The Rev. William Hobart Hare left Chestnut Hill as a missionary in the 1860s.

by George McNeely

Readers of the Local may have noticed a recent discussion in these pages about Chestnut Hill and Native Americans, including about why we have so many streets named after indigenous tribes. My fellow columnist Hugh Gilmore has provided the answer: that Gertrude Woodward, the daughter of Henry Houston, requested such names.

There are inevitably a number of other local reminders of the Lenape people who earlier lived in this area. The name Wissahickon is believed to be an Anglicized version of Wisameckhan, the Lenape word for catfish stream.

Woodward was a devout Episcopalian. David Constasta, a history professor at Chestnut Hill College and widely considered to be our village’s Historian Laureate, wrote in “A Philadelphia Family: The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill” (1988) that Woodward was actively involved with what was then called the Women’s Auxiliary of the Episcopal Church, which supported the church’s outreach efforts towards Native American peoples in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Although Woodward’s family built and actively supported Saint Martin’s Church, Chestnut Hill’s other Episcopal church, Saint Paul’s, has a strong historical connection to the Dakota Sioux that continues to this day.

The second rector at Saint Paul’s was the Rev. William Hobart Hare. Hare had grown up in Germantown and was educated at Episcopal Academy, the University of Pennsylvania and then Episcopal Divinity School. He was with Saint Paul’s for only a few years, from 1861 to 1863, but his legacy is significant.

In 1863, Hare and his new wife took a leave of absence from Saint Paul’s and traveled west to Michigan and Minnesota. Hare’s maternal grandfather, Bishop John Henry Hobart, had initiated the Episcopal Church’s missionary efforts with Native Americans in the early 19th century, focusing on the Oneida Indians of New York State. Following that tradition, on their trip the Hares took an interest in the plight of the Dakota Sioux people.

The Hares had arrived in Minnesota just months after the traumatic Dakota War of 1862, an armed conflict between groups of Sioux and European settlers four years after Minnesota had been declared a state. As new settlers pushed ever further west in search of land and opportunity, such conflicts occurred frequently but rarely on this scale.

In this case, in reaction to the killing of settlers, a U.S. military tribunal condemned 303 Sioux men to death. Although President Lincoln later commuted the sentences of most of them, 38 randomly selected Sioux men were hanged on December 26, 1862, in what is believed to be the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

In letters home to the congregation of Saint Paul’s, Hare described in September 1863 being horrified at seeing a sign offering $250 in reward for “the head of a dead Sioux Indian.”

He also recounted that the 38 condemned Sioux men sang Hymn 385, “Many and Great,” on their way to the gallows. The words of that hymn had been written in 1842 by Joseph Benville, the son of a French trader and a Dakota mother, and were set to a Dakota Sioux chant. That hymn remains in the Episcopal hymnal today.

A reminder of the Dakota War of 1862.

Hare returned to Philadelphia a changed man. He did not go back to sylvan Chestnut Hill, but rather to the urban Church of the Ascension at Broad and South Streets in Center City.

He became increasingly focused on missionary work and in 1870 was appointed secretary and general agent of the Foreign Committee of the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church. In 1872 he was elected missionary bishop of Niobrara, a newly formed diocese in what was then the Dakota Territory. He was elected full bishop of that diocese in 1883 and remained so until his death in 1909.

Hare’s tenure spanned particularly tumultuous years in that region. When he arrived, the few Europeans were focused mostly on trading. But settlers were arriving regularly, creating constant tensions with the indigenous peoples.

The Treaty of Laramie (1868) had established the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills, which the Sioux considered to be sacred land. But gold was discovered in those hills in 1874, leading to years of conflict, including the famed Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), also known as Custer’s Last Stand. In the end, that original reservation was broken up and the Sioux people were forced to abandon their nomadic traditions for farming and ranching on smaller reservations in that semi-arid region. That led to periods of near starvation.

European Christian missionary efforts towards indigenous peoples around the world since the Renaissance have a tangled history. Missionaries usually worked closely with occupying forces and conversion to Christianity was seen as a way to assimilate conquered native peoples to European ways. At the same time, church-related programs were established in response to the very real suffering of native peoples who were forcibly removed from their lands by European settlers.

It is believed that during Hare’s time there approximately half of the then 25,000 Native Americans living in what is now South Dakota were converted to Christianity and that Hare confirmed approximately 7,000 himself. His efforts also included programs to help the conditions on the Sioux reservations. Undoubtedly Hare had the best of intentions, but from a contemporary perspective his legacy is complicated.

The link between Saint Paul’s Church and the Dakota Sioux continued long after Hare’s departure. In recent years, the Rev. Clifford Cutler has organized young parishioners on summer work camps to help those living on the Standing Rock Reservation, which spans the border between North and South Dakota, south of Bismarck.

Coincidentally, when the path of the proposed Dakota Access (oil) Pipeline was re-routed away from Bismarck, the new route would pass through that reservation. The tribe objected that the pipeline could potentially endanger its water supply. The issue drew international attention and sparked numerous protests on the reservation and elsewhere, including what is believed to have been the largest gathering of native tribes in the past 100 years.

In October 2016, Cutler proudly joined approximately 500 other members of the clergy on the reservation for their own protest and he returned to preach to the congregation at Saint Paul’s about the heroic efforts of the Sioux people to resist this latest incursion.

Although the Obama administration halted construction of the pipeline in that location, the current president later approved it and the pipeline opened in May 2017.