Manuscripts Division
William Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Sophia Sawyer Papers, 1814-1833

Duane Norman Diedrich Collection

Finding aid created by
Susan Swasta, December 1995

Summary Information
Title: Sophia Sawyer papers
Creator: Kingsbury, Linda Raymond Ward
Inclusive dates: 1814-1833
Extent: 7 items
The Sophia Sawyer papers are a collection of letters from an outspoken teacher and missionary. The letters include information on Sawyer's religious thoughts, her opinions on many subjects, and descriptions of her work teaching at a Cherokee missionary school.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1987, 1992. M-2346, M-2810.2.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Preferred Citation:

Sophia Sawyer Papers, Duane Norman Diedrich Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Had Sophia Sawyer (1792-1853) chosen a more traditional course she would probably have spent her life as a Yankee schoolmarm. Instead, she combined a passion for education with intense religious zeal to forge a career as teacher and missionary to the Cherokee.

Sawyer was born into poverty, but her intellect and ambition won the support of Congregational clergyman Seth Payson and others in her hometown of Rindge, N.H. The Payson and Raymond families took her in and provided for her education at the New Ipswich Academy and at Rev. Joseph Emerson's progressive female seminary at Byfield, Mass. In 1821 Sawyer was still at Byfield, unsure of whether to continue her studies or try to find a teaching position and begin to earn a living. Two years later she was in Georgia, running a school supported by the American Board of Missions. For the next 14 years she taught in mission schools at Brainerd, New Echota and Running Water and in 1837, after a visit to the north, she joined the new Cherokee settlements in Arkansas. Sawyer established the Fayetteville Female Academy, which educated both Cherokee and whites, in 1840 and conducted it until her death of tuberculosis in 1853.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The seven letters in this collection, all but one written to Linda Raymond Ward Kingsbury, represent a highly opinionated woman who expressed herself fully and frankly in corresponding with friends. Sawyer was notorious for her eccentric, emotional temperament, which appears to have been established at an early age. The young woman excelled at her studies, but any ambitions she may have entertained were discouraged by poverty -- and she knew it.

Sawyer consoled herself in religion, concluding that God meant for her to remain in a humble station, and that she had been afflicted with an unstable personality in order to learn humility. In 1814 she wrote to Raymond from New Ipswich Academy: "Sometimes I regret my contracted fortune whose scantiness forbids me to pursue my favorite studies, but a moments reflection teaches... that it is for mine, and for the universal good, that I act in a humble sphere. ... I am in the hands of a being, who perfectly knows my disposition and just what remedies to apply. I have had much the season past to teach me my my sic intire dependence on God for all, for every thing, even of the most trivial importance. All my powers of mind, seem sometimes taken from me, that I may realize on whom I depend for reason, and all its attendant blessings."

Sawyer aspired to moral and religious perfection and was brutally harsh on herself for failing to achieve it, even as God, she believed, harshly judged "sunken, fallen, degraded" mankind. She had absorbed strongly negative attitudes toward the female sex which, along with guilt about her own sexuality, caused her to perceive women as weak, vain creatures led easily astray: "Why do we wish to please from motives of vanity? Why wish to be caressed admired and known? I hate female vanity yet possess a large share. Female vanity tarnishes every beauty of our sex. ... Sometimes when I gaze on a lovely young female I almost think her divine but her fallen nature soon contradicts this. ... It is hard to concieve so much loveliness can be a covert to such a sink of polution as we each possess."

In addition to her religious ideals, Sawyer was motivated by a desire to repay those who had provided for her education. She wrote Miss Raymond in 1821 that "I am ashamed to thank your Pa for the care which he takes of me & my property, it seems to me such a poor return. I hope he will see to it that he does not lose by me, as he has by other poor people."

Sawyer's temperament often put her in conflict with fellow missionaries, but the Cherokees seem to have accepted and appreciated her, and there is no doubt that she was a fiercely dedicated teacher. For her part, Sawyer became genuinely attached to her pupils, albeit in the patronizing manner of one who was bringing enlightenment to the heathen. At the Brainerd school many of the girls were under Sawyer's full care as boarding students, and she found that this role "...awakened a tenderness of feeling to which I have hitherto been a stranger." She found the Cherokees more well-behaved and eager to learn than New England children: "Here I can introduce the simplicity of the gospel without being ridiculed. ...They suppose everyone who teaches or is a missionary knows everything -- seemed surprised that that I could not sing & repeat all the hymns. I sighed one day and said I wish I & you were perfect. 'What is perfect?' I answered never to do wrong. 'Are you not perfect then?' they inquired with much surprise." Another letter from Brainerd, written in February, 1825 solicits the prayers and donations of her northern supporters, and encloses letters from several of the students, who were encouraged to correspond with their patrons.

The Cherokee missions ran into serious trouble with Georgia authorities as state jurisdiction was extended into native lands. The missionaries preferred to operate under Indian law, which permitted them to keep out liquor and other unsavory influences, and several of them were imprisoned for refusing to take a loyalty oath. In addition, the Georgia Guard harassed the mission schools for teaching blacks, for Cherokee-owned slaves were permitted to attend the classes. In 1832 Sawyer wrote of such concerns from New Echota, expressing the belief that the "wicked" and oppressive measures of the state would lead to a civil war, and regretting that "the children of this neighborhood, especially boys, are exposed to bad white men who learn them to swear and drink whiskey and then say 'All the good the missionaries do is to learn the Indians so they can curse.' Such things we are to expect in a world like this." In the last letter, written in August-October 1833 to cousin Mary Burnham, Sawyer describes efforts of fellow-missionaries to translate the Bible into Cherokee and tells of the difficulties suffered by the daughter of a polygamous marriage. Folder eight contains excerpts of published material on Sawyer and the Cherokee missions which provide valuable context for the letters.

Subject Terms

    • Cherokee Indians.
    • Education.
    • Georgia
    • Indians of North America--Missions.
    • Women teachers.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   : Duane Norman Diedrich Collection Folder   1-7
    Correspondence,  July 1814-October 1833 [series]
    Box   : Duane Norman Diedrich Collection Folder   8
    Published material [series]
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Missionary Papers. Cherokees. Contains a considerable body of Sawyer's official correspondence

    Partial Subject Index
    • 1821 Dec. 23
    Cherokee Indians--Education
    • 1824 May 24
    • 1825 Feb. 12
    • 1832 Aug. 22
    • 1833 Aug. 31, Sept. 28, Oct. 16
    Cherokee language
    • 1833 Aug. 31, Sept. 28, Oct. 16
    Depression, Mental
    • 1814 July
    Indians of North America--Education
    • 1824 May 24
    • 1825 Feb. 12
    • 1832 Aug. 22
    • 1833 Aug. 31, Sept. 28, Oct. 16
    Indians of North America--Missions
    • 1824 May 24
    • 1825 Feb. 12
    • 1832 Aug. 22
    • 1833 Aug. 31, Sept. 28, Oct. 16
    • 1833 Aug., Sept. 28, Oct. 16
    Pride and vanity
    • 1814 October 7
    Sawyer, Sophia, 1792-1853
    • See folder 8
    • 1814 July
    • 1825 Feb. 12
    Women teachers--Georgia
    • 1824 May 24
    • 1825 Feb. 12
    • 1832 Aug. 22
    • 1833 Aug. 31, Sept. 28, Oct. 16
    • 1814 Oct. 7
    • 1821 Dec. 23
    • 1814 Oct. 7