American National Biography Online
Sergeant, John (1710-27 July 1749), missionary to the American
Indians, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Jonathan
Sergeant and Mary (maiden name unknown). Sergeant's father died
when he was very young, and he was raised by his stepfather,
Colonel John Cooper. Because of an injury from a scythe, on his
left hand, he decided to pursue an academic life instead of becoming
a gentleman farmer as his father and stepfather had been. He
graduated from Yale College first in the class of 1729 and was
appointed a tutor there in 1731, becoming "one of the most successful
holders of that office in the early history of the College" (Dexter,
vol. 1, p. 395). Meanwhile he studied theology, in which he received
his second bachelor's degree in 1732.
In 1734 the commissioners for Indian Affairs at Boston of the
Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians of North
America, also known as the New England Company, sent two delegates
to confer with the Housatonic Indians for the possible establishment
of a mission among them. The Indians consented, and the commissioners,
having heard of Sergeant's interest in becoming a missionary
to the natives, offered him the position.
In October 1734 Sergeant made a brief trip to meet with the
Housatonic Indians, who had been living in two places, Skatekook
(in Sheffield, Mass.), and Wnahktukook (in Stockbridge, Mass.),
and persuaded them to erect a building to serve as school and
church on an intermediate spot. When he returned to New Haven
to complete his year as tutor at the college, he brought with
him two American-Indian boys, who studied English by day and
taught him their dialect by night. In July 1735 Sergeant left
New Haven, intending to spend the rest of his life with the Housatonics.
He was soon ordained to the Congregational ministry and baptized
forty Indians within a few months. His annual salary was 150
when he was ordained and reached 300 by the year of his death.
Sergeant mastered the Housatonic dialect and translated parts
of the Old and New Testament, some prayers, and Isaac Watt's
In 1736 the Massachusetts General Court purchased all the Indian
land at Skatekook and granted the two Indian groups a township
six miles square in Stockbridge. Sergeant and the schoolmaster,
Timothy Woodbridge, each received a one-sixtieth part (384 acres).
Four carefully selected English families were allowed to live
in the town to help the missionaries. A meeting house and a school
were soon built. The Indians' activities, such as maple sugar
making and hunting, however, undermined the effectiveness of
the school. This problem was somewhat alleviated by Isaac Hollis,
a London clergyman, who provided funds for the cost of lodging,
diet, clothing, and tuition for twelve Indian boys, allowing
them to study without seasonal interruptions. Another British
donation of 100, which Sergeant set aside for the education
of girls, was never fully utilized because the Indian girls did
not want to stay away from home.
At the age of twenty-nine, Sergeant in 1739 married Abigail
Williams, nineteen-year-old daughter of Colonel Ephraim Williams
of Stockbridge and half sister of Ephraim Williams, Jr., the
founder of Williams College. Although he came to be allied with
the powerful Williams family and lived in an impressive Georgian
mansion, instead of a plain cottage among the Indians, Sergeant
continued to maintain the trust and affection of his native congregation.
During his fourteen years at Stockbridge, the Indian population
increased from less than 50 to 218, 129 of whom he had baptized.
To Sergeant, the American Indians were "a very miserable and
degenerate Part" of the human race, who had "their own foolish,
barbarous, and wicked Custom," knew "nothing like Government
among themselves," and had "an Aversion to every Thing that restrains
their Liberty." He became convinced, as other missionaries did,
that missionary efforts would be fruitless unless the Indians
became reasonably "civilized" and learned English. Nor, he believed,
would the American-Indian children placed in unsupervised English
families improve their moral or social fortunes. Thus in 1743
Sergeant proposed the establishment of a boarding school, requesting
a grant of 200 acres of land, on which a building would be erected
to house Indian boys and girls aged ten to twenty, a farm would
be maintained, and stock and cattle would be raised. The children
were to be kept busy under two masters (one to supervise them
in their work and the other in their study) because the job would
be "too tedious a Task for one." Although many Englishmen responded
generously, support from the Bay Colony was meager. King George's
War and subsequent difficulties prevented the completion of the
school until the summer of 1749, shortly before Sergeant died
of a nervous fever in Stockbridge.
There was an ironic twist to Sergeant's missionary enterprise.
His wife, aged twenty-nine when he died, was a strong-minded
woman whose father was mainly interested in promoting his personal
interest. She tried to entice Ezra Stiles, a Yale tutor and five
years younger than she, to take Sergeant's position as Indian
missionary, a situation that, she might have hoped, would lead
to their marriage, but Stiles declined. The post was given to
Jonathan Edwards in 1751. Abigail Sergeant then became mistress
of the Indian girls' school due to the efforts of her father
and her cousin, who had urged the general court and the commissioners
for Indian Affairs of the New England Company to provide funds
to educate Indian girls, "according to the Plan of the late Reverend
Mr. Sergeant." Sergeant's widow proved unpopular in this new
capacity, however. She was accused of using the Indian girls
to do her chores instead of educating them. The Indians complained
that Joseph Dwight, a 49-year-old politician, general, long-time
friend of the Indians, and admirer of Edwards, had greatly changed
since his marriage to Abigail Sergeant in 1752 and that he and
his wife took over the entire Indian affairs. In 1754 the New
England Company commissioners took matters out of the general's
hands, forcing the couple eventually to remove to the North Parish
of Sheffield (later Great Barrington).
John and Abigail Sergeant had had three children. Their daughter,
Electa, the first white child born in Stockbridge, married Colonel
Mark Hopkins. Their elder son, Erastus, became the first physician
in Stockbridge, and the younger son, John Sergeant, Jr., only
two when his father died, studied at Princeton for two years,
was ordained to the Congregational ministry, and in 1775 took
charge of the Indian congregation in Stockbridge. In 1786 the
Housatonic Indians moved to New Stockbridge, New York, where
the Indians formed two factions. One group invited John Sergeant,
Jr., to become its pastor, while the other retained Sampson Occum
as its pastor. After Occum's death, the two groups united under
Sergeant, who divided his time between New and Old Stockbridge,
where his family lived.
Sergeant's published writings include one of his sermons, The
Causes and Danger of Delusions in the Affairs of Religion Consider'd
and Caution'd against, with Particular Reference to the Temper
of the Present Times (1743); A Letter from the Revd. Mr. Sergeant
of Stockbridge to Dr. Colman of Boston; Containing Mr. Sergeant's
Proposal of a More Effectual Method for the Education of Indian
Children (1743); and his commencement address printed in 1882
from the manuscript in possession of Williams College, A Valedictorian
Oration, by John Sergeant, Delivered at Yale College in the Year
1729. The major secondary works on Sergeant are James Axtell,
"The Rise and Fall of the Stockbridge Indian Schools," The Massachusetts Review 27 (1986): 367-78; Franklin B. Dexter, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Yale College, vol. 1 (1885), pp. 379, 384-97; Patrick Frazier, The Mohicans of Stockbridge (1992); Samuel Hopkins, Historical Memoir Relating to the Housatunnuk Indians (1753), reprinted in Magazine of History, extra no. 17 (1911); Electa
F. Jones, Stockbridge, Past and Present; or, Records of an Old
Mission Station (1854); and William B. Sprague, Annals of American
Pulpit, vol. 1 (1857), pp. 388-94.
Yasuhide Kawashima. "Sergeant, John";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the
American National Biography of the Day and Sample Biographies provided
that the following statement is preserved on all copies:
From American National Biography, published by Oxford University
Press, Inc., copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies.Further information is available at http://www.anb.org.
American National Biography articles may not be published commercially
(in print or electronic form), edited, reproduced or otherwise altered
without the written permission of Oxford University Press which acts as an agent in these matters for the copyright holder, the American Council of Learned Societies. Contact: Permissions Department, Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016; fax: 212-726-6444.