Wholesome Words Home
Worldwide Missions
missionary biographies

David Brainerd Among the Redskins

by Claud Field
The Yale student—First settlement at Kanaumeek—"Plain living and high thinking "—Dutch colonists—Perils of the frontier—Life in a wigwam—Forest solitudes—Building his own house—Indian sorcerers—Itineration hardships—Gratitude of the savages—Visit to Jonathan Edwards—Brainerd and Martyn.

David BrainerdDavid Brainerd, sprung from Puritan ancestry on both sides, was born at Haddam, Connecticut, in 1718. A tendency to morbid reverie marked him in boyhood. He went as a student to Yale in 1789, but his health broke down through overwork, and he had a severe attack of hemorrhage from the lungs. From this he recovered, and returned to Yale, only, however, to be expelled, under the strict regime of those days, for having used an unfortunate expression regarding one of the tutors. A council of ministers asked for his restoration but were refused, Brainerd being regarded as a fire­brand by the authorities. Thus this most zealous and devoted missionary was not permitted to take a degree.

The honour of having been the first to engage Brainerd’s services for work among the Red Indians belongs to the "honourable Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge," a committee from which, sitting in New York, examined him and gave him a license to preach. His first work among the Indians was at a place near Kent, on the borders of Connecticut, but not long afterwards he was appointed to Kanaumeek, many miles in the interior. The place was encompassed with mountains and woods, and there were no English inhabitants within twenty miles. There was, however, one family that had come from the Highlands of Scotland, and now lived at a distance of only two miles from Kanaumeek. The presence of this family was a godsend to the missionary. People soon become intimate in the wilderness, and he went to lodge with them. The Highlanders had dwelt two years in this place, where the face of neighbour or friend was unknown. They had built their log dwelling, cut down the trees around, and cultivated the open land. The coming of a stranger must have been a welcome event in the monotony of their existence in the forest.

Brainerd's description of his life, in a letter to his brother, is very graphic:—"I live in the most lonely, melancholy desert about eighteen miles from Albany. I board with a Highlander: his wife can talk scarce any English. My diet consists mostly of hasty pudding, boiled corn, and bread baked in the ashes. My lodging [bed] is a little heap of straw laid upon some boards a little way from the ground, for it is a log-room without any floor that I lodge in. My work is exceedingly hard; I live so far from my Indians. The master of the house is the only one with whom I can readily converse in these parts.''

After many months he got into his own house: this was a little hut, built with long and hard labour, chiefly with his own hands. He writes: "Just at night moved into my own house. In my weak state of health I had no bread, nor could I get any. I am forced to go or send ten or fifteen miles for all the bread I eat, and sometimes it is moldy and sour before I eat it, if I get any quantity."

The committee of his society had directed him to spend as much time as possible this winter with Mr. Sergeant of Stockbridge, twenty miles off. He began to study the Indian language with him, riding to and fro in all weathers—the way was partly through unhabitated woods. He speaks of the wretched roads of Albany. At the time alluded to, no regular road existed for a good part of the way, which was flat and barren, and here and there covered with sand: "Lost my way in a dreary country, and obliged to lie all night on the ground. Went to Kinderhook on the Hudson, fifteen miles from my place." Albany and Kinderhook, whither he went several times, were old Dutch settlements surrounded by sandy plains and covered with yellow pine. The colonists had intermarried only among themselves, and had preserved all the primitiveness of their habits; their dwellings were formal and quaint, with their gable ends to the street, and with high-pointed roofs and little windows. In the porch by the street door were seats where the families used to sit a good part of the day; and as their neighbours generally joined them, the domestic circles of the whole town were gathered in the open air. Everyone was expected to greet these parties as he passed, and to Brainerd riding slowly through the town this was embarrassing. On one occasion a Dutchman, moved by curiosity, came to his log house, and the recluse was greatly scandalised at his utter worldliness and insensibility.

His situation at Kanaumeek was not wholly free from danger. The settlement was situated upon an exposed frontier, and whenever war broke out between England and France, the Indians, stirred up by the French, fell at once upon the border settlements, killing, burning, and destroying. Nothing could be more appalling than such inroads. They came like lightning; no one could tell where the bolt would fall; so that the least prospect of war caused deep and painful excitement. Those who lived upon the frontier had no choice but to remain in their place without protection, or to seek safety by abandoning their homes to plunder and ruin. One night, when Brainerd was engaged with his Indians at Kanaumeek, an express arrived in haste informing him that the Governor had ordered Colonel Stoddart to give warning to all who were in exposed situations that there was every prospect of a sudden invasion, and that they must secure themselves as well as they were able without delay. The only notice Brainerd took of this startling message in his diary was to observe that it taught him not to attach himself too much to the comforts of life.

Brainerd had not been many months at Kanaumeek before he saw that he might be more usefully employed at a more distant station. The Indians there were few in number, and greatly harassed by the avarice and extortions of their white neighbours. It occurred to Brainerd that if they could be prevailed on to remove to Stockbridge they would be under the care of an excellent pastor who knew their wants, their manners, and their language, while he himself would be released from his engagements and left at liberty to go, not to an easier station, but to some of the other tribes who were quite without instruction.

As soon as it became known that he was leaving Kanaumeek, the people of two parishes, one on Long Island and one in Connecticut, were urgent that he should become their pastor; but having put his hand to the missionary plough he would not look back, and determined to spend the remainder of life, short as it was likely to be, among the Indians.

After leaving Kanaumeek he took a journey of a hundred and fifty miles to a village of the Delaware Indians, and, seeking an interview with their chief, explained his object. This chief, however, only laughed at him and went his way. A journey of two days more brought him to the Delaware River and to another settlement, whose chief was more friendly, and after consulting with some of his old men consented to listen to his words: the audience was very small, but attentive. In this place Brainerd spent the greater part of the summer, lodging in one of the wigwams, compared with which his former log hut was a home of comfort. He preached usually in the dwelling of the chief, who had been pleased with his first discourse, and had consented to have his wigwam transformed into a chapel. Volumes of smoke often arose from the huge camp-fires, and wrapped the preacher and the audience in such dense clouds that they could not see him. He speaks in his journal of the sick headaches that were the consequence; and when the wind was high the ashes and dust from the fires were blown into his eyes and mouth till he was nearly choked. These Indians were a sequestered colony, supporting themselves by hunting and fishing, not powerful enough to engage in war, and too poor to tempt the inroads of enemies. Unshaken in his purpose, yet sick at heart, Brainerd lived here till the autumn; and his love of solitude grew more intense, fostered perhaps by the deep stillness of the Indian forests. When the rains fell, not in showers but in a deluge, his situation was pitiable. For days together he was unable to stir out of the wigwam; a blanket was hung before the opening which served as a doorway; but if the wind chanced to be high this frail screen could not exclude the wet, and the smoke, unable to ascend, settled below in a dense cloud. Even the bedding, a buffalo skin, was often saturated; and as the whole family, in many cases two or three families, huddled together on the floor to rest, sleep became almost impossible.

Wearied with the discomforts of a wigwam, he laboured hard for a fortnight to construct a little cabin in which he might live by himself during the winter. One chamber served for kitchen and parlour; in it he kept his store of wood, and ate and slept. The dwellings of the Indians were widely scattered; his own stood apart from the rest—a miserable hut of pine or cedar logs rudely hewn, with a roof of bark, and with fastenings which had to be carefully secured at the close of day, for wolves and bears prowled around.

By the return of spring the Indians had begun to pay greater attention to discourses. "The next day," he writes, "I preached to the people in the wilderness upon the sunny side of a hill; a considerable assembly consisting of many that lived not less than thirty miles asunder." One of the earliest converts was a man of a hundred years of age, an ancient savage whose head was as white as the snows. Others listened with diligence, and ere long with eagerness. They began to come to his cottage at evening, when the chase was over, to hear him and ask questions.

After a while, wishing to occupy new ground, he went on to the Susquehanna, and came to an island called Juneauta, occupied by a rude and degraded set of Indians. A great part of the population being away hunting, he pursued his journey down the river south-westward. One evening he came upon a party who had kindled an immense fire, which threw its red light afar upon the stream and the woods that bordered it. They were dancing round it with such outcries that they could be heard at the distance of miles in the stillness of the night. At times they threw in the fat of deer which they had prepared for the occasion, and yelled fearfully as the flame rose in bright columns. It seemed to be some religious rite, and the orgies were continued all night; but Brainerd, when he had walked to and fro till body and mind were exhausted, crept into a little crib made for corn and there slept on the floor. The next morning he made new attempts to get a hearing, but he soon found they had something else to do; for about noon they gathered their pow-wows, and set them to work to ascertain by their incantations the cause of a disease then prevalent among them. In this business they were engaged several hours, making all kinds of wild cries and contortions; sometimes stroking their faces with their hands, then reaching out their arms at full length with all their fingers spread, as if to keep something away; sometimes bowing down with an expression of deep reverence to some invisible presence, and then lying prostrate on the ground. Brainerd sat about twenty yards from them with his Bible in his hand, watching their proceedings with a strange mingling of pity and disgust.

In his journal he has given a graphic picture of one of these sorcerers: "He came in his pontifical garb, which was a coat of bearskins, dressed with the hair on, hanging down to his toes; a pair of bear-skin stockings; and a great wooden face painted one-half black and the other tawny, with an extravagant mouth cut very much awry. He advanced towards me with the instrument in his hand which he used for music in his idol-worship, which was a dry tortoise-shell with some corn in it. As he came forward he beat his tune and danced with all his might, but did not suffer any part of his body, not so much as his fingers, to be seen; no man would have guessed by his appearance that he was a human creature. When he came near me I could but shrink away from him, although it was then noonday, his appearance and gestures were so frightful."

The hardships of Brainerd's journeys in the Indian wildernesses were enough to ruffle the most exemplary patience. On the mountains which he was obliged to cross, there were few abodes; the Indians preferring the flat country and the woods. Height after height arose where no white man's foot had trod before, and sudden precipices often barred the way, and then a long circuit had to be made. But the chief danger attendant on these passes was from the melting of the snows, which suddenly swelled the mountain streams and caused floods. Pouring down the precipices into the vales and ravines, the torrents bore all before them; the rocks and shrubs were soon covered, and then the trees disappeared gradually. A friendly roof in such a region was as delightful as unexpected: "Late at night we came suddenly to the house of a stranger, where we were kindly entertained; what a cause of thankfulness was this!" Their night's lodging was sometimes beneath the shelter of a rock; a dead pine tree was kindled and threw its glare on the cliffs, and kept the wild beasts at a distance; then they lay down to rest by the burning embers. On one of these journeys he lay every night for three weeks on the bare ground.

In his journeys among the Susquehanna Indians he found them as a rule civil and friendly, but bad listeners. Although he did not join in the chase, he received a share of the spoils and made one of the circle who sat round the roasted deer on mats on the floor; he could have been no costly guest, and the hungry savages must have been astonished at the slenderness of his appetite.

Unlike Eliot and Zeisberger, he never found time to master the difficult Indian languages, but preached through an interpreter. "The great reason," he writes, "why the Delaware language is not familiar to me before this time is that I am obliged to ride four thousand miles a year, and have little time left for my necessary studies. Then I have to preach and catechise frequently, to converse privately with persons who need so much instruction as these Indians do; to take care of their secular affairs; to ride abroad to procure collections for their help and benefit; to hear and decide all their petty differences: time also is necessarily consumed upon my journals and other writings. Often I have not been able to gain more than two hours a week for reading."

In his journeys he was often accompanied by six Indian disciples, who walked rapidly by his horse's side. This was rendered necessary by his failing health, for in the midst of the day's ride he sometimes fainted in their arms, and they had to lay him insensible on the ground, and watch over him.

The Indians owed much to his care, as one instance will show. Through improvidence and a desire for articles of clothing and arms, as well as ardent spirits, some Indians had incurred a debt to the European settlers of about eighty pounds. In case of non-payment their lands were forfeited to the lenders, who were eager to take advantage of the bargain. When Brainerd became aware of this, he caused the debt to be discharged and saved the lands.

Meantime his health was rapidly failing; sometimes he slept in cabins where the smoke affected his lungs so seriously that he was obliged to rise and go out into the open air; sometimes he slept outside with neither fire nor shelter, protected only by some branches which he had broken from the pines. He was repeatedly drenched in thunderstorms, and chilled with the damps and mists. Every night he was tormented with profuse, cold sweats, and by day he was perpetually throwing up blood from his lungs. His Indians showed their gratitude as they could, by making the interior of his hut as comfortable as possible; there was neither carpet nor glass windows nor soft couch, but the choicest skins were laid with the fur uppermost for him to recline on.

A few of his tried friends, hearing of his state, hastened to the wilderness to see him, but they could not remain with him, and he was left again to the unskilful hands of his poor Indians, who watched round his bed with wistful looks and whispered to the interpreter. The winter was drawing on, the snow had begun to fall on the mountains, the woods were stripped of their leaves, and the piercing east winds, the most hurtful to consumptives, were wild without. At last he resolved to depart, and, bidding a reluctant farewell to his Indians, he journeyed to Elizabeth Town, where he was confined for a week to his chamber, but was cheered by an Indian who brought him news of the welfare and good conduct of his congregation. He went on to Northampton and consulted Dr. Mather, who pronounced his case to be one of confirmed and rapid consumption. He was here lodged at the house of his friend and biographer, President Jonathan Edwards. "I heard much of him before this," wrote the latter, "from many who were well acquainted with him. I found him remarkably sociable, pleasant, and entertaining in his conversation, far from any stiffness or demureness in speech or behaviour, but seeming to nauseate such things."

He continued to decline till the middle of September, when he felt as if he must make one more effort on behalf of his poor Indians. A visit from his brother, who had succeeded him in his post, constrained him to write to those gentlemen in Boston whom he had interested in behalf of the Indians, telling them of the growth of the school at Crossweeksung and of the need of another teacher. As soon as they received his letter, they met and cheerfully offered the sum of two hundred pounds for that purpose, besides contributing seventy-five pounds, according to Brainerd's suggestion, to aid the mission to the Six Nations. At the same time he selected two young men for that mission, according to the request of the commissioners. He was not able to finish these letters with his own hand, but, when they were completed, he felt that his work was done.

He died on October 9, 1747, at the age of twenty-nine. His life presents the same strange combination of profound melancholy and restless energy as that of Henry Martyn—almost his exact counterpart. Both shine remote and immortal, the Gemini of the missionary heaven.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Heroes of Missionary Enterprise... by Claud Field. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1908.

More Information on David Brainerd


Missionary Biographies Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.