Samuel Kirkland

Samuel Kirkland (1741-1808), American missionary, helped keep the Oneida Indians loyal to the colonists during the Revolutionary War.

Samuel Kirkland was born Dec. 1, 1741. His father, a graduate of Yale, was a minister of Scottish descent. Samuel developed an interest in Indians during his school days in Eleazar Wheelock's Indian school at Lebanon, Conn., and began to learn the Mohawk language. He entered Princeton in the sophomore year and began his missionary work 8 months before the completion of his senior year. Eager to enter his chosen profession, he undertook a 200-mile journey on foot during winter to the Seneca country in central New York. Accompanied by two Seneca guides, he survived hardship and danger before arriving at the chief town of the Seneca. He was rapidly accepted into the tribe and formally adopted by the tribal chief. During the year and a half of this first mission, he progressed in learning the language and drafted an initial plan for teaching and preaching.

In 1766 Kirkland returned to Lebanon and was ordained missionary to the Oneida (one of the tribes in the Indian alliance called the Six Nations) by the Scottish Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. For the next 40 years he labored for this tribe, living among them as a white brother, teaching, preaching, and encouraging them in the habits and crafts of civilized life. During intermittent periods of war with other tribes, he proved an able negotiator at several critical times.

Kirkland married Jerusha Bingham, Eleazar Wheelock's niece, and purchased a small farm near Stockbridge, Mass. During the Revolutionary War he moved his family there for protection. He served briefly as a chaplain at Ft. Schuyler. His service in preserving the loyalty of the Six Nations was of great importance to the Revolutionary army. Revolutionary leaders were trying, at least, to keep the Indians neutral. Although several Six Nations tribes did join the British and inflict severe losses on the American forces, Kirkland was able to secure the aid of the Oneida tribe because Skenando, an Oneida chief, felt personal loyalty and affection for him. As a reward for this loyalty, Skenando begged to be buried beside his white brother (and when he died, at the age of 110, his body was interred beside Kirkland's). This was an extraordinary testimony to Kirkland's missionary success.

Kirkland established the Hamilton Oneida Academy (later Hamilton College) in 1793 for educating Indian and white children. The school was an example of the practicality of his vision. He died in Clinton, N.Y., on Feb. 28, 1808.

Further Reading on Samuel Kirkland

There is no recent biography of Kirkland. An old one is Samuel K. Lothrop, Life of Samuel Kirkland, Missionary to the Indians (1847). A sketch of his life is in Franklin Bowditch Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, vol. 1 (1885).