Isaac McCoy (June 13, 1784 – June 21, 1846) was a Baptist missionary among the Native Americans in present-day Indiana, Michigan and Missouri. He was an advocate of Indian removal from the eastern United States, proposing an Indian state in what is now Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. He also played an instrumental role in the founding of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Kansas City, Missouri.
McCoy was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1784. Five years later, the McCoy family rafted down the Ohio River to Kentucky, settling first near Louisville and in 1792 in Shelby County. The senior McCoy was a Baptist minister, and he and his son had profound arguments on religion. (The elder McCoy, on theological principles shared by many of his congregation, was opposed to evangelizing.) While still young, Isaac was inspired to become a missionary to Native Americans and determined on that work.
Marriage and family
In 1804 at the age of 20, Isaac McCoy married Christiana Polke (1778–1851), age 16, in Kentucky; she was a cousin of the future President James K. Polk. Christiana's family had been at Kincheloe's Station, Nelson County, Kentucky, when it was attacked. Her mother and four siblings were carried into captivity by the Shawnee and Christiana was born after that time. They were taken to Michigan, where they lived with the Indians for 13 months. They were eventually "bought" or ransomed by the British, who sent them south to return to their people in Kentucky.
Soon after their marriage, the young couple departed Kentucky for Vincennes, Indiana. Although he had no training and no formal education, McCoy became a part-time preacher. In 1808 the Silver Creek Baptist Church, the first Baptist Church in Indiana, granted McCoy a license "to preach the Gospel wherever God in His providence might cast his lot." The Silver Creek church was located near what became Sellersburg in Clark County. In 1809 McCoy became pastor of Maria Creek Church near Vincennes and in 1810 the Church ordained him as a minister. He also spent time serving as the town jailor at Vincennes.
Despite illness and poverty, McCoy traveled widely (if unsuccessfully) on the frontier promoting the Baptist church. In 1817, the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions appointed him as a missionary to the settlers and Indians in Indiana and Illinois territories. Though his original intention was to preach to frontiersmen, his interests and concern for Indians quickly began to dominate his work.
Missions in Indiana and Michigan
McCoy founded his first "religious station" and school in October 1818 in what became Parke County, Indiana, on Big Raccoon Creek upstream from the later Wea Indian reservation at Armiesburg. The mission was said to be situated between Rosedale and Bridgeton. The Wea showed little interest in the school, however, and it failed. McCoy at that time was likely the only white settler in Parke County. In February 1819, he performed the first marriage in the county, between two métis, Christmas Dazney (Noel Dagenet) and Mary Ann Isaacs (a Brotherton or Mohegan from upstate New York). In 1821, in compensation for his work with McCoy and for the federal government as an interpreter, Dazney filed a land claim between the mouths of Sugar Creek and Big Raccoon Creek north and east of present-day Montezuma and established a Wea-Miami reservation there. This was the first reservation that came about as a result of a connection with Isaac McCoy, though McCoy had left the area by then. Dazney was eventually instrumental in leading bands of Indiana Indians west to Kansas after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Dazney died in Kansas in 1848.
In May 1820, the McCoy family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana to set up a mission to the Miami tribe. His school at Fort Wayne attracted 40 Miami, Potawatomi, and mixed-blood children, several whites, and one African American. The Miami and Potawatomi tribes at this time consisted of mixed-race people and there were no clear lines of distinction between races within the tribes. In 1821, McCoy made the first of many visits to Washington, DC, seeking approval by the federal government, unsuccessfully on this occasion, for him to appoint teachers, blacksmiths, and other "agents of civilization" to be provided the Indians under newly ratified treaties. In 1821 Chief Little Turtle of the Miamis, along with 16 other Indians and the captive William Wells, also made a trip to Washington, DC. It was Little Turtle's second visit to a President. The trip resulted in a government-funded Quaker agricultural mission to the Miamis.
In December 1822, McCoy left Fort Wayne and moved his family and 18 Indian students to a site on the St. Joseph River near the present-day city of Niles in southwestern Michigan; he opened a mission to the Pottawatomi. The Carey Mission, as it came to be known, was 100 miles from the nearest White settlement. The Pottawatomi gave McCoy a relatively warm welcome and helped feed his large family and Indian students through their early seasons in the territory. McCoy enjoyed more success here than in his earlier endeavors. His school expanded to have 76 Indian children, four Indian employees, five missionaries, six white children, and a millwright.
In 1826, McCoy led his family in another move, deeper into the frontier, where he established the Thomas Mission to the Odawa people, at what was later to become Grand Rapids, Michigan. McCoy and his missionaries were the first European-American settlers in Niles and Grand Rapids.
McCoy began in 1823 to advocate that the Indian nations of the East be moved west "beyond the frontiers of the White settlement." He believed that getting the tribes to their own, isolated places, away from the reach of whiskey traders and others who were exploiting them, would give them a better chance of surviving and becoming Christianized. McCoy's ideas for removal of the Indians were not new, but he promoted the idea that the U.S. government should fund "civilization programs" to educate the Indians and turn them into farmers and Christians. McCoy expanded his concept later to propose the creation of an Indian state making up most of the land area of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.
Although McCoy thought of himself as the future leader of Indian Canaan (as he called it) he had little confidence in his fellow missionaries. They never accomplished more than 'to soften the pillows of the dying' and had "too recently been transplanted from the sterile plains of religious bigotry, to expand with liberal views of the character, and of the just rights of man." Rather he placed his faith in the government to create for the Indians "a country of their own" where they could "feel their importance, where they can hope to enjoy, unmolested, the fruits of their labours, and their national recovery need not be doubted." His proposed Indian colony, to become subsequently a Territory and then a State within the United States, would be guided by a benign U.S. government and missionaries with whiskey dealers and dishonest merchants banned.
What McCoy failed to foresee was that the frontier of white settlement was expanding so rapidly that his Indian Canaan would be overrun by settlers before Indians could enjoy "unmolested, the fruits of their labours." Moreover, he overestimated the good will and capacity of the government. During the tragic removals forced on the Indians by the U.S. government in the 1830s and later, thousands would die of neglect and arrive in Kansas and Oklahoma impoverished and starving. McCoy's conversion programs and philosophy of removal, though well-intentioned, culminated in the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death.
Surveyor of Indian Territory
The possibility of removing eastern Indians west of the Mississippi River was enhanced In 1825 when the Osage and the Kaw ceded large portions of their lands in Kansas and Oklahoma to the United States. In 1828, Congress authorized McCoy to lead an expedition to survey lands to which the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek of the Southeast could be relocated. McCoy also invited representatives of the Potawatomi and Odawa to join the expedition. With the unenthusiastic Indians, McCoy traveled through Kansas and Oklahoma laying out potential reservations and devising in his mind the organization of an Indian State.
In June 1829, McCoy moved his family to Fayette, Missouri. That fall, at his own expense, he carried out a survey on the Kaw lands. In 1830, with Kaw "mixed blood" Joseph James as his guide he surveyed and established the boundaries of a reservation for the Delaware tribe who were persuaded to move there from their territories in southern Missouri.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which formally authorized the removal of eastern Indians to the West. For the next ten years, McCoy was engaged in surveying boundaries of reservations for more than twenty tribes who moved west to present-day Kansas. Often they comprised small remnants of formerly powerful peoples. McCoy had hoped to be one of the three commissioners appointed to oversee Indian Territory, but he was passed over and his dreams of becoming the government's chief representative to the Indian tribes were dashed.
Aware of the fraud, abuse, and neglect involved in the removal of Indians westward, McCoy rationalized that it was for the greater good of having Indian lands secured for them in perpetuity. Such "perpetuity" was to last little more than two decades.
Missionary work in the 1830s
McCoy, his son John, his daughter Delilah and her missionary husband Johnston Lykins, worked together as missionaries to the Shawnee and Lenape (Delaware), following them to what is now Kansas City, Missouri, on the border of Indian Territory and near their reservations. The younger McCoy established a trading post at Westport, Missouri. He was among the first organizers of Kansas City. His brother-in-law Lykins was elected as one of the city's first mayors.
McCoy's strong views were often at odds with the Baptist mission board and other missionaries. In 1832, a smallpox epidemic was killing thousands of Indians. McCoy traveled to Washington, seeking funds from Congress to support a vaccination program for Indians. He found little enthusiasm for such a bill. The Missouri Senator, Alexander Buckner, said to him about the Indians, "if they were all dead it would be a blessing for our country." Partially due to his efforts, Congress eventually passed a modest bill to finance Indian vaccinations.
In 1833, an armed McCoy was involved with a company of "ruffians," a mob in Independence, Missouri who attacked Mormon families at gunpoint and expelled them from their homes onto the prairie, where they nearly starved. The autobiography of Parley Pratt recalls: "While we thus made our escape the companies of ruffians were ranging in every direction; bursting into homes without fear, knowing that the people [the Mormons] were disarmed; frightening women and children, and threatening to kill them if they did not flee immediately. At the head of one of these parties appeared the Rev. Isaac McCoy (a noted Baptist missionary to the Indians), with gun in hand, ordering the people to leave their homes immediately and surrender everything in the shape of arms. Other pretended preachers of the Gospel took part in the persecution—speaking of the [Mormon] Church as the common enemies of mankind, and exulting in their afflictions."  Edward Partridge recalled the same incident in a letter of 1839, when the Mormons were disarmed at Independence: "Wednesday Nov 6th. The arms being taken from the Saints the mob now felt safe and were no longer militia. They formed themselves into companies and went forth on horseback armed to harass the saints and pick up all the arms they could find. Two of these companies were headed by Baptist priests. The Rev. Isaac McCoy headed one of about 60 or 70, the other's was about 30 or 40. They went through the different settlement[s] of the Saints threatening them with death and destruction if they were not off immediately... The mobs whipped and shot at some and others they hunted, for as they said to kill them. Such mobs well lined with whiskey were acting worse than savages."
Although he was involved in numerous projects on behalf of what he perceived as the best interest of Indians, McCoy was nearly destitute during much of the 1830s, taking in boarders and working as bookkeeper in a neighboring store. He hoped to be appointed as the government overseer of Indians. He lobbied in Washington and on the frontier seeking, unsuccessfully, for U.S. government recognition of the Indian lands as an official U.S. Territory.
While in Missouri, a slave state, in 1835 McCoy purchased a female slave named Chainy. Opposed to slavery, he said that he had bought her to prevent her being separated from her husband and children by being sold through a slave market. (It appears he already owned her husband and children.) In his will he provided for her to be manumitted, on the condition that she pay his estate (or descendants) her purchase price of $415 plus interest. He also provided for her children (also his property) to be freed when each reached age 24.
In 1840, McCoy wrote one of the earliest, most personally informed reports on the Midwestern Native American tribes, The History of Baptist Indian Missions. In 1842 he returned East to Louisville, Kentucky, where he directed the Baptist American Indian Mission Association. He wrote additional works on Indians and the missions. He died there in 1846 and was buried in Western Cemetery.
McCoy was much more of a social reformer than a missionary, hardly being concerned in his later years with converting Indians to Christianity. He "attacked the system of law and custom by which Indians had been kept in bondage" and "his object was to free the Indians from those restraints." His solution was to move the Indians beyond where they could be corrupted and exploited by Whites. But the tide of westward expansion in the U.S. was too strong and his plans failed. Still, the vision of this rude, untutored preacher and pioneer was, in the words of his biographer, 'somewhat breathtaking."
- "Sixth Biennial Report," Kansas State Historical Society, 1889, pp. 298-311
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- Shultz, George A. (1972). An Indian Canaan: Isaac McCoy and the Vision of an Indian State. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1024-4.
- McCoy, Isaac. The Autobiography of Isaac McCoy. Particular Baptist Press. ISBN 1-8885-1439-6.
- Ella, George M. (2003). Isaac McCoy, Apostle of the Western Trail. Particular Baptist Press. ISBN 1-8885-1418-3.