expansion. The settlers kept coming, looking for land, a process interrupted after Dougherty established his mission by the Civil War but then resumed and intensified with continuing military action against the tribes. Civil War hero Phillip Sheridan has a square named after him in New York City for that service but his subsequent experience fighting in the Plains Wars against the western tribes reputedly led him to declare, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

The emerging policy toward the natives favored moving the native population out of the way through force of arms as Custer was trying to do so prospectors could get at the recently discovered gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, then under treaty as native territory. Those treaties, though frequently violated by settlers, were a better version of the policy of forcibly removing the tribes. In the treaty of 1836, for example, the tribes ceded their ownership of more than a third of present-day Michigan, including the land on which sits Dougherty’s house as well as mine wherein I am writing this piece.

No doubt some native leaders made the pragmatic decision to try to coexist in the wave that threatened to drown them. Such a one was probably Chief Ahgosa who invited Peter Dougherty to bring his mission from Elk Rapids to Old Mission Peninsula, and later when Michigan made it legally possible for natives to own land, moved his people, along with Dougherty to the New Mission in Omena.

In many ways, the collaboration of Chief Ahgosa and Peter Dougherty was a successful response to a situation that still, in the final analysis, came at the expense of the tribes forfeiting their centuries-old traditions, which some present-day tribal descendants now strive to recover.

The centuries-long interaction between native and non-native Americans is a complicated, sometimes disturbing, story of which Peter Dougherty’s collaboration with Chief Ahgosa is a more positive episode.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.