In the summer of 1841, Leonard and Harriet Wheeler arrived at La Pointe to work as missionaries as members of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. For twenty-five years they lived among the Lake Superior Ojibwe before retiring from missionary life and moving to Beloit in 1866. Leonard has been called “the best friend the Ojibwe ever had” (White Boy Grew Up Among Chippewas). However, he and Harriet also facilitated cultural assimilation policies that devalued and damaged traditional Ojibwe ways of life.
Leonard Wheeler was born in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts on April 13, 1811, and grew up in Vermont. After attending Middlebury College and teaching for a few years, he entered the theological seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. Harriet Wood was born December 4, 1816, in Dracut, Massachusetts and as a young woman attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Leonard and Harriet married on April 26, 1841, and shortly thereafter departed for La Pointe as missionaries to the Lake Superior Ojibwe.
In their first four years, Leonard and Harriet dedicated themselves to learning the Ojibwe language, preaching and teaching, and caring for the welfare of the people at La Pointe. Together, they discovered the work was hard, yet rewarding, leading Harriet to remark in her journal, “I found it was sober, prose business; a stern reality, but yet a most precious, a most blessed work.”
For better or worse, the Wheelers believed that western ways of civilization and Christianity went hand-in-hand. “They are inseparable,” Harriet noted in her journal. In order to greater influence the Ojibwe, the Wheelers established a mission and community at Bad River called Odanah in 1845. Leonard believed that while living at La Pointe, the Ojibwe suffered from the influences of traders and whiskey sellers, and that their traditional nomadic way of living made it difficult to teach them the white, Christian ways of living. At Odanah, he hoped the Ojibwe would adopt agriculture and remain in one place long enough to stay under his continual influence.
Despite their negative perception of the Ojibwe culture and ways of life, the Wheelers worked hard as members of the community. Leonard filled many roles as a doctor, farmer, carpenter, teacher, interpreter, and intermediary between the Ojibwe and U.S. government officials. On Sundays, he held numerous services in both the English and Ojibwe languages. Harriet raised nine children, while maintaining large and beautiful gardens and teaching Ojibwe women and girls to read and sing. Also, Leonard spoke up for Ojibwe land rights during and following the Sandy Lake Tragedy in 1850. According to historian Leo Filipczak, “Wheeler is someone who more than once stood up for justice and against corruption even when it brought him powerful enemies and endangered his health and safety” (Filipczak, Leonard Wheeler Obituary).
Leonard Wheeler became ill and retired to Beloit, Wisconsin in 1866. He died there in 1872. Harriet Wood Wheeler’s journal and letters were edited and published by Nancy Bunge and is titled, Woman in the Wilderness. She died in 1892.
Nancy Bunge, Woman in the Wilderness: Letters of Harriet Wood Wheeler, Missionary Wife, 1832–1892, (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2010).
Sara Breitenfeldt, “Leonard Wheeler and the Bad River Band,” http://www.academia.edu/254416/Leonard_Wheeler_and_the_Ojibawa.
Leo Filipczak, “Leonard Wheeler Obituary,” Chequamegon History (blog), Published May 31, 2014, https://chequamegonhistory.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/leonard-wheeler-obituary/.
“White Boy Grew Up Among the Chippewas,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles, Milwaukee Journal, January 25, 1931, https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Newspaper/BA3615.