Fort Coffee Academy
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In the month of March, 1813, Rev. William II. Goode was appointed Superintendent of Fort Coffee Academy, and Henry C. Benson was appointed teacher. At the time, the former was presiding elder of South Bend district, and the latter was the junior preacher of Mooresville circuit; both were of the Indiana conference. We were regularly transferred by Bishop Soule to the Arkansas conference.
Mr. Goode made provision for his family during his absence, and immediately set out upon his journey for his distant field of labor. He went to Cincinnati, where he procured the necessary outfit and supplies for the mission, employed a young German man and wife to accompany him, as cook and housekeeper, and then started by water for the Indian territory. From Cincinnati to the mouth of the Ohio is five hundred miles; thence descending the Mississippi, to the little town of Napoleon, is four hundred miles; thence ascending the Arkansas river six hundred miles, you reach Fort Coffee, in the Choctaw country. Thus, it will be seen that the distance from Cincinnati to our mission field was fifteen hundred miles by the usual route or course of travel. Fort Coffee was an old military post, which had been occupied by the troops before the western boundary of Arkansas was surveyed; but in 1838, when the state line had been definitely fixed, it was abandoned, and the present site of Fort Smith was chosen and immediately occupied as the headquarters of the south-western division of the United States army.
The buildings which had been erected at Fort Coffee, for the temporary accommodation of the officers and soldiers, were cheap, frail, and unsubstantial. They were constructed of hewed logs, were one story in height, had porches in front and rear, were covered with shingles, floored with rough boards, had batten-doors and window-shutters, and rough stone chimneys built on the outside of the houses; they were arranged in the form of a hollow-square, the inside lines of which measured one hundred feet. There were passages or avenues at each corner of the parallelogram; the fourth side, or line, was left entirely open, as it commanded a view of the river, except that in its center there was a small structure which had served as a magazine for the Fort.
The river at that place forms nearly a semicircle, embracing an area of eight or ten acres, in the center of which the buildings had been erected. The site was at least one hundred feet above the water, while the land immediately contiguous, above and below, was low and level, and covered with heavy timber and brushwood, forming an impenetrable thicket. At the point of the promontory the river bank was a bluff or wall of solid rock, rising, almost perpendicularly, sixty-four feet above low-water mark. The edge of this bold precipice was bordered with a growth of old cedars, the roots of which had penetrated the fissures and crevices of the rocks. Their snarled trunks and scraggy branches were weather beaten and hoary with years. Upon the most conspicuous spot a guard-house has been built, surmounted with a tower, from which boats might be seen on the river for a considerable distance; we left it still perched upon the rocks, but in a dilapidated condition. The entire grounds were most beautifully shaded by forest trees, which had mercifully escaped ” the woodsman’s ax.” There were oaks, hickory, black-locusts, box-elders, old elms, cedars, pines, persimmons, and walnuts; they were not large, except the elms, the trunks of which had been cut off about thirty feet from the ground, causing them to throw out their branches, forming a dense and beautiful shade. The oaks, pines, and cedars were of a small growth, and all had been carefully pruned, and many of them were ornamented with a luxuriant growth of mistletoe, which flourished alike in winter and summer. The ground was, indeed, a magnificent park, the more lovely and romantic because it was natural. God himself had planted it according to his own infinite wisdom and taste. A rich sward of blue grass covered the earth’s surface, remaining green during the entire winter; it had, doubtless, been sown by the officers of the army. After we took possession of the premises the grounds were inclosed with a substantial picket-fence, and kept free from litter and rubbish.
Mr. Goode arrived at Fort Coffee about the middle of April, 1843. Himself and supplies, the German family, and two or three friends from Fort Smith were landed upon the rocks just above the old vacated fort, where they lighted a fire and prepared to encamp for the night. Having, prepared their supper and refreshed themselves, they thought appropriate to have a season of singing and prayer. A portion of God’s word was read, after which all united in singing that beautiful hymn written by Charles Wesley,
“See how great a flame aspires,
Kindled by a spark of grace!
Jesus’ love the nations fires—
Sets the kingdoms on a blaze.
To bring fire on earth he came;
Kindled in some hearts it is:
0 that all might catch the flame,
All partake the glorious bliss”
When he first the work begun,
Small and feeble was his day:
Now the word doth swiftly run:
Now it wins its widening way:
More and more it spreads and grows,
Ever mighty to prevail;
Sin’s strongholds it now o’erthrows—
Shakes the trembling gates of hell.
Sons of God, your Savior praise!
He the door hath opened wide;
He hath given the word of grace;
Jesus’ word is glorified.
Jesus, mighty to redeem,
He alone the work hath wrought;
Worthy is the work of him
Him who spoke a world from naught.
Saw ye not the cloud arise,
Little as a human hand?
Now it spreads along the skies–
Hangs o’er all the thirsty land;
Lo ! the promise of a shower
Drops already from above;
But the Lord will shortly pour
All the spirit of his love.”
At the close of the singing they united in earnest supplications and prayers for God’s blessing to rest upon the mission and upon all who should be engaged in that interesting and responsible work.
It was an appropriate occasion in which to renew spiritual vows and covenants, and to make an entire consecration to the cause of the blessed Redeemer. That was probably the first prayer meeting ever held in the Moshulatubbee district of the Choctaw nation. There, upon the bank of the river, on the farthest verge of civilization, entirely beyond the white settlements, praises and prayers ascended to the ear of Him who has promised to give At the close of their season of worship they spread their blankets upon the earth, and committed themselves to the care and kind protection of a covenant-keeping God. Thus was passed the first night of Mr. Goode in the Indian territory.
When the morning came the goods were carried up to the buildings, and the work of cleansing and repairing the rooms was vigorously commenced. Having been abandoned for several years, they were found to be in a wretched condition, and entirely unsuited to the wants and necessities of the mission. The rooms were found to have leaky and decayed roofs, the windows and doors were broken, the plaster was out of the chinks, the porches and floors were almost rotten, and the walls and chimneys only were found to be in good condition. All must undergo thorough repairs before they could be comfortably occupied ; but how could material be obtained? There was not a saw-mill in the northern district of the tribe, and none on the Cherokee side of the river in the vicinity. Then lumber and lime must be shipped from Fort Smith or Van Buren, which would delay the commencement of the work for a number of days. In the mean time the best rooms were selected, and temporary repairs were made, so as to render them habitable till the more thorough rebuilding should be done. A few hands were employed, and all went to work with a will; the pressing necessity was felt by all, and, hence, each one was energetic and faithful in his work. A small field had been cleared and inclosed for the production of vegetables for the army, but the fencing had fallen down, and was almost rotten, while briers and bushes had grown up over the ground which bad once been cultivated. The season for planting would soon be past, but, as it was very desirable to produce vegetables for the mission, hands were set to the work of repairing the fencing, and preparing the field for the plow. A yoke of cattle, with a stout plow, in the hands of an experienced farmer, soon prepared the soil to receive the seed. It was planted in corn, pumpkins, beans, peas, potatoes, yams, and melons ; the field embraced about ten acres, the soil of which was very productive. The work was all fairly commenced, good hands were employed, the material for the repairs was all procured, when, two months having elapsed, Mr. Goode prepared to return to Indianapolis for his family and furniture for the school.