According to the record of our family bible, and the testimony of my parents, I was born at Lawrenceville, South Carolina, December 24, 1809. My parents were of Scotch-Irish descent, and were members of the Presbyterian Church, in good standing until death. My earliest recollection dates back to an accidental burn on my cheek, when I was about two years old.
My parents were anxious to have their children educated, and availed themselves of every opportunity of sending us to school. When fourteen years of age my parents moved to St. Clair County, Alabama, where for seven years I and my brothers worked on the farm, having the benefit of schools occasionally. When twenty-one years of age I was engaged as assistant teacher, for several months, in Dr. Beebe’s school, at Mesopotamia, Greene County, Alabama. I professed religion in my twenty-second year, and united with the Presbyterian church, under Rev. John H. Gray, D. D. Feeling divinely called to preach the gospel, I immediately commenced the study of Latin and Greek, under my pastor, to prepare for the solemn calling; afterwards I attended the Mesopotamia Academy, Eutaw, Alabama, for four years, in preparing for college. I entered the sophomore class in Miami University, at Oxford, Ohio, and after three years, having taken the full course, was graduated in 1837, receiving the honorary degree of Bachelor of Arts.
After a few weeks at home I entered the Theological Seminary, at Princeton, New Jersey, where I remained one year only; and, on account of the death of my father, I returned home and continued my theological studies for two years, under my old pastor, Rev. J. H. Gray, D. D. I was licensed to preach by the presbytery at Tuscaloosa, synod of Alabama, at Eutaw, April 9, 1841.
In accordance with a call from the three vacant churches of Oxford, Paynesville and Elizabeth, in Alabama, I preached six months; then being appointed by the Presbyterian board for foreign missions to visit the Creek Indians, west of Arkansas, to inquire whether they would be willing to have preaching and a mission school among them, I set out on horse-back, November 2, 1841, from Eutaw, Alabama, and, after a ride of about six hundred miles, I met the chiefs of the Muskogee Nation, and laid the matter before them. Having to wait about three weeks for the council to meet to consider my proposition, I improved the time in visiting several parts of the nation; everywhere there was evidence of the most deplorable state of society; “darkness covered the nation, and gross darkness the people;” there was not a missionary in the whole country, and the few natives who kept up the semblance of public worship, occasionally, were miserably ignorant. There was not an institution of learning in all the land, except a little government school, pretended to be taught by a bad man, who was afterwards proved to be a counterfeiter. When the council met they gave me to understand that they wanted no preaching, because it broke up their old customs, their busks, ball-plays and dances; but they wanted me to come and establish a school; I informed them that I was a preacher, and unless I was permitted to preach to the people I would not come among them. After long consultation, they finally proposed that if I would establish a school I might preach at the school-house, but nowhere else; after considerable hesitancy I agreed to these terms; and mounting my horse I returned to Alabama, as I came, to prepare to move out. After some delay in getting ready, I returned by steamer, and arrived, with my young wife, in the nation, at the Verdigris landing, February 5, 1843.
After a few days of observation I purchased a horse and saddle, and started out to find the most appropriate place for the mission school; at the suggestion of the principal chief it was located in the Coweta Town, and called the “Coweta Mission,” situated one and one-half miles east of the Arkansas River, and twenty-five miles southwest of Fort Gibson. Very soon a cabin was built for school and church purposes, and the people notified to attend church, and to send their children to school; fifteen or twenty children were enrolled, and my wife, an experienced and well-qualified teacher, commenced the school; only a few of the neighbors were disposed to attend preaching.
The outlook was truly discouraging, and was literally “a day of small things;” the people were very friendly, but shy, and seemed afraid to attend preaching. During the following year we built a large, hewed-log house, and at the urgent request of some persons living at a distance we received eight or ten children, boys and girls, to live with us to attend school; this was the beginning of our system of manual labor boarding schools, which has proved itself to be the most effectual means of civilizing and Christianizing the Indian youth; indeed, it is the best of all classes. Gradually, the number of boarding scholars was increased until we had forty; and the people becoming more interested in religious exercises attended preaching more regularly, so that a number became converted, and in about two years we had the pleasure of organizing a church. As the Seminoles, who speak the same language as the Creeks, were entirely without schools or preaching, the board of foreign missions directed me to visit them and learn whether they were willing to have a mission school among them. Accordingly, in the summer of 1846, I visited them with my interpreter, and found that the majority of their chiefs were quite willing to have schools and preaching among them; this was the opening wedge for that good Christian work done among them afterwards by Revs. J. R. Ramsey and John Lilley. In April, 1847, Hon. Walter Lowrie, secretary of the board of foreign missions, New York, visited the mission, and gave a new impulse to the cause of Christian education by entering into an agreement with the chiefs for the enlargement of the school at Coweta, and the establishment of the Tallahassee Manual Labor School, to accommodate eighty pupils, forty of each sex; these schools are sustained jointly by the Presbyterian Church and the Creek school fund. A large and very convenient brick building, three stories high, 76 x 34, with a good cellar, was erected for the Tallahassee school; the building was admirably arranged, for a boarding school for both sexes; it was located on a beautiful ridge, in the Arkansas district, one and one-half miles north of the Arkansas River. Rev. H. Balentine was sent out by the board to take charge (with other missionaries) of the Coweta Mission, while I was appointed to superintend the Tallahassee school. Accordingly I moved down to Tallahassee to superintend the erection of the building and make other preparations for opening the school. William S. Robertson, A. M., of New York, a graduate of an eastern college, was appointed as principal teacher, and other assistant teachers were sent out by the board.
The first day of March 1850, therefore, found us ready to commence the school. The main building was in readiness; out-buildings, stables, corn-cribs, fences, etc., had been built; cattle, horses, wagons and teams had been purchased; furniture for the building, and provisions of all kinds, books, papers, etc. had been provided, and the school opened with thirty pupils, boys and girls. Our full number of eighty was not received until in the fall, because it was deemed best to begin with few, and get them under training before the whole number of raw recruits should arrive; after experience proved the wisdom of the course. A fine, large bell was sent out by the board and hung in the cupola of the building to regulate the various exercises of school and church. By the thoughtful generosity of Dr. Wells, of Fort Gibson, the stanch friend of the mission, a beautiful and appropriate vane, representing an Indian standing with bow and arrow, pointing the course of the wind as it flew past, was presented and placed on the cupola of the main building. A full supply of excellent and well-qualified teachers and helpers were sent out from time to time, as the best interests of the school demanded. The exercises were conducted on the manual labor plan, and the usual time of six hours, daily, was spent in study.
The pupils were employed about two hours daily in some useful exercise: the boys working on the farm, garden or chopping firewood, and the girls in household duties, assisting in sewing, cooking, washing, and the care of the dining-room. The children were provided with three good substantial meals daily, and abundant time given for sleep and recreation. Religious exercises were regularly kept up; preaching on Sabbath, and prayers morning and evening through the week. Daily at supper table, in connection with singing and prayer, every pupil was expected to recite a verse, or part of a verse, of the Scripture.
Thus the school was kept up regularly, being fully equipped with a noble band of excellent, self-denying, pious teachers and helpers in every department; who came not from “the loaves and the fishes;” but all, both teachers and superintendent, labored faithfully and cheerfully, and were content with a mere support, their respective salaries being only $100 per annum.
The school continued to flourish, doing a grand work for the nation in the education of her children, until July 10, 1861, when it was suddenly broken up, and all the mission property (amounting to $12,270) was taken possession of by the chiefs of the nation. Such was also the case with the Coweta Mission Labor School. The children were sent adrift to their several homes, while the devoted teachers took a mournful leave of each other and left for their several homes North and South.
Thus, after eleven years of successful operation, this interesting school was disbanded. The Coweta school was never renewed; but at the close of the Civil War, November, 1866, the former teacher, Rev. William S. Robertson (who had been ordained as an evangelist during the war), was sent out by the board, with others, and after much self-denying labor, revived the school to something like its former size and usefulness, in March, 1868. It was continued in successful operation, doing a good work in educating many of the youths of the nation for twelve years, until December 19, 1880, when, from a defective flue, the building catch fire and was burned to the ground, and most of its contents were consumed.
But to return to the history of my own movements. During this time, when our school at Tallahassee was broken up, in 1861, I moved my family over into the Cherokee Nation, and preached for one year to the churches there, which had been left by the missionaries, who felt compelled by the pressure of the Civil War, to return to their homes in the North. The Indians themselves, both Creek and Cherokees, having divided on the war question, some joining the South and other the North; it became also useless and very dangerous for me to remain in the country longer. Therefore, on July 17, 1862, I packed some of our belongings, with my family, in two small wagons, and journeyed down to Texas, where most of my relatives were living. Here during the war, and afterwards for eighteen years, I was regularly employed in preaching to the vacant churches in different parts of Texas, and my wife during this time, was engaged in teaching several interesting schools. Thus, while we were accomplishing much good for others, the Lord provided for our support and enabled us to give a respectable education to our children.
Having received an urgent call from the board of foreign missions, and also from several of the prominent Indians, to return to our mission work among the Creeks, and our children being now able to provide for themselves, my wife and I returned on January 5, 1881. I commenced preaching for the Wealaka church, in the Broken Arrow district; during the two years that I preached in this district, ten persons were received into the church, and twenty-eight children of believing parents, were baptized.
The Tallahassee school building having been burned, the council decided to build another and on a larger scale, and locate it further West, where the people were more thickly settled. Accordingly, the trustees selected a beautiful site on the south side of the Arkansas River, surrounded in the distance by several grand old mountains, and about forty miles west of the town of Muskogee. A large and magnificent brick building, 110 x 42 feet and three stories high, was erected and soon occupied by the 100 children engaged to be boarded and taught there. Having been appointed superintendent of the school, I opened it November 1, 1882, and continued in charge for two years, and then resigned my office to others. Since then I have devoted myself to preaching the gospel in various places in the nation, and in preparing books in the Creek language. The books prepared and published by me, with the assistance of my interpreter, were a hymnbook, a catechism, translation of the gospel of Matthew, a treatise on baptism, and a dictionary in two parts, Creek and English, and English and Creek.
On June 26, 1886, I was remembered and honored by my alma mater, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, which conferred upon me the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.
In concluding this brief sketch of my life, I will further remark that, during my long pilgrimage of nearly eighty-two years, many have been the afflictions I have been called to bear. Three of my six children have passed over the Jordan of death, and I am now living with my third wife, who is seventy-three years of age. But in all these bereavements, we are comforted with the assurance that all the dear ones thus taken away, are safely housed in their Heavenly home, where we shall meet again, and be forever with the Lord.