Part 1 - The Scandal that Rocked Cornwall, CT
By Mark B. Oliver | August 23, 2011
In 1803, a young boy, Killekeenah Oowaite was born into the Cherokee tribe in Georgia. Two years later, in June 1805, Eleanor Gold, gave birth to her daughter Harriet in Cornwall, Connecticut. Nobody could have foreseen the consequences.
Killekeenah - which means buck in Cherokee - was the eldest of eight children, four boys and four girls. Their father, Dutse Oowaite, had married the daughter of the High Cherokee Chief Attaculcullah. The family name was shortened to Watie sometime after Killekeenah’s birth for reasons lost in the annals of history.
Harriet Ruggles Gold was born into altogether different circumstances. She too had many brothers and sisters, but the familiarity ends there. The Gold’s were one of the Connecticut founding families. Her father Colonel Benjamin Gold and his wife Eleanor were upstanding members of their community, with strong Christian beliefs.
Elias Boudinot, was a friend and counselor to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, who would later become the tenth President of the Continental Congress. When Killekeenah was around eighteen, he met Boudinot who took an interest in the young man. At that time, it was not unusual for children from native tribes to be sent north to be educated, and Killekeenah’s youngest brother had already left the family for this reason.
In 1818, Boudinot sent Killekeenah to the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, CT, and as was customary Killekeenah assumed the name of his benefactor, and thereafter was called Elias Boudinot. Two years later Elias was baptized a Christian.
Elias was a frequent visitor to the Gold household, along with many other students and it was here that he met Harriet. In 1822, Elias was unable to finish school due to illness, and he moved back to the Cherokee Nation, but Harriet, and her brother Franklin, continued to correspond with him.
Elias’ cousin, John Ridge also attended the Mission School, where he met Sarah Northrop, the daughter of the school’s steward. The two became romantically involved and wed in January 1824. This caused something of a scandal - it was highly unusual for a local white girl from a good family to marry a native. The flames were stoked by Isaiah Bruce, the editor of the Litchfield paper, the American Eagle, but the affair passed over relatively uneventfully.
As the correspondence between Elias and Harriet became more meaningful and deepened, she felt she had to tell her parents. Harriet told them in the fall of 1824, and they were vehemently opposed to their betrothal. They did everything they could to dissuade her and her father wrote to Elias expressing their disapproval.
A few weeks later Harriet fell extremely ill, which caused her parents much heartache and soul searching. During her sickness they told Harriet they would oppose her no longer and another letter was sent to Elias. Despite the second letter being sent some weeks after the first, Elias received their letter expressing their approval before the other. He quickly wrote back expressing his gratitude.
Harriet’s parents decided not to tell the remainder of the family at that time as Harriet remained frail. When they discovered Harriet’s intentions the family was torn apart, and Harriet and her parents were accused of unchristian conduct, deceitfulness and duplicity.
The reason for the outrage was twofold. The Gold’s were a leading Connecticut family, and inter-racial marriage just wasn’t expected of Harriet. But perhaps more importantly in the eyes of some, it was felt that the Mission School wouldn’t be able to survive two of its students marrying local white girls.
The Gold family referred to Elias and Harriet’s impending marriage as “The Subject” in correspondence and the pressure on young Harriet was great.
Many letters flew back and forth between family members. Two of Harriet’s brother-in-laws were ministers, and it was they who were most vehemently opposed to the union. They believed it was Harriet’s Christian duty to think of the school, and the good work that it did, ahead of her own happiness and were extremely forthright in saying so.
Harriet answered these letters in a calm, thoughtful manner but it was to no avail. Upon the publication of Harriet and Elias’ intention to marry, the situation escalated. Although some of Harriet’s friends supported her they feared being ostracized if they said so openly. The majority of Cornwall’s residents stood firmly against the marriage.
Mrs. Northrop, the mother of Sarah, was one of the few people who publicly stood by the couple, and she was assisting them with the preparations for their marriage. In June 1825, the townsfolk burned an effigy of all three of them which Harriet witnessed. She wrote on June 25, 1825:
“In the evening our respected young people, ladies and gentlemen, convened on the plain to witness and approve the scene and express their indignation. A painting had been prepared representing a beautiful young lady and an Indian, also on the same, a woman as an instigator of Indian marriages. Evening came on. The church bell began to toll, one would certainly conclude, speaking the departure of a soul. Mr. John C. Lewis and Mr. Rufus Payne carried the corpse and Brother Stephen set fire to the barrel of tar, or rather the funeral pile, the flames rose high and the smoke ascended, some said it reminded them of the smoke of their torment which they feared would ascend forever. My heart truly sung with anguish at the dreadful scene. The bell continued to toll till 10 or 11 o’clock.”
Harriet was Stephen’s favorite sister, and he was said to be both broken-hearted and angry - he even openly threatened Elias. With the wedding pending, Harriet and her parents continued to face their tormentors.
In part two, we discover what became of Harriet and Elias, and the role Elias was to play in an unprecedented act in American history.
ONE would like to thank Stephen Bartkus, the Curator of the Gunn Historical Museum, Washington, CT and Sarah Griswold, the Curatorial Assistant for their invaluable help in the research of this article.