Lessons from the Female Cherokee Seminary

The Trail of Tears (1838–1839) culminated in the relocation of over 20,000 Cherokee Indians from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to northeastern Oklahoma. Estimates are that 4,000 Cherokee men, women, and children died during this journey. 

Upon settling in an area called Park Hill just outside of the present day city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokees began rebuilding their nation. Within a decade of their arrival, around the same time the Southern Baptist Convention was being formed, the Cherokee people began to establish a system of education for the Cherokee 
men — and women.

The Cherokee Female Seminary

With the help of missionaries named Samuel Austin Worcester and Elizur Butler who had traveled The Trail of Tears with them, the Cherokees at Park Hill began a seminary for women in 1851. Samuel’s daughter Sarah taught at the seminary.

Its rigorous curriculum was patterned after Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. Though the seminary offered no instruction in Cherokee language or culture, it was open only to full- and mixed-blood Cherokee women. 

These women and their educational experiences greatly influenced the lives of their descendants and the development of the Cherokee Nation. Students at the Cherokee Female Seminary took courses in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, political economy, literary criticism, theology, philosophy and other advanced courses. They staged dramatic productions, held music recitals, and published their own newsletter. Approximately 3,000 women attended the seminary until its closure in 1909. The seminary building was eventually destroyed by fire, but three original columns from the building mark the entrance into the modern Cherokee Heritage Center.

The seminary educated Cherokee women so successfully that some of the more traditional Cherokee men began to complain that the women were no longer suited for domestic chores. The Cherokee Female Seminary was eventually folded into the Cherokee Men’s Seminary, which had been established in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The combined schools became what we know today as Northeastern State University, one of oldest institutions of higher education west of the Mississippi, and still the university with the highest concentration of American Indian students in the United States.

According to Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, “the Cherokee Seminaries were among the first educational systems built west of the Mississippi — Indian or non-Indian. In fact, for a period of time during the mid-nineteenth century, the Cherokee population was more literate than the neighboring non-Indian population.”

Women in Today’s Southern Baptist Seminaries

It is interesting to compare the current controversies over women students and professors in Southern Baptist seminaries with the academic rigors of Cherokee Indian women in the 1850s. In a day when some Southern Baptists believe it is wrong to educate women in the classics, languages, or biblical theology — not to mention to employ women in teaching these subjects — it might be well for us all to remember the examples of those evangelical, conservative Christian Indians who have gone before us. 

No doubt there will be opposition when an increasing number of theologically minded women serve in the Southern Baptist Convention or female Hebrew, Greek, and theology professors are given teaching positions at Southern Baptist seminaries. A few might even wish to destroy the ministerial reputation and careers of those Southern Baptists who affirm women in the highest of academic roles within the SBC. But the negative reaction of some should never negate the positive results of what is accomplished through faithful, intellectually gifted Southern Baptist women committed to higher education for everyone.

Conclusion

Davy Crockett was severely persecuted for standing up for the Cherokee people before Congress in Washington, D.C. during the 1830s. Crockett’s own political career was destroyed because he supported the Cherokees when everyone else wanted them out of sight and out of mind. Davy Crockett eventually made his way west to Texas where he became a frontier hero and died at the Alamo. But before Crockett left the nation’s capital he made a statement regarding his strong stand for the oppressed Cherokee Indians — a statement that is as appropriate today regarding women in Southern Baptist academia as it was in Crockett’s day regarding the Cherokee people:

“I would sooner be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized.”

This Sooner couldn’t agree more.