Indian Camp Meeting
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On Friday morning, the eleventh day of August, Rev. John Cowle and myself started to Pheasant Bluffs to attend a camp meeting. Before leaving Fort Coffee we had made the needful provision for our comfort, each being furnished with a blanket, a rope with which to hobble or tether his horse, a package of bread and cheese, a box of matches, and a tin drinking-vessel. The distance was thirty miles, and, as neither of us had ever been there, we knew nothing of the trail, and but little of the character of the country over which we must travel to reach the place of our destination. Having proceeded a few miles we began to feel a little anxious to obtain information that would guide us in the proper direction, and so we halted at the door of a cabin to inquire the way to Pheasant Bluffs. The major domo replied, in a very deliberate and dignified manner, “Me no talk Inglis;” and, as he declined saying another word, we were forced to proceed on our journey at random. We soon found a gentleman, however, with whom we could communicate. His smattering of English, and ours of Choctaw, enabled us to converse quite intelligibly. There was no road, as we learned, but a multitude of paths, crossing and re-crossing, and forming a beautiful variety of curves and angles. He gave us one distinct general direction, which was given in a style worthy of a son of the forest. “Yes, me know; me tell you good. You make horses gallop on trail heap, far, where sun goes down. Trail much easy; San Bois water plenty much; ponies heap grass eat.” With such satisfactory and definite information we prosecuted our journey, not forgetting that we were to travel in the direction of “where the sun goes down.”
We were traveling over a poor and barren region of country; the soil was light and gravelly, and the timber was stunted and gnarled. There was every species of oak, an occasional hickory, a persimmon, and the bois d’art, or osage orange; the latter was of a large growth, covered with its spikes or thorns, and bearing its apple, which resembles the orange; but the fruit is entirely worthless, not being eaten even by hogs. It is quite large, and matures its seed in the center of the orange like an apple.
We saw but few cabins or people, and no indications of comfort or thrift, till we arrived at the San Bois creek. It was a small stream of pure cold water, having its source in the adjacent mountain. On either side of the creek there was a belt of fertile bottom lands, which the natives had not failed to occupy for agricultural purposes. The soil being rich, the water pure and cold, and the grass excellent, the location was indeed very desirable.
As it was twelve o’clock we determined to halt, rest, it and seek refreshment for ourselves and horses. The morning had been hot and sultry, and we had not been able to procure any water on the route.
Unsaddling our horses we staked them out to grass, after which we went to a neighboring cabin to procure either melons or green corn as a dessert for dinner, but were disappointed, not being able to procure any thing whatever. After eating our crackers and cheese, and quenching our thirst from the waters of the San Bois, we spread our blankets in the shade of a tree and lay down and slept for an hour, after which we resumed our journey with our faces in the direction of “sundown.”
Late in the afternoon we arrived at the campground, which was one mile from the Arkansas, just below the mouth of the Canadian river, and near to the residence of the Honorable Nat Folsom, our district chief. The site was well chosen; an excellent spring of pure cold water flowed out of the hillside, furnishing an ample supply for all needful purposes. An old vacated house served for a preachers’ tent, also as a room in which to store the supplies of provisions for the meeting. A porch in front of the house served as a pulpit, also as an altar; and an arbor was soon constructed in front of the porch, which, when seated, accommodated the entire congregation in time of service.
There was an old field, the fence of which was rotten and gone, that was grown up with a rank growth of grass; we hobbled our horses and turned them out to graze upon the rich herbage, where they flourished during the continuance of the meeting.
The people were coming in, and all were very busily employed in getting all things in readiness. The services had not commenced, but preparations were going on. The people were preparing to encamp upon the ground, though no tents were made. Rev. John C. Parker, the presiding elder, and Rev. J. M. Steele were already on the ground, and ready to commence their labors.
The first sermon was preached in the evening, from the words of the prophet, ” 0 Lord, I heard thy speech, and was afraid, O Lord, revive thy work!” The sermon was followed by a prayer meeting, in which there was much earnest and importunate supplication that the blessing of God might descend and rest upon the people. We felt most deeply our imbecility, destitution, and utter in competency to accomplish any good unless God should deign to be present and to own his own message of Gospel truth.
The people were just emerging from a hate of barbarism, and, hence, ignorant of God, of truth, and of personal accountability for the deeds clone in this life. O, how difficult it is to preach clearly and profitably to such a people! On Saturday the people came in from all directions. There were Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Creeks, together with quite a number of colored servants; there were no whites upon the ground except the ministers and three or four men who were married to Indian wives.
The most of Saturday was spent in preaching and prayer meetings, but with no visible effect till the evening service had commenced. At the close of the sermon penitents were invited forward for prayers, when about a score immediately bowed at the benches, some of whom wept most bitterly, and all were apparently sincere and earnest. The congregation was attentive and respectful, the interest and the solemnity being such that no one even presumed to smoke his pipe, although the act would not have been considered a breach of order or decorum in such an assembly, and especially in the open air in the grove. It is thought that an Indian with the pipe in his mouth is better prepared to listen and can better analyze an argument. When they are able to understand a discourse they are very attentive listeners, never seem indifferent, and do not leave till the remarks are concluded. At the close of a sermon or “ talk” they will give an audible response, or expression of approval, “It is well.” It was about equivalent to amen, and the custom was universal among the tribes.
On Sunday the chief was present, clean and neat, but very plain as to the quality and style of his apparel. He was attentive and respectful, but not seriously impressed with religious truth. As he moved about the encampment, and mingled with the people, it was evident that he remembered the relation he sustained to them; he was a ruler of the people a lordly sachem of his tribe.
The services progressed with increasing interest. In the afternoon penitents were again invited to the altar, when almost half the congregation came forward, some of whom were crying aloud for mercy. The aged mother, whose head was hoary with the frosts of seventy winters, was seen kneeling at the same bench with her children and grandchildren, while all were alike pleading for mercy and pardon through the merit of the blessed Savior. Manifestations of deeper penitence, stronger emotions, or more intense agony of spirit in prayer I do not remember ever to have witnessed on a similar occasion. One young woman became so much excited, and wept so bitterly, that her friends carried her out of the congregation. At that stage of the meeting an intelligent Choctaw woman became incensed at the preacher, accused him of making an effort to frighten the people, and ordered him to cease his talk and sit down; but he was not disconcerted in the least, requested her to be composed and patiently hear the Gospel preached.
It was impossible to ascertain the number of conversions, or to know to what extent their conceptions of saving truth were intelligible and Scriptural. That God’s Spirit operated on their hearts, producing deep and pungent convictions, we could not question; and we rejoiced to witness the deep solemnity which pervaded the entire congregation on every occasion of worship. The colored people, at different times, met alone and held prayer meetings, and, judging from their zeal and earnestness in singing and praying, they had excellent meetings.
Our accommodations during the progress of the meeting were not luxurious, but plain and substantial. There had been no great temptation to an excessive indulgence of the appetite; the food, however, was abundant and healthful, consisting principally of boiled beef and yams, corn-bread, coffee, and the never-failing tom-ful-la. It was all prepared by the Indian women, or their colored servants, and served out in bountiful quantities and in a style of primitive simplicity. There were no roast fowls, pastry, or preserved fruits upon the tables, but, in default of rich desserts, we were blessed with vigorous appetites, ate heartily, and returned unfeigned thanks to our gracious Father, who had been pleased to supply our real wants.
On Monday morning we were assembled to hold the closing service of the camp meeting. The invitation being given, twenty-two united with the Church on probation, and twenty-one received baptism, a few of whom were infant children. Late in the morning the benediction was pronounced. We ate a hasty lunch and prepared to disperse to our several homes.
We gathered in our ponies from the woods, exchanged adieus, and, mounting our animals, set out upon our journey. The sun was high in the heavens and poured his scorching beams upon the thirsty earth; the atmosphere was heated and sultry, and there was scarcely a breath of air to disturb the foliage of the trees as we retraced our trail homeward. Reaching the mission by nightfall we were grateful to find our families in health, and the work progressing under the direction of our faithful carpenter.
On the following Saturday we commenced to hold a meeting at New Hope. The ministers in attendance were J. M. Steele, L. C. Adams, and H. C. Benson. The congregations were good; the entire community manifested considerable interest in the services, and God’s blessing rested upon the labors of his servants. On Sunday afternoon we organized a society of fifteen members, all on probation, a majority of them having professed conversion at the recent camp meeting at Pheasant Bluffs. All were Indians and colored people, except two white men who were married to Chickasaw women.
On Sunday we closed the services of the meeting, our hearts swelling with emotions of gratitude that God had deigned to own and crown with his blessing our labors in his vineyard. This was the first success of the Gospel in the north of the Choctaw nation; it was the first Church organization ever effected in the Moshulatubbee district. We were led to regard it as the “first-fruits” of an abundant harvest that should certainly be gathered into the garner of the Lord. We could but consider it an earnest of success in the great work of evangelizing that district, and of planting Christianity in that region of darkness. The first trophy of the cross in a heathen land marks an epoch in the history of missionary labor for that field, and the first conversions in any community, where no Church has hitherto been founded, is an occasion of exceeding joy to the pioneer in the Gospel ministry.
Late one evening we had a call from two Chickasaw women, who resided near the Agency. They were sisters; one of them was married and the other was a bouncing widow, about twenty-four years of age. The widow had been engaged to be married to a young white man, whose name was Isaac M.; but even there the truth of the old proverb was verified, ” the current of true love never runs smooth.” There had been a ” lover’s quarrel,”. and the young man, becoming offended, declared the engagement at an end. He had left, assuring his dusky betrothed that on the following day he would go aboard the steam packet, and return to his friends in Mississippi. As he had not returned to seek a reconciliation the bride expectant had become somewhat anxious, and had come to ascertain whether M. had been at Fort Coffee and had gone on the boat. But he had not carried his threat into execution, and on the following Sunday Mrs. W. and Mr. M. stood before the altar of Hymen and entered into matrimonial vows.