Jesse Bushyhead – Early Cherokee Baptist (Monograph 39)

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

By Dr. William “Bill” Ambrose

Born Into Two Cultures

Jesse Bushyhead was born in December of 1804 into a middle-class Cherokee family on Mouse Creek near Cleveland, Tennessee.  His ancestry has not been proven, but it is clear that he was of mixed blood – part white and part Cherokee.  Growing up in that environment, he became fluent in English and Cherokee, skills that proved very important later in his life.  Jesse married Eliza Wilkeson in 1822 or 23 – she also of mixed ancestry, but her mother was a full-blood Cherokee.  Eliza’s half-sister was the wife of future Cherokee Chief John Ross.  Across multiple close and distant relatives, he was well connected to both common and elite members of the Cherokee Tribe. 

The Baptist Mission to the Cherokee

Religious outreach to Bradley County began in 1799, likely an early example of the coming religious fervor that gripped the United States over the coming decades.  This second “Great Awakening” began in New England; less emotionally charged, it focused on a creating a better religious infrastructure for growth by encouraging and funding colleges, seminaries, and mission societies. The ending of the War of 1812 opened more opportunities for religious work in the Cherokee Nation.  In 1815 the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, the missionary arm of the Baptist Triennial Convention, the contemporaneous loosely associated Baptist churches across the United States, began seeking contributions from its member churches.  In 1817 the Board officially began supporting a mission in Valley Towns region along the Hiawassee and Valley Rivers – Jesse Bushyhead’s home location.  In December of 1821 Evan Jones and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived at the Valley Towns mission.  That began a 50-year career of mission service Jones provided to the Cherokee Nation and the close bond with Jesse Bushyhead, leading to Bushyhead’s ministry and church and tribal service.

Jesse is Saved

In 1828 Jesse Bushyhead was baptized, formally joining the Macedonia Baptist Church twenty miles from his home.  The Baptism likely happened in Camp Creek at the Macedonia Meeting House by immersion, as required by Baptist doctrine.  By 1831 Bushyhead had successfully encouraged the establishment of a new Baptist church in his Candy’s Creek area – the Achaia Baptist Church.  Bushyhead quickly became the interpreter for the English-speaking white preachers at his church, gradually taking on increasing spiritual leadership responsibilities.  By 1835 Jesse Bushyhead had started the Amohee Baptist Church on land he owned on Mouse Creek, using a 35-feet by 35-feet newly-built hewn log structure with wood flooring for the meeting house.    

Jesse is Ordained

He had been ordained as a Baptist preacher sometime between June, 1833 and September 5, 1835, the date of the first use of the Amohee Church.  The Baptist associations and churches did not require years of seminary study prior to licensure and ordination of ministers like the Moravians and other early religions seeking footholds of membership or the establishment of new churches.  This gave the Baptists a distinct advantage from several perspectives including, most importantly, the ability to have native Cherokee speakers who could speak both languages become ordained without years of religious studies.  Evan Jones determined very early in his religious service to the Cherokees that they responded much better to their own native speakers, especially the full-bloods – the questioning, conservative, traditional majority.

Rumors of Removal Spread

Bushyhead had lived through the 1820’s with his Cherokee family and neighbors, a chaotic time for the tribe.  Removal rumors, a new Cherokee constitution, slavery issues including abolition, prohibition initiatives, and others had necessarily been of concern to Jesse – and had put him in additional community, church, and tribal conflicts.  All that allowed – forced – him to demonstrate his steadfast leadership for the good of the Cherokee people.  And during all of that, he had become an important advisor and partner with Chief John Ross, his brother-in-law, as efforts to avoid forced removal had become nearly a full-time job. All those efforts to avoid removal failed.  The Federal and Georgia State Governments and their militaries moved quickly to initiate the forced removal of the Cherokees from their centuries-old home in the Southeast to Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi River.

Jesse Moves His Family West

As a trusted confidant of Chief Ross, Bushyhead was tasked as a conductor of one of twelve detachments scheduled to begin leaving for Indian Territory on September 1, 1838.  Bushyhead’s detachment, the third one to leave Fort Cass, finally began its journey on Friday, October 5, 1838, heading west on the trail established Lt. B.B. Cannon in 1837.  The detachment included 950 emigrants, 150 loose horses, draft animals for each wagon, and 46 wagons.  Many of Bushyhead’s extended family, including his pregnant wife, and many members of the Amohee Church were in his detachment.  The severe weather and poor roads made travel difficult.  Daily delivery of rations at predetermined locations along the trail did not happen as planned.  Rations being delivered every three or four days became the routine, which required extra time and effort to load and unload from the detachment’s wagons.  The U.S. Government’s planned ration was “one pound of fresh beef or three quarters pound of salt pork, or bacon, and three quarters of a quart of corn or corn meal, or one pound of flour to each person, and 4 quarts of salt to every one hundred rations.”

Departing Fort Cass

The fourth detachment, led by full-blood Chief Situagi and Evan Jones, departed Fort Cass on October 16, 1838. Jones’ detachment caught up with Bushyhead’s on Cumberland Mountain on October 27 because oxen with Bushyhead’s wagons were poisoned by eating ivy, causing several day’s delay. Discontent by Cherokees with Bushyhead also caused disruption of travel plans and forward progress. The Bushyhead and Jones’ detachments were scheduled to receive their supplies of shoes, clothing, blankets, and tents in Nashville from Lewis Ross, brother of Chief John Ross. Both detachments reached Nashville on November 4, 1838. Both detachments rested 3 days in Nashville to distribute supplies among the travelers. The Baptist, a newspaper published in Nashville intermittently between 1835 and 1847, printed an article about the multiple detachments coming through the city and their Baptist brethren among the Cherokee travelers. The article reports the detachments “…average about a thousand each. Of the third party, our brother, Evan Jones, who has been eighteen years a missionary in the nation, is conductor, and the fourth is under the direction of the celebrated Dtsakagedehee, known among us as Bushyhead. In the two parties they direct we learn there are upwards of 500 Baptists.” The article continues:

“During two or three days that their business detained them in the vicinity of the city, we have had the pleasure of some intercourse with these and others of our Cherokee brethren; and more lovely and excellent Christians we have never seen. On Monday evening last, the 5th of November, several of them were with us at the monthly concert of prayer for missions….The services were commenced by singing a song in Cherokee by Brother Jones, by Dtsakegedehee in English, and by Ahtzhtee in Cherokee interpreted by Brother Bushyhead….Last night, the 7th, Brother Jones and Brother Bushyhead were again with us… Brother Bushyhead addressed us in English….He told us he could very well remember when his nation knew nothing of Jesus Christ; he detailed to us some particulars in relation to their (former) religious opinions,….their habits, domestic manners, and contrasted them with present condition and character of his people and thus illustrated the happy effects already produced among them by the gospel…He adverted to the opposition to missions waged by some Tennessee Baptists and presented himself and hundreds of his brethren as living instances of the blessing of God upon missionary labors. Brother Jones followed in a very eloquent address on the same subject, adding some interesting observations about the translation of the Bible into Cherokee in the letters invented by Seequayah at present in progress by himself and Brother Bushyhead. The services closed at a late hour and $14.62 were handed in aid to the mission when our brothers left us to pursue their march to the west.”

The article continued,

“We trust that a recollection of the numerous instances recited of God’s goodness and mercy to our red brethren will add fervor to many a prayer and zeal to many an effort for the salvation of the noble-hearted Indian.”

The Death of Chief White Path

At Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Chief White Path, a 75-year-old past champion of the full-bloods, died and was buried, the gravesite now being in an appropriately interpreted public park.  By the latter part of November, the detachment was within sixty miles of the Ohio River; difficult weather and exhaustion had already resulted in sixty deaths by that time.  The detachment spent the month of December crossing southern Illinois and encamped at Willard Landing on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.  Heavy ice flows prevented crossing the river for several weeks.  Finally, on January 3, 1839, the detachment completed its ferry river crossing, just in time for Jesse and Eliza Bushyhead’s seventh child, Eliza Missouri Bushyhead, to be born.

Three Baptisms at Starks upon the Gasconade

Following the Springfield to St. Louis Road, the detachment reached the Gasconade River crossing on Saturday, February 2, 1839.  The practice of the detachment was to stay in camp on Sundays; regular preaching services were offered that Sunday as well.  Those sermons must have been very effective, as Bushyhead baptized by immersion three females in the swift current and icy waters of the Gasconade River at Stark’s, shown here on this General Land Office plat and on an old state of Missouri road survey from 1837.

Jesse Has But Three Years of Life Left

On February 23, 1839, after 142 days in route from Fort Cass, the detachment reached its destination in the Western Cherokee Nation.  The muster roster enumerated 864 arrivals corresponding to 86 deaths or desertions and additions along the trail.  Chief Ross submitted a statement of $105,923.50 for expenses of the detachment, which included the use of 48 wagons and 430 riding or draft animals.  Bushyhead was recompensed $3,665 in 1841 for his personal expenses on his Trail of Tears.  He went on to provide critically important services to the Cherokees and their churches for the next three years, dying on Wednesday, July 17, 1844, of malarial fever. 

Praise for Jesse Bushyhead

His mentor and friend, Evan Jones, printed a letter in The Cherokee Messenger praising Jesse Bushyhead:

“No one of our native preachers was more highly valued than brother Bushy-head, none whose service seemed so useful and so indispensable.  His mature piety. His sound judgement, his perfect mastery of the Cherokee language, as well as familiar acquaintance with our own (English), the confidence reposed in him by his countrymen and by us, and the ripeness of preparation in all respects to do a great work for his people, both in preaching and translating the word of God, all seemed to mark him as the one chosen of God, to carry on the work of evangelizing the Nation to its completion.”

The Baptist denomination continues to predominate among the Cherokees today.

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