Phil D. Brewer
The writer knew Rev. Willis F. Folsom intimately, from 1868, to the date of his death, in 1897. This acquaintance, which ripened into sincere admiration, came about through the following circumstances:
At the close of the Civil War, from which my father did not return, we came back to what had been our farm home, near the line between Arkansas and Indian Territory, and found nothing remained but the land, overgrown with brambles, and a blackened chimney. Mother having re-married, my step-father rented land in the Choctaw Nation, across the line from where the postoffice of Jensen, Arkansas, was later established, in a district where the subject of this sketch was the preacher in charge, under appointment from the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which convened at Boggy Depot, October 15, 1868. Mr. T. B. Bailey, my step-father’s brother, ran a store located in Arkansas, the front door of which opened into the Choctaw Nation. He was a man of good education; was an earnest Christian, and had traded among the Indians all his life; he spoke and read Choctaw fluently; these qualities attracted the Indian preacher greatly, and he made Bailey’s store and home his headquarters while in that section of his district, for many years. The writer, as a small boy, first saw, and later learned to love, this Indian preacher at that place. From 1868 to 1876, few weeks passed that he was not a guest of some of our people. I knew him throughout the rest of his life, but did not meet him often, therefore, my recollections of this truly exceptional man are of a time when he was in his prime, and I was still a small boy of tender years. These facts should be borne in mind in connection with my recollections of his personal appearance, because in later life he became sorely afflicted, especially with a troublesome skin disease, and people still living who knew him in those later years, might not recognize him by the description I give.
He was a mixed-blood Indian, one-half blood, at least, and probably a little more than that; he was slightly more than average height, being almost or quite six feet high. He weighed about 185 pounds; his complexion was reddish brown, such as is usually seen in a half-breed Indian. His body was excellently proportioned; he was very straight, which gave him the appearance of being taller than he really was; he had a splendid carriage, and walked with firm step. His head was large, with high forehead; his hair was nearly black, and came slightly below his ears. While he wore his hair longer than did the generality of white men, it did not fall to his shoulders, as was customary at that time among the Indians. His face gave every evidence of strength and courage; it was smooth and well proportioned; in fact, he was one of those Indians occasionally observed, whose face is almost hairless. He probably used a razor, but if so, it was seldom needed. His eyes were his most attractive feature; large and wonderfully expressive; they had a kindly twinkle whenever he was animated by any emotion. He was a man of unusual natural ability, and endowed to an unusual degree with common sense. He was not a highly educated man, but read and spoke both Choctaw and English fluently. He had the gift of eloquence, and I have heard him speak with such oratorical power as to hold a large audience with rapt attention, when every word he said was in a tongue many of them did not understand. It was that indefinable thing, called "presence," coupled with both dignity and grace, when added to a splendid voice and charming and perfect gestures, that marked him as an orator. During his long life in Christian work, he traveled and preached among many Indian tribes, and among white people in adjoining states.
In trying to appraise the character of any man, especially when its purpose is to fix his place in the history of his time, it is well to know something of his antecedents.
He was a son of McKee Folsom, who was a son of Nathaniel Folsom, a son of Israel Folsom, a son of Samuel Folsom, a son of John Folsom, the English ancestor of the family who came to the American Colonies at a very early period. Nathaniel Folsom, a white man, the immediate ancestor of the Choctaw family, was born in Rowan County, North Carolina, in May, 1756, and moved from Georgia to Bok Tuklo (Two
Creeks), in the old Choctaw Nation, in Mississippi, after the Revolutionary war, and between the years 1780 and 1790, where he was engaged as an Indian trader for many years, among the Indians. There the ancestor, Nathaniel Folsom, married Aiah-ni-chih-oh-oy-oh, a full blood Choctaw woman of the Royal Iksa Clan, her name meaning, "A woman to be preferred above all others," she being descended from a long and ancient line of chiefs of the Iksa-hattick-ihal-ihta, one of the two greatest Choctaw Clans. Nathaniel was the ancestor of the great Choctaw family of Folsoms. Concerning himself, he made the following statement to Reverend Cyrus Byington, in June, 1829:
"I traded a long time in the Nation, sometimes taking up Three or four thousand dollars worth of goods. I followed trading about thirty years. I lived principally at Bok Tuklo; there a was a great town of about four hundred Indians. The French King lived there. (This great French King was, no doubt, Bienville, or some one of his officials.) I learned the language very slowly; I was never perfect in the language, but after ten years I could do any business with the Choctaws. I joined the Church at Mahew, in 1827, in my seventy-second year. I have been the father of twenty-four children, fourteen of whom are living. I have lived to see six of them join the church, and three others sit on the anxious seat." (2).
Nathaniel, the grandfather, McKee, the father, and Willis Folsom, removed from the old Nation, east of the Mississippi River, in the Great Choctaw migration in the year 1832-1833, and settled at Mountain Fork, later called Eagle Town, Red River County. There Nathaniel died, October 19, 1883; McKee died sometime shortly prior to 1864. Willis Folsom in early life, settled near Fort Smith, in the Choctaw settlement, called Skullyville, and died there in 1897, and was buried at a place called Pocola, the word meaning "Ten" in Choctaw, and the name was given to the place because it is ten miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas. My information is that his grave is now unmarked by a monument.
Although he was for several years prior thereto, a Christian worker and exhorter, Willis Folsom was not ordained a Deacon until October 7, 1858, at the Fifteenth Session of the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, held that year at Skullyville. In 1869, at the Annual Conference, held that year at Okmulgee, he leas elected a lay delegate to the General Conference of the church.
The records of the Indian Mission Conference of the church, which was organized in the Indian Territory at Riley’s Chapel, in the Cherokee Nation, October 23-28, 1844, disclose that at a number of sessions through a period of many years, he was the official interpreter for the Conference. In fact, he was always in demand for such purpose, both in and out of the church.
Rev. Theodore F. Brewer, still living at Tulsa, and who has been a member of the Indian Mission Conference for nearly fifty years, knew Willis Folsom and his work, well. In a recent letter he said of him:
"He was in many respects, a great man; he deserves to be remembered in the history of our state; he and Chief Checote were two of the greatest Christian Statesmen we had among the Indians."
William L. Byrd, Ex-Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, now deceased, whose wife was a member of the Folsom family, in his manuscript compilation of the geneology[sic] and history of that family, in speaking of the children of McKee Folsom, said
"The most famous of whom I have record being Rev. Willis Folsom, who was a Methodist preacher for fifty-two years, and wrote a Choctaw dictionary so he could preach in both English and Choctaw."
(A copy of the manuscript of Governor Byrd, above referred to, is in the private historical collection of Ex-Governor R. L. Williams, of Muskogee, through whose kindness it, and much other data, have been used in this statement. See also Sixth Annual Reunion of Descendents of Emigrant, John Folsom, Exeter, New Hampshire, 1915. )
From a biographical sketch prepared by Frank M. Moore, one of the early day Missionaries, which appears in a History of the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, published by the Phoenix Printing Company, of Muskogee, in 1899, and now out of print, and loaned me by Rev. Sidney H. Babcock, I glean the following facts about the early life of the subject of this sketch:
He was born in the old Choctaw Nation in Mississippi, in the year 1825; the day and the month are not known. He came with his father in the early ’30s, to this country, and the family later made their home on the Poteau River, about ten miles south of Fort Smith, near the Arkansas line. The
early boyhood of Willis was spent like most other Indian boys of that period, in ignorance, as there were slight opportunities for any kind of an education, but when Willis was about seventeen years of age, he was sent from home to one of the Choctaw Nation Boarding Schools. The author says that this school is understood to have been Bloomfield Academy. This was an academy under the control of the Missionaries; here he received the rudiments of an English education, and upon this slender foundation, through many years of zealous study and thought, his naturally great brain was developed and he came to be highly cultured. It was while attending Bloomfield Academy that he was converted to Christianity. The circumstances of his conversion are detailed by the author above referred to, who thereafter adds the following statement
"This experience became the foundation of that sincere, earnest, strong and happy Christian life which he exemplified before the world for over fifty years afterwards."
And in closing his sketch, the author above referred to, who had himself been a Missionary for over fifty year, said:
"Thus died the last one of the Great Old Preachers in the Indian Mission field. His life and work extend back to the days of the organization of the Conference (1844). All the other old preachers had passed on before him. That he died victorious and full of peace, there can be no doubt. He was the victor at last, through Grace."
The Choctaw family of Folsoms, for more than one hundred years, has produced many prominent men and women. A brief reference to some of them is not out of place here. Willis Folsom’s father, McKee Folsom, had a number of brothers who attained prominence. One, Col. David Folsom, was a chief in Mississippi, and it is said was the first chief to marry under the forms of law, and not according to the tribal custom. He was one of the largest slave owners in the Choctaw Nation; he was a colonel in the United States Army, being commissioned by Andrew Jackson; prior to the time he became chief in Mississippi, that title had been considered hereditary, but he insisted that the principal chief should be elected by the warriors; this was done, and in this way, he superseded Moshulatubbe, his uncle, who was much displeased because of the innovation. This same David Folsom had a son, Col. Sampson N. Folsom, who was an officer in the Choctaw Regiment in the Confederate Army. Another of McKee
Folsom’s brothers, was Israel, a prominent Presbyterian minister, and at one time, a delegate of his tribe in Washington City. Judge Julius C. Folsom, of later days, was his son. George Folsom was a Cumberland Presbyterian preacher, and a District Chief; Peter Folsom, a first cousin of Willis, was a Cumberland Presbyterian preacher, and also a District Chief; Colonel Sampson, a cousin of Willis, was a Colonel of a Chickasaw Regiment, under the command of General Albert Pike, in the Confederate Army. (Cushman’s History of Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians.) These men, because of public service in the tribe, achieved more fame, and are better known and better remembered in history, than is Willis Folsom, the subject of this sketch. Others, such as Judge Julius C. Folsom, Judge Rufus Folsom, Alfred Folsom, and others, might well be included in that list. Their places are firmly fixed in their tribal history; they were all great Indians, but the subject of this sketch was their equal in every respect, and in deep piety, Christian service, and the religious influence he exercised over the generation in which he lived, it is thought that he excelled them all. That he has not been given an equal place in history was his own fault, and chiefly because his life had the single purpose of living for, and encouraging every person, with whom he came in contact, to a better life. Money meant nothing to him, except the little that was needed for his simple wants. The politics of his tribe made no appeal, although he was a natural orator, and had great personal magnetism. Hs ambition was to elevate the morals of his people, and convert them to Christianity. For more than fifty years he preached the religion in which he so thoroughly believed. In his itinerary, which extended beyond his own tribe, and into adjoining states, if he had a horse he rode to his appointments; if he had none, he walked.
PHIL D. BREWER.
The following article giving passages from the diary of Rev. Willis Folsom, was prepared by Rev. W. F. Dunkle, who, for many years was a member of the Indian Mission Conference, and who is now a member of the Florida Conference, it being published in the July 1921 number of the Missionary Voice, published at Nashville, Tennessee.