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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 3
September, 1939
A CROSS-SECTION IN THE LIFE OF A MISSIONARY TEACHER AMONG THE INDIANS

By
LOUISE THOMSON

Page 328

Two contrasting pictures in the lives of teachers then and now may emphasize the point that, after all, the life of a teacher is made of joys, ambitions, surprises and incomplete efforts. There is still some thing for one's successor to achieve.

In the home of a home missionary where I was one of nine entities, good bad and indifferent, all being shaped into citizens by the loving care, strict discipline and religious training of our parents, the late Rev. and Mrs. A. E. Thomsom.

Having been one of the younger ones I had not received the advantages of the eastern schools before we settled in western Kansas with few schools, fewer churches, no social life and no saloons. Humdrum, is perhaps the word to describe the situation.

Then follow one of our modern young teachers around for a day or two during the annual O. E. A. at Oklahoma City. Watch her as she goes to her rural school full of ambition, proud of her degree, not sure whether she wants to follow her own career to the bitter end, or to help some handsome young man to mount the heights sublime.

I am an 89'er as I with three sisters crossed the Kansas line into Indian Territory an hour before midnight Dec. 31, 1889. Before leaving Kansas, our main interest was centered on the number of passengers sneezing and coughing. After hearing the comments from many of the sufferers we learned that they feared they were taking the "new" Russian malady, "The La Grippe", which was spreading over the United States. They were right and we four experienced the same trial a few days after entering the Cherokee Nation.

Almost immediately after crossing the state line our attention was drawn to the large number of beautiful, well-dressed, lively Indian girls who were enjoying their returning to school after the Christmas holidays. We looked in vain for their chaperon. Her absence and the very great supply of chewing gum were surprising to us.

My first personal encounter with Indians was when my father, Rev. A. E. Thomson, the pastor of the Presbyterian church at Tahlequah, met us at Gibson Station and drove to the home of Rev. Evans Robinson and wife. There we stayed all night and there a lasting impression was made: the hospitality, the convenience and neatness of the home and the reticence of every member of the

Page 329

family. I was the chatterbox of our family and had a natural aversion to silences no matter how golden they appeared to others.

Our arrival in Tahlequah, followed by a serious attack of the above mentioned "grip" delayed my older sister, Anna, and me from going to our schools. Later Anna began her work in Lehigh among the foreign element.

On Jan. 20, 1890, I began school work in a log house built on a flint hill, ten miles from Tahlequah on the old Ft. Gibson road. It had been 16 years since the old buildings had burned, long enough to give rise to rumors of strange sights and sounds, of mysterious appearances, of sure proofs that it was never meant to have another school there. Some firmly believed these stories, while others, who opposed the establishment of a mission in the neighborhood, spread the tales with many enlargements, thus adding to our difficulties.

Having been taught from early childhood that being of Scotch descent did not entitle me to superstitious beliefs these stories interested, but did not frighten me. This was my first encounter with superstitions, signs and omens. At this time I made another serious mistake of thinking they were distinctly Indian characteristics. Since then I have found that the mysterious whisperings, "What is that the sign of " is just as rampant among the whites as among the Indians.

The school was financed by relatives of Rev. Joseph Leiper and his aunt., Miss Margaret Mc Carrell, of the Park Hill Mission, who lived near Pittsburgh, Pa. The present settlement of Welling, east of the Illinois river, near the old Elm Spring Mission derived its name from the widowed sister of Miss Mc Carrell. The school, known locally as the Woodall, was never directly under the supervision of the Presbyterian Board, but, as Dr. R. W. Hill, superintendent of Missions, New York City, called it, the Park Hill Annex.

Due to intense feeling, political and social, of the two factions in the community arrangements were made for me to share my time in the two sides of the district. I soon learned to love this arrangement. My two landladies were very dear to me and I leaned on them in every trying time. I do not believe that either of them ever broke a confidence. Something I can not say of confidants of later years.

My school and social work were so diversified that I had no time for home sickness or despair over seeming failures. Imagine an inexperienced, nervous, 85 pound girl having Sunday school, the day school and visiting the sick within a radius of four miles. The day school consisted of boys and girls in the primer ranging in years from five to fifteen years, intermediate classes, and some boys and girls who had attended for several years the male or female seminaries near Tahlequah. These latter, because of bitter factional and political disputes, had withdrawn from the seminaries and en-

Page 330

rolled in the "New Jerusalem" as they sneeringly called our school. Though some of the patrons were pleased with this great honor it was always a moot question in my mind as to the advantage derived.

My discipline now might appear lacking in either rhyme or reason, but then my determination to carry through, regardless of consequences because, "I knew I was right," saved the day. The parents stood by me almost to a unit.

Then it seemed only incidental that a large Indian boy should threaten to cut out my heart and hang it on a bush in the school yard and I persisted until he capitulated, although ungraciously. His father and older brother warned me against another such incident as there had been real danger and that they with difficulty had taken an open knife from his pocket. However the boy never again questioned my authority.

Comedy, tragedy, fatigue and success formed a composite picture in my mind that, perhaps, will never fade. One night about midnight, the usual bedtime was 8 or 8:30 o'clock, I was awakened by the barking of dogs, excited voices and the protesting words of my landlady, Mrs. M. She came to my door and told me that a boy who had lately come into the neighborhood and had taken the measles was dying. His mother wanted me to come and pray for him. She said she would go with me if I wasn't afraid. I told her I wasn't. Whether she referred to measles, death, dogs, stray cattle, the dark or the flint trail I do not know.

We arrived at the low log house without a window, no ventilation except where the chinking had broken out. There were two rooms and each had a roaring log fire. In one there were eight children in bed, five in various stages of measles, several grown people sitting around smoking or dipping snuff. In the other room on the bed lay a 16 year old boy having hemorrhages of the nose. The evidence of various attempts to stop the flow of blood were disgusting. I did not know such practices were ever used in America.

The mother screamed to me to pray to save her boy and then went into a series of moans. Mrs. M. and I went to work with cotton, salt and water, made pledgets and stuffed his nose and after a time the flow ceased. Then Mrs. M. told the mother to keep quiet so we could have prayer. She looked up and saw that the hemorrhage had stopped and said, "That's all right. He doesn't need it now." However, we thought differently and for a while the quiet and peace of the prayer season strengthened us, and we were needing the uplift. The mother didn't want us to leave until she was sure her boy was all right. She jerked the pledgets from his nose and the work had to be done all over again. An hour later we trudged home, silent and pondering over the idiosyncrasies of human beings.

Page 331

One beautiful Sabbath afternoon as I rode out from Tahlequah I was very much pleased to see an unusual crowd gathered on the school grounds. We had not had very good attendance. I was rather surprised when four or five of my most faithful women helpers and others not so faithful and several men and boys met me as I alighted from my horse. Some offered to help me off, one ordered her boy to take my horse and tie it. I was amazed at all this attention and more so when some one asked me if I was able to walk into the school house.

This was all a riddle and it remained unsolved until late in the afternoon when after many such questions and delays I entered my own "prophets chamber" followed by Mrs. M.

In the mean time I called the Sunday school to order and there was no standing room left with several outside. There being no organist I played and led the singing; there being no minister present and my usual helpers being overwhelmed by the unusual crowd and refusing to lead in prayer or read the Scriptures I did both. Such an anomalous position. I was nearest being angry with my people for not helping me I had ever been, amused at the ludicrous offer of physical assistance and so lonesome that I really felt like Elijah under the juniper tree and that the effort was more than I could endure.

Only two Sunday school teachers were willing to take their classes. The others augmented by curious strangers crowded into the "men's side" of the building into my class. They ranged in age from ten to 70 years. Some were able to read and some of them were Christians; others were ignorant, wicked, bootleggers, murderers and most of them vying in their use of tobacco and profanity. How I ever lived through that hour and a half I don't know. I wanted to get away and go to my room and write my resignation. Slowly the crowd, friends, critics and the curious disbanded. On reaching my room Mrs. M. followed me in, after ordering her children, nieces and nephews and others to stay out, and locked the door. In a dramatic whisper she asked how badly I was hurt. It took some time to convince her that I was all right, nothing had happened to me until the Sunday school hour when every thing had gone wrong just at the time when we could have done so much to interest the big crowd that was present. After a great deal of questioning I learned the truth.

A white boy whom I had offended by a severe lecture when he invited me to a dance (a dance in those days always carried the idea of a whiskey jug) had told about the neighbor-hood that he had fired at me while out hunting Friday evening, had wounded my horse and I had been thrown. Of course that aroused indignation among my friends and curosity among the rougher element. After all the excitement of the afternoon it seemed an anti-climax to me and after 47 years I still wonder why some one didn't ride

Page 332

the ten miles to Tahlequah and inquire about me. From that time the enemies of the school submitted gracefully and we had peace.

For three years and a half I stayed with the school. I've never quite determined why I resigned. But I did and the school continued another year then closed. Some may have thought that I was satisfied with results; others that I was impatient with the slow progress. Mrs. Leiper told me that she believed that I had read too many Pansy stories in my childhood and expected to accomplish much in a short time. I can only say in looking back I feel that short time was more idealistic than any other period of my life.

I spent a short time with the Muldrow Mission and then four years in the Tulsa Mission. In both places I had interesting work and many happy impressions.

In the late summer of 1898 I received my first commission from the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, New York City, and went to the Anadarko school where under the superintendency of the Rev. S. V. Fait I remained three years. There is no doubt in my mind why I returned my second three year commission and left in August 1901.

From the week before Thanksgiving, 1900, until April 1901 the school was under strict quarantine with an epidemic of small pox. I was one of the three of the teachers and employees who had neither small pox nor a nervous breakdown. During that seige I think we all three felt many times that either or both would have been a welcome surcease. Mr. Fait in all that time was "greatness personified." He organized his forces taking the immunized students and drilled them in their duties as nurses. He supervised the diet; kept a steady hand on the farm and school work. He kept up the religious services in the chapel because we couldn't attend church service at Anadarko. He was never known to complain of weariness nor overwork and, as Dr. Charles Hume, government doctor said: "The only trouble with Mr. Fait is, he thinks he must be the whole building, 'chinkin' and daubin'." The best compliment one great, worthy overworked man could say of another. My stay in Anadarko was blessed by my association with those two noble pioneers of the Kiowa Reservation. Volumes could be written of their long years of self sacrifice and self effacement.

For six years I remained at home thinking my teaching days were over. By a very peculiar incident I became connected with the public schools of Lincoln and Hughes counties and continued teaching for twenty years in town and rural schools.1



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