The children of nineteenth-century American missionaries … Hawaiian nationality by birth, white by race and American by parental and educational design. (Schultz)
There were seven American couples sent by the ABCFM to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity in this Pioneer Company. These included two Ordained Preachers, Hiram Bingham and his wife Sybil and Asa Thurston and his wife Lucy.
Joining them were two Teachers, Mr. Samuel Whitney and his wife Mercy and Samuel Ruggles and his wife Mary; a Doctor, Thomas Holman and his wife Lucia; a Printer, Elisha Loomis and his wife Maria; and a Farmer, Daniel Chamberlain, his wife Jerusha and five children (Dexter, Nathan, Mary, Daniel and Nancy.)
On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of American Protestant missionaries set sail on the Thaddeus for the Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawai‘i.) For the most part, the couples were newlyweds; here is a listing of their wedding dates:
Hiram and Sybil Bingham were married October 11, 1819
Asa and Lucy Thurston were married October 12, 1819
Samuel and Mercy Whitney were married October 4, 1819
Samuel and Mary Ruggles were married September 22, 1819
Thomas and Lucia Holman were married September 26, 1819
Elisha and Maria Loomis were married September 27, 1819
(Daniel and Jerusha Chamberlain, with five children, were the only family in the Pioneer Company.)
After 164-days at sea, on April 4, 1820, the Thaddeus arrived and anchored at Kailua-Kona on the Island of Hawaiʻi. Hawai‘i’s “Plymouth Rock” is about where the Kailua pier is today.
Starting a few short months after their arrival, the new missionary wives became mothers.
The first child was Levi Loomis, son of the Printer, Elisha and Maria Loomis; he was the first white child born in the Islands. Here is the order of the early missionary births:
July 16, 1820 … Honolulu (Oʻahu) … Levi Loomis
October 19, 1820 … Waimea (Kauaʻi) … Maria Whitney
November 9, 1820 … Honolulu (Oʻahu) … Sophia Bingham
December 22, 1820 … Waimea (Kauaʻi) … Sarah Ruggles
March 2, 1821 … Waimea (Kauaʻi) … Lucia Holman
September 28, 1821 … Honolulu (Oʻahu) … Persis Thurston
More missionaries and more children came, later.
Over the course of a little over 40-years (1820-1863 – the “Missionary Period,”) about 180-men and women in twelve Companies served in Hawaiʻi to carry out the mission of the ABCFM in the Hawaiian Islands.
The missionaries established schools associated with their missions across the Islands. This marked the beginning of Hawaiʻi’s phenomenal rise to literacy. The chiefs became proponents for education and edicts were enacted by the King and the council of Chiefs to stimulate the people to reading and writing.
In 1820, missionary Lucy Thurston noted in her Journal, Liholiho’s desire to learn, “The king (Liholiho, Kamehameha II) brought two young men to Mr. Thurston, and said: “Teach these, my favorites, (John Papa) Ii and (James) Kahuhu. It will be the same as teaching me. Through them I shall find out what learning is.”
Interestingly, as the early missionaries learned the Hawaiian language, they then taught their lessons in the mission schools in Hawaiian, rather than English. In part, the mission did not want to create a separate caste and portion of the community as English‐speaking Hawaiians.
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiians had built over 1,100‐schoolhouses. This covered every district throughout the eight major islands and serviced an estimated 53,000‐students. (Laimana)
By 1853, nearly three-fourths of the native Hawaiian population over the age of sixteen years was literate in their own language. The short time span within which native Hawaiians achieved literacy is remarkable in light of the overall low literacy rates of the United States at that time. (Lucas)
This was fine for the Hawaiians who were beginning to learn to read and write, but the missionary families were looking for expanded education for their children.
“During the period from infancy to the age of ten or twelve years, children in the almost isolated family of a missionary could be well provided for and instructed in the rudiments of education without a regular school … But after that period, difficulties in most cases multiplied.” (Hiram Bingham)
Missionaries were torn between preaching the gospel and teaching their kids. “(M)ission parents were busy translating, preaching and teaching. Usually parents only had a couple of hours each day to spare with their children.” (Schultz)
From 1826, until Punahou School opened in 1842, young missionary parents began to make a decision seemingly at odds with the idealizing of the family so prevalent in the 19th century; they weighed the possibility of sending them back to New England. The trauma mostly affected families of the first two companies, and involving only 19 out of 250 Mission children. (Zwiep)
“(I)t was the general opinion of the missionaries there that their children over eight or ten years of age, notwithstanding the trial that might be involved, ought to be sent or carried to the United States, if there were friends who would assume a proper guardianship over them”. (Bingham)
“This was the darkest day in the life history of the mission child. Peculiarly dependent upon the family life, at the age of eight to twelve years, they were suddenly torn from the only intimates they had ever known, and banished, lonely and homesick, to a mythical country on the other side of the world …”
“… where they could receive letters but once or twice a year; where they must remain isolated from friends and relatives for years and from which they might never return.” (Bishop)
The parents in the first company demonstrate the range of options available: going home with all the children (as did the Chamberlains and Loomises;) keeping all the children to be educated by the mother (the Thurstons’ choice;) or sending some or all of the children home, not knowing when or if they would be reunited (the course taken by the Binghams, Ruggleses and Whitneys.)
In 1829, Sophia Bingham was sent back to the continent. Mail was so slow that her mother Sybil waited a year and a half for her first letter from Sophia. “This poor, waiting, anxious heart,” she confessed, “has been made so glad by your long, crowded pages, that it would not be easy to tell you all its joy.” (Zwiep)
Sophia, the first white girl born on Oʻahu (November 9, 1820,) is my great great grandmother. The image shows Sophia Bingham.
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