The Children’s Tree: The Bronson Family in Assam

Harriette Bronson Gunn. I am grateful to Lori Walsh for sending me this photograph.

Harriette Bronson Gunn.  (I am grateful to Lori Walsh, a fourth great granddaughter of Miles and Ruth Bronson, for sending me this photograph.)

When the pioneering American Baptist missionaries came to Assam in the first half of the nineteenth century, they were accompanied by their wives who assisted them in their work as equal, or almost equal, partners. In fact, the American Mission  Board permitted the wives of Nathan Brown, Oliver Cutter, and Miles Bronson to call themselves missionaries (later, in a backward step, the Board was to disallow this status to missionary wives). Curiosity about the lives of these women missionaries and their children led me to read Harriette Bronson Gunn’s memoir of her missionary parents, In a Far Country: A Story of Christian Heroism and Achievement, brought out by the American Baptist Publication Society in 1911, and long out of print.  Harriette was the fourth of the seven daughters born to Ruth and Miles Bronson; she and her sisters spent a part of their childhood in Nowgong (as Nagaon used to be spelled). The details about the Bronson family in this post are mostly plundered from Harriette’s book.

My interest in the lives of missionary families was initially aroused by this stoical, single sentence entry in Nathan Brown’s journal (dated January 19, 1840): ‘Today we have discovered that one of our little boy’s eyes is diseased, and we fear, unless some remedy is found, he will soon lose his sight.’ I began to see how a missionary – by definition, a driven man – could subject not only himself but also his loved ones to the dangers and privations of living in a distant, unknown and even hostile land. When Eliza and Nathan Brown, Harriet and Oliver Cutter, and Ruth and Miles Bronson came to Assam the difficulties were considerable. The voyage from America to India would take eight months. Railway and steamer services had not been introduced, and diseases like malaria and cholera were rampant.  During times of political trouble, the danger to life was very real.

Reading In a Far Country, I found myself often thinking of the famous opening line of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ For, no matter how hard we try, we cannot now fully imagine the force of conviction that made missionary men and women leave their homes. The book has references to ‘dusky natives’ and heathens, and there is the inevitable Orientalist frame (the frontispiece carries an illustration, ‘The Most Famous Ghat in India – Benares’). However, what makes Harriette’s book likeable are the ordinary, human details like ‘the children’s tree’ – a peepal tree under which the Bronson girls played in their Nowgong home. Also, we can relate to such human feelings as the sadness of parents separated from their children or the happiness of returning, after a long journey, to a place one has learnt to call home.

Ruth, painted in Hamilton, NY by John Wilkie in 1836. (I am grateful to Mary Ann Titterington, a descendant of Sophie, for sending this image.)

Miles Bronson was a student at the theological seminary at Hamilton, New York. He met Ruth Lucas when he went to preach in the village church in nearby Madison. Ruth’s father, a storekeeper, initially opposed the marriage as he could not bear the idea of Ruth marrying a missionary bound for a distant land. A severe illness in which her life was despaired of resulted in John Lucas’s acceptance – he implored God to save Ruth in return for which he would ‘surrender his darling one to foreign missionary service.’ The couple arrived in Calcutta in April 1837 and journeyed by boat to Sadiya in Assam. They were not far from their destination when the missionary Jacob Thomas, who (with his wife) had been travelling with the Bronsons, died because a large tree fell on his country boat.

The Bronsons’ eldest daughter, Mary, was born in Sadiya. In March 1838 they moved to the new station of Jaipur to work among the Nagas. Sadiya was attacked by the Khamtis in 1839; they burned the station and killed the British political agent and dozens of others. An attack on Jaipur seemed imminent; however, the expected attack never came. After peace was restored, the Bronsons moved to Namsang village (in present-day Arunachal Pradesh). Miles Bronson prepared primers and tracts, while Ruth opened a school.  Harriette writes about a peculiar difficulty Ruth had to face in her school; every time ‘a chase went by after deer or other wild animals, without permission from their teacher, the dusky pupils would jump out of the windows to join the hunters. She was obliged to sit alone patiently until their return, which would be sooner or later according to the results of the chase.’ Harriette relates that an ayah was employed and given the responsibility of taking up baby Mary at the first sign of danger (‘the villages in this region often made raids on each other’). She promised to do so but when an attack occurred she forgot all about Mary and was instead found collecting her personal property, exclaiming, ‘My bustu! Oh, my bustu!’

Rhoda Bronson, Miles Bronson’s sister, inspired by her brother’s example, decided to join him in the Naga hills. (We know from other sources that Rhoda made the trip at her own expense.) It was then rare for a single woman to cross the ocean. She became an object of great curiosity to the Nagas, who flocked to see her. Rhoda died seven months later. She was of delicate health and from the beginning the food (rice three times a day) did not suit her.  She was buried in the English cemetery at Jaipur.

In 1841 the Bronsons left the Naga hills to establish a station in Nowgong. Here the family spent some of its happiest years.  There were six daughters: Mary, Maria, Eliza, Harriette, Sophia, and Frances. During the day, the little girls played under ‘the children’s tree’ in the mission compound. When evening came the sisters and their parents mounted on the back of an elephant and enjoyed a ride around Nowgong. Miles Bronson planted a tree to mark the birth of each daughter. When Maria returned to Nowgong twenty years later, she was pleased to see the trees had grown to ‘a goodly size.’

When a new missionary couple, Drusilla and Ira Joy Stoddard, arrived at Nowgong in 1846, the Bronsons decided to take their daughters to America ‘to be reared in a more healthful climate and receive the advantages of education in a Christian land.’ In October 1848, the family left Nowgong. (Incidentally, on this trip two local youths, James Tripp and Lucien Hayden, accompanied the Bronsons to America.) On doctor’s advice, Frances, who was only eighteen months old, was left behind in the care of Mrs Stoddard. Frances died during Ruth and Miles Bronson’s absence.  In America, the task was to find suitable homes for the girls. A Mrs Stokes of Philadelphia offered to take Mary.  Maria and Eliza were taken in by a Mrs Davis Cotes of Springfield, New York.  Harriette was adopted by a wealthy family in Philadelphia while Sophia was placed in the family of her uncle, Weston Bronson, Miles Bronson’s eldest brother, who lived in Hamilton, New York. (Later, Mary too was adopted by Mrs Stokes.) However, the Bronsons had second thoughts about leaving Harriette with a rich family to be brought up ‘in a worldliness of which they could not approve’ and so at the last minute they took her away and brought her back to Nowgong. During the return voyage, a child was born to the Bronsons but did not survive. Baby Martha (the seventh daughter) was buried in the English cemetery at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. (On a subsequent voyage, Ruth and little Harriette visited the grave.) After returning to Nowgong, the reduced family visited the grave of baby Frances. Ruth must have been thankful for Harriette’s presence for without her it would have been much more painful to return to Nowgong without her daughters.  In a letter to Harriette when she had grown up, Ruth described her as her ‘Benjamin, the last of my little flock left to me, and … such a source of comfort to my poor, lonely heart.’

Harriette was now without her sisters.  Years later Miles Bronson remembered a game Harriette played in her Nowgong home in which she set up an imaginary seminary: ‘This wonderful seminary was unique, having only one solitary scholar, who every morning put on her bonnet, took her satchel of books and umbrella, and bidding her parents good morning, went out of one side of the house and came back into the other!’ Since there were no white children for Harriette to play with, she was allowed to do so with Aitie, the daughter of one of the native preachers. Harriette had a pet cat as well.

Miles Bronson frequently made evangelistic tours by boat and sometimes he took Ruth and Harriette with him. Harriette writes nostalgically about these river journeys:

There were snug sleeping accommodations on this boat, but no room for culinary uses, so a cook-boat followed, where the native cook prepared the meals. When they were ready he pulled alongside the ‘budgerow’, or large boat, and proceeded to set the table and serve up a meal in a style amusing to an American. The repast ended, he removed the dishes and withdrew to the cook-boat, where he washed up and prepared for the next meal. At nightfall the native captain bade his boatmen fasten the boat to the shore, as it is not safe to travel after dark on these waters. A sandbank was usually chosen near which to anchor the vessel, and large fires were kindled to keep away the savage beast that lurked in the adjoining jungles … The boatmen cooked their simple meal of rice, and often on pleasant evenings a tent would be pitched in preference to sleeping on the boat, forming quite a rural encampment…

And if there was romance in this tenting out at night upon these Indian rivers, it was scarcely less romantic to travel by them by day. In places where the jungles had been cleared away, native settlements extended for miles in the midst of as beautiful scenery as ever met the eye. 

But there were dangers from wild elephants and tigers. One evening Miles Bronson went for a walk leaving the boat when he saw a mad elephant emerging from the depths of the forest. Noticing the boat, the elephant plunged into the river while Miles Bronson watched helplessly from the bank. Fortunately, the elephant decided to turn and swim off in the opposite direction, thus sparing the passengers in the boat. On another occasion, he had a narrow escape when the behaviour of his pet dog, Trusty, alerted him to the presence of a tiger.

Two of the sisters returned to Nowgong to carry on their parent’s work. Having completed her studies in Philadelphia, Mary arrived in Nowgong in May 1856. (As a child, she had been baptized in Nowgong along with some of the first Assamese converts.) Maria reached in March 1870 and took charge of the Nowgong girls school which was established by Ruth in 1844. A letter from Maria to Harriette reveals some interesting aspects of missionary life:

You see that we are again in dear old Nowgong, the home of our childhood and the scene of our loved mother’s labors.   Many things make this a sacred place, and I feel it a privilege to be stationed here…

I watch darling papa with a great deal of anxiety. He is better than we could expect, but I can see that the great sorrow tells upon him. I often hear him weeping and praying that God may help him to be submissive, and then he comes to us cheerful; but I can see he has had a hard struggle…

This is a pleasant home, dear ones. Nature has made it beautiful, and papa’s skilful hands have erected one of the most comfortable bungalows in the station. You would find us nicely settled and with all things in common… Indian housekeeping is very different from American. We often want to send all the brothers and sisters invitations to dinner or tea, but fearing you (sic) will not accept have to be content by inviting English neighbors. There are quite a number of them, so we are not without society. I do not feel we were in the wilds of India, for it is more civilized than I expected to find it. Sometimes I forget so great a distance separates us, especially when we are reading the papers from home. Letters and papers are the greatest comfort out here, and without them the separation from our loved ones would be almost intolerable … 

The uprising of 1857 was a very stressful time for Ruth, Mary and Miles Bronson. Because there were no British officers or officials in Nowgong, the Bronsons felt especially vulnerable. The previously respectful sepoys who lived in the barracks across the street from the mission compound now became insolent. Attempts were made to frighten the Bronsons at night.  Ruth and Mary learnt how to fire a gun. The family spent many nights in terror before heading for Gauhati (present-day Guwahati), leaving the bungalow in the care of the native Christians.  A dark night was chosen for the escape.  After three days the Bronsons reached their destination safely. There was a good deal of suspense as they approached Gauhati, not knowing if it had fallen, with an ill Ruth placed in the back of the boat, while father and daughter gathered their guns and ammunition in case they were attacked. The Europeans at Gauhati, including the missionaries, numbered about thirty; they drilled everyday in an attempt to cow down the sepoys. Eventually a steamer with armed reinforcements arrived from Calcutta. The Bronsons left for America soon after in order to recover from the strain of living in Assam during this period.

During this trip Mary married Cyrus Fisher Tolman, a student in Madison University. The Tolmans were deputed to Assam and left for Nowgong but Miles Bronson had not fully recovered his strength. So he accepted the offer of becoming pastor of the Baptist church in Springfield, NY.  This was a happy time for Ruth since she had the opportunity to see her daughters who were living with Mrs Cotes: ‘How Ruth Bronson’s heart treasured those hours when her darlings could be with her again, as in their happy childhood days, and again she seemed to listen to gay voices and merry laughter under the old tree near the mission bungalow.’

This lasted about a year. Then it was time for the Bronsons time to ‘tear themselves away from the clinging arms of their children and friends’ and return to Nowgong. The consolation though was that their daughter and son-in-law were there.  A letter from Ruth written after her arrival conveys her feelings of what Nowgong had come to mean to her:

Oh, this delightful November weather! It is nearly as perfect as weather can be.  The only drawback is now and then a foggy morning, which, however, is quite made up by the exceeding beauty of the sky as the fog melts away before the brilliance of the sun. I really think there is no more lovely spot on earth than dear, quiet Nowgong.

She kept herself busy running the school. Two of the girl students are mentioned by Harriette:  Junaki and Humptira, Ruth’s ‘Assamese daughter’. (Her father was the Bronson’s dhobi.)

Miles Bronson is known for his Assamese and English dictionary. A letter written in 1867 by Ruth to Harriette shows how the former contributed:

Could you visit your old home today you would find your room occupied by papa as study, where he is working hard all day on the dictionary. You would see in the center a long table, covered with green baize, on which are piled at long intervals large books and writing materials, in orderly confusion. You would see papa sitting at one side of the table, and on the other side three dusky pundits, assisting him in his slow work. You would see mamma’s rattan work-basket standing close by papa’s chair, where I sit near, ready to render him any assistance in my power – such as looking up references, synonyms, and definitions. I cannot give my time as fully to assisting papa as I did in Sibsagor, where I had no household cares to interrupt… Here I have school duties, housekeeping cares, and a thousand little things to attend to. I have aided him in the revision of the manuscript, which is now ready for the press. 

The strain of dictionary work had its effect on Miles Bronson’s health. The Bronsons decided to go to America, their departure hastened by news that one of their daughters was seriously ill. During the voyage, Ruth was thrown off the sofa on which she was lying by a sudden lurch of the ship. She recuperated in her daughter’s house in Chicago. Mrs Cotes was asked to permit her three adopted daughters to visit Ruth so that ‘there might be a family reunion for the first time in twenty years.’ Sophia, the youngest daughter, recently graduated from the Monticello Seminary, joined the family. Ruth however continued to be feeble and in spring she was taken to her home in Madison.  She was so weak that she could not attend Harriette’s wedding on June 29, 1869. Ruth was hopeful of recovering and even gave directions for her trunks to be prepared for the journey to Assam. But it was clear that she was dying. She was taken to Elmira, New York for a water cure; Mary and Maria arrived to look after her.  But she died on September 30, 1869. She had served for thirty three years as missionary in Assam.

Miles Bronson left for Assam on December 15, 1869 with Maria, the daughter who was still single.  This time the trip was made as much as possible by land.  They arrived in Nowgong on March 28, 1870. The older native Christians remembered Maria Baba and there were inquiries about Harriette Baba, the last of the girls to leave Nowgong. Miles Bronson married the widow of another missionary, AH Danforth.  The second Mrs Bronson however fell ill soon after and was advised to take a sea voyage to Singapore.  Maria accompanied her. But Mrs Bronson died on the steamer, on the return voyage, on February 3, 1874 and was buried at the missionary cemetery at Rangoon. Maria herself contracted cholera while returning to Nowgong and was buried in Goalpara.

Miles Bronson was moved to the mission station at Gauhati in 1874:

thus severing the long-cherished associations of the years at dear old Nowgong. There, all but three of his children had been born; there, lingered memories of the sweet wife of his youth, and those pioneer years; there, later, the devoted daughter, Maria, had lavished on him her love and care, and gazing sorrowfully at ‘the children’s tree’, which still stood beside the bungalow, he felt that no other spot could seem so much like home.

He married Mary Rankin, a missionary of Woman’s Foreign Society of the West, and a friend of his deceased daughter, Maria. A son was born to the couple and named Miles Bronson. Ruth and Laura, twin daughters, followed. Five years later Miles Bronson moved to his new headquarters, Dibrugarh. One day, soon after his arrival, he fell from his elephant. The resulting injury compelled him to leave for America in order to treat his leg and put an end to an active missionary career.

The Bronsons decided to settle at Eaton Rapids, Michigan where Sophia, the youngest daughter, and her husband lived – the later was the pastor of the Baptist church there. A house was rented near Sophia’s home.  The daughters now decided to buy their father a house. Miles Bronson attended various missionary meetings and gatherings. He died on November 9, 1883 and was buried in the cemetery at Eaton Rapids. His widow, Mrs. Mary Bronson, left with her three children, received a monthly pension from the Missionary Union; this with the rent from letting out a portion of her house was all she had to bring up the children. To support the family, her son (the young Miles Bronson) dropped out of school. Harriette writes that this was a disappointment to his mother as she had hoped he would ‘have a college education and perhaps take up his father’s lifework in dear old Assam.’ Miles joined his uncle in the railroad business. Initially he lived in Detroit with his mother; later a promotion took him to Cleveland, Ohio. Here Mrs Bronson was appointed church missionary, until failing heath forced her to resign. Miles again received a promotion – he was now appointed superintend of a branch of the New York Central Railroad. He moved to Yonkers, New York where he set up house with his wife and his mother. The sisters continued to live in Cleveland. Mrs Bronson contracted cancer, died in her son’s home in Yonkers, and was buried next to her husband in Eaton Rapids.

Harriette's hisband, William Campbell Gunn. (Photo courtesy Lori Walsh)

Harriette’s husband, William Campbell Gunn. (Photo courtesy Lori Walsh)

In her concluding chapter Harriette asks, ‘Was it Worthwhile?’  The question is a rhetorical one. For, as she notes, all the Bronson daughters became missionaries or wives of missionaries. We have seen how Mary married Cyrus Tolman. She and her husband worked among the Karbis. Recurring attacks of malaria compelled Cyrus Tolman to return to America. Mary stayed on for some time before following him with her two children. The Tolmans settled in Chicago, where Cyrus became district secretary of the Mission Union. Mary became one of the founders of the Woman’s Baptist Missionary Society of the West and its first corresponding secretary. Maria, who died in Assam, was one of the first woman missionaries appointed by this Society. Eliza (the third daughter) married Albert Robinson, pastor and associate editor of ‘The Gospel in All Lands’. Harriette married William Campbell Gunn, the pastor of the Baptist church in Springfield (where Miles Bronson had been a pastor for a while). Sophia (the youngest) married John Titterington, who served as a pastor in many churches in the Midwest (she also came to be known as a children’s author).

There is a fair amount of material on the well-known male missionaries who were active in Assam in the nineteenth century but little on the missionary women who did the same work, faced the same hardships and made the same sacrifices as the men. Harriette’s book gave me an understanding of the contribution of the Bronson wives and siblings. It offered me a glimpse into their interconnected lives and a sense of how the women shared and shaped missionary work. It also left me with the impression that perhaps, more than the men, it was the women who bore the brunt of missionary realities.

5 thoughts on “The Children’s Tree: The Bronson Family in Assam

  1. I am a descendent of Miles Bronson; his daughter Eliza was my great grandmother. Is there any way I can verify her birth on October 7, 1842? Any documentation or records that would substantiate this? Thanks!

  2. Thank you for writing this! Sophie Bronson Titterington is my ancestor. I have a painting of Ruth. I will send you a photo if you give me your e-mail address.

  3. Thank you for the note Mary Anne; my email is tbillard@aol.com. I would be interested in the photo! Can you send it by email and perhaps we can chat about our common ancestor, Miles Bronson. Regular email would be much easier to work with!

  4. Pingback: Publishing In a Far Country | The Truant Blogger

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