Catharine Brown – Cherokee Missionary and Teacher

Catharine Brown – Cherokee Missionary and Teacher

            When Catharine Brown arrived at the Brainerd School, the missionaries thought she wouldn’t last long. Beautiful and proud, she carried herself with gravity and reticence, as it was fitting for the daughter of an influential family. Would she be able to perform the amount of manual labor the school required from its students? To the missionaries’ surprise, Catharine had no objections. A few months later, she became a poster child for missionary success among the Cherokee people.

            As it’s often the case with missionary converts, her story has gone from legendary to reviled, as many categorized it as a product of Western indoctrination. The alleged heavy editing of her writings by missionary Rufus Anderson and their politicization by promoters of Cherokee removal didn’t help the situation.

            Thankfully, as it often happens, the pendulum is swinging back, as scholars are taking this and other similar stories at face value and recognize the historical importance of people like Catharine Brown.

First Encounters with Christianity

            Catharine was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the Cherokee territory of Tsu-sau-ya-sah (in today’s Alabama), about 25 miles south east of the Tennessee River. Her parents, Yau-nu-gung-yah-ski (“Drowned by a bear”), known by Westerners as John Brown, and Tsa-luh, known as Sarah, held a place of esteem in their tribe.

            In 1817, when the missionary Cyrus Kingsbury established the Brainerd School for Native Americans in today’s Tennessee, about 100 miles from Catherine’s village, she asked her parents to allow her to attend. It was an opportunity to learn English, a language that had become essential for Native Americans.

            Catharine joined the school on July 9. Her learning abilities were impressive. In only three months, she learned to read the Bible – the main text used for language instruction. Still, it took her some time to understand that Christ came to save the whole world. Until then, she thought he was a figure of the white people’s religion, which had nothing to do with Native Americans. She also thought that “Christians had no enjoyment in this world, and that if she became religious, she too should be rendered unhappy.”[1]

            All this changed with time. As she continued to read the Bible, she understood the freedom and the extent of the gospel. This joyous discovery gave her a strong desire to obey God, and she asked for the opportunity to teach the younger girls in the school.

A Difficult Decision

            At the start of the new year, she was faced with a decision. Forced to move beyond the Mississippi River, her parents had sent a notice to the school, saying they needed to take Catherine with them. She asked her parents to let her stay a little longer, but they refused.

            Her mother was especially anguished, thinking that, if Catharine stayed at the mission, they would never see each other again. In fact, she went as far as saying that she wished that Catharine had never gone to the missionary school and had never received religious instruction.

            Catharine tried to explain her motives: “I didn’t want to stay for my own pleasure, but to get more instruction, so that it might be for her good, as well as for mine.”[2]

            Her vision was larger than herself. She believed that instruction in the English language would improve her people’s communication with those of European descent, and that biblical instruction would open up for them “the way that leads to everlasting life.”[3]

            In the end, she decided to go back with her parents, as painful as that move was for her and the missionaries. “I felt very sorry for my poor parents. I thought it was my duty to go in obedience to their commands, and to commit myself to the will of God. I knew the Lord could change the hearts of my parents.”[4]

            Being home was not easy. “I am here amongst a wicked set of people, and never hear prayers, nor any godly conversation,” she wrote to a missionary couple. “It is not my wish to go to the Arkansas; but God only knows what is best for me. I shall not attempt to tell you what I have felt since I left you, and the tears I have shed when I called to mind the happy moments we passed in singing the praises of God. However, I bear it as well as I possibly can, trusting in our dear Saviour, who will never leave nor forsake them that put their trust in him.”[5]


School Teacher

            Catharine’s prayers were answered. A few weeks later, her parents realized they didn’t have to leave just yet, and allowed her to go back to the school. She stayed there until May 1820, when she agreed to become a teacher at a school for Native Americans at Creek Path, her hometown – a school that was partially opened through the intervention of her father.

            Once again, leaving Brainerd was difficult. “It is truly painful to part with my dear Christian friends, those with whom I have spent many happy hours in the house of worship,” she wrote in her diary. “I must bid them farewell. This is the place, where I first became acquainted with the dear Saviour. He now calls me to work in his vineyard, and shall I, for the sake of my Christian friends and of my own pleasures, refuse to go, while many of my poor red brothers and sisters are perishing for lack of knowledge? O no, I will not refuse to go. I will go wherever the Saviour calls me. I know he will be on my right hand, to grant me all the blessings that I shall need, and he will direct me how to instruct the dear children, who shall be committed to my care.”[6]

            It was not just a matter of leaving friends and comforts behind. She also felt unprepared for the task. “O how much I need wisdom from God,” she wrote. “I am a child. I can do nothing. But in God I trust, for I know there is none else to whom I can look for help.”[7]

            Catharine’s school opened with twenty students and continued to grow, as both children and their parents were eager to learn. Besides achieving literacy, many, including her own family, were received into the visible church.

            “I think they have truly passed from death unto life,” she wrote to her brother David regarding their parents. “They seem to be growing in grace and in the knowledge of him who has redeemed their souls from hell. Indeed you cannot imagine how different they seem from what they did when you left us. All they desire now, is to do the will of our dear Saviour. This work is the Lord's, and no doubt he will keep them and carry them safe through this sinful world, until he receives them to his heavenly kingdom.”[8]

Missionary to the Cherokee

            Both Catharine’s diary and letters are a constant testimony of her concern for her people, which was a motivating force in her life. “Oh, how I feel for my poor Cherokee brothers and sisters, who do not know the blessed Jesus, who died for us, and do not enjoy the blessings that I do,”[9] she wrote to another missionary.

            She often asked the missionaries to pray for her, both as a teacher and a witness of the gospel. “My heart bleeds for their immortal souls. O that I might be made the means of turning many souls from darkness unto marvelous light.”[10]

            She also talked about her people being “on the brink of destruction.”[11] She might have been referring to a temporal, as well as eternal, destruction, since the government was at that time demanding large concessions of land from Native Americans.

            In fact, a few months before she wrote these letters, John Ross, president of the Cherokee National Committee, had visited Brainerd to discuss contingency plans in case the Cherokees were forced to leave their lands. The fate of the Cherokee Nation must have been weighing heavily on Catharine’s mind.

Last Years

            In 1821, Catharine’s brother John died of tuberculosis. Soon after this, Catharine began to show similar symptoms. By 1823, her condition was so serious that she was transported by canoe to the home of a missionary doctor. But it was too late. She died on July 18, 1823. She was not older than 23.

            “I have found that it is good for me to be afflicted,” she wrote to her brother David a month before her death. “The Saviour is very precious to me. I often enjoy his presence, and I long to be where I can enjoy it without sin. ... We must submit to his will. We know, that if we never meet again in this world, the Lord has prepared a place in his heavenly kingdom, where I trust we shall meet, never to part. We ought to be thankful for what he has done for us. If he had not sent us the gospel, we should have died without any knowledge of the Saviour. You must not be grieved when you hear of my illness. You must remember that this world is not our home, that we must all die soon.”[12]

            One year after her death, Rufus Anderson published her biography, entitled, Memoir of Catharine Brown, A Christian Indian of the Cherokee Nation. The book became popular and was widely distributed.

            Her brother David, who had always been particularly close to Catharine, continued to use his talents for the Lord. After completing his education at Brainerd, he studied at Andover Theological Institute. He is remembered for his work, in collaboration with others, on a Cherokee spelling book and a translation of the New Testament from Greek into the Cherokee language. Since the Cherokee used a different alphabet, for which no printing types were available, the New Testament was copied by hand and circulated as manuscript.

            Largely forgotten in the following centuries, Catharine Brown has recently been rediscovered as an influential leader and writer. According to Theresa Strouth Gaul, editor of a new collection of Catharine’s works, Cherokee Sister: The Collected Writings of Catharine Brown, 1818-1823, Catharine might be, “after [Samson] Occom and [John] Johnson … the most prolific Native writer before the late 1820s.”[13]

            For Christians, Catharine’s diaries and letters continue to be an encouraging reminder of the power of the gospel and the work of God’s Spirit, both in converting and sustaining God’s people.

[1] Rufus Anderson, Memoir of Catharine Brown, a Christian Indian of the Cherokee Nation, American Sunday School Union, 1831, 19,

[2] 50

[3] Ibid.

[4] 50-51

[5] 38

[6] 59

[7] 60

[8] 85

[9] 52

[10] 51

[11] 41

[12] 108

[13] Catharine Brown, Cherokee Sister: The Collected Writings of Catharine Brown, 1818-1823, ed. by Theresa Strouth Gaul (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 5


Simonetta Carr