Yale to participate in 200th anniversary of Cornwall Foreign Mission School

The Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (YIPAP) will join residents of Cornwall, Connecticut to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Cornwall Foreign Mission School on June 17 and 18. The bicentennial celebration is intended to foster community dialogue, respect for intercultural relationships, and a deeper understanding of collective history.  

The two-day event will include self-guided tours of the village, including the former house of the school’s steward; a presentation on Native American history in northwestern Connecticut by Lucianne Lavin, director of the Institute of American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut; and a colloquium with five experts on Sunday  presented by the Historical Society titled, “Whose Mission?” All descendants of the school’s students have been invited to join the June event.

The U.S. Department of Interior placed the Cornwall Foreign Mission School Steward’s home on the National Historic Landmark list in the fall of 2016. The school was the first institution of its kind in the United States, operating from 1817 to 1826. It was founded “to fit young persons who come to the favored land from amidst the darkness and corruptions and miseries of paganism, to be sent back, to their respective nations with the blessings of civilized and Christianized society; with the useful sciences and arts; with the purifying light of salvation; with the elevating hopes of immortality. The relative importance and eventual utility of this infant seminary can hardly be too highly estimated” (The Panoplist, Vol. XIII, Nov., 1817). It was intended to educate young scholars from Native American tribes alongside students from all over the world. Hawaiian, Chinese, Marquesan, Greek, Jewish, Malay, Tahitian, Bengalese, Hindu, Javanese, New Zealander, Portuguese, Scottish and European American students all attended.

Fourteen American Indian nations were represented in the student body, including one Abenaki, 11 Cherokees, five Choctaws, five Delawares, one Mexican of indigenous descent, one Mohegan, one Narragansett, two Ojibwas, two Omahas, three Oneidas, three Osages, two Senecas, two Tuscaroras, and four Stockbridges.

In all, approximately 100 students attended the Cornwall school, speaking 24 languages. Its initial goal was to convert students to Christianity and educate them to spread Protestant values, particularly in Hawaii and the broader Asia-Pacific. It was hoped the students would become preachers, healthcare workers, translators, and teachers among their respective peoples.

A collaboration with local residents

The anniversary commemoration is the result of a collaborative effort with local residents. YIPAP Executive Director Mary Kathryn Nagle (a descendant of former Cornwall student John Ridge) and Kauanoe  Hoomanawanui (a lateral descendent of former student Henry Ōpūkaha’ia) worked with Cornwall residents Ben Gray and Amy Johnson, the Cornwall Historical Society, and Cornwall’s United Church of Christ, Congregational.

As descendants of mission school students, Hoomanawanui and Nagle say the commemoration has personal resonance, ensuring the story of one of the United States’ first boarding schools is not forgotten.

“Returning to Cornwall for the 200th anniversary of the school’s opening is incredibly significant to me and my family,” Nagle said. “I grew up hearing the stories about when my ancestor John Ridge married Sarah Bird Northrup. The town of Cornwall called him a savage, threw rocks at him, and threatened to kill him. My family’s story of Cornwall has always been traumatic. But when I returned last January to begin planning for our June commemoration, I encountered a town that welcomed me and our students from Yale, as well as Henry Ōpūkaha’ia’s descendants.

“The descendants of individuals who acted with violence and prejudice against my great-great-great-grandfather embraced me and who I am, as a Ridge descendant. It was incredibly healing,” Nagle continued. “The legacies of Indian boarding schools in this country carry with them a very troubled past. This school is no different. It is my hope that through our collective performance and storytelling, we can help to heal some of the wounds of our shared past.”

Theatrical performance and panel discussion highlight the school’s legacy

A highlight of the celebration will be a theatrical performance by the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program on Saturday, June 17, at 3 p.m. Created by Nagle, the piece tells of how her great-great-great grandfather and grandmother met at the Foreign Mission School.

Nagle’s ancestor John Ridge was the son of the president of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council. He fell in love with Sarah Bird Northrup, daughter of the school’s steward. Their relationship caused racial tensions in Cornwall, but was eventually allowed, supported by both sets of parents.

On Sunday, a panel titled "Whose Mission?" will be held in the town hall. It will feature Ryan Bachman, a historian; Nicholas Bellantoni, adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut and former state archaeologist; Karen Sanchez-Eppler, chair of English at Amherst College; Hoomanawanui, a state of Hawaii burial site specialist; and Nagle.

More information about the weekend’s events is available from Mary Kathryn Nagle: mary.nagle@yale.edu.