By Allen Wright
Wheelock Seminary, around which is entwined much of the early history of Oklahoma, is situated in McCurtain County abount one and one-half miles northeast of Millerton and about ten or twelve miles north and west of Idabel. Here it was that one of the principal missions established by the American Board among the Choctaws had its beginning, and here it was that many of the Choctaw men and women, who afterwards became prominent, received their early training in those things which fitted them for a life of usefulness and service to their people and to the future state of Oklahoma.
Subsequent to the concluding of the treaty in September, 1830, at Doak’s Stand, Mississippi, commonly known as the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the Choctaws emigrated to their new home west of the Mississippi. This removal took place in the years 1831, 1832 and 1833 and was made in bands or companies, each company being known by the name of its leader or head man.
Prior to the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi the American Board had established a number of missions amongst the Choctaws and had made considerable progress in both religious and educational work. Many of the old missionaries in Mississippi emigrated with the Choctaws or joined them in their new home shortly after their removal. Amongst those early missionaries were Reverend Cyrus Byington, Reverend Cyrus Kingsbury, Copeland, Hotchkin, all names familiar to the older inhabitants of the eastern part of Oklahoma, especially that part which comprised the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory.
The band or company known as the Thomas LeFlore Company, comprising about six hundred persons, in the early part of 1832 removed from Mississippi and settled in what is now McCurtain County, Oklahoma. Shortly after their arrival in their new home a mission was established and a church organized and named Wheelock Mission, in memory of the first president of Dartmouth College. It is said that the first meeting was held on the 9th day of December, 1832, at which meeting thirty persons were received into the church from those who had formerly been members of the church in Mississippi,
and that seven others were added on profession of faith. The mission was established by Reverend Alfred Wright, who was a missionary to the Choctaws in Mississippi and who had continued his work amongst the Choctaws in their new home after it had been interrupted in Mississippi, occasioned by the preparations for their removal.
Joseph B. Thoburn in his History of Oklahoma gives the following account of Reverend Alfred Wright, the founder of the mission:
“Alfred Wright was born at Columbia, Connecticut, March 1, 1788; graduated from Williams College in 1812, and Andover Seminary 1814; went to North Carolina in 1815, resided three years in Raleigh, ordained as an evangelist with Jonas King in Charleston, South Carolina, December 17, 1819; shortly after received an appointment from the board as a missionary among the Choctaws; returned to New England in 1820, stationed at Goshen, August 1, 1823. Missionary operations were interrupted by the removal of the Choctaws across the Mississippi so he left that region October 27, 1830, visited New England and continued north till 1831; he then went to Little Rock, Arkansas, February 18, 1832. On September 14, 1832, he went to Wheelock where he died.”
At first the mission was purely a religious organization, but very shortly after its foundation, probably in the early part of the year 1833, a school was established as a component part of the mission. The school was maintained by the American Board as a day school for Indian children, later as a boarding school for Indian girls. About the year 1875, the school was given certain support by the Choctaw national government from the tribal funds, and became more or less a national institution for orphan girls, with the actual control of the school, however in the hands of the Board.
Since its foundation in 1833, Wheelock School has been rebuilt, added to, and remodeled, and is today one of the most attractive institutions of the kind within the state, being maintained to this day as a school for orphan Indian girls and wholly supported from the tribal funds. Wheelock Seminary, as it is now known, can well lay claim to being one of the oldest educational institutions within the state, having had an unbroken and continuous existence since its foundation in 1833
to the present. During that time it has been under different managements, first the Board of Missions, then the Board with a part of the financial support derived from the Choctaw tribal funds, then the support and supervision of the Choctaw Nation, then the support of the Choctaw Nation under the supervision of the Indian Department in accordance with the agreement, known as the Atoka Agreement, which was made between the Choctaw Nation and the United States in 1898.
In glancing over the history of this interesting old institution one cannot help but think that it was endowed at its foundation with some of the sterling qualities of its founder, who exchanged the comforts and pleasures of his New England home for the discomforts and sufferings of the great West in order that he might carry out what he conceived to be his mission in life. Those were not days of railroads and modern conveyances such as we now have, and the journey was made by these people in wagons drawn by horses or oxen, on river-boats and flat-boats. So arduous was the journey from their old home in the state of Mississippi to their new home west of the Mississippi River that many died on the way, and were buried where they died, and because of this the road was called the “Trail of Tears.”
From this institution many Choctaw women, prominent in their day and time, received the first rudiments of their education, and after finishing the prescribed course taught in the school, either went at their own expense or were sent at the expense of the Choctaw Nation to different colleges of the South and East. Among former students of the school now living are Mrs. A. M. Colbert, who is the daughter of Israel Folsom, a man prominent in the affairs of the Nation, and the mother of Mrs. M. Conlan of Oklahoma City; Mrs. J. F. McCurtain, who was Jane Austin, and who is the widow of Jack McCurtain, one of the ablest chiefs the Choctaws ever had. Mrs. McCurtain is still living, and is known and loved by all the older members of the Choctaws.
Near the school is an old stone church, which was built in 1842 under the direction and supervision of the founder of the mission, and dedicated in 1846. The church was built from native stone quarried in and about the school. From 1832 to March 31, 1853, the date of the death of Reverend Alfred
Wright, there were nearly six hundred members taken into the church by him. A tablet can yet be seen in the church graveyard giving the date of his birth, death, and a short account of his work as a missionary among the Choctaw Indians. This tablet was placed over his grave shortly after his death by those among whom he had labored and for whom he had devoted the greater part of his life. One can readily imagine the trials and tribulations that were encountered in building this simple church in those days, and one can well imagine the thoughts that were in the mind of that goodly man while the church was undergoing construction. No doubt it was difficult in those days to obtain material and money, and with the inadequate means at hand he was endeavoring to construct a church such as he had left in the far-away New England home. Time has proven that he built well, for although many changes have taken place since the church was built, yet it remains today a living witness to his work. To such institutions as Wheelock, and to such men as its founder, the people of Oklahoma will always be indebted for braving the dangers and discomforts of a new and comparatively unexplored country and implanting in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants those precepts and principles which make for a higher and better citizenship; and to such institutions and to such men as the early missionaries the Choctaws, and in fact all the Indians of eastern Oklahoma, will ever owe a debt of gratitude for having so thoroughly prepared them for the duties which years later devolved upon them as citizens of a great commonwealth.