By Vinson Lackey1
One hundreed years ago, on October 27, 1838, a covered wagon, weathered and worn, stopped on a dim rocky trail that now is United States Highway 62.
It had come westward over eight hundred miles in forty-one days, and now was about to enter the Indian Territory west of Arkansas, the goal of its occupants. They halted the galled and jaded horses while they offered a prayer of thanks to the Saviour whose Gospel they had come to the western wilderness to preach.
They were three, all young men. Miles Vogler, the leader, was not yet thirty, but already had spent years among the Cherokees in Georgia as a missionary of the Moravian church which had maintained a mission at Springplace, Georgia, since 1801.2 His two companions were the Rev. John Renatus Schmidt, one of the most respected of the Moravian ministers among the Cherokee, and a lad named Herman Ruede, a devout young teacher.3
The three had watched the soldiers drive their Cherokee friends and parishoners from their homes and herd them into squalid concentration camps. They had lingered among them to reassure them and pray with them, and when the first parties began to leave for the west, Miles Vogler had gone to Salem, North Carolina, to report to the head of the church and to volunteer to come also and continue his ministrations.
Vogler, an ordained deacon, Rev. J. R. Schmidt, chairman of the new mission, and Ruede, secretary, were entering their new field of labor. That evening they sloshed across the Illinois River and drew rein at the prosperous mission at Park Hill where the
1Mr. Vinson Lackey lives at Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has devoted a number of years to the study of the history of Northeastern Oklahoma.
2See E. C. Routh, "Early Missionaries to the Cherokees," The Chronicles of Oklahoma (Oklahoma City), XV (1937), 449.
3See Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1934), 359.
Rev. Samuel A. Worcester welcomed them.4 They spent the night, however, in an Indian home on the Barren Fork nearby where they met a former Springplace student named Thomas Watie who led them the next day to a settlement of eight Moravian families on Barren Fork, near the present town of Proctor.
Here the Reverend Mr. Schmidt began to preach in the homes of the little flock, and here Miles Vogler and young Ruede organized a small school, but it was to be a long and tedious three years before the mission would be established in its own building and on its own site, at "New Springplace."
"New Springplace" is miles from that first little settlement on Barren Fork. It is at a beautiful bend in Spring Creek, just sixty miles east of Tulsa via state highway No. 33.
The site is half a mile west of the little village of Oaks, which consists of little more than the excellent establishment of the Danish Lutheran church and school which Rev. C. A. Vammen conducts in this "full blood" community, once in the heart of the old Saline District of the Cherokee Nation. The Danish Lutheran church and school, and even the town of Oaks itself, is a direct outgrowth of the old Moravian mission.
More than once the writer has trudged across the fields from the road to the ruins of New Springplace, to read the inscriptions in the little cemetery—men and boys in one row and women and girls in another, the gravestones lying flat on the ground in the Moravian manner; to probe among the buck bushes that shield the remains of the chapel's foundation; to drink of the clear, cold stream that trickles from the old stone spring house; to visualize in fancy the stark tragedy that took place in the shadow of the great oaken skeleton that once was the schoolmaster's house, and to wonder how long the sturdy old log walls of the abandoned rectory will withstand the onslaughts of the elements.
The last question will never be answered, for the elements have been cheated of their prey. Not in the way they recently were cheated of the venerable Sequoyah's cabin by a careful res-
4See Edmund Schwarze, History of the Morovian Missions among Southern Indian Tribes of the United States (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Times Publishing Company, 1923), 223.
toration and sheltering stone cover-house—but by thoughtless demolition!
The Reverend Mr. Vammen accompanied the writer again to the site this spring and, pointing sadly to the shambles of timber and stone that had been the rectory, explained that the Indian who owned the land had wanted to repair his barn. An efficient and economical Indian Agent had held the necessary expenditures down by permitting him to demolish this landmark of the missionary endeavor among the Cherokees, that he might use a few beams and boards!
Little is left of the rectory building except the great stone chimney with its double flue and two fireplaces, one above the other. These served the ground floor kitchen and living room combination and the upstairs bed rooms of Vogler and his little family.
Sprawled at the foot of this sad sentinel of stone, the stout, hand-hewn sills and notched joists of the ground floor staunchly retain the outline of the venerable rectory. They seem to have absorbed some of the firm faith and grim determination of their builder and are revealing it to this irreverent and hurrying generation.
Some means should be found to preserve the old chimney as a memorial shaft to the great work that this remote and abandoned spot has witnessed.
Miles Vogler had been at the settlement down on Barren Fork but a few months when he was called back to Salem, North Carolina, by his church to be married to Miss Sophie Dorothea Ruede. According to the custom of the Moravian church, she had been selected by the officials to be his wife, and after the wedding in February, 1839, they returned by stage and steamboat to Barren Fork, the journey taking a month and two days. They arrived in Park Hill on April 14, 1839. They labored there eleven months, holding services under a brush arbor, but by March, 1840, their flock had scattered.
Those were perilous times in the Cherokee Nation and not even religious ties could hold many communities together. The
Moravians had begun their labors among members of the Ridge or "Treaty" faction who had come out to the Territory in 1835-1836. Then, with the arrival of the Ross adherents in 1839 and the bitter feud which gripped the Nation after the killing of Major and John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, many of the congregation left Barren Fork.
As it was proving to be not only sickly, but unhealthful in another sense of the word, several Moravian families moved to Beattie's Prairie on the headwaters of Spavinaw Creek, in the heart of the Ridge faction's territory, where other converts had settled. The missionaries accompanied them and set up anew in a house acquired from one of the Thompsons. They built a little school house for boys and another for girls (the sexes were not allowed to mingle at school or at play) and soon had Delilah Hicks and Martin Thompson, Cherokees, assisting as teachers.
They called their new station "Canaan," but it soon proved to be far short of a "land of promise." No sooner had they settled down to effective work than the soldiers from down on the Illinois River at the Arkansas border moved into the neighborhood. They had abandoned their swampy site below and were moving Ft. Wayne to what they claimed was a more healthful and more strategic location. The Indians resented the presence of the fort and appealed to the War Department for its removal, and the fact that the Arkansas citizens fought for its retention (and, incidentally, the retention of their whiskey trade with its garrison) leads to the belief that Capt. Nathaniel Boone's troopers did not add to the serenity of "Canaan."
Perhaps the missionaries sensed the rough going ahead for Canaan, for when a group of full-blood converts, to whom they had been preaching at Spring Creek, wanted a mission in their community the Canaan group asked permission to build one there. They chose the site by the great spring and, in June 1842, erected a log house for a church and school, obtaining the land by special permission of the Cherokee Council through
the good graces of Chief John Ross, who was a Methodist, but a friend to all missionaries regardless of denomination.
School opened September 19, 1842, and Chief Ross returned from one of his trips to Washington via Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and brought a trunkful of books from the Moravian congregation there for the new school.
History gives little detail, but the fact that New Springplace flourished from the start while Canaan seemed to wane may be attributed, largely, to the state of unrest on Beattie's Prairie, while the community of New Springplace was at the ford where Spring Creek was crossed by a branch of the busy military road from Jefferson Barracks to Ft. Gibson. Over this road an almost constant stream of troops, freighters, immigrants and travelers of every sort poured for half a century. Ft. Wayne was abandoned after about two years, but the Cherokee feud grew more bitter. Stand Watie gathered the "Treaty" families of the Canaan region at Ft. Wayne for "protection" in 1848 and drilled the menfolk under military discipline for two months. The Springplace area was populated mostly by Ross adherents. Beattie's Prairie folk were mostly slave-holding mixed-bloods.
In the 1850's when the tension over the slavery question was so great, most of the missionaries were accused of being active abolitionists, and they naturally fared better among the non-slaveholding full-bloods. Such a community was New Springplace.
When Deacon Miles Vogler died August 1, 1854, out at one of the mission branches, his wife and family had him buried at New Springplace before they left for the east in the covered wagon of another missionary who was departing for home.
Later Stand Watie recruited and trained his Confederate regiment at the Ft. Wayne site, and when General Blunt came down in 1862, Watie and General D. H. Cooper made a desperate stand there. After Blunt had completely defeated them, the countryside was in ruin and the buildings of the Canaan mission had been burned, perhaps during the fighting and may be long before.
The Moravian missionaries had withdrawn from the Indian
Territory during the War but an Indian convert had remained at New Springplace as caretaker.
When one of the missionaries, the Rev. E. J. Mock, returned in 1867 he found Canaan gone, and the home of nearly every family along the road in ashes, but at New Springplace the sturdy log buildings and the walled-in spring were unharmed, though greatly dilapidated. In the cemetery was the grave of the caretaker who had occupied the school teacher's house. His bullet riddled body had been found in the weeds near the springhouse, where it had lain for several days and had been partially devoured by wild hogs. Such was the reconstruction scene in the Indian Territory, even within the sacred precincts of a mission.
New Springplace was revived, and branches were established at five points throughout the Cherokee Nation. The work continued until the establishment was deprived of its land by the Curtis Act of 1898. Then the Provincial Synod of the Moravian church directed the closing of the mission. After the Moravians left the Nation, the Cherokees of this faith were served by a Danish Lutheran minister, Reverend N. L. Nielson, who had a church at Moodys. He preached at New Springplace occasionally, at the request of some of the Cherokees living there, having known the Moravian missionaries for several years before they left. Later the general secretary of Moravian Missions wrote him and asked him to look after their members in the Nation, and in 1902 he opened a school, with over sixty pupils, within a mile of the old mission site.
From this Danish Lutheran school has grown the present establishment called Oaks.