Brainerd Mission was a Christian mission and school dedicated to the education of Eastern Cherokees from 1816 to 1838. It was built on Chickamauga Creek outside of what is now Chattanooga. It was the largest mission of its type. The mission was started by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), one of their early attempts to bring evangelical Christianity to American Indians.
The ABCFM tasked Reverend Cyrus Kingsbury with founding the mission. He received permission from both the President of the United States and the Cherokee Nation in 1816 to start the school. For land, Kingsbury purchased a plantation in what was known as 'Chickamauga Territory'. He paid 500 dollars for 25 acres of land. The mission officially opened in March of 1817 as the Chickamauga Mission. However, as Chickamauga territory was so expansive, the name was deemed too unspecific. In 1818 the name was changed to Brainerd Mission, in honor of prominent missionary David Brainerd.
The primary goal of the mission was to educate Cherokee children. Since the mission taught only in English, a large majority of enrolled students, after the first few years, were children of mixed heritage. It was also easier for children with white ancestry to find a job from the mission. Regardless, the mission taught full-Cherokee, part-Cherokee, white, and black children. Both free men and slaves were accepted as students. Originally, boarding students were charged one dollar per week but the fee was soon dropped, and education was free until the mission's closing.
The mission's faculty was comprised of about forty teachers and religious leaders. The school followed the Lancaster model of education, where the best students help the students below them, and in doing so learn to teach as well. This model worked well for the school. In 1820, they began incorporating agricultural work and lessons as well as school and chores. Many Cherokees began complaining about the mission around this time. They felt the missionaries held a bias for the half-blooded children rather than the full-blooded Cherokee children. Additionally, they protested the mission's growing tendency to focus on labor and agricultural work. They noticed Brainerd using less resources on education and getting the students more labor-focused apprenticeships after school, rather than skilled apprenticeships.
In 1824, members of the Cherokee nation worked to stop Brainerd Mission's growth. There was still much tension between the two groups, and Brainerd was forced to stop hiring. However, many of the issues between the Cherokees and Brainerd were put aside in the following years to address a more important problem- the growing push for removing American Indians west of the Mississippi. The ABCFM and Cherokee Nation both began fighting for the Cherokee nation to remain as it was.
In 1830 the mission burned to the ground and no school- or church-related activities were conducted for over two years. As Native Americans in surrounding states were removed from their homes, a number of them (and associated missionaries) came to stay at Brainerd Mission. In the mid-1830s, this surge in congregation led to Brainerd's highest number of members in its history.
In 1835, President Andrew Jackson signed a treaty with a splinter group of Cherokees that gave the United States government the perceived authority to mandate that Cherokees must leave their territory in the east. The government further stated they would begin forcibly removing Cherokees from their homes in May of 1838. Brainerd Mission stayed open until later, until 1838 August 19, when they held their last service. All but two of the missionaries went west with their Cherokee congregation. Brainerd Mission closed permanently after only 21 years in service.