The Department & the Society: Government-Missionary Collaboration in British North America

A Primer for the use of the Mohawk Children was written in 1786 with the intention of being used for the education of Mohawk children in the reading and writing of their own language and basic English.[1] One of the most intriguing elements in this text is the identity of its author: Daniel Claus, a senior employee of the Indian Department. That Claus, a government official, should be engaged in the production of a text with such missionary intent raises certain questions; namely, what was the relationship between the attempted conversion of North American peoples to Christianity and the Indian Department, the government branch responsible for managing political relations between them and the Crown. The details of this relationship can be seen most clearly in considering the relationship between the Indian Department and the Anglican Church’s missionary body, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). The SPG was closely tied to the British government and the Indian Department, and visibly acted to support Indian Department policies shaping their dealings with the Mohawk, while also being equally implicated in land encroachment and dispossession of Mohawk territory. With an understanding of how missionary work was so closely tied to the objectives – explicit and implicit – of the Indian Department, the existence of Daniel Claus’ Primer can be placed in its proper context, and better understood.

At the primary time of our study, the period roughly between the Seven Years War and the years following the American Revolution, the SPG, one of the first major British missionary organizations in existence, was not even a century old.[2] The growth of this important missionary organization coincided with, and was directly linked to, one of the greatest expansions in Britain’s overseas empire. In 1701, when the Society was officially formed, “British expansion and success in wars… saw the Thirteen Colonies in the eastern woodlands of North America under British control… while, further north, much of Acadia was occupied and Newfoundland about to be.”[3] While this implied a connection between a growth in missionary work and the growth of overseas, imperial territory, there were political connections apparent in the Society’s parent organization as well. Traditionally, the Anglican Church and British government were considered “theologically and practically two aspects of a single national community,”[4] a pair of linked organizations whose connection, one can reasonably assume, would be carried over to the Anglican Church’s new-formed imperial subsidiaries. This political context visibly shaped the SPG’s administration and operation; the Society’s charter authorized its operation throughout the territories of the British colonies,[5] establishing clearly that the SPG was intended to operate as the closely related, religious partner to Britain’s political, colonial expansion.

While that alone implies a connection between the British Empire, as a political entity, and the SPG’s mission of spreading the gospel, a more significant connection – one specifically tied to the Empire’s policies and objectives – can be seen in the SPG’s annual sermons. These sermons were delivered annually in London every February, under the sponsorship of the SPG. They were delivered “by distinguished clergymen, and… bound… and widely distributed in Great Britain and in the colonies.”[6] Taken together, they reveal how the SPG wished to portray itself to the British public. While the primary objective of the SPG, outlined by Richard Willis in 1702, was simply to better root Anglicanism within the society of the Thirteen Colonies, and from there to spread it to North American peoples,[7] within the next few years worldly, material benefits began to be stressed in the annual sermons. Bishop Williams, in the sermon of 1706,  implied that proselytizing to English colonists would bring “economic advantage… to the people of England,” and also implied that the spread of the Anglican religion might bring Indigenous peoples into alliance with the English. [8] The SPG clearly wished to be seen as an organization furthering the political and material well being of the British Empire. In the process, it cast itself as a part of that Empire, and a body engaged in furthering its policies.

In considering the SPG’s role in supporting the Empire, however, there are a limited number of examples one can draw on to illustrate the success of the SPG’s efforts. As a missionary organization, the SPG failed to convert large amounts of North American peoples. The mission to the Mohawk was “the only one that produced any long-term results.”[9] As such, the SPG’s success with the Mohawk must be considered an outlier, compared to its interactions with other Indigenous groups. Though an outlier, as one of the only SPG missions to see some success,  the Mohawk mission serves as a good illustration of the SPG’s broader intentions as a missionary organization.

The Indian Department was, in contrast, a relatively new body. With the appointment of William Johnson as the Northern Department Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1756, the British Crown had established a local authority capable of managing diplomatic relations with North American peoples and “[mediating] local disputes” without the need to address them through Colonial governments.[10] The creation of the Indian Department both allowed increased British control over Indigenous-related policy and diplomacy, and (at least in theory) fostered stability between Indigenous peoples and the Thirteen Colonies. It removed colonial elites’ authority for dealing with Indigenous peoples. Colonial officials had a tendency to be unfairly lenient in dealing with colonists involved in disputes with Indigenous peoples.[11] William Johnson remained the Superintendent for the Northern District until his death in 1774,[12] and the departmental policies he set remained in place throughout this period.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 embodied the department’s policies. Part of the department’s role was to convince Indigenous peoples that their land was not threatened by settler encroachment.[14] The Royal Proclamation attempted to fulfill this objective of soothing Indigenous fears of British expansionism. It did so by establishing the “Proclamation Line,” a legal border between the Thirteen Colonies and Indigenous territories beyond which, in theory, colonists could not settle.[13] In a similar fashion, Johnson’s policies ensured friendly relations with Indigenous peoples, preventing Indigenous violence against the British populations of the Thirteen Colonies.  At the same time, Johnson’s administration also sought to “assume the place of the French in… alliance with western Indian nations,” attempting to build relationships between various Indigenous nations and the British government characterized by “bonds of friendship and mutual support.”[15]

The cultivating of Indigenous alliance, drawing them closer to the British government through diplomatic means, was central to the role of Johnson’s Indian Department, and it is in cultivating these relationships and attempting to bring the Native Americans closer to Britain that the SPG contributed to the prosecution of official Indian Department policy. The two organizations’ operations in this regard also intersected in their mutual focus on the Mohawk, for Johnson, too, cultivated a relationship with them before most other Indigenous groups. Indeed, beginning with the Mohawk as the primary partner in this Indigenous-British alliance before attempting to reach out to other North American nations.[16]

At the same time, the Indian Department and the SPG collaborated in shaping British policy towards the Native Americans, they were equally involved in the long-standing colonial trend of land dispossession that continued unofficially throughout the Indian Department’s existence. The British Crown’s attempts to curb settler expansion on the North American frontier, most clearly visible in the Royal Proclamation, translated into little actual control over this space, where legal “loopholes kept alive [land] speculation and incited settler impatience,” and aggressive settlers continued “surveying in the Ohio valley after the Royal Proclamation.”[17] Exacerbating the problem, Johnson – though influential in Britain – had no “legal force” to “punish those who ignored his sanctions.”[18]

Such an inability to enforce regulations on Indigenous Land is eminently visible in the Mohegan Land Case. In an attempt to gain redress for the Colonial expansion of settlement into Mohegan hunting and planting grounds in Connecticut,[19] the most assistance Johnson could give to the Mohegans appears to have been opening the possibility for the Mohegans to air their grievances with the King,[20] a form of assistance largely without practical value, as the Crown could have little power over the “colonial courts” where the case was tried and lost. [21]

Far more implicating, however, is the fact that among those willing to profit from Indigenous dispossession was William Johnson himself. With the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Johnson both extended the boundary line between the territories of the Lower Great Lakes Nations and the Thirteen Colonies, while also convincing the Six Nations to cede much of their territory in the Ohio Valley. Through these diplomatic acts Johnson used the treaty to gain large parcels of land for himself.[22] Indeed, like many of the other colonial elites engaged in the process of enriching themselves off Native land speculation, Johnson willingly purchased this land, including “100,000 acres on the Charlotte Creek” for 300 pounds, and roughly 40,000 acres from the Oneidas in a separate deal.[23] This fact is a concerning one, suggesting that even while supposedly advocating for Great Lakes peoples, and enforcing the boundaries against settlers, Johnson used the process to ensure his personal enrichment. Thus, it becomes clear how entrenched the process of Native dispossession was in the society – or, at least, the elites – of Colonial New York; even the head of the government department theoretically responsible for preventing such exploitation appears to have been happy to enrich himself at the expense of the Indigenous peoples whose interests he was supposed to be safeguarding.

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was similarly – though more subtly – involved in the process of land dispossession pervading this period. Throughout the eighteenth century the SPG, like other Christian missionary organizations, struggled with attempting to understand the North American societies they were attempting to convert. The problem for missionaries centered around the basics of Indigenous  societal organization:

English Christians of all persuasions had almost insuperable difficulty in imagining a Christian society that was not settled. Living in one place, pursuing agriculture, was regarded almost as a precondition for Christian living. It was not because a flighty, mobile society could not have faith in Christ; it was that such a faith could not be sustained by the permanent ministry of a settled clergymen [sic].[24]

Any other form of Christian society was, in the view of missionaries of the period, “superficial and not genuinely Christian.”[25] This view led some missionaries to view a disruption of both Native culture and traditional relations to their land as a necessary component of the missionary enterprise. John Sergeant, a Puritan missionary, who lived further east in the first half of the century, “believed that missions should be established in Indian country, reminiscent of Eliot’s Praying Towns… but with white residents nearby to pass their culture onto the Indians.”[26] Even more blatantly centered in land encroachment was the further-developed suggestion of William Smith to establish hundred-thousand acre missions in Ohio and New York, to be inhabited by “both white and Indian yeomen farmers working small, inalienable plantations.”[27] The possibility that this idea had more to do with “uncivilized peoples living on fertile, uncultivated lands” that could be, instead, “occupied by sturdy, white yeomen farm families”[28] is a genuine one, suggesting the blatant appearance of involvement in land dispossession that some missionary plans could take on.

Compared to these relatively extreme projects, the SPG’s mission in Mohawk territory remained very conventional, as it focused primarily on religious teaching; that conventional form, however, had similar implications. The primary European elements the SPG brought into Mohawk territory were a school for training Mohawk catechists, an Anglican church, and the circulation of devotional texts among Mohawk worshippers.[29] This was at least partially a result of Sir William Johnson’s influence on the SPG. Johnson had become a member of the Society in 1766, and exhorted the SPG to increase their presence among the Mohawk, especially stressing his desire for a constant missionary presence among the Mohawk, and the idea that such an establishment might draw “Oneidas and others” of the Six Nations toward the Anglican Church.[30] This cultivation of the SPG’s operations in Mohawk territory was pursued as a direct offshoot of the Indian Department’s policies, as a method by which to “hold the Indians to the English side”[31] in the Seven Years’ War, and later to attempt to “conciliate” them and convince them of the Crown’s friendship as fears of land dispossession and settler encroachment increased.[32] Here, one can see a direct relationship between the Indian Department and the SPG, with the two co-ordinating to shore up British policy with the Mohawk and the Six Nations as a whole.

While the joint operation of the SPG and Indian Department supported official policy, the basic character of extending Christianity in this fashion to the Mohawk had a disruptive undercurrent. The implementation of singular, missionary-run Churches in Mohawk territory implied an attempt to create a “territorial Christendom, with clergy ministering to settled parishioners”[33] in a Haudenosaunee society that was not structured in as similar a manner as a European one, and which inhabited large territories on which even the agriculturally based Mohawks “went out on the hunt each winter, [taking] them away from their villages for up to two months.”[34] Encouraging settled, Church-centered communities had been used before as a means to divide Indigenous territories, both to make European encroachment more practicable, and in conjunction with it. For example, in 1717, using the justification of facilitating religious conversion and civilizing, the governor of Connecticut enacted legislation that:

…included the division of [Mohegan] common lands into family lots that would pass through the father’s line, the lease of a sizeable proportion to settlers, and the appropriation of five hundred acres for the settlement of a minister.[35]

In the spreading of traditional, parish-organized Christianity to the Mohawk, we can see the SPG laying a framework of similar import that – while more subtle – implies the same eventual fate for Mohawk territory. If both the spreading of traditional Christian community organization, and such aggressive acquisition of Native land are merely two stages of the same process of eventual land dispossession, one must consider if Johnson’s desire to support the SPG’s missions in Mohawk territory had more interest than simply fulfilling the Crown’s policies.

With the relationship between the Indian Department, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the process of land dispossession fully visible, our consideration must return to the missionary texts that lay at the center of this converging network of interests – of which our text is a conspicuous example. At the time of the creation of the Primer in the 1780s, Daniel Claus served as the Indian Department’s Deputy Agent for the Six Nations in Canada. [36] In this post he was responsible for the Mohawk who had just relocated to the Canadas during the American Revolution, including a major community affiliated with Joseph Brant that would eventually settle on the Grand River.[37] This dislocation from their traditional lands resulted in a major disruption in the Anglican institutions that had originally been established, with the current resident missionary, John Stuart, imprisoned by the American authorities for three years.[38] Without the SPG’s missionary, the Mohawk catechists, Paulus Sahonwadi and another named Thomas, continued to teach the Mohawk “children… from scraps of paper, until Daniel Claus… could provide them with primers and prayer books that he had translated in Mohawk.”[39] Claus’ Primer, then, represents the re-establishment of missionary-regulated texts among the Mohawk after the disruption of the Revolution.

The fact that such a restoration was even possible spoke to the fact that, in their political goals in cultivating Anglicanism among the Mohawk, the Indian Department and the SPG had been successful. The figures that had converted to Anglicanism, most notably Joseph Brant, led the Mohawk to side with the Crown in the American Revolution.[40] The Anglican faith and British loyalty survived even the end of the Revolution, when without British opposition, the Americans claimed the lands of other Indigenous groups “by right of conquest” and then forced peace on “the tribes in a series of separate treaties”[41] negotiated after the Peace of Paris. In concluding the war between Britain and America without any Indigenous diplomatic representation,[42] granted them legal right to mere “portions of their own lands.”[43]

Even in the 1790s, long after it became apparent that the Crown had “betrayed its Indian allies,”[44] the Mohawks who had settled in the Niagara region continued to lobby for Stuart – now employed by the SPG in Kingston – to return to ministering for them, an act surely suggesting that their faith had not been weakened by the apparent betrayal of the British.[45] Equally, while the political credibility of the British suffered, and many North Americans – undoubtedly many Mohawks as well – came to consider them “unreliable allies,”[46] Joseph Brant, at least, “remained loyal to Britain to the end,” even though “disillusionment” with Britain marked his later years.[47] As much as could have been expected, the alliance of political interests between the British Crown and the SPG appeared to have achieved its official goal; the creation of a loyal Mohawk following, who bound themselves closer to the British through both religious and political alliance, and who ensured their peoples’ continued alliance to the British Crown even after the original European cultivators of the relationship – both the SPG, and the late Sir William Johnson – were no longer present.

In the matter of land dispossession, Claus’s Primer is situated at the end of the old period of land encroachment. After the Revolution, the Mohawk were located on land granted through negotiation with British authorities, where conflict with the British developed instead over the interpretation of land grants – whether the British had granted “right of prior occupancy” or of “sovereignty.”[48] Such reservations afforded the Mohawk “relative peace and quiet,” whereas “those who remained in New York came under unrelenting pressure from individual speculators.”[49] Independent Mohawk title to their land had, at least in the view of the government, been replaced by British-granted title that “monopolized sovereignty” over the land into the hands of the British government, and placed the Mohawk entirely within the European legal framework that had and would continue to allow the government to “establish rules that made Indigenous peoples suffer if they failed to cede their interests” when the government wished.[50]

The placement of the Mohawk into a category of legally restricted, dependence can easily be seen in the government interpretation of the Mohawk territorial rights to the reserve, “professing paternalism, these officials insisted that the Indians could not be trusted with the land unless barred from leasing or selling it to anyone (except the government).”[51] With the Mohawks’ displacement on to government-given lands, the final transition from dispossessing Natives of their land to restricting their land rights within a government-controlled system had been completed. Though the sovereignty of the Grand River Mohawk remains contested, the movement toward land dispossession had been ultimately successful – enmeshing the Mohawk in the European legal structure, forcing them to directly engage with British law, while their old land opened up to settlement.

Claus’ Primer was produced in this context, at a time when colonial efforts focused on land dispossession had successfully displaced the Mohawk from their old territories, and when the Mohawk community had become more politically dependent on British law to protect their territory; a state of affairs also making further land dispossession an easy thing for the government to undertake.

It is interesting to note that now, with the Mohawk at Grand River constrained, the SPG showed much less interest in renewing their mission. John Stuart remained in Kingston, and it was not another SPG missionary, but the Indian Department that brought European-regulated texts back to the Mohawk. These new texts, exemplified by the Primer, notably do not include anything drastically departing from conventional religious material. The Primer’s section of prayers, despite occasional English instructions for the teacher, was written entirely in Mohawk,[52] emphasizing a role of instruction in Mohawk more than in English, just as had been carried on by the Mohawk catechists before the return of these texts.

This evidence of continuity in practice, despite the change in management between the Department and the SPG, offers the final piece of evidence necessary to establish a continuity between the initiatives of the Indian Department and the SPG. These two organizations mutually supported the operations of each other in dealing with the Native Americans, with both working towards fulfilling the set objectives of the British government, and with the actions of both implicitly furthering the dispossession of Native lands and their transfer into European hands. With the missionary efforts of the SPG contributing to the Indian Department’s goals, it is, then, completely logical that a member of the Indian Department would be engaged in the production of this missionary text; such texts formed a distinct, important part of the processes in which the Indian Department was engaged. Without the SPG to provide such texts, the Indian Department, wishing to safeguard its interests, was perfectly willing to take on the role of providing the missionary texts that, without knowledge of this relationship between the two organizations, appear so out of character for a governmental organization.


  1. Daniel Claus, A Primer for the use of the Mohawk Children, 2nd (London: C. Buckton, 1786), 1.
  2. Jeffery Cox, The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700 (New York: Routledge, 2008), 8.
  3. Daniel O’Connor, Three Centuries of Mission: The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel 1701-2000 (London: Continuum, 2000), 7.
  4. O’Connor, 8.
  5. O’Connor, 8.
  6. Frank J. Klingberg, Anglican Humanitarianism in Colonial New York (Philadelphia: The Church Historical Society, 1940), 13.
  7. Klingberg, 14.
  8. Klingberg, 15.
  9. Cox, 35.
  10. David L. Preston, The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 192.
  11. Preston, 193.
  12. Julian Gwyn, “Johnson, Sir William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (1979).
  13. J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 69.
  14. Miller, 69.
  15. Miller, 73.
  16. Richard L. Haan, “Covenant and Consensus: Iroquois and English, 1676-1760,” in Beyond the Covenant Chain, eds. Daniel K. Richter and James H. Merrell (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 56.
  17. John C. Weaver, The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 155.
  18. Julian Gwyn, “Johnson, Sir William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (1979).
  19. Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 70.
  20. Brooks, 95.
  21. Brooks, 100.
  22. Preston, 260.
  23. Julian Gwyn, “Johnson, Sir William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (1979).
  24. Cox, 32.
  25. Cox, 32.
  26. William Bryan Hart William Bryan Hart, 1998. For the Good of our Souls: Mohawk Authority, Accomodation, and Resistance to Protestant Evangelism, 1700-1780. PhD Dissertation, Brown University (Providence: UMI Dissertation Services, Publication No. 9830451), 250.
  27. Hart, 291.
  28. Hart, 292.
  29. Cox, 34.
  30. Klingberg, 96-97.
  31. Klingberg, 89.
  32. Elizabeth Elbourne, “Managing Alliance, Negotiating Christianity: Haudenosaunee Uses of Anglicanism in Northeastern North America, 1760s-1830s,” in Mixed Blessings, eds. Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016), 39.
  33. Cox, 35.
  34. Hart, 257.
  35. Brooks, 73.
  36. Douglas Leighton, “Claus, Christian Daniel,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (1979).
  37. Miller, 80.
  38. Hart, 302.
  39. Hart, 303.
  40. Scott Manning Stevens, “The Path of the King James Version of the Bible in Iroquoia,” Prose Studies 34, no. 1 (2012): 7.
  41. Colin G. Calloway, Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783-1815 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 8.
  42. Calloway, 9.
  43. Calloway, 8.
  44. Calloway, 7.
  45. Elbourne, 49.
  46. Calloway, 227.
  47. Calloway, 228.
  48. Calloway, 48.
  49. Jon W. Parmenter, “The Iroquois and the Native American Struggle for the Ohio Valley, 1754-1794,” in The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814, eds. David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001), 116.
  50. Weaver, 140.
  51. Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 331.
  52. Claus, 71-92.


Brooks, Lisa. The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Calloway, Colin G. Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783-1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Claus, Daniel. A Primer for the use of the Mohawk Children. 2nd ed. London: C. Buckton, 1786.

Cox, Jeffrey. The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Elbourne, Elizabeth. “Managing Alliance, Negotiating Christianity: Haudenosaunee Uses of Anglicanism in Northeastern North America, 1760s-1830s.” In Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada, edited by Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton, 38-60. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016.

Gwyn, Julian. “Johnson, Sir William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (1979).

Haan, Richard L. “Covenant and Consensus: Iroquois and English, 1676-1760.” In Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbours in Indian North America, 1600-1800, edited by Daniel K. Richter and James H. Merrell, 41-57. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

Hart, William Bryan. 1998. For the Good of our Souls: Mohawk Authority, Accomodation, and Resistance to Protestant Evangelism, 1700-1780. PhD Dissertation, Brown University. Providence: UMI Dissertation Services. (Publication Number: 9830451.)

Klingberg, Frank J. Anglican Humanitarianism in Colonial New York. Philadelphia: The Church Historical Society, 1940.

Leighton, Douglas. “Claus, Christian Daniel.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 4 (1979).

Miller, J.R. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

O’Connor, Daniel. Three Centuries of Mission: The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel 1701-2000. London: Continuum, 2000.

Parmenter, Jon W. “The Iroquois and the Native American Struggle for the Ohio Valley, 1754-1794.” In The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814, edited by David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson, 105-124. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001.

Preston, David L. The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Stevens, Scott Manning. “The Path of the King James Version of the Bible in Iroquoia.” In Prose Studies 34, no. 1 (2012): 5-17.

Taylor, Alan. The Divided Ground. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Weaver, John C. The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.