Moravian Missionaries (1801-1898)
The story of the Oaks Indian Mission begins with Moravian Missionaries who emigrated from Europe in the early to mid-1700s to, what is now the Carolinas and Georgia, to establish mission work among the Cherokee people.
The Moravians originated in southern Europe while the Danes later came from Northern Europe. Yet, the two found a common religious leader in Martin Luther. They are important in the history of Protestantism because they were the first to declare, “Evangelism was the duty of the church.”
Never a large group within themselves, they were noted for their Christian influence. In 1745, they began the establishment of missions. From their southern headquarters at Salem, NC, they were the first successful missionaries among the Cherokee Nation. This successful Cherokee Mission began in 1801 in Springplace, Georgia.
So well respected were they that they were one of only two denominations that were agents of the government. Teaching and preaching went hand in hand. The Cherokees, from an early date, were interested in education. Schools were always welcomed while churches were sometimes only tolerated. (The word “mission” is used in reference to an educational emphasis.)
Population expansion and discovery of gold in Georgia caused pressure to be placed on the government to move the Native Americans west. President Jackson (1829-37) was in favor of this removal and worked to accomplish it. The first group of Cherokees left Georgia peaceably and in 1817 settled in what is now the state of Arkansas. In 1834, Georgia authorized a state lottery by which Springplace Mission was lost to a bartender. The Mission Home then found temporary shelter in the state of Tennessee. The final removal of the Cherokees was under armed guard lasting for a full year and resulted in the deaths of approximately one-third of the Cherokee Nation.
This final removal of the Cherokee People became known as the “Trail of Tears.” Three Moravian Missionaries left the comfort of their homes to arrive ahead of the Native Americans, with the purpose of searching for a good place to settle in what later became the state of Oklahoma. The site they found was north of the current city of Tahlequah, Oklahoma near the Illinois River in, what is now, northeastern Oklahoma. They named this place New Springplace after their former home in Georgia.
New Springplace was obtained for the Moravian Mission site by special permission of the Cherokee Council through Chief John Ross, a Methodist, and friend of all missionaries. Chief Ross gave a trunk full of books to New Springplace Mission for the school’s opening in 1842.
The future of the Indian Territory missions was in doubt after the Dawes Commission of 1893 broke up Cherokee domain by assigning land allotments. A letter from Mission Headquarters asked the Dawes Commission for a copy of the New Cherokee Treaty and inquired if the Mission would be receiving 160 acres, as was the original amount of land allowed in the Treaty of 1866.
The response from the Dawes Commission was that the Mission would be receiving four acres instead of 160 acres. After receiving the Commission’s response, Springplace Mission closed. (The prefix “New” had been dropped sometime during the 60 years New Springplace had existed.) When it became obvious statehood was coming, Native Americans tried to have Indian Territory become a separate state called Sequoyah.
Niels Laudjids Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1863. At age 14, he felt called to be a missionary. In 1892, he spent the summer at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, learned the Sequoyah Syllabary of 85 characters, which he mastered well enough in three weeks to read the Cherokee language, but not to speak it. In September of the same year, he opened his first school with an enrollment of eight children. He preached through an interpreter. One year later, Niels traveled to Blair, Nebraska, to marry Jensine Christensen.
This Danish Missionary established a number of preaching stations and schools. In 1903, grammar schools were operating in Little Kansas, Oklahoma (approximately seven miles east of present day Oaks), where Mr. Emil Hansen was the teacher. The same year Clara Soholm taught at Pumpkin Springs (a community located southeast of Oaks), and Dorothea Jensen conducted a third school at Oaks.
Because of a predominance of whites in some of his schools and because the Moravian Church Board requested him to look after scattered Moravians, Nielsen was invited to go to Oaks. He gladly accepted and moved to Oaks early in August 1902. In 1902, the Moravian Mission passed its heritage onto the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. Lutherans approved Nielsen’s transfer in 1902 after a visit by G. B. Christensen, President of United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Missionary work among the Native Americans was a slow and trying process. Not until 1898 did Rev. Nielsen experience the joy of baptizing his first convert, a girl of 16. Thus, a church was established in late October 1903 named Eben Ezer Lutheran Church.
Oaks Indian Mission Children’s Home
From its beginning, the Lutheran Missions were primarily focused on the education of Native American young people.
The Oaks Mission as a Children’s Home was established in 1926 and is located approximately 65 miles east of Tulsa, Oklahoma, just 23 miles west of Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Until 1977, children of the Mission were treated without regard for individual needs. The children were housed, fed, clothed, supervised, and sent to school. Individual needs were dealt with only as they surfaced in social and mental displays. The approach to the care of these children was “boarding school provision.”
In February 1979, the children were assessed according to:
From this assessment, four related sets of needs were identified:
Pre-delinquent: Young children who have violated federal, state, or municipal laws and whom the juvenile workers and courts feel could better benefit from an “open” campus rather than the “closed” campus of a correctional institution.
In Need of Supervision: The child who has (1) repeatedly disobeyed reasonable and lawful directions of his/her parents or legal guardian; (2) is willfully absent from home without the consent of parents or legal guardian for a substantial length of time or without intent to return.
Deprived: A child who for any reason is destitute, homeless, or abandoned; or who does not have proper parental care; where there is neglect, cruelty, or depravity on the part of the parent or legal guardian; or where parent or legal guardian desires to be relieved of physical custody of the child.
Boarding: This child is placed outside his or her home because of a need of education. This is a nine-month resident who will return to his/her respective home after the completion of the school year.