Shawnee, Oklahoma is home to a former Quaker church, boarding school
The small white church, in the shape of a cross seen from above, sits between an Absentee Shawnee casino and a Citizen Potawatomi Nation health care facility.
It goes unnoticed by most – separated from Shawnee’s Gordon Cooper Drive by a long field of grass – but within its walls it contains countless stories of its time as a Quaker meeting house.
The church was built nearly a century and a half ago by Quaker missionaries serving absentee Shawnee and other tribes who had been displaced to central Oklahoma from their homelands.
The Shawnee Friends Mission was established in 1871 by Quaker missionary Joseph Newsom and his wife about a quarter mile north of the church that stands today. The two-room building was constructed with lumber hauled by the Shawnees from the government’s Sac and Fox factory about 35 miles away.
At that time the area was known as Shawneetown and by 1876 there was a post office and a trading post. The town of Shawnee lists the establishment of the Quaker mission, along with the cattle drives and railroads, as events that “foreshadowed the coming of white civilization” to the lands that had been reserved for the tribes.
What is the Shawnee Friends Mission?
The Newsom family, consisting of Joseph, his wife, and four children, opened a day school in their church in 1872, which was turned into a boarding school by the federal government in 1874.
At the same site, the government added dormitories for boys and girls, a classroom, a kitchen, a dining room and rooms for employees, according to a document written by the daughter of Thomas Wildcat Alford. Alford was the great-grandson of Chief Shawnee Tecumseh and attended residential school.
According to the church building’s application to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from then until 1885, the U.S. Department of the Interior required every school employee to be a Quaker.
Not wanting to lose the religious aspect of their relationship with the Shawnee people, the Quakers built a log cabin where they held weekly meetings, eventually replaced by the white church building as early as 1879.
‘A story for the ages’: Meet the OKC couple who said ‘yes’ aboard a Southwest flight
When white people began to settle in the area after the Land Run of 1891, the mission also began to open its doors to them.
The mission may have been Pottawatomie County’s first place of worship, according to newspaper records.
“He was sitting on the hill all alone, there was nothing around,” said Ken Landry, director of the Pottawatomie County Historical Society.
A stone monument on the grounds indicates that the Potawatomi and Absentee Shawnee Tribes received their last payment from the government near the church.
What happened to the mission?
Fifty-three years after the mission was established, the Quakers abandoned the church in 1924.
It was sold to the Pottawatomie County Historical Society in 1936, with the request that the society restore the building, which had fallen into disrepair.
The company leased the property to draw oil, and with that money was able to “re-roof the building, reinforce some of the uprights and make other
General Repairs,” according to the National Registry Application.
The church building held meetings of the historical society and was the site of its museum as it collected historical artifacts.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, thanks to a request from the Oklahoma Historical Society.
In 1982, the historical society returned the building to the Quakers to move to its current home at the Old Santa Fe Depot.
Today, the church is owned and maintained by the Potawatomi Citizen Nation and is occasionally used for weddings and other religious meetings and services.
Bill Everett, CPN maintenance manager, said the pews inside the church are original and have been restored many times.
Why did the Quakers come to Shawnee?
Paula Palmer, a Quaker author and researcher on Quaker involvement in Native American federal boarding schools, said Quakers lived among the Shawnee people in their homeland of Ohio and housed a dozen Shawnee students in a school they had built near Wapakoneta.
When the Shawnee people were moved to lands in Kansas and Oklahoma, some Quaker missionaries followed them.
Among those who helped construct the first Quakers building in Shawnee was Thomas Wildcat, Alford’s father. Alford attended the Quaker school from its inception, and after it was taken over by the government, before going to a boarding school in Virginia where he converted to Christianity.
“During the first half of the 19th century, Christian missionaries from almost
all denominations fanned out across the West, establishing missions and
schools, partially supported by funds allocated by the federal government
to ‘civilize and Christianize the Indians,'” Palmer wrote in the research paper, “Quaker Indian Residential Schools: Facing Our History and Ourselves.”
The Quakers hoped to change “almost everything” in the lives of the tribesmen in order to prepare them for conversion to Christianity, Palmer wrote, including “their dwellings, their subsistence, their clothes, their hair, their language, their roles of gender, their economy, their names, their matrimonial practices.
A nation seeking to heal from attempts at assimilation
The impact of residential schools and attempts to remove Aboriginal people from their way of life is manifested today in “illness, depression, suicide, drug addiction
abuse, violence and poverty,” Palmer wrote.
Many states’ child welfare systems echo the era of boarding schools, she added.
“Our purpose in bringing up this history is not to single out Quakers, Catholics or Methodists of centuries past,” Palmer said. “Our goal is to know the truth and then hold a mirror to our own faces and ask, ‘Who are we today? How can we get on the right side of history now?'”
Palmer is the co-founder of Toward Right Relationship with Indigenous Peoples, which educates communities about the impact of Native American boarding schools.
Quakers aren’t the only religious group seeking to unearth their past mistakes with the tribes.
The Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, a joint venture between the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the Diocese of Tulsa, and Saint Gregory’s Abbey, is an effort to understand the experiences of native students at Catholic boarding schools in Oklahoma de 1880 to 1965.
And the report commissioned last June by Native American First Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, on federal Native American boarding schools was released Wednesday.
the the report looked at 408 federally run boarding schoolsincluding 76 in Oklahoma, where headteachers regularly changed the names of indigenous childrencut their hair, prohibited them from practicing any part of their culture, and forced students to perform military exercises.
The report lists two boarding schools in Shawnee, Oklahomaincluding one dedicated to the absent Shawnee which has a start date of 1971, the same year the Quaker missionaries established their mission.