Cyrus Byington, a missionary to the Choctaw and an important linguist and translator, was born on 11 March 1793 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one of nine children in a poor but respectable farm family. Although his early education was limited by his family’s circumstances, he later studied Latin and Greek and read law with Joseph Woodbridge. He was admitted to the bar in 1814 and practiced for several years in Stockbridge and Sheffield. Stockbridge was the site of a mission to the Housatonic Indians, part of the Mohican tribe. It had also been the home of Jonathan Edwards, whose sermons sparked the Great Awakening of American religious sensibility in 1739–40. In this milieu of religious sentiment, Byington felt called to the ministry, and in 1816 he enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary, where he studied Hebrew and theology. He was licensed to preach in September 1819.
Andover was the training ground for clergy of the Congregational Church as well as the site of the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. The Presbyterian Church joined the Congregational Church to expand the board in 1812, and Byington decided to train as a missionary. He originally hoped to be assigned to the Armenians in Turkey when he graduated, but there were no openings, and he spent time preaching in various churches in Massachusetts.
Byington’s place in history came with his assignment to the Choctaw Mission in Mississippi. In 1819 the US government had embarked on its formal policy of “civilizing” Indians, supporting the activities of “benevolent societies” to teach them to read, write, and live like their white neighbors. The American Board established its first mission to the Choctaw in 1818 and drew on funding from the federal “Civilization Act” for support. Byington joined the Choctaw mission in Mississippi on 1 May 1821 at Eliot, the first station, established in 1818. He assumed leadership of the station when Cyrus Kingsbury, the founder of the Choctaw Mission, went on to establish a new station at Mayhew.
The missionaries found themselves in a cultural setting totally foreign to their New England cultural and religious milieu. The most obvious obstacle to their efforts at conversion was language. If they were to preach the Word of God, how could they communicate to their incipient parishioners? The Board of Commissioners had originally adopted a policy of translating the Bible into the languages of its potential converts but soon abandoned it in the face of the difficulty of learning those languages. Nevertheless, Byington and fellow missionaries Alfred Wright and Loring S. Williams attempted to learn Choctaw with the assistance of David Folsom, son of a white father and a Choctaw mother who was fluent in Choctaw and English. Byington’s earlier studies of Hebrew and Greek prepared him for the task, although the structure of the Choctaw language differs substantially from the languages that he had studied.
In 1823 Byington moved from Eliot to a mission school, Ai-ik-hun-nah, located near Folsom’s home, to concentrate on studying Choctaw. By the spring of 1824 he was confident enough to preach his first sermon in the language and within six months was able to write his own sermons in it. By the fall of 1825 he and Wright had compiled a Choctaw spelling book, which became the first book published in the Choctaw language (1825). By 1827 Byington and Wright, with the assistance of Folsom’s son, Israel, had translated portions of the New Testament into Choctaw, and a second edition of the spelling book and a Choctaw reader were also ready for publication.
Byington’s work focused on a crucial issue for the missionaries. Should they teach boarding school students to speak English to instruct them in Christian principles, or should they translate the Bible into Choctaw and speak to potential converts in their own language? Byington’s preaching and his translation and publication of texts in Choctaw for use in mission schools put him firmly on the translation side.
The work of the Choctaw mission was threatened in the 1820s by the federal government’s policy of removing Indians to the West. The change from a policy of civilizing Indians to removing them from contact with white civilization meant that to continue the work of conversion, the missionaries needed to move west. Byington joined with other missionaries of the American Board in denouncing the injustice of the Indian Removal policy, but in 1830 Pres. Andrew Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress. Choctaw leaders signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in September 1830, and large contingents of the tribe, including many of the American Board’s converts, moved to Indian Territory during the fall and winter of 1831–32.
Byington remained behind in Mississippi to close out the affairs of his mission station, Yok-Nok-Chaya. In 1834 he sent his family to Ohio while he undertook a rigorous journey to locate a site for a new mission in the Indian Territory. He found a site near the Red River in what is now Oklahoma, where he established a new station named Stockbridge. He and his wife established a school and a church, and he continued his work translating biblical texts into Choctaw.
The national crisis over slavery beginning in the 1840s confronted the missionaries of the American Board with another painful decision. Should they follow the American Board’s hard-line position against slavery? Many of the Choctaw that they served were slave owners, and Byington and his fellow missionaries finally broke with the board in 1859 to continue their mission.
Byington remained in the Choctaw Nation during the Civil War, but his declining health led him to give up his post and move to his daughter’s home in Belpre, Ohio, in 1866. He continued work on his translations and oversaw their publication. He died on 31 December 1868. His grammar of the Choctaw language was published in 1870, and his dictionary of the language was finally published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1915.
- Louis Coleman, Cyrus Byington: Missionary and Choctaw Linguist (1996)
- Arminta Spalding, “Cyrus Byington, Missionary to the Choctaws” (PhD dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1976)