George Nelson Smith Papers, 1837-1857 (Scattered)

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George Nelson Smith Papers, 1837-1857 (scattered)

This Deep Blue collection is part of a larger body of research materials related to George Nelson Smith that are held by the Bentley Historical Library. Researchers may also be interested in the George Nelson Smith journals and letters, 1840-1879 [microform].

Contact the library's division of Reference and Access Services for more information.

Pioneer Congregational minister and missionary to Native Americans in Kalamazoo County (Mich.); founder of a mission in Leelenau County (Mich.) and early settler of the Grand Traverse region. Materials in this online collection include digital reproductions of records from the Michigan Association of Congregational Churches (1837-1841) as well as a diary and personal memoranda books of George Nelson Smith that detail his missionary activities and life on the Michigan frontier.

George Nelson Smith was born to John and Esther (Austin) Smith on October 25, 1807 near Swanton, Vermont. He was apprenticed to a millwright in 1827, joined a Congregational church in Swanton in March 1828, and entered training for the ministry in December of that year. In 1829 he met Arvilla Almira Powers (b. November 27, 1808) and the two wed on July 4, 1830. Arvilla's mother, Mary (Brown) Powers was aunt to the abolitionist John Brown and the sculptor Hiram Powers was a cousin on the father's side.

After a short stint as a school teacher, the Smiths joined a group of Congregationalists in their migration to the Michigan Territory in 1833. Smith worked as a schoolteacher, carpenter, and bible distributor before being licensed to preach in 1836. He organized Congregational churches in Otsego, Plainwell, Gull Prarie and other locations and preached at many of them, often holding more than three services each Sunday. He was appointed to missionary work in Plainwell in 1837 and later that year was approached by members of the Ottawa and Ojibwe tribes. He subsequently mastered the Native Americans' language, became general agent of the Western Society of Michigan to Benefit the Indians, established a school, and helped organize a mission dubbed 'Old Wing' near present-day Holland. Around this time (1839-1841), Smith served as clerk of the Michigan Association of Congregational Churches.

Smith also had close interactions with early Dutch settlers in the area, but encroachment by the Dutch and fear of a smallpox epidemic led Smith and the Native Americans to relocate to Leelanau County in 1848. Smith purchased 200 acres in 1851 and helped found the village of Waukazooville, named after the Ottawa chief Peter Waukazoo. Smith re-established the Old Wing Mission in nearby Nomineseville and soon thereafter was appointed a government interpreter, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. Over the years Smith also served as a probate judge, county treasurer, coroner, and justice of the peace, among other offices. Smith withdrew from the Congregational Church in 1872 and united the Old Wing Mission with the local Presbyterian Board, steps which led him to be replaced in his missionary activities.

The Smiths had 10 children, six of whom died in childhood; their eldest daughter married the son of an Ottawa chief in 1851, in the face of considerable opposition from the white community. George Nelson Smith died on April 5, 1881 and was survived by Arvilla, who died on April 16, 1895.

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Copyright is held by the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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