Camp Meeting on the Border

Thursday morning, the twenty-first day of September Rev. Mr. Steele, a half dozen of our Indian friends, Mrs. B., and myself started on horseback to a camp meeting, which was to be held on the border or line which separates the state from the Indian territory. The distance was thirty miles, in a south­east direction, and within the state, in the northern extreme of Scott county. We lead provided ourselves with the usual outfit, of blankets, bread and cheese, matches, tin cups, and ropes with which to tether our horses. For miles we traveled through a region of country still decked with primeval beauty. The for­ests were scarcely marred by the woodman’s ax or scathed by the hand of civilization. Beauty and magnificence characterized the scenery in every direction as far as vision could extend. The sky and atmosphere were beautifully serene; the foliage lead just begun to assume its rich golden tints, giving indication that autumn was approaching, but the withered branch and the sear leaf were not yet visible. The beautiful birds of the forests were chanting their morning carols; the atmosphere was sweet and balmy, and every object of sense was made to contribute to our pleasure. We returned silent but devout thanks to the Author of all good for so many sources of thrilling delights. As we pursued our journey, we were very forcibly impressed with the beauty of the country in its natural condition, retaining its wildness, its grandeur, and its primitive sublimities. We gazed upon a landscape of unsurpassed loveliness, embracing mountain and valley, hill and dale, with here and there a creek and streamlet, whose waters were dashing onward toward the river, the gulf, and the ocean. The day was delightful, and the exercise upon the backs of our faithful mustangs afforded us rare enjoyment. Blessings on the man who first subdued the noblest animal of earth, teaching him to ” obey bit and bridle,” and to do the behests of his master ! The coach, the barouche, and the sulky may serve a degenerate and effeminate race; but the mettled steed, with saddle and bridle, whip and spur, is alone worthy of a well-developed and vigorous manhood.

A ride of four hours brought us to the base of a considerable mountain, one of the Ozark range, which rejoiced in the euphonious name of “Backbone Ridge.” Pursuing a sinuous pathway, making the ascent upon the principle of the screw, we succeeded in reaching the summit of the ridge with but little fatigue to ourselves or horses. Here we dismounted to rest our animals, to refresh ourselves, and make a survey of the adjacent country. Standing upon the utmost elevation of the mountain, we had an unobstructed view of the territory, in all directions, for many miles. In the north we gazed upon the Ozarks as far as vision could penetrate. The White Oak and Boston Mountains were prominent in the field of observation. In the south-west the Sugar-Loaf was most conspicuous. Rising hundreds of feet above all others, it stood like a vast pyramid with its head piercing the clouds. The diversified forms which we were able to take in at a glance rendered the view surpassingly grand and beautiful. Some of the hills were pyramidal in shape; others resembled truncated cones; and many were so astonishingly irregular in form and contour as to set all our powers of description at defiance.

Having gratified ourselves with an examination of the well-defined and magnificent map which was spread out before us and beneath our feet, we descended to the plain on the southern side of the ridge. Our trail diverged to the east; and after pursuing its windings through the forest and brushwood for an hour, we came to the residence of Colonel Tom Wall, a Choctaw half-breed. He was the son-in-law of Mrs. H, who was one of our party. Here our Indian friends halted for the night. Mrs. S., Mrs. B., and myself went on an hour’s travel further, and received accommodations at the residence of a kind family, a portion of whom were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. We were fully prepared to enjoy rest and refreshment after a ride of eight hours on horseback, with only a few short intervals of recreation by the roadside. Mrs. B. had never before attempted such an excursion; and though fatigued, yet she had borne it most courageously. We ‘were deeply grateful for the cordial reception, the shelter of the cabin, and the coarse but substantial food that was placed before us.

Friday morning found us fresh and vigorous, and ready to resume our journey as soon as we had finished the morning meal and had worshiped with the kind family. As we were now over the line, and in the state, we were more than ever impressed with the sterility of the soil and the poverty of the inhabitants. The people lived in small and squat logcabins, with “shake” roofs and outside “stick and clay” chimneys. There were a few acres of land inclosed around each but, a portion of which was planted in corn and vegetables and the balance in cotton; but the prospect of a fair yield was distressingly gloomy. There were holes dug a few feet deep, over which a bucket was suspended to a “sweep-pole;” these were their wells. We did not see a pump in the country. The water was almost as bitter as “the waters of Marah.” We found, upon examination, that; immediately below the clay subsoil, there was a stratum of shale, rotten or decomposed, which accounted for the bitterness of the water in the wells. We saw but little stock grazing upon the plains, not a tithe of what we should have seen on the Choctaw side of the line.

At one o’clock in the afternoon we arrived at the camp-ground, finding about one hundred persons already assembled. Many of them had come on the preceding day, but there was no minister present, except one old local preacher, and he had declined all responsibility, inasmuch as the circuit preacher had not sent him a special request to open the services.

Rev. J. C., the circuit preacher, had been summoned as a witness in an important suit, and was gone to a distant county, and did not return during the continuance of the meeting.

The ground was furnished with puncheon seats sufficient to accommodate one hundred and fifty persons. The pulpit was made of shakes, and was five feet square. There were but three tents occupied upon the ground, including the one set apart for the use of the preachers. Two tables only were set and furnished with provisions; to these, we believe, every man, woman, and child on the ground, at any time, had a cordial invitation. As small as the congregation was they had assembled from all parts, many of them having come a distance of fifteen miles, either to gratify curiosity or to enjoy the privileges of the occasion.

The economical and industrious mothers had brought with them baskets of raw cotton, the “picking” of which occupied the leisure moments of themselves and daughters during the intervals of the several services. Thus they were obedient to the injunction to be “diligent in business as well as fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” Our food consisted of boiled beef and yams, corn-bread and coffee; the latter article was in an unadulterated state, except that a tin-cup of brown sugar was placed at the head of the table for the exclusive use of “the parsons and their women.”

Preaching commenced on Friday afternoon; services were also held in the evening, closing with a prayer meeting. On Saturday morning the services were interesting, and in the evening we began to grow hopeful that God would pour out his Spirit upon the people.

Sunday morning our congregation numbered at least one hundred and fifty souls. Just at the hour of preaching a cloud spread over us and poured down a copious rain. The congregation fled to the little log church, which was close at hand, and was almost sufficient to contain the people. It was twenty by twenty-six feet in size, about ten feet high, without floor or ceiling, and furnished with split timbers for slips or pews. Mr. S. preached from the very appropriate words of the prophet Amos, vii, 2, “By whom shall Jacob arise? for he is small.” We had a love feast, and then preaching in the evening, at the close of which it was thought proper to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to the few, disciples who were there convened.”But could we have the elements in that remote and wilderness locality ?” Yes; a brother had already gone to the woods and procured a few clusters of wild grapes, which were found upon a forest tree. They were of an excellent quality, almost equal in flavor to the Catawba or Isabella, These were pressed to furnish the wine, giving us a pure and genuine article, the first that some of us had ever been permitted to taste. We were sure that it was not an adulterated, alcoholic mixture. Tile bread was procured and the wine was served to the communicants, at the altar, in a teacup, as there were no glass tumblers on the ground, and probably none in that section of the country.

About twenty of the professed disciples of the Lord kneeled upon the ground, at the rude bench, to commemorate the dying sorrows of our crucified but risen Savior. It was an occasion full of interest and solemnity, and never had the eucharistic feast appeared to us more solemn, impressive, and spiritual than there and then, at the midnight hour, with the starry canopy above and the curtain of darkness drawn around us.

Our situation was anomalous. In a wild and unsubdued country, sparsely inhabited by a pioneer people, we scarcely saw an object to remind us of civilization and refinement. Those people had been born and reared on the border, and had been carried by the tide of emigration as it continued to roll west­ward. The first wave of the advancing tide had always carried them forward to the extreme outposts of the white settlements; they were uneducated, unpolished, and unsophisticated in their customs and social intercourse, but they were possessed of many very excellent traits of character, of which candor, kindness, sympathy, and hospitality were prominent. The stranger was never denied a shelter or sent forth in a hungry and destitute condition from the threshold of the backwoods cabin ; the last morsels of cornbread, jerked-beef, and hominy were cheerfully shared with the unfortunate wanderer.

Thus we were permitted to contemplate society in its primitive state, while yet free from artificial and adventitious embellishments and adornings. And yet, even there, we were destined to witness the exhibitions of pride and vanity as really as in the midst of the societies composed of the refined, the luxurious, and the cultivated.

During Friday and Saturday the females had been clothed in garments of cotton fabric, grown, picked, carded, and wove by their own hands. Their striped and cross-barred gowns were neat and becoming; but on Sunday morning there was quite a rustling, not of silks but of calicoes. The genuine Merrimac prints were then brought forth from their pine boxes to adorn and beautify the buxom lasses the blooming misses and belles of the border. After an unusual time had been devoted to the duties of the toilet, as the young ladies came out in flaunting colors, we heard sundry hints and innuendoes among themselves that certain ones of their number were a little vain. To this indirect charge the reigning belle retorted, with becoming spirit, ” Yes, Mary, I am. Proud, an’ I’ me not gwine to say I aint; an’ I’ve heern tell o’ others that’s jist as proud as me! an’ you’ll be proud, too, when you get your calico frock on!” And thus we were forced to the conclusion that human nature is the same, essentially, the world throughout.

On Monday morning we assembled at the pulpit to hold a short concluding service. A few had been converted, who united with the Church on probation. The last exhortation was delivered, the final prayer. offered up before the mercy-seat, the parting hymn was sung, and the benediction was invoked. We then separated, not again to meet till summoned to stand before the tribunal of God in the judgment of the great day.

Mounting our horses we were soon upon the road, homeward bound. Having gone but a few miles we saw indications of a gathering storm; the clouds were banking up, just above the horizon, in the south-west. They increased rapidly, extending to the zenith, and covering the entire heavens; the peals of thunder and the flashes of the lightning became terrific. We held a council, but were powerless to escape the tempest that was just ready to burst upon our heads. Reaching an open space, where the falling timbers, riven by the thunderbolts, would not crush us, we made a halt and there waited till the storm had spent its fury. For an hour and a half the clouds poured out a deluge upon us, which thoroughly drenched us from head to heels; we were well-nigh drowned and completely chilled. Hats, bonnets, capes, dresses, boots, and all were thoroughly soaked, and in this miserable plight we were compelled to ride for four hours before we could obtain shelter or even dry our apparel.

At sunset we arrived at a hospitable log-cabin, where we were kindly received and our wants supplied as far as circumstances would permit. The family exerted themselves to the utmost in ministering to our comfort in our forlorn and wretched condition. But relief came too late; the warm room, dry clothing, and cup of tea failed to restore an equalized and healthful circulation. A bilious attack was the result. Mrs. B. suffered but little inconvenience from the shower-bath of so many hours’ continuance, but a violent paroxysm of ague was the consequence in my case. Such a night of agony and suffering I have rarely endured. The cold stage, or rather the shaking, was almost sufficient to dislocate every joint of the body, and then the raging fever, with the indescribable torture in the head and loins for several hours, was well-nigh beyond endurance.

When the morning dawned we were feverish and exhausted, and wholly destitute of will or energy. To remain we could not, and, hence, it was absolutely necessary to make an effort to prosecute our journey to the end. We set out as early as possible that we might have the benefit of the morning atmosphere. The day threatened to be intensely hot, and, at the slow gait we were compelled to travel, it would require at least six hours to accomplish that portion of the journey still before us. With an aching head and feverish system we slowly directed our steps toward the mission, deeply impressed with the conviction that the Methodist itinerancy in a wilderness country is a tangible reality and no cunningly devised fable. If any should doubt the correctness of such a conclusion let him make the experiment. After an absence of five days. and nights we were again at Fort Coffee, and devoutly thankful for a home in which to rest, take medicines and recuperate.



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

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