In the years following his arrival in New England in the summer of 1809, ‘Ōpūkaha’ia would become integral to the founding of the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut.
‘Ōpūkaha‘ia became legendary for his earnest pursuit of an American education. He captured the hearts and Christian spirits of the New Haven community, where he first resided.
‘Ōpūkaha‘ia’s situation encouraged his hosts and community members to explore the possibility of creating a formal school in the US for students like him: “heathens” who were stranded in the US but who were interested in being “civilized” and “saved” nonetheless.
The Foreign Mission School was instituted in the autumn of 1816, and opened in the beginning of May, 1817. “There belong to it a commodious edifice for the school, a good mansion house, with a barn, and other out-buildings, and a garden, for the Principal; a house, barn, &c with a few acres of good tillage land for the Steward and Commons …”
“… all situated sufficiently near to each other and to the Congregational meeting-house, in the south parish of Cornwall, Connecticut, and eighty acres of excellent wood land, about a mile and a half distant.” (American Missionary Register, 1821)
The Foreign Mission School was a religious experiment. Instead of sending missionaries to foreign lands, it brought students to America.
It was believed that a mission school in religiously pious New England would be more efficient and effective than traditional mission schools established within ‘heathen’ settings because it removed these young students from the pagan influences of their native communities.
At the beginning of the school’s tenure, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia was considered a leader of the student body, excelling in his studies, expressing his fondness for and understanding of the importance of the agricultural labor, and qualifying for a full church membership due to his devotion to his new faith.
Between 1819 and 1826, there were altogether ninety-seven students on the official record. The ages of these ninety-seven students ranged from ten to thirty.
Among them there were forty-three Indians, nineteen Hawaiians, thirteen Americans, five Chinese, three Marquesans, two Greeks, two Jews, two Malays, two Tahitians, one Bengalese, one Hindu, one Javanese, one New Zealander, one Portuguese, and one Scotch.
The year 1819 saw increased diversification of the student body as several Cherokee students arrived in Cornwall. Over the span of its operational years, the FMS taught Native Americans from fourteen tribes: one Abenaquis, eleven Cherokees, five Choctaws, five Delawares, one Mexican, one Mohegan, one Narragansett, two Ojibwas, two Omahas, three Oneidas, three Osages, two Senecas, four Stockbridges, and two Tuscaroras.
Due to the variety in national background, the students’ prior experiences were also enormously diverse. The majority came from seafaring careers; however, others were military personnel, farmers, barbers, coopers, servants and students from other schools.
The object of the School as set forth in the Constitution, is – “The education in our own country of Heathen Youths, in such manner, as, with subsequent professional instruction will qualify them to become useful Missionaries, Physicians, Surgeons, School Masters, or Interpreters …”
“… and to communicate to the Heathen Nations such knowledge in agriculture and the arts, as may prove the means of promoting Christianity and civilization.” (Missionary Herald, January 1821)
Students studied penmanship, grammar, arithmetic, Latin, Greek, rhetoric, navigation, surveying, astronomy, theology, chemistry, and ecclesiastical history, among other specialized subjects.
Students rose around 5 or 6 am and ate breakfast together at 7 am in the dining room of the steward’s house. Daily classes ran from 9 am to noon, and again from 2 to 5 pm, with all sessions taking place on the first floor of the main school building just across the street from the steward’s house.
Curricula operated at various levels, as some of the pupils were more advanced in their studies while others where just learning basic literacy – the more advanced students helped teach the others.
Academics were balanced with mandatory outdoor labor. Students were tasked with the maintenance of the school’s agricultural plots and assigned to labor in the fields “two (and a half) days” a week and “two at a time.” Additionally, the school enforced strict rules for students’ social lives and study times.
The months of May and September included scheduled vacation times for the school’s boarded students; however, only certain pupils were authorized by the administration to “go abroad.”
Much of the Foreign Mission School’s campus buildings were acquired through donations. The citizenry of Cornwall donated fourteen acres of land as well as the building that would become the main educational site, which had been built in 1797 as a school house.
The ground floor of the school building housed one large classroom, while the second floor was refurbished for students’ quarters. Located near this school building was the Principal’s house. Purchased in 1815, the Principal’s house was acquired before the establishment of the school was complete.
The third of the main campus buildings, and certainly the most social and vibrant, was the Steward’s house. This building was constructed in 1814 by architect Eber Maxfield and was sold to the school. The exchange of property included 18-more acres that were used for agriculture by the students and staff.
As a site for regular and informal interactions between students and Cornwall residents, the Federal-style farmhouse (built 1814) served as the steward’s family home, the school dining hall, a boarding house and a nurse room for sick students. (Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation)
According to the school ‘constitution,’ the role of the Steward was to “superintend the agricultural interests of the school,” though the actual responsibilities necessitated far more involvement with both the school’s operations and the students’ daily lives.
Over time, the Steward’s role expanded to include counseling and skills training. The Steward was expected to reside in the Steward’s House on the school campus. Thus, because of the consistent level of daily activity that mixed different communities within this house, the Steward remained abreast of the major events and social issues happening within the student body.
Steward’s duties were broadened to include supervising the school’s landed properties, training the scholars in the art of agriculture, bookkeeping and managing the FMS accounts, assuring a steady supply of firewood, buying and selling livestock, arranging travel for staff and students, providing the students with clothing, and hosting visitors, among others tasks.
Over time, there was an increased the level of care given to the students outside of their academic activities and instituted greater involvement between the steward’s family and the student body. For example, the steward’s wife was in charge of the kitchen and cooking.
Daily, she prepared bread and meals for all of the students. She also outfitted the students with new clothes and tended to the laundry and repair of these items. And, she was also primarily in charge of the students’ medical care.
Whenever one of the students fell ill, “he was moved into the Steward’s house” to live with the family for as long as was necessary for recovery. These duties also fell to daughters of the steward, who were effectively housewives in training.
The year the school opened, it housed twelve students. Enrollment doubled to twenty-four by the second year. Four students left as seven others joined in the school’s third year, bringing the enrollment to twenty-seven.
In the fourth and fifth years, enrollment rose to twenty-nine and thirty-five students, respectively. By the seventh year, however, the student body dropped to twenty-four. The school experienced another spike in enrollment in its eighth year with thirty-six pupils from seventeen different nations.
In its ninth year, the school’s population once again decreased, this time to twenty-five. By the time the school closed in 1826, only fourteen students remained.
Operated from 1817 to 1827, the Foreign Mission School remains the first and last experiment in a domestically located “foreign” mission and represents educational and social politics concerning racial tolerance, Asian and Native American migration, and American identity in the early 19th century.