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RG 30/192 - Sela G. Wright (1816-1906)

Rev. Sela(h) Goodrich Wright, educator and missionary, was born in Pompey(?), New York on July 1, 1816 to John (1791-1886) and Betsy Goodrich (1795-1875) Wright, farmers. After 1830 they moved to Medina, Ohio. Wright enrolled in the preparatory department of Oberlin College in 1840, but withdrew in 1843 to become one of the first members of the "Oberlin Band" of evangelical missionaries working among the Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribe in Minnesota. Three years later, in 1846, he returned to Oberlin to find a "suitable wife." The principal of the Female Dept. helped him identify a small group of young women who embodied the "necessary qualifications," and from among these women Wright selected Emeline Farnsworth (1822-1917) whom he married June 6, 1846. They returned to Minnesota, serving at Red Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, and Leech Lake until 1862. Seven children were born to them during these years, two of whom died young of dysentery. Wright was ordained in 1849 and added ministerial duties to his work in the schoolhouse. The mission dissolved in 1859 with few converts, but Wright and his family stayed among the Native Americans until 1862 when an Indian uprising caused them to flee.

Wright settled his family in Oberlin in 1862 (where their last child was born in 1865 and died one year later). Wright himself went on to establish churches and schools for the AMA in the American South among the freed slaves. He was frequently at odds with his superiors and teachers, however, so in 1867 he returned to Government service in Minnesota as a teacher among the Ojibwa, establishing a boarding school at Leech Lake to reduce the influence of family and tribe on the Native American students. He remained here until 1883 and served briefly in the late 1880's as a missionary to members of a Wisconsin tribe. He ultimately claimed 41 years of education and missionary work with the Ojibwa. During these years he, and his wife, acquired a very thorough knowledge and understanding of the Ojibwa language and he compiled a grammar text and dictionary of words in order to write materials for the Indians in their own language.

Wright's career among the Indians was long, but not, for the most part, very successful. Although he had mastered the Ojibwa tongue and had a profound respect for its richness, he could not see that its fiber and essence came from the nomadic, subsistence life of the Ojibwa. In addition, although he abhorred the demoralizing effects of the unscrupulous traders and government agents and the intrusion of white settlers; he clung to his cultural prejudices, demanding the Ojibwa give up their culture and accept those same white values held by the intruders as evidence of conversion and "civilization." In his last years he was quite bitter about the success of an Episcopal mission among the Ojibwa, not able to grasp that it was due to its greater cultural tolerance. Wright died in Oberlin on 12 July 1906.

Sources Consulted

Ronald E. Butchart—SUNY Purchase at Cortland [copy in 30/192 case file]

Sela Wright Papers 30/192

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