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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 4, No. 2
June, 1926
“LIFE AMONG THE CHOCTAW INDIANS”

(By HENRY C. BENSON, Written 1860)

Page 156

EARLEY SCHOOLS IN CHOCTAW NATION

When the Government purchased the Indian lands in Mississippi, a school fund was created, and provisions made for a number of schools, to be located at the most eligible points in their new home west of the Mississippi, and to be free from taxation and free to all who should be willing to patronize them.

The majority of these schools were located in the middle and southern districts.

One school in the Moshulatubbee district in 1843; this was in the vicinity of Choctaw Agency, and is what was known as Skullyville. Here the New Hope Female Seminary was later established.

Two other schools were opened at this time, one at Pheasant Bluffs, and one at Ayaknirt-Chuckma.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, in the month of May, 1840, appointed Rev. E. R. Ames, as secretary of the Missionary Board of that church, to serve among the Indians of the western district. Rev. Ames was expected to travel extensively among them, address them on the subject of missions, to labor to arouse the people to a sense of their duty, to learn the wants of the destitutes, and to devise for the support of such new missions as the parent board should feel authorized to establish. This office involved great responsibilities, no less than herculean labor.

Mr. Ames, after carefully consulting the map of his field, determined to explore the entire western frontier from the northern lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

A detailed account of these explorations would be very interesting today to the readers of Oklahoma Chronicles; and it is a regrettable fact that this story, with so many others of like interest, has been lost for all time to come.

Mr. Ames left his family at his residence, in Greencastle, Indiana. and. traveling by coach to St. Louis, took passage on a steamboat bound for the upper Mississippi. He ascend-

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ed the river to the head of steam navigation, visiting the frontier settlements and all the Indian tribes on the tributaries of the Mississippi.

As there were Indians located further up, and near the source of the smaller streams, he procured a canoe and some native oarsmen to ascend the stream as far as possible. One of the experiences of the journey was to take the canoe upon their shoulders and carry it across the country to some other stream, where they would launch the boat and navigate as far as possible or as far as desired. In this way they visited the different tribes, ascertaining the conditions, wants and prospects of them all. Across the hills and valleys, up and down the streams, procuring provisions as best he could, sleeping out at night with the exposures of that day, he kept on his way, so far as we have been able to learn, without a murmur or complaint.

According to the record, their principal food was wild game and such other articles as they could secure from the natives of the forest, such as jerked venison and hominy, which they cooked on the camp fire and ate with a relish known only to those who have had similar experiences with hardships and out-of-door privations of pioneer life. After several weeks of weary travel the party came to the highest point of bark-canoe navigation on one of the western rivers, and Mr. Ames congratulated himself on having entered upon new ground; he evidently thought he was now in "the regions beyond," of which we all have read and for which his heart had yearned to reach, where he should not be compelled to "build upon another man’s foundation." He was justified in his opinion, as he failed to see any foot prints of former missionaries. But the narrator says that while Mr. Ames was preparing his evening meal around the camp fire, that suddenly he heard a voice, the intonations of which were both strange and familiar. Pausing to listen and look, he saw and heard a few rods distant, an Indian man seated at the roots of a tree, singing with some zeal and emotion the old familiar song used so many years by the Methodists:

"Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood."

Page 158

The missionary had been there before the secretary; the signs were infallible. From the tribes on the Mississippi, the secretary traveled down the western border towards the south, visiting the Indian tribes on the Missouri and its tributaries. He called at the various missions and learned their plans of operation, their past history, and their prospects, present and future.

On this journey he visited with the Shawnees, Delawares, Kaws and Kickapoos, continuing his journey further south, making the acquaintance of the Pottawatomies and Osages on the Osage River; he next called at the settlement of a mixed tribe of Shawnees and Senecas, who were located near the southwest corner of the state of Missouri. This brought him to the border of the Cherokee Nation and as he was anxious to make the acquaintance of their most influential men, he went directly to Tahlequah, which was the council ground of the Nation.

The stay in Tahlequah was protracted long enough to enable him to see the Chief, the Indian Agent and the Judges. Here also he met and counseled with the missionaries of that locality. From this place he journeyed still further south, coming after a few days travel to the Choctaw tribe. Their territory extended from the Arkansas River to the Red River, at which place the secretary stopped, this being the border of Texas, an independent republic. So long and tedious a journey through a country inhabited only by Indian tribes, most of whom had but recently come to the West, rendered the trip both dangerous and undesirable. His modes of travel was on foot, in a bark canoe, and on the back of a mustang pony. Among the Choctaw people he had better accommodations and better food, the staple being the never failing "tomfulla." The principal town or locality then in the Choctaw Nation was Choctaw Agency, a supply station with Major F. W. Armstrong in charge, who was also postmaster at that place, the post office having been established June 26, 1838, the second post office established in what is now the state of Oklahoma.

Major Armstrong introduced Mr. Ames to the influential men of the Nation, and by the cooperation of them he got a bill drawn favoring a new school system which he originated, which met the approbation of the agent and the chiefs. A

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bill was accordingly drawn chartering, for a period of twenty years, three seminaries of learning, for males and females, in which children should be boarded, clothed and taught both a knowledge of books and of useful manual labor.

According to the bill, suitable appropriations were made for the support of the schools from the Indian annuities. There were three districts in the Choctaw Nation, with one chief for each district, and each of these districts was to have an academy. One of the seminaries thus provided was to be under the exclusive supervision of the council, and was to be a national school. The other two were to be under the supervision of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The council appointed a board of trustees, composed of the chief and one trustee from each district, said board having oversight of all the schools.

Spencer Academy was located in Puck-che-nub-bee district, and was under the direction of the council. Nun-newa-ya Academy was to be located in Push-ma-ta-ha district. Fort Coffee was the Academy for Mo-shu-la-tub-bee district. To these last two schools the council made an annual appropriation of twelve thousand dollars out of their annuities; and the Missionary Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church made an appropriation of two thousand dollars annually, these appropriations were to be equally divided between the two schools. A provision of the charter was to the effect that the Methodist Episcopal Church should have the right to choose the teachers; and the trustees were authorized to select the students, and to have such oversight of the schools as to secure the attainment of the objects contemplated in the charter.

A stipulation in the charter was to the effect that while the trustees did not have the power to discharge any of the teachers or the superintendent, yet they might report to the council officially, who were competent, and for sufficient cause, to withhold the appropriation and abolish the charter. While these seminaries were located in the districts, yet they were to be equally shared by all the children of the Choctaw Nation who would avail themselves of the privileges offered. A special provision of the school act was to the effect that orphan children should have the preference when a greater number should apply than could be cared for. And, other

Page 160

things being equal, small boys had the preference over the elder, or larger boys, and the reason given for this preference is that the "younger boys were considered the more promising in every respect."

FORT COFFEE ACADEMY

In the month of March, 1843, Rev. William H. Goode was appointed superintendent of Fort Coffee Academy, and Henry C. Benson was appointed teacher.

This school was under the supervision of the Methodist Episcopal Church; and was the first effort on the part of the church to help educate the Indians of the new Indian Territory.

These two men, Goode and Benson, were formerly members of the Indiana Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and were regularly transferred to the Arkansas conference by Bishop Joshua Soule.

This school took its name from the old military post, Fort Coffee, which was established in 1834, and had been occupied by the troops before the western boundary of Arkansas had been surveyed; but in 1838, when the state line had been determined, it was abandoned, and the present site of Fort Smith was chosen and immediately occupied as the headquarters of the southwest division of the United States army.

The location of the buildings was in the bend of the river, which at this place formed nearly a semi-circle, containing an area of a dozen or more acres, the center of which was occupied by the buildings. The land just above and below was low and level, covered with heavy timber and brushwood, forming an almost impenetrable thicket; yet the site of the old post buildings was nearly, or quite, one hundred feet above water.

Rev. Goode arrived about the middle of April, 1843, five years after the troops had been removed to Fort Smith; here, with the supplies for the school, a German family and a few friends from Fort smith, the landing was made.

The first night was spent on the rocks, where a fire was kindled, the evening meal prepared and eaten. Before retiring for the night, Rev. Goode read an appropriate passage from the Bible, sang a hymn and offered prayer to Almighty God. This prayer meeting was, no doubt, the first one ever

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held in the old Mo-shu-la-tub-bee district, in the Choctaw Nation.

Away out here on the banks of the Arkansas River, on the farthest verge of civilization, far beyond the limits of white settlements, in the forest, around the flickering light of the campfire, with less than a dozen souls, setting in motion a movement that was to change the civilization of a half dozen commonwealths. Such movements are begun only by those who are characterized by an indomitable faith in Him who made the worlds.

They moved into the old buildings next morning, after some repairs had been made, adjusting themselves as best they could to surroundings typical of the western borders. There were no sawmills, lumber was hauled from Fort Smith or Van Buren, along with lime and other material necessary to make the buildings habitable. Spring time was suggesting the necessity of gardens and the planting of crops for the maintenance of the children in the school.

For this purpose they had no teams. Rev. Goode bought a yoke of oxen, and while some prepared the ground by cutting down timber, others used the oxen ploughing and making ready for the planting of seeds. In this soil recently cleared of all original growth, they planted corn, pumpkins, beans, peas, Irish and sweet potatoes and melons, all of which yielded abundantly.

J. Y. BRYCE.

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