Dartmouth College and Canada: The Problem of National Historiographies

Thomas Peace

When I first learned about Louis Vincent Sawatanen, about a decade ago, I thought that this Wendat man from Lorette was exceptional. Indeed, in many ways he was. Sawatanen was competent, if not fluent, in at least five different languages (Wendat, Mohawk, French, English, and Abenaki). At the end of the eighteenth-century, when the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the subsequent settler floods that followed these conflicts radically transformed his world, he deftly navigated linguistic and religious chasms, bridging French/English, Patriot/Loyalist, and Protestant/Catholic divides. Indeed, in the midst of turmoil, Sawatanen also attended school, becoming the first Indigenous person from what would become Canada to graduate from a colonial college. He then returned to Lorette in 1791 both to start a school and begin a series of petitions against over a century of settler encroachments.[1]

What I have since learned, however, is that Sawatanen was not alone. Indeed, there are at least a half-dozen similar late-eighteenth-century Indigenous people, whose life stories and interactions with Moor’s Indian Charity School, an institution from which Dartmouth College developed, bear much in common with those of Sawatanen. Most famously, I could point to the well-known Mohegan teacher Samson Occom, perhaps the most studied graduate of the charity school. He spent many years associated with the school’s founder–Eleazar Wheelock, fund-raised for the creation of the Dartmouth College, and advocated forcefully on behalf of his people as they faced the expropriation of their lands. Likewise, we could consider Joseph Brant Thayendaneaga, who attended the school in the early 1760s, but whose attachment to the institution never ceased in the years that followed; even after Brant had moved to the Grand River his connections continued, sending his sons to the school in the early nineteenth century. Less known, but sharing just as many similarities, were the Abenaki boys François Annance and Pierre Paul Ozhunkarine, who both became schoolteachers in their home community of Odanak following their studies.


Painting of Joseph Brant by Gilbert Stuart, 1786. Wikimedia Commons.

Though there are a handful of exceptions, particularly Colin Calloway’s institutional history of Indigenous students who attended the Charity School and Dartmouth College, historians seldom discuss these people collectively. Picking up on the theme of Bonnie Huskins’ post last week, I’d suggest the reason is because the study of history is too often framed around the nation and rarely by the relationships that shaped the lives of the historical actors we study. This is most clearly seen in the national framing of university-produced histories, where historians in Canada have seldom looked across the border to understand the experiences Indigenous students had at schools like Dartmouth and Cazenovia (a similar Methodist school, attended by a number Anishinaabe students), and historians in the United States have ended their studies based on the geographies and chronologies that continue to define that country. But it is equally a problem shaped by historical enquiry defined by Indigenous nationalities. Historians of the Mohegan point to Occom, historians of the Mohawk point to Thayendaneaga, historians of the Abenaki to Ozhunkarine, and historians of the Wendat to Sawatanen.

A different perspective emerges if we bring our analysis of these men together. For the past couple of years, this has been one of my key research goals: thinking about Indigenous peoples, schooling and alphabetic literacies from a regional perspective, extending from Lake Huron eastward to include Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wabanaki and Wendat peoples (among others). What we find, I think, are a number of similarities that have been obscured by these historiographical divisions. I’d like to demonstrate this in two ways. First, by challenging the idea that Wheelock’s so-called “Great Design” ended when Samson Occom and the Haudenosaunee formally broke with the school in the late-1760s and it subsequently moved to New Hampshire and expanded into colonist-focused Dartmouth College; and second, by demonstrating the derivative influences that Moor’s Indian Charity School and Dartmouth College had on the broader culture of teaching and learning in some Indigenous communities and Canada more generally.


Painting of Eleazar Wheelock by Joseph Steward, c. 1793-96. Wikimedia Commons.

Though it is certainly true that few Indigenous people expressed significant interest in Wheelock’s “Great Design” of training Indigenous and European boys for evangelism in their communities, it is wrong to see either Wheelock’s efforts as having ended in the 1770s or to dismiss the school’s broader influence on Indigenous nations after this time. The Seven Years’ War radically changed the region’s political geography during the 1760s, attuning New Englanders northward to settlement on Abenaki lands. Where before this period Wheelock’s attention was focused on the First Peoples in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, after this period the focus was directed towards the Saint Lawrence River and Lower Great Lakes. In the sixty years between 1770 and 1830, forty Indigenous students from this region attended the charity school, in addition to about twenty five whose home communities were either in southern New England or unidentified.[2] Though significantly fewer than the sixty-eight Indigenous students who attended the school during its sixteen years in Connecticut, this number is far from insignificant and had important ramifications for early-Canada.

Furthermore, even after the formal break in the late-1760s, the school’s culture continued to be shaped by these Indigenous students’ presence. In 1774, for example, when he was in Hanover for the school’s commencement and the examination of Mohegan missionary Joseph Johnson, prominent Congregational minister Jeremy Belknap observed the figure of an “Indian” carved into a tree beside the Connecticut River. Though the broader meaning of the symbol remains opaque, it demonstrates at least one way these scholars imprinted themselves within the local culture. Five years later, also at convocation time, a short dialogue was performed between an Englishman and an Oneida (played apparently by one of the Indigenous students at the school). In the drama, the Oneida man complains of his treatment by the English, to which he receives the response: “Are you not sensible, you are a savage, cruel race?” The Oneida man returns with these words: “I know we are an uncultivated and unpolished people; but I am inclined to think there are some among Europeans, and their descendants, as bad as we.” As the dialogue continues he goes on to outline the atrocities committed by the Spanish in Central America and – more importantly – Major Robert Rogers’ 1759 raid on the Abenaki community of Odanak, killing the relatives of some of the students currently attending the school.[3] These aspects of college life, which resonate strongly with Dartmouth’s later appropriation of this history and identity (examples can be seen here  and here), need to be probed and explored more deeply.

The impact of these events and culture, however, was not as clearly felt in the region that became the United States as it was in the places that became Canada. Much like in New England during the 1750s and 1760s, described well in Linford Fisher’s The Indian’s Great Awakening, alumni from the school (among others) played an important role in the history of schooling in their communities. Alumni taught at schools in the Mohawk community on the Bay of Quinte, the Wendat community at Lorette, and the Abenaki community at Odanak and, at least with Sawatanen and Thayendaneaga, they were also very active in the diplomacy between their nations and the British crown. All of these community schools with Indigenous teachers existed before similar institutions were built for colonists in their respective regions.

Aboriginal Students Timeline (detail), by Thomas Peace

Aboriginal Students Timeline (detail), by Thomas Peace

More broadly, the school’s influence was felt even in places we might not initially expect. The Mississauga school at New Credit, which began in the mid-1820s and is most often associated with Methodist missionaries Peter Jones and Egerton Ryerson, also had connections to the charity school. Its first teacher, John Jones, Peter’s brother, received Thayendaneaga’s name upon his birth, reflecting the friendship between the Mohawk leader and the Joneses’ father Augustus; their mother was Mississauga. Later in life, Jones married Thayendaneaga’s granddaughter Christina, the daughter of Jacob Brant Thayendaneaga’s son who had also attended the charity school between 1800 and 1803. Though a very different context from the direct influence in the Mohawk, Abenaki and Wendat schools, we can see how at least indirectly, the charity school and its associated college may have shaped the nature of Indigenous schooling on the north shores of Lake Ontario. More research needs to be done, but we can begin to see the potential of the school and college’s broader influence in these relationships.[4]

Another equally important influence in the Canadian colonies is the role the college played in the life of Thaddeus Osgood, who attended Dartmouth during the same years Jacob Brant attended the charity school, graduating in 1803. Osgood was a prominent educational reformer in early-nineteenth-century Lower and Upper Canada. With English evangelical backing, he championed the cause of literacy and non-denominational schooling and actively reported on, and sought to improve, Indigenous access to schools. In fact, while John Jones was establishing his school at New Credit, Osgood was likewise forming schools further east through the newly created “Association for the Promotion of Education and Industry among the Indians and Destitute Settlers in Canada.” There, he started a short-lived school at the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, replaced by a more successful institution at Chateauguay, as well as supporting schooling at the Wendat community of Lorette. Much like Wheelock’s initial vision for the charity school, in these efforts Osgood aimed to create an institution that trained “Teachers from among the Indians….”[5]

Bringing these diverse examples together, what I’d suggest we see here are stories of continuity rather than rupture. Though there is no doubt that the emphasis and influence of Moor’s Indian Charity School and Dartmouth College waned as the nineteenth century progressed, that influence was slow and gradual rather than abrupt and sudden, continuing through to the 1830s in both Lower and Upper Canada. The extent of this influence, of course, remains to be studied. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that these connections became apparent for me as I followed the life of one man, the Wendat scholar and diplomat Louis Vincent Sawatanen. In seeking to understand the relationships into which he entered, I am learning to see past the divisions of colonial and national borders that had little meaning for him. In so doing, new stories and new relationships have emerged from the archive, suggesting divisions previously seen as historical are more historiographical in nature.


Thomas Peace is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Huron University College.  His research addresses the processes of settler colonialism in the northeast and the ways in which Indigenous peoples engaged with schooling during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.  Ideas expressed in this post underpin his contribution to the Unrest, Violence, and the Search for Social Order Workshop. He is a founding editor of ActiveHistory.ca. For more information visit his website or send him an e-mail at tpeace@uwo.ca.

[1] For more on Sawatanen see Jonathan Lainey and Thomas Peace, “Louis Vincent Sawatanen: A Life Forged by Warfare and Migration,” in Kristin Burnett and Geoff Read, eds., Aboriginal History: A Reader, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] This is taken from Colin Calloway’s index of Indigenous students who attended the charity school in The Indian History of an American Institution: Native Americans and Dartmouth (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2010).

[3] John Smith, A Dialogue between an Englishman and an Indian, (1779) in Richard Moody, ed., Dramas from the American Theatre, 1762-1909 (Boston: 1969), 7-8.

[4] See Donald B. Smith, Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 79-80.

[5] Second Annual Report, Central Auxiliary Society for Promoting Education and Industry in Canada, 16, cited in George W. Spragge, “Monitorial Schools in the Canadas, 1810-1845” (D. Paed. Diss., University of Toronto, 1935, 212; as cited in J. Donald Wilson, “‘No Blanket to be Worn in School’: The Education of Indians in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” in Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill, eds., Indian Education in Canada: Volume I: The Legacy (Vancouver, UBC Press, 1986), 69. For more on Osgood see W.P.J. Millar, “The Remarkable Rev. Thaddeus Osgood: A Study in the Evangelical Spirit in the Canadas,” Histoire Sociale/Social History vol. 10, no. 19 (1977): 59-76.

Featured Image: James Peachey, A Primer for the Use of the Mohawk Children, 1786, (Detail), via Wikimedia Commons.

Latest Comments

  1. Historiann says:

    I agree with you entirely, Thomas, although I don’t think you’re pushing to see all the connections here you might. You write, “A different perspective emerges if we bring our analysis of these men together. . . ,” which is fine but leaves out entirely the networks of missionary education undertaken by women in the northeastern borderlands through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Women’s institutions and leadership are central vectors for education, and arguably reach even more people (girls and boys, women and men) than the men involved in formal schools such as you describe here.

    For example, It’s Wabanaki women’s work as spiritual and educational leaders that helps explain the close connections between the French and Wabanaki across all of these international borders. Additionally, it’s French Canadian religious women–esp. the Ursulines–who are involved in educating generations of First Nations, French Canadian, New England, and eventually, English girls post-1759. I detail all of these connections in my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale, 2016).

    I share your interest in emphasizing connections and transcending the borders of the modern nation-state. The people whose lives fall in-between national historiographies have more to teach us than those whose lives are conveniently tucked into the artificial borders that have been imposed over the past 200 years.

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