Harriet R. Gold Boudinot was born in June 1805 in Cornwall, Connecticut. She was the fourteenth and youngest child of Benjamin and Eleanor Gold. Her family was wealthy and well-connected. She received a quality education with the expectation that someday she would become a prosperous Cornwall housewife.
In 1817, when Harriet was 12 years old, her father helped found the Foreign Mission School. The school was created to convert people of color to Christianity and train them to live like white Americans. It focused primarily on Indigenous people but did host students from places as far away as Hawaii and India. The school’s founders chose Cornwell to be the site of the school because it was considered a model American town. The founders wanted their students to be completely immersed in white society and isolated from their families and traditions. They hoped that their students would eventually return home and convince more people of color to convert and adopt white social practices.
Harriet’s family was closely tied to the Foreign Mission School. Two of her older sisters married school employees. The Gold family also frequently hosted students at their home so that they could be exposed to white society. It was at one of these social events that Harriet met Elias Boudinot.
Elias, also known as Gallegina (“Buck”), was a Cherokee man who had been educated in the mission system since the age of six. He was an outstanding student. In 1818, missionary Elias Cornelius selected him to attend the Foreign Mission School to continue his education. During his journey to Cornwell, Elias took the name Elias Boudinot in honor of a white man who funded mission schools. He was one of the shining stars of the Foreign Mission School. He converted to Christianity and made plans to study religion at a college. But in 1823, Elias got very sick and decided to return home. Before he left, he asked Harriet to be his pen pal.
Harriet and Elias exchanged letters for two years. Their letters have been lost, but it is clear they fell in love because in late 1825 Harriet asked her father for permission to marry Elias. Harriet’s family reacted badly. Just one year earlier, another Cherokee student of the Foreign Mission School (Elias’s cousin) married a white woman, and the people of Cornwell were furious. Harriet’s parents did not want their daughter and family name tainted by a similar scandal. But Harriet held firm. She argued that her marriage was a natural extension of the missionary spirit her parents had taught her. As Elias’s wife, she would be able to reach far more Indigenous people than she could in Cornwall. The constant arguing took a toll on Harriet’s health and she became very ill.
Harriet’s own brother led a rally where he burned pictures of the couple and threatened to kill Elias if he ever saw him again.
Harriet’s parents finally relented, but Harriet’s ordeal was far from over. The head of the Foreign Mission School tried to talk her out of her engagement. When she refused to back down, he shared the news with the public, who reacted with even more fury than they had the previous year. Harriet was swamped with letters condemning her. Her own brother led a rally where he burned pictures of the couple and threatened to kill Elias if he ever saw him again. Harriet’s church suspended services, and the local pastor refused to perform the marriage ceremony. Through it all, Harriet remained committed to her choice.
When news of the marriage and Cornwall’s reaction to it reached the Cherokee, it produced an equally strong but very different response. Elias and many other Cherokee were horrified by the racism revealed by Cornwall’s response. They realized that the mission system was based on a lie. Missions encouraged Indigenous youth to assimilate into white society but never intended for them to be treated as equals. From that point forward, the Cherokee were much less tolerant of missions on their lands.
Beyond the realization that racism was rampant in the mission system, the engagement news created a political crisis for the Cherokee. Both Elias and his cousin were members of a powerful family. But Cherokee society was matrilineal. Membership in the tribe was inherited from mothers. Under this rule, Elias’s and his cousin’s children would not be Cherokee because their mothers were not. In 1825, shortly after news of Elias’ engagement went public, the Cherokee passed a law that allowed children born of Cherokee fathers and white mothers to inherit tribal status. This law, designed to fix an immediate problem, actually undid thousands of years of matrilineal tradition. It undermined the status of Cherokee women and opened the door to patriarchal hierarchy in Cherokee society.
Harriet and Elias were married in a small private ceremony on March 28, 1826. Shortly after their marriage, the Foreign Mission School was closed in disgrace. The town burned the building to the ground. But Harriet and Elias were unbothered. They moved to Elias’s home in the Cherokee capital, New Echota. Harriet was welcomed into the community and given the Cherokee name Kalahdee. When celebrating her sixth year of marriage, she told her sister that she was glad she ignored the backlash over her engagement. She and Elias had a beautiful life together. She saw herself as a member of the Cherokee community and advocated for Cherokee rights in her letters to her family.
Harriet gave birth to six children in ten years before dying of pregnancy complications in 1836. Though brief, her marriage had profound impacts on both U.S. and Cherokee society for decades to come.