Missionaries among the Native Americans

Last Updated on May 28, 2014 by Dennis

According to traditional authority, the morning star of the Choctaws religious era, (if such it may be termed) first lit up their eastern horizon, upon the advent of the two great Wesley’s into the now State of Georgia in the year 1733, as the worthy and congenial companions of the noble Oglethorpe; but also, it flashed but a moment before their eyes as a beautiful meteor, then as quickly went out upon the return to England of those champions of the Cross, leaving them only to fruitless conjecture as to its import; nor was seen again during the revolutions of eighty-five long and weary years. Though tradition affirms, there were several missionaries (Roman Catholic) among the Choctaws in 1735; and that the Reverend Father Baudouin, the actual superior general of the mission resided eighteen years among the Choctaws. With these two above named exceptions, I have seen no record of the White Race ever manifesting any interest in the southern Indians welfare either of a temporal or spiritual nature, from the earliest trading posts established among them in 1670 by the Virginia and Carolina traders, down through slowly revolving years to that of 1815; at which time may be dated the establishment of the first Protestant mission among the southern Indians. This mission, which was named Brainard, was established among the Cherokees by Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, under the jurisdiction of the Old School Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, in Boston, Massachusetts, who arrived in that Nation, in company with; his assistant laborers, Mr. and Mrs. Williams, January 13th, 1815.

In 1818, Mr. Kingsbury, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, left Brainard in the charge of Rev. Daniel S. Buttrick (who arrived there January 4th, 1818, and remained as a missionary among the Cherokees until 1847, when his health failing, he went to Dwight Mission also in the Cherokee Nation, where he died June 8th, 1851) and arrived in the Choctaw Nation near the last of June, 1818, and established a mission in a vast forest of lofty trees, three miles south of Yello Busha, a river (corruption from the Choctaw words. Yaloba aiasha; Tadpoles abounding) and about thirty miles above its junction with the Yazoo, (corruption of the Choctaw word Yoshuba pro. as Yoh-shu-bah, and sig, Lost), and 400 miles distant from Barnard, which he named Elliot, in honor of the Rev. John Elliot, that distinguished missionary among the Indians of the New England States.

They went from Brainard to the Tennessee river, seven, miles distant, by private conveyance, and there went by way of a boat, which had been engaged to carry them to the Muscle Shoals. A wagon was also placed upon the boat, by which they went from Muscle Shoals to the Chickasaw: agency, two hundred miles away, where they abandoned the: wagon, and crossed the country on horseback, directed alone by little paths that led through thickets and canebrakes, and safely arrived at the Yalobaaiasha settlement, where they were hospitably received by Capt. Perry, (a half breed) and many native families. On the following Sabbath Mr. Kingsbury held a religious meeting and proclaimed salvation through the Son of God, for the first time ever proclaimed in the Choctaw Nation by the Protestant minister. Capt. Perry also supplied them with a house until they were able to build for themselves.

In June, 1818, Moses Jewell and wife, John Kanouse and wife, and Peter Kanouse left New York for New Orleans, and reached the Choctaw Nation, in the following August. The first tree for the establishment of the Mission was felled on August the 15th, 1818.

The Choctaws seemed to comprehend the benevolent, designs of the missionaries and received them with every manifestation of friendship and good will; though some misapprehension was indicated owing to the debased lives of the white men (without a single white woman), with whom the Choctaws had long associated, as true representatives of the White Race in toto.

Soon after came A. V. Williams (brother of L. S. Williams who came with Cyrus Kingsbury) and Miss Varnum and Miss Chase, whom Mr. Kingsbury met in New Orleans, and there married Miss Varnum, with whom he had been under matrimonial engagement before he entered the mission. They all returned to Elliot in February 1819; then a mission church was organized on the last Sabbath of the following March, and the Lord s supper administered the first ever witnessed in the Choctaw Nation. Ten persons composed the number of that church (all connected with the mission), and the ten partook of that supper a strange and incomprehensible scene to the Choctaws, who gazed at the novel sight with unassumed wonder.

Within ten months from the time Mr. Kingbury and, Mr. Williams and Mrs. Williams arrived at the Ya-lo-ba-ai-a-sha settlement, seven log houses had been erected, and completed, the largest 20×22, and the smallest, 12×16; and also, had nearly completed a mill, stable and store-house, and had nearly prepared timber enough for a school house, kitchen, and dining-room, and had sawed by hand 9,000 feet of cypress and poplar plank with which to make furniture, floors, doors. &c., the principal labor of all which was done by employed Choctaws directed by the missionaries so eager were they to assist their white friends who had come to live among them and bless them by their benevolent teachings; and before the school house was completed, eight children, through a false rumor that the school was opened, were brought over 160 miles to be entered. And thus the mission, without a school house, and also pressed by a great scarcity of provisions, was greatly perplexed; since, if the children were rejected, an unfavorable impression would be the inevitable result, and if they were received, those in the neighborhood would claim their equal rights to the same favor. However, it was resolved, upon due reflection, to receive them as the less of the two evils, and a little cabin was appropriated for a school house, and the school opened on the 19th of April, 1819, with ten pupils.

On the first of August 1819, the mission was strengthened by the arrival of Dr Pride and Isaac Fish, who was a farmer and blacksmith. Shortly after, the Choctaws convened in national council, and which, Mr. Kingsbury, through earnest solicitation of the Choctaws, attended. The subject of schools was discussed during the session of the council, in which Mr. Kingsbury took part, and among the other things suggested, also proposed that all who desired to have a school established among them should signify that desire by subscribing money, or live stock, as they preferred. At once a subscription was opened in the council, and a considerable amount of money was subscribed; Apakfohlichihubi (sig. One who encircles to kill), the ruling chief, giving $200 of the same, while others gave 90 cows and calves, with the promise of as many more yearly, which was faithfully fulfilled; and thus the mission was, at once, amply stocked with cattle. A farm was soon opened and every effort made to prepare for “the reception and accommodation of as many pupils as might seek to enter the school.

The Chickasaws, learning of the school, made application for their children to attend the school, also, to which the Choctaw chiefs, though knowing that the children of the applicants of their own nation could not all be accommodated, finally give their consent, fearing if they refused they would wound the feelings of their Chickasaw friends, but with the following proviso: That all Chickasaw children whose father or mother were Chickasaws, would be received into the school, and no others. Such was the zeal manifested for schools and churches among the Choctaws, from the opening of the first to the closing of the last, when despoiled of their ancient homes and driven to seek others in the distant west.

Soon after the opening of the school a deep gloom threw its dark mantle over the mission in the sudden and unexpected killing of aged Chickasaw woman, named Illichih (pro. as II-lich-ih, and sig. to cause to die,) and who lived about two miles from Elliot with a son (20 years of age) two daughters and two little grand-daughters, and had endeared herself to the missionaries by her many acts of kindness and much valuable assistance. The tragic affair happened thus:

A Choctaw girl, who lived about thirty miles distant, came, a short time before Mr. Kingsbury arrived, to visit some friends living near where Elliot was located. The girl was taken sick, and an old Choctaw woman a conjuring doctresses proposed to cure her. She was at once employed in the case. After giving her patient a variety of root and herb decoctions, internally and also externally applied for several days, at the same time chanting her incantations and going through her wild ceremonies over and around her patient, she pronounced the girl convalescent and would re cover; the father was duly informed of the happy change, and came to take his daughter home; he remunerated the apparently successful physician by giving her a pony, and retired for the night intending to start for home with his daughter the next day; but during the night, the daughter suddenly became worse and expired in 24 hours. It was at once decided that her sudden demise was the result of an isht-ul-bih (witch ball) shot from an invisible rifle in the hands of a witch. Without delay her physician was consulted, who pronounced Illichih to be the witch who had shot the fatal bullet. Immediately the father with several other men, all armed, went to the home of Illichih and entered her cabin. She displayed her hospitality, so universal among- all Indians, by setting- before them the best she had; and after they had partaken of her scanty refreshments, the father suddenly sprang- to his feet and, seizing- her by the hair, cried out. “Huch-ish-no fiopa uno chumpa; aholh-kun-na. chish-o yokut, cha ish ai illih, (your life I bought; a witch you. are, and must die.”) To which Illichih, realizing her inevitable doom, calmly replied: “Chomi holubih, cha ish moma yimmih” (others lie, and you all believe.”) In a moment she was stretched upon, the floor a bleeding corpse.

When her son, who was absent from home at the time of the tragedy, returned, his feelings may be imagined, but not described. He at once hastened to the missionaries, for whom he had often worked, and told them his tale of woe. Mr. Kingsbury immediately went to the tragic scene of death: He found the mangled corpse of his old friend lying upon the floor, partially covered with a blanket, with the two daughters and grand-daughters sitting around it in the deepest grief, and their wailings but feebly expressed the anguish of their hearts. Mr. Kingsbury had a coffin made, and the missionaries, with the five children, laid poor Illichih in her humble grave, there to await the resurrection morn.. The missionaries performed religious ceremonies at the grave and after they had placed the coffin in its last resting place, the relatives and friends of the deceased placed all her clothing and the little money she possessed, and her bedding, upon the coffin and filled up the grave an ancient custom of the Choctaws, as well as of all North American Indians, who believed their deceased friends will have need of those thing’s in the world beyond the grave.

Does the reader exclaim in indignant horror at the slaying of Illichih, “What inhuman wretches!” But be not too hasty in your judgment and condemnation of the acts of the then unenlightened Choctaws; but remember our professed, civilized and Christian ancestors the “Pilgrim Fathers”stand today guilty of the same charge, but sixty fold more culpable (professing what they did) than the Choctaws; for, as soon as the Choctaws had been instructed in the impropriety and sinfulness of killing any one for witchcraft, no life was ever afterwards sacrificed to avenge the death of a bewitched relative or friend.

On the following Sabbath after the tragic death of Il-lich-ih, Mr. Kingsbury preached from the appropriate text, “The dark places of the earth are full of the habitation of cruelty.” He spoke fearlessly but calmly to his Choctaw audience of the errors and wickedness of their superstitions, and the abhorrence of the Great Spirit in the slaying of their own people through the belief that they are witches, who listened in profound silence and with the deepest attention; and though a few old women in the Yalobaaiasha district fell as sacrifices before the superstition of witch craft, after the establishment of the Elliot mission, yet by the influence and exertions of the missionaries the horrible practice was soon forever stopped. Though they believed that there were white witches also, yet they never attempted to kill a white witch, upon the grounds that the whites eat so much salt, that a witch ball fell harmless when shot against an Indian by a white witch.

But the kindness and interest displayed by the missionaries to and for Il-lich-ih quickly spread over the country, and so won the respect and confidence of the Choctaws that all who were in affliction sent for one or more of them; and also manifested great interest in their teachings and anxiety for the success of all improvements both in churches and schools, as suggested by those men and women of God.

But alas, it is a melancholy and lamentable truth that the most that the North American Indians (everywhere over this continent) have learned from the whites, the missionaries alone excepted, has been, and still continues to be, that of their follies and vices. One of the follies so incomprehensible to the ancient Choctaws was, and still is, that one day, near the close of each year, should be devoted by the “pale-faces” to eating and drinking, dancing and frolicking, carousing and fighting, called Christmas; incomprehensible,” since so inconsistent with what the missionaries taught them what the Bible reasons for rejoicing were, and in what way they should be expressed to please God, as the advent of his Son to earth to redeem man and bring him back from the paths of hi i and folly to those of virtue and righteousness.

In 1820, Mr. Kingsbury started from Elliot for the purpose of establishing a mission near the Itoom bih River, and arrived at the home of David Folsom, sixty miles distant, and then known by the name of “Puch-i A-nu-si,” (pro. as Push-ih (Pigeon) Ar-noos-ih (Sleep) or Pigeon Roost) from the vast numbers of that beautiful bird that formerly roosted there. There Mr. Kingsbury secured the voluntary assistance of Colonel Folsom to assist him in the selection of a proper situation for the contemplated mission; after the second day’s travel they reached Major John Pitchlynn’s a white man who, by marrying a Choctaw woman, had been adopted by the Choctaws according to their custom, and who, at that time, was acting as interpreter for the United States Government, and, in conjunction with Colonel Folsom and others, was a zealous advocate of the civil and religious improvement of his people; while both expressed the utmost gratitude to Mr. Kingsbury for his interest manifested toward their people, and the bright prospect of the Choctaws future as presented by the missionaries in schools and their preaching among and in behalf of their long neglected people.

Alas, how great the contrast between John Pitchlynn, Nathaniel Folsom, Henry Nail, Lewis LeFlore, John Colbert, and others, who over a century ago, voluntarily united themselves to the fortunes of the Choctaws in Toto, standing firmly and fearlessly to the interest of that appreciative people through their hopes and fears, joys and sorrows.

After many days riding over the country, Mr. Kingsbury, Col. Folsom, and Major Pitchlynn selected a place for the mission station on a high point overlooking a grand prairie towards the south and west, and on the south banks of a stream flowing into a stream now known as Tibi (corruption of the Choctaw word It-tib-ih to fight or having fought), where they at once erected a camp, preparatory to the establishment of the missionary station to which Mr. Kingsbury gave the name Mayhew. A log cabin or two were soon erected by the aid of the neighboring Choctaws, also a garden and cornfield opened and planted, when Mr. Kingsbury retraced his steps to Elliot and safely arrived there March 29th.

Soon the news of the establishment of another station, and the opening of another school, echoed and re-echoed throughout the Nation with astonishing rapidity; and applications were immediately made from various parts of the Nation for stations and schools also. And to prove the sincerity of their applications, councils were held, and appropriations were made in various parts of the Nation, for churches, schools, blacksmith shops, etc., and in 1820, annuities were appropriated to these objects to the amount of six thousand dollars annually to run for sixteen years. These annuities were for large tracts of land sold by the Choctaws to the United States. Their country was at that time divided into three districts; know as the western, north eastern, and southern; called Upper Towns, Lower Towns, and Six Towns. Each district had a ruling chief, and each town a subordinate chief, captain, and warriors, who man aged the local affairs of the people. Elliot was located in the western district, over which, at that time, Pushamataha Ori. A-num-pah-ish-tarn-yah-ub-ih, a messenger of death) was the ruling) chief; Mayhew, in the north eastern, over which Puckshenubbee (Orig A-piurk-fo-lich-ihub-ihTo encircle and kill) was the chief and A-mb-sho-lihub-ih of the southern.

About this time (1820) the mumps followed by the measles desolated many families and even towns and villages in different parts of the nation, owing to the ignorance of the Choctaws concerning the nature of the new diseases and their proper treatment.

In the same year Apakfohlichihubih and Amosholihubih, with seven other chiefs, visited Elliot and were highly elated at the progress of the pupils, and exhorted the children in strains of native eloquence to learn the teachings of the Holisso Holitopa (pro. as Ho-lis-soh Ho-le-to-pah, and sig. Book Holy (Bible), which told them how to be good. In a social conversation with Amosholihubih while at Elliot, Mr. Kingsbury referred to the evils resulting to his people by the use of whiskey; after listening attentively for some time, he replied: I never can talk with you good missionaries without hearing something about the drunkenness and laziness of the Choctaws. I wish I had traveled over the white man’s country; then I would know whether my people are worse than every other people. But I am determined it shall no longer be thus said. I will summon a council, have a big talk and stop the whiskey; for I am tired of hearing my people called every where lazy and drunkards.” He was as” good as his word. The council was convened; the “big talk” had, and the whiskey banished from the Choctaw Nation, and kept away, until the Mississippi Legislature in 1830 abrogated their laws, and turned, by the hand of arbitrary power, the corrupting and devastating channel of Whiskey river into their country, as the quickest means, of securing their remaining lands, knowing their horror of the white man’s laws with his whiskey as the protector and sustainer of human “Personal Liberty.”

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899

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