Missionaries Among the Choctaw

In 1832, at Hebron, the home of the missionary, Calvin Cushman and his family, was the place appointed for the assembling of all the Choctaws in that district preparatory to their exodus from their ancient domains to a place they knew not where; but toward the setting sun as arbitrary power had decreed. Sad and mournful indeed was their gathering together helpless and hopeless under the hand of a human power that knew no justice or mercy.

I was an eyewitness to that scene of despairing woe and heard their sad refrain. I frequently visited their encampment and strolled from one part of it to another; while from every part of their wide extended camp, as I walked, gazed and wondered at the weird appearance of the scene, there came, borne upon the morn and evening breeze from every point of the vast encampment, faintly, yet distinctly, the plaintive sounds of weeping rising and falling in one strangely sad and melancholy chorus, then dying away in a last, long drawn wail. It was the Availing of the Choctaw women even as that of Rachel for her children.

Around in different groups they sat with their children from whose quivering lips sobs and moans came in subdued unison; now, in wild concert united, their cries quivered and throbbed as they rose and fell on the night air, then dying away in a pathetic wail proclaiming, in language not to be misunderstood, the pressure of the anguish that was crushing their souls hidden from human eyes and told only to the night. Truly, their grief was so deep, so overpowering, that even reason seemed to reel, blighted beneath its withering touch, too great to admit the comfort of human sympathy.

The venerable old men, who long had retired from the hardships and fatigues of war and the chase, expressed the majesty of silent grief; yet there came now and them a sound that here and there swelled from a feeble moan to a deep, sustained groan rising and falling till it died away just as it began. True, a few encouraging smiles of hope, though utterly void of sincerity, would not have been out of place, but they were unlearned in such subtle arts; therefore, their upturned faces mutely, but firmly spoke the deep sorrow that heaved within, as they sat in little groups, their gray heads uncovered in the spray of dancing sunshine which fell through the branches of the trees from above, while pitiful indeed was the feeble semblance of approval of the white man’s policy which they strove to keep in their care worn countenances; while the heart piercing cries of the women and children, seated upon the ground with heads covered with shawls and blankets and bodies swinging forward and backward, set up day and night, sad tones of woe echoing far back from the surrounding but otherwise silent forests, presenting a scene baffling in description the power of all human language; while the young and middle-aged warriors, now subdued and standing around in silence profound, gazed into space and upon the scattered clouds as they slowly swept across the tender blue, lending wings to the imagination which seemed momentary to still, with a sense of their own eternal calm, the conflicting thoughts that then composed the turbulent garrison of their hearts. Inaudible, yet from flashing-eyes and lips compressed that bespoke the emotions that surged within, could be read, “Why longer seek for hope amid the ashes of life”? While here and there was heard an inarticulate moan seeking expression in some snatch of song, which announced its leaving a broken heart.

But why dwell upon such bitter memories? My soul finds no pleasure in them. Deep down to undiscovered depths has my life among, and study of the North American Indians during over three score and ten years enabled me to penetrate their human nature with all their endurances and virtues. What the world ought to know, that I have written; and especially for those who desire more light on that unfortunate race of people, and feel an interest in truth, justice, and what concerns humanity the world over. To me was offered the mission, and I accepted it because my conscience approved it as right; and I have thus far, exerted every power to fulfill even to the letter and shall so continue to the end; allowing each reader to freely think his or her own thoughts.

Every missionary among the Choctaws, when he entered the mission gave a pledge that he would devote his or her life to the service of God in the cause of civilizing and Christianizing the Choctaw people, with no remuneration what ever except that of food and clothing for himself and family. This was supplied by the Board of Foreign Missions established at Boston, Mass., to which Board everything pertaining to the mission in the way of property belonged the missionaries owning nothing. This Board had spent a great deal towards the missions, and, in the removal of the Choctaws west, was unable to build up new missions there of sufficient number to supply labor for all of the missionaries; hence, all but three were absolved from their pledge, who soon returned to their friends in Massachusetts, while the three Messrs Kingsbury, Byington and Hotchkins, with their families, followed the exiled Choctaws to their unknown homes to be found in the wilderness of the west. Mr. Calvin Cushman was one of the two who remained in Mississippi, and died at his old Missionary Post, Hebron, a few years after the banishment of his old and long tried friends the Choctaws, for whose moral and intellectual benefit he had so long and faithfully labored; and the other was Mr. Elijah Bardwell, who labored at Ok-la Hun-na-li sixty miles south west of Hebron, but who, after the banishment of the Choctaws, moved to a point a mile and a half east of the present town of Starkville, Mississippi. He too, with all the rest of his co-laborers, has long since also gone to his reward in the blissful immortality; but whose names still live, in honored remembrance in the hearts of a few aged Choctaws, who still survive.

As an example of the faithfulness with which those ancient missionaries adhered to every principle inculcated in the religion they professed among and preached to the Choctaws of the long ago, I will here relate the following as worthy of remembrance.

In the early days of the town of Starkville, Mississippi, a blacksmith, (John McGaughey), established a shop in the embryo city, and, in connection with his smithing, also traded in horses, keeping a few on hand all the time. Mr. Bardwell knowing this, and wishing to purchase a horse, called at Mr. McGaughey’s shop one morning and asked him if he had a horse for sale that would be suitable for a farm. Mac. replying in the affirmative they went to the stable, where Mr. Bardwell, after examining the animal, asked the price. To this Mr. McGaughey replied: “Eighty-five dollars.” “I regard that as too high a price,” said Mr. Bardwell. Mr. McGaughey, well knowing the aged missionary and having unlimited confidence in his integrity, asked him what he believed the horse to be worth. To which Mr. Bardwell replied: “Sixty-five dollars.” “You can have him at that price,” responded Mr. McGaughey. Mr. Bardwell paid the money and took the horse. The trade was made in the spring of the year. Early in the following autumn, Mr. Bardwell called at the shop and, after the usual salutation, handed Mr. McGaughey twenty dollars, saying; “Here is that money that I owe you.” Mr. McGaughey, in much astonishment, replied: “You are certainly mistaken. You do not owe me a dollar, you have always paid me the cash for all the work I have done for you in my shop.” “True”! said Mr. Bardwell. “But this is not for work done in the shop, but is due you in a trade we made last spring.” “What trade”? Asked Mr. McGaughey in unfeigned surprise. “Why! In the purchase of a horse from you,” replied Mr. Bardwell. “But you paid me the sixty-five dollars cash, the price for which I told you, you could have him.” “True,” replied Mr. Bardwell, “But you judged the horse to be worth eighty-five dollars, while I estimated his worth at only sixty-five; upon trial I have found him to be well worth the eighty-five dollars, the price you first asked for him. Here is your money.” “But, Mr. Bardwell, I cannot accept the money. It was a fair trade.” “Not so;” replied the aged missionary, “you were right, Mr. McGaughey in your judgment as to the correct value of the horse, and I was wrong. I insist upon your accepting that which is your just due.” Mr. McGaughey finally accepted the twenty dollars but only through his great respect for Mr. Bardwell, whose feelings he knew would be wounded if he did not accept the proffered twenty dollars.

Mr. John McGaughey, many years afterwards, frequently related this horse trade. Seventy years ago, the Choctaw hunter generally hunted alone and on foot; and when he killed his game, unless small, he left it where it had fallen, and turning his footsteps home ward, traveled in a straight line, here and there breaking a twig leaving its top in the direction he had come, as a guide to his wife whom he intended to send to bring it home. As soon as he arrived, he informed he!” of his success and merely pointed in the direction in which he the game lay. At once she mounted a pony and started in the direction indicated; and guided by the broken twigs, she soon arrived at the spot, picked up and fastened the dead animal to the saddle, mounted and soon was at home again; then soon dressed and prepared a portion for her hunter lord’s meal, while he sat and smoked his pipe in meditative silence. No animal adapted for food was ever killed in wanton sport by any Indian hunter.


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

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