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In gratitude for his bringing them the gospel as a missionary of the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, early-nineteenth-century Cherokees gave Presbyterian missionary Samuel Austin Worcester the honorary Cherokee name "A-tse-nu-sti." The name means "messenger." Worcester's message for posterity, echoing through annals from New England to Georgia to Oklahoma, remains a triple legacy for Indian-American relations, in missions, translation and printing, and the law.

Worcester, born in 1798 Worcester, Massachusetts, was the son of Leonard Worcester of Peacham, Vermont, and Elizabeth Hopkins of Hadley, Massachusetts. He came from a long line of ministers. After early schooling in Peacham under celebrated missionary, activist, and editor-publisher Jeremiah Evarts, Worcester attended the University of Vermont, where his namesake uncle, Rev. Samuel Austin, was president. Worcester graduated with honors from that institution in 1819 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1823. Worcester married Ann Orr of Bedford, New Hampshire, and was ordained at Park Street Church in Boston in 1825, weeks before leaving New England for the Cherokee mission field.

The Worcesters worked from Brainerd, Tennessee, from 1825 to 1828, when they moved to New Echota, Georgia, capital of the Cherokee Nation, and where Samuel's most lasting work began. He worked translating the Bible into Cherokee, using the Sequoyah's (George Guess's) newly developed syllabic alphabet. He assisted Elias Boudinot in publishing the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Indian newspaper in North America. He participated in public affairs with letters to officials and other publications. His opposition to removal of Cherokees west of the Mississippi River made him a conscientious objector to state law, as Georgia took Cherokee lands and dismantled Cherokee government in the face of inaction by the federal government and in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Worcester's incarceration with others who tested an 1830 Georgia law forbidding whites from entering Cherokee territory without state permission led to Samuel A. Worcester v. The State of Georgia in 1832. Cherokee leaders saw that case, in which the Supreme Court declared that Georgia laws could have no effect in Cherokee Territory, as a hopeful answer to the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia, in which Chief Justice John Marshall infamously found the Cherokees to be a "domestic dependent nation" with no rights a state was bound to follow. The Worcester case, flouted by Georgia authorities and by Pres. Andrew Jackson, did nothing to stop the president and Congress from legislating forced removal of Cherokees and other Southeastern tribes. Despite being ignored in the 1830s, both cases influenced law and federal-Indian relations through the early twenty-first century.

Resigned to Indian removal, Worcester returned to Tennessee for a year before moving west to Dwight Mission, near Sallisaw, in 1835. In 1836 he moved to Union Mission on Grand River before settling permanently at Park Hill. He established the first press in what is now Oklahoma. He worked first among Cherokees who had moved west voluntarily before all the tribe was forced. His labors ranged from grand efforts to translate the Bible and hymns into Cherokee to mundane matters of running a frontier mission. The nonscholarly aspects of his calling led him to eschew a doctor of divinity degree conferred by the University of Vermont in 1857. Although they shared a title, Worcester was not connected to the Cherokee Messenger religious paper published from 1844 to 1846 by the Baptist Mission near present Westville. Worcester's wife died in 1839, and he married Erminia Nash. Samuel and Ann's progeny included Ann Elizabeth Robertson, first woman to earn a doctorate in literature, and her daughter Alice M. Robertson, elected to Congress from Oklahoma in 1920.

Worcester's success has been attributed to his unwillingness to become involved in internal Cherokee politics, despite being a witness to the murder of his close friend and "right hand," Boudinot, then living in Worcester's home, by proponents of removal in 1839. Like most New England missionaries in Indian country, Worcester personally opposed slavery but considered it less important than efforts to Christianize and "civilize" Indians. He did not shy away from all controversy; the Presbyterian missionary differed with his Baptist counterparts over how to translate "baptize" into Cherokee, for example. Minor quibbles tarnished neither Worcester's legacy as a missionary and printer-translator-linguist nor diminished his courage in Georgia, which colored the rest of his experience with the Cherokees.

Richard Mize

Learn More

Althea Bass, Cherokee Messenger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1936).

Grant Foreman, Sequoyah (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938).

Barbara Francine Luebke, "Elias Boudinot, Cherokee Editor: The Father of American Indian Journalism" (Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 1981).

Jill Norgren, The Cherokee Cases: Two Landmark Federal Decisions in the Fight for Sovereignty (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).

Theda Perdue, ed., Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

Thurman Wilkins, Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People (2d ed., rev.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).

"Samuel A. Worcester," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Richard Mize, “Worcester, Samuel Austin,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=WO020.

Published January 15, 2010
Last updated August 2, 2023

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