Diary of a Choctaw mission school teacher, 1860

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The OSU Library Electronic Publishing Center has converted to HTML the first 20 volumes of the Chronicles of Oklahoma, the journal of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The volumes were published in the years 1923 - 1942, but the subject matter extends back to prehistory.

While surfing a bit today, I came across a fascinating article from the December 1939 issue, containing excerpts from the diary of Miss Sue L. McBeth. Miss McBeth taught in 1860 and 1861 at a Presbyterian boarding school for girls at Goodwater in the Choctaw Nation.

In her first entry from the school, Miss McBeth writes about her "housemates":

The muslin papering of my room is drawn tightly over the walls leaving spaces behind it, between the logs, where any insect or reptile which fancies doing so can find a home. Some of the widths are only tacked together, affording places of easy degrees. I have killed several scorpions in my room already. Last night my candle went out just as I had knocked one from the wall to the floor, and as I stood in the darkness, afraid to move, I felt the reptile run over my dress across my shoulder and down to the floor on the other side. Perhaps it was as much frightened as I was.

The mission congregation gathers for communion -- "big meetin'":

There must have been several hundred persons in the church and around it today. A motly assembly—men women and children all dressed in their gayest clothes—such brilliant colors. The men with calico hunting shirts trimmed with fringe and rosettes, and two or three different colors of ribbons on their hats. The women with bright bandannas or sunbonnets and walking many miles perhaps with their allunsi (babies) in their arms or bound upon their backs with a shawl. As we went to church as far as the eye could reach through the woods were groups of people, horses and wagons, and an Indian sounded a cow horn from the church door to call together the worshippers.

Watching the girls at play:

It is their recreation hour, and some of the little ones are making images out of the red clay in the yard. They seem to enjoy it very much. They make horses and saddles and little men to ride them, and sheep and cows and deer, and let them dry in the sun. They seem to enjoy their play work very much.

She attends a Choctaw wedding on a hot 4th of July:

All who wish can attend the wedding. Some had no doubt come from a great distance. While dinner was preparing, an old man arose and made a long speech in Choctaw. "What is he saying," I asked Mrs. Oakes. "He is telling the bride and groom that they must live peaceably and right and not get tired of each other and separate in a little while." "Do they ever do so?" "Sometimes. They usually marry very young, and some only live together a few months." (Like some of their white brothers and sisters in the states, was my silent comment.)

The summer of 1860 was a hot one. Miss McBeth kept track:

I sent my monthly report of Meteorological Observation to the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, D. C. a few days ago. For the thermometer the average for last month as: at 7:45 a. m., 83.50°; at 1 p. m., 99.64°; at 6 p. m. 96.7°. Many days it was 110° in the shade at 3 p. m. But I am told that the heat this summer is unusually great; and the situation of Goodwater, in the heart of the forest, distant from any large body of water, probably makes the temperature higher than at many other places in the same latitude. Certainly the effect is very debilitating, especially to those accustomed to a colder climate.

She writes of a campmeeting, of the beliefs of the Choctaws before the missionaries came, and of trying to learn the Choctaw language.

In June of 1861, as war began and Confederate raiders began to make inroads from Texas into Indian Territory, the missionaries left the mission for their homes back east, via Fort Smith, Arkansas, and she experiences a bit of culture shock as she returns to her own country:

The first glimpse we caught of the white man's civilization (not the civilization of the Gospel) as we emerged from the forest on the borders of the Indian Territory, and came in sight of the States once more, was the white tents of any army of soldiers encamped on the outskirts of Fort Smith.

All the way to our homes were the sights and sounds of war; soldiers with us on the boat; the cars bearing us swiftly through the camps of the south and north. The effect of the sudden transition from the quiet of the forest and our Indian homes into the midst of such scenes as these was bewildering. We were transported back to the days of Caesar and 'De Bello Gallico.' We could scarcely realize nor can we yet fully realize, that we were traveling in Christian America in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Note that phrase, "in sight of the States" -- she regarded Indian Territory as a foreign land.

It's fascinating reading, and there's much more like it in the online collection of the Chronicles of Oklahoma

1 Comments

Great material, Michael. The Choctaw in that period had a higer per-capita church attendance rate than did the general population in the "States." The Choctaw Nation was regarded as a separate nation in association with the USA, somewhat like the free association that the Northern Marianas have with the USA today.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 7, 2005 10:30 PM.

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