“He kept the Faith even in the hardest times on the Trail of Tears, providing unselfish, godly leadership to his people during their most difficult years.”
The dark clouds of the coming removal hung heavy over Cherokee country. Soon the Cherokees would be driven from their homes at gunpoint, forced to travel hundreds of miles west through the bitter winter. Death would take its toll especially on the young and elderly. Cherokee churches would be uprooted—their meeting houses demolished by settlers. But the sunlight of God’s grace pierced through the darkness. God would mightily sustain these Cherokee believers.
During some of the darkest times of redemptive history, God has raised up selfless, fearless leaders to point their people to God; men like Moses, Joshua, and Elijah. In this time, God raised up Cherokee Baptist preachers. These men would hold forth the Word of life, selflessly leading their people through these dark days. One of these men was Jesse Bushyhead. This is his story…
Birth and Upbringing
Jesse Bushyhead (Tastheghetehee) was born to Cherokee parents in Tennessee in September, 1804. He was the grandson of a British army captain from Scotland who had married a Cherokee wife. The Cherokees gave Jesse the name, “Bushyhead” due to his bushy hair. He lived in Tennessee—in the Hiwassee Valley area of the Cherokee Nation—at Achaia, seventy-five miles west of Valley Towns.1 Bushyhead attended the American Board mission school (Presbyterian and Congregationalist) at Candy Creek. He was known as a fluent speaker of both Cherokee and English.2
Converted to Christ, Trained for the Ministry
Jesse Bushyhead came to faith in Christ around 1830 as a result of his independent reading of the Bible. As he continued to study God’s Word, he saw that infant baptism (pedobaptism) was unscriptural and that the Bible clearly teaches believer’s baptism by immersion. When he heard of a Baptist meeting twenty miles away, he travelled there to be scripturally baptized by them.
Soon after his conversion and baptism, Bushyhead met Evan Jones, the Baptist Welsh missionary to the Cherokees. Jones would become Bushyhead’s lifelong friend and mentor. The two “became close friends, and …he became Jones’s chief collaborator in translating the Bible.”3
Evan Jones ordained and trained Bushyhead in the gospel ministry. Together as a team, they preached, evangelized, baptized converts, and translated the Bible into Cherokee. Bushyhead made Baptist history, becoming “the first Cherokee to be pastor of his own church in the [Cherokee] Nation.”4
Jones and Bushyhead were living examples of evangelistic zeal. They travelled a circuit of 240 miles on foot and horseback across the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia—preaching the gospel at 42 different preaching points.
Used of God in Spiritual Awakening Among the Cherokees
During these years God opened the windows of Heaven in spiritual awakening among the Cherokees, and hundreds were gloriously converted to Christ and added to the churches. In these awakenings, God used Evan Jones and other missionaries, but also raised up Native preachers like Bushyhead as instruments to sweep many souls into the Kingdom. Bushyhead was a powerful preacher, feeling such intense emotion that at times he was forced to stop preaching for a few moments to choke back the tears and regain his composure. Crowds of Cherokees gathered to hear him and were deeply moved as he preached. Hear this firsthand account of Bushyhead interpreting a gospel sermon from English into Cherokee:
“Bushyhead entered with all his soul into the spirit of the discourse… He was all life and eloquence in interpreting; his actions increased with the life of the discourse; his gestures were elegant and forceful… But when to ‘Calvary they turned,’ when the preacher brought forth the soul-stirring doctrine of a God, sending his Son to die for sinful man—the spirit of Bushyhead began to melt … big tears started in his eyes; his voice choked—and for a moment he was hardly able to give utterance to the discourse.”5
On August 27, 1838—only weeks before the removal began—Evan Jones wrote the following report:
“…the gospel is making advances altogether unprecedented in the Christian history of the Cherokees. … Yesterday…Bushyhead and myself baptized fifty-six hopeful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. …Twenty-four were males and thirty-one females—Cherokees of all ages, and one white woman.”6
Such encouraging reports were common during this time.
Leader of His People During Removal
Though some feared the removal would weaken Cherokee believers, the exact opposite was true, as God strengthened their faith more than ever.
“The aversion of the party to removal being so great that they (the Bushyhead party) made no preparation to depart until compelled by the presence of United States’ troops, there was reason to fear that in the vexations and calamities of this world they would think little about preparing for the next, and that even Christians might lose much of their spiritual-mindedness. But it was not so. Up to the time of their assemblage for removal, the labors of Mr. Jones and Mr. Bushyhead were blest with improving success. Attendance on preaching improved, Christians became more zealous and united, and conversions and baptisms more frequent; and after they were assembled in encampments, necessarily under many sufferings of body, rich blessings continued to descend on their souls, considerable numbers were baptised, and comfortable communion seasons enjoyed.”7
Even amidst the trials of removal, Bushyhead testified of God’s gracious hand among his people, the Cherokees:
“But there is one great consolation, amidst these trying moments with the Cherokees; they have believed unto salvation, and they have been made heirs of God and joint-heirs with the Lord Jesus Christ, are now manifesting their love to God. These troubles teach them that this world is not their home; these make them look forward to that city which hath foundations, and whose builder and maker is God; these teach them that they are but strangers and pilgrims in this world. This is my consolation for my brethren… [the Cherokee believers].” 8
Bushyhead “was committed to assisting his nation in its struggle against removal; he was elected to the Council in 1835.”9 He strove with all his might to prevent the removal of his people from their homeland. When he saw he could not stop the removal, Bushyhead volunteered to lead one of the parties west to Indian Territory.
“The Removal was coming soon, and the turmoil and gloom grew heavier, but among the Cherokee converts of Evan Jones and Jesse Bushyhead, none of them denied the faith.”10
“Two detachments, headed by Jesse Bushyhead and Situagi, contained the bulk of the mountain Cherokees from North Carolina.”11
More than 500 Cherokee Baptists traversed the Trail of Tears in the two parties led by Jones and Bushyhead.12
Bushyhead’s removal party included two Cherokee churches—the Valley Towns church, and the Amohee church. The Valley Towns church travelled the Trail of Tears in organized form, as a “church in the wilderness.”13
Even in those days of much death and suffering, the members of this church observed the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and “continually sought the salvation of sinners.”14
Cherokees were saved and added to the church along the trail. A number of the church members passed on to eternal glory. Bushyhead’s detachment of 1,100 Cherokees had departed their homeland on October 5, 1838 and finally “arrived in the strange new homeland [modern day Oklahoma] on February 23 …”15 after trekking through an unusually harsh winter. Bushyhead reported that his party suffered eighty-two deaths along the trail.16 Bushyhead had unselfishly forsaken the comfort and familiarity of his home party of Cherokees so he could lead the party containing the Amohee church, who greatly needed his help.
Leader During Cherokee Resettlement in Oklahoma
Jones and Bushyhead settled in Breadtown, later called “Baptist Mission” (near modern day Westville, Oklahoma). There the congregation reorganized, and were known as “Old Baptist Mission.” They continued regular church services just as they had in the old Nation and on the Trail of Tears.
Faithful Unto Death
Aged only to his mid forties, Jesse Bushyhead left this world just a few years after the removal. William Gammell called Bushyhead “…the ablest and most successful of the native preachers and one of the ablest and most energetic men of the nation to which he belonged … one of the noblest exemplifications of Christian character it has ever produced.”17
The following appeared in the Cherokee Messenger, August 1844:
DEATH OF REV. JESSE BUSHYHEAD
“With unfeigned sorrow, we announce the death of the Rev. Jesse Bushyhead, our beloved brother and faithful fellow labor in the Gospel field. His sickness was short. On his way to a sacramental meeting July 13, he was seized with fever, which baffled all medical skill, within reach, and terminated his useful life on Wednesday night, July 17, 1844. During his sickness, he was sometimes not able to speak, and sometimes not allowed to do so, lest it would aggravate his disease. But when he did speak, he expressed the most satisfying and unshaken confidence in God, through the blessed Redeemer. His mind seemed to be enraptured with a view of the teachings of God conveyed to the soul by various channels: by his word, by his servants, by his spirit. Sometimes he had an intense and satisfying view of the glory of God’s sovereign power. Speaking of his sickness, said,
‘if it be His will to raise me up, he can do it—he will do it. He requires labor and effort. But if it be His will not to raise me up, I am satisfied: I am satisfied.’
The day he died, though burning with fever, and not allowed to utter his delightful feelings at large, he said, ‘I am in a very happy state of mind.’
No look or expression was allowed to cast a shade of doubt over the hopes, full of the immortality which filled the soul, and beamed in the countenance of our brother, and which well sustained him in the last conflict. In the midst of labors daily extending, in the number and efficiency, he is taken away from the field, to join the triumphant hosts who encircle the Redeemer’s throne.”18
The mission established by Bushyhead near Westville, Oklahoma lives on today as a Baptist church. Bushyhead is buried in the cemetery across the highway from the old mission.
Though Jesse Bushyhead passed from this life long ago, his testimony and influence is still felt today throughout Cherokee country and Native America. May God raise up Native young men like Bushyhead to hold forth the light of the gospel in this dark generation! -J. D. B.
- McLoughlin, William Gerald. Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. p. 91.
- Ibid., p. 92
- The Baptist Missionary Magazine. April, 1837. Boston: Board of Managers of the Baptist General Convention, 1838. Vol. 18. p. 95.
- Ibid., p. 292
- Ella, George Melvyn. Isaac McCoy, Apostle of the Western Trail. 2nd ed. Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 1939, 2003. p. 560 [emphasis added]
- Tracy, Joseph. History of American Missions To The Heathen, From Their Commencement to the Present Time. Worcester: Spooner & Howland, 1840. p. 498 [emphasis added]
- McLoughlin, William Gerald. Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. p. 92.
- Ibid., p. 138. [emphasis added]
- Ibid., p. 181.
- Ibid., p. 183.
- Wyeth, Walter N. Poor Lo! Early Indian Missions. A Memorial. Philadelphia, PA: W. N. Wyeth, Publisher, 1896. p. 48.
- Ibid. [emphasis added]
- McLoughlin, William Gerald. Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. p. 185.
- Routh, E. C. The Story of Oklahoma Baptists. Oklahoma City: Baptist General Convention, 1932. p. 51.
- Cherokee Messenger. August, 1844.
- King, Charles Bird. Jesse Bushyhead. 1828. Painting – oil on panel. [Photo of painting, cropped for use in The Baptist Arrow, 2014]
- Jones, Evans. Map drawn by Evan Jones of the towns and preaching places on the itinerant circuit visited by himself and Jesse Bushyhead during the period 1836-1838. McLoughlin, William Gerald. Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. p. 152.
- Evan Jones, Baptist Missionary to the Cherokees. n.p.