"Behold me and this great Babylon I have built": The life and work of Sophia Sawyer, 19th century missionary and teacher among the Cherokees

Teri L. Castelow
College of Education, Florida State University
July, 2005


Sophia Sawyer (1792-1853) was born and educated in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She was a strong-willed and independent woman who turned to teaching as a means of support after the death of her parents. At age thirty-one, she joined the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions and was stationed at the Brainerd Mission in Tennessee. Sawyer exemplifies the first generation of women to receive an academy education and become teachers themselves. This dissertation will examine the structure and environment of the schools in which Sophia Sawyer, missionary educator of females and Native Americans, taught the Cherokee students in the missions of Tennessee and Georgia, 1823-1836, and later in the Fayetteville Female Seminary, 1839-1853. In the large number of letters written to, by, and about Sophia Sawyer and her work among the Cherokees, it is revealed that she was a religious and pious person who felt a calling to Christianize and educate the Cherokees. She also displayed considerable respect for their culture, something which is often overlooked in many histories of White/Native American encounters. Sawyer appears to have cared deeply about her students, and the techniques that she used reflect this depth of feeling. The existing written opinions of her are either very positive or very negative, but even her detractors respected her commitment to education. Cherokee leaders such as John Ridge recognized this dedication. It is possible they held Sawyer in such high esteem because of her ability to look beyond the stereotypes held by many other missionaries about Indians. She created a classroom atmosphere which encouraged but challenged the students to learn English, as well as subjects similar to those taught in schools for Anglo-American children. That Sawyer was able to accomplish this with few resources and textbooks is an accomplishment worth examining in light of our modern concern about multi-cultural education.