At the beginning of the 19th century, an ambitious group of American pastors envisioned a school that would educate heathen youth in the teachings of Protestantism. Upon finishing their education, such scholars, as they were called, would make ideal missionaries to their home countries. Located in Cornwall, Conn., the Foreign Mission School was initially considered a major success, drawing students and sponsors from all over the world. But what began as an international effort ended as a local scandal when two Cherokee students fell in love with girls from the town.

Almost 200 years later, historian John Demos heard the story of Cornwall’s “heathen school” at a friend’s dinner party. His host dismissed the tale as nothing more than local trivia, but Demos was struck by the tale and decided to explore it further. The final result of that investigation is The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic, which traces the rise and fall of the school and those associated with it.

The book makes clear that the significance of the heathen school’s history goes far beyond one small town. Demos sees the missionaries’ grandiose plan to “save the world” as an example of the American belief in our own specialness—a continuation of the city on the hill mentality that animated New England’s Puritans from their arrival in the Americas. This idealism holds a personal resonance for Demos, since his parents were immigrants who, he says, “had very rewarding and pleasing lives here and they thought of that as proof of America’s exceptionalism.”

The book presents a more uncertain view of that attitude: Part of what drew Demos to the story was the plan’s abject failure. He points out that historians often focus solely on successes, but he believes that there’s something to be learned from ambitious failures like the heathen school. “Overreaching is something that I think is part of American history, and probably part of all our lives,” he says.

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Despite his fascination with the story’s larger themes, Demos struggled to write about it. His research relied heavily on the testimony of the ministers and missionaries who founded the school, but their conviction frustrated him. They were “very sure of themselves, kind of arrogant,” he says, “unwilling to confront the fact of the enormous cultural differences between their own world and that of the so-called scholars that they were bringing to Cornwall.”

Instead, Demos found himself relating to the scholars. He travelled to Hawaii in order to track down evidence about some of the early scholars, especially Henry Obookiah, who was a vital part of the school’s conception. In addition to finding useful documents, Demos visited the former site of Obookiah’s home. The village is now just an empty beach, but Demos says “it made a real difference to be walking in his footsteps.” That experience inspired the book’s unique structure, which intersperses the history of the heathen school with three interludes describing the author’s journeys to places relevant to the story.Demos_cover

But it wasn’t Obookiah who Demos ultimately found the most intriguing of his characters. That honor goes to John Ridge, who Demos describes as his hero in the story. Ridge was one of the Cherokees whose marriages to young white women embroiled the school in scandal, but it’s after he left Cornwall that his story becomes really interesting. Though Demos didn’t realize the connection at first, Ridge was one of the leading advocates for Cherokee emigration—the relocation now known as the Trail of Tears. That position hasn’t made Ridge a popular figure, but Demos believes that without Ridge’s leadership, the Cherokee would probably have been wiped out attempting to hang on to their traditional homeland.

Throughout the book, Demos strives to connect these large historical concerns with the more intimate emotions of the people whose stories he tells. He acknowledges that his approach to history is a bit unorthodox. “When I started out in the history business a long time ago I didn’t imagine that I…would connect in any personal way with the characters I was studying, but I’ve come to think that that’s absolutely essential,” he says. “I think we [historians] sell ourselves short if we don’t think we have something worth saying that really crosses over all of the boundaries of time and space and speaks to what it means to be alive.”

Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in New York. You can find her on Twitter.