Fort Coffee Neighbors

Our nearest neighbors were Cherokees, and resided on the north side of the river; their houses and farms were in view of our mission. The ferry kept at Fort Coffee was owned by a Cherokee, who lived directly opposite to our establishment. He was a shrewd man in business, a regular Shylock in his ex­actions. Woe betide the unlucky traveler who should venture to cross over in his boat without having first stipulated as to the fare; and even then the ferryman would fail to give back the correct change; it must be in his favor to the amount of one or two “bits” at least.

The act establishing the academies secured to each the possession of one square mile of the public domain. Upon that section no Indians were permitted to settle. The schools were established on the manual-labor principle, and the land was reserved for farming and grazing purposes for the benefit of the mission. We found, however, one Indian within the limits of our reservation; he was a full-blooded Choctaw, whose name was Jones. He had a small farm, and a cabin, which served as a shelter for his family. It would not do to dispossess him of his home, robbing him of his improvements, nor was it desirable to have him so close to our mission; for his habits were bad, and his example would be baneful and corrupting to the morals of the pupils of the Academy. The business was amicably arranged by paying Jones a fair price for his field, whereupon he pulled down his cabin and moved it a half mile further away. As he was our nearest Choctaw neighbor we soon made his acquaintance. Jones was probably over forty years of age, had a wife and grown-up daughter, and three or four young children, boys and girls. One old superannuated female slave was still regarded as an appendage of his family. Old Hannah was born in Africa, according to her own statement. She had been kidnapped, when a young girl, and brought to the United States and sold in the south. She had lived an eventful life, had passed through strange vicissitudes of fortune, had been the property of different masters, and had finally fallen into the hands of Jones before the Choctaws had been removed from their reserved lands in Mississippi. She could not tell her age, but was probably over a hundred years old, and almost as helpless as an infant child.

Jones, though apparently poor, owned a good stock of cattle and the needed supply of mustang ponies. Our mission afforded him a fine market for his surplus produce, which consisted of a quarter or a half of a veal or a cow, when hunger had forced him to bring in and slaughter a beef to furnish food for his family. He would bring us a choice piece, for which we paid him two or three cents per pound, which was the market price in that country. But once he unfortunately brought us beef on Sunday, just as our services closed, and before the congregation had dispersed. Coming directly to our house of worship, he wished to know if we would purchase his beef. We endeavored to explain to him that it was the Sabbath, and that it was wrong to do business on the Lord’s day, but it was not possible to make him comprehend it. He was greatly confused; the subject was dark and mysterious; and he finally left the mission, doing his utmost to ascertain how it could be right to buy beef on Saturday, but wrong on Sunday.

After that occurrence Jones was greatly puzzled to know when to bring his meat to market; to keep the run of the days of the week so as to know when Sunday should come was too great a task; he could not give himself so much care and thought; but he finally adopted an expedient that worked admirably. He would slaughter his beef without reference to the day of the week, and would bring a portion of it near to the mission and hang it up in the bushes; and then he would come and ascertain the day of the week.

He would look around to see how we were employed, and finally he would ask, “This Sunday?” If we should answer in the affirmative, he would carry his beef home and bring it back next morning; but if we told him it was not Sunday, he would go and bring it in for sale.When our school opened for the reception of pupils, Jones sent his little son Jim as a day scholar. On Friday evening we would direct Jim to go home and remain till he had taken three ” sleeps and then return to school. The Indians all count the days by the number of sleeps–each sleep is one day. Thus Jim assisted his father in keeping the run of Sunday–he at once became the family almanac. And it is but just to record that Jones, having learned so much, would frequently come to preaching, bringing his wife and daughter, all washed, combed, and tidily dressed for the occasion. They would not only shake hands, but would further manifest their friendly and social regards by remaining to take their Sunday dinner at our table; Jones was always friendly and well disposed about meal time. He would sometimes drink to excess, but on such occasions rarely came to the mission, for he knew that we should disapprove of such conduct. Once, however, when we had been at Fort Coffee but a few weeks, we heard in the dusk of the evening what reminded us of the ” warwhoop ” of which we had read in early life. Soon we saw Jones mounted upon his mustang and coming around the field at a furious speed. He was exercising his vocal organs with most astonishing energy and vehe­mence. The feminine branch of our family became a little–a very little nervous. There was at least a vivid recollection of reeking scalps, war-dances, and captivity. But then” she was not alarmed “–of course not. I met Jones at the gate, and told him that, as he was drunk, he should not come in, but must at once go home. But he was in excellent temper, and extended his hand with the cordial salutation: “Un­konna achukma fana!”–” Very good friend !” “You doctor! chile sick heap! you bleed um–give um pill-make um well, heap quick!” I told him that I was not a physician, and should not go to see it, but he should return home immediately, and never again come to the mission when he had been drinking okohoma–whisky. He remembered the admonition, and we never again saw him intoxicated; on such occasions he would not come near Fort Coffee.

Cornelius Macann, a half-breed, was our next nearest neighbor; he was a well-disposed, quiet man, about fifty years of age, with grown-up children, but married to a second wife, who was many years younger than himself. Macann owned a small farm, had comfort about his cabin, and had a very fine stock of cattle, which rendered him quite independent in his circumstances.

Mr. Ring was a white man, married to a Choctaw wife; they lived about four miles from the mission, on the Fort Smith road. Mr. Ring had an excellent farm, in the edge of an extensive canebrake, well cultivated by negro servants, who were kept under his personal supervision. Mrs. Ring, although an Indian, was sensible, tolerably well educated, energetic in business, and altogether a superior woman.

There was quite a community of Indian families around the Choctaw Agency, which was five miles distant from Fort Coffee.

Major William Armstrong was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the south-west, and the Agent for the Choctaw tribe. He was a Tennessean, a personal friend of President Polk, and a brother of the Hon. R,. Armstrong, who served as Consul at Liverpool, during Mr. Polk’s administration. Mr. Arm­strong was a man of unblemished reputation, of excellent morals, and formerly had been a communicant of the Presbyterian Church.

His family consisted of himself, two sons, a little daughter, Mr. Irwin, his clerk, and Mr. Wilson, the school-teacher. He had a son and daughter at college in the east. Mrs. Armstrong had died in Tennessee; the housekeepers were colored servants. Mr. Armstrong was a genuine and true friend of the Indians, and labored indefatigably to improve their condition in all respects. He gave his cordial approbation to all well-directed efforts to establish missions and schools in the several tribes under his superintendence.

Mr. Wilson, the teacher, was a graduate of the Washington College, Pennsylvania; he was appointed Principal of Spencer Academy, where he served some time, after which he received the appointment of Agent for the Choctaws.

Such were our neighbors when we commenced our labors at Fort Coffee. They were kind, sociable, well-­disposed, and pleasant in their intercourse with us, but they were not pious. The few whites were moral, intelligent, and interesting; they were sincerely desirous that we should be successful in our labors for the improvement and civilization of the native people.



Benson, Henry C. Life Among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe. 1860.

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