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When Columbus landed on the shores of America, the Indians were the only people he found occupying this great continent. During the long period that has intervened, the Indian has furnished proof, that he possesses all the attributes which God has bestowed upon other members of the human family. He has shown that he has an intellect capable of development, that he is willing to receive instruction and that he is capable of performing any duty required of an American citizen.
Considerable patience however has had to be exercised both by the Church in its effort to bring him under the saving influence of the gospel, and by the government in its effort to elevate him to the full standard of citizenship. Results are achieved slowly. His struggles have been many and difficult. He has needed counsel and encouragement at every advancing step.
In the former days, when the Indian supported his family by hunting, trapping and fishing, he moved about from place to place. This was finally checked in Indian Territory by the individual allotment of lands in 1904. He has thus been compelled by the force of circumstances, to change his mode of life. He has gradually discovered he can settle down on his own farm, improve it by the erection of good buildings, and either buy or make the implements he needs for cultivating the soil.
The great commission to the Church to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” will not be completed until the American Indian and the Freedmen, who were his former slaves, have been brought under its uplifting influence.
The Presbyterian Church throughout all its history has been the friend and patron of learning and inasmuch as the evangelistic work among the Indians and Freedmen has been largely dependent on school work for permanent results, it began to establish schools among the Indians at a very early date. The work among the Five Civilized Tribes was begun many years before they were transported from the southern states to Indian Territory. Some of these missionaries migrated with them and continued both their school and Church work in the Territory. Rev. Alfred Wright, who organized the Presbyterian Church at Wheelock in December, 1832, and died there in 1853, after receiving 570 members into it, began his work as a missionary to the Choctaws in 1820.
The aim of the government in its educational work among the Indians, as elsewhere in the public schools of the country, has been mainly to make them intelligent citizens. The aim of the Church, by making the Bible a daily textbook, is to make them happy and hopeful Christians, as well as citizens. In the early days there was great need for this educational work, and in the Presbyterian Church it was carried forward by its foreign mission board, with wisdom, energy and success.
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In 1861 the Presbyterian Church had established and was maintaining six boarding schools with 800 pupils and six day schools among the Indians in the Territory. Two of these schools, Spencer and Wheelock Academies, were located in the southern part of the Choctaw Nation.
In 1840 the Presbytery of Indian was organized and in 1848 the Presbytery of the Creek Nation. In 1861 these included an enrollment of 16 Churches with a communicant membership of 1,772.
Effects Of The Civil War
At the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, all of these schools and Churches were closed, and the next year the Presbyterian Church became divided by the organization of the Southern Presbyterian Church, under the corporate name, “The Presbyterian Church in the United States.”
At the close of the war it was left to the Southern branch of the Church to re-establish this school and Church work in the Territory. It undertook to do this and carried parts of it alone for a number of years. The task however proved to be too great; the men and means were not available to re-open the boarding schools, and to supply the Churches with ministers. The arrangement was accordingly made for the foreign mission board of the Presbyterian Church, to resume its former work as fast as workers could be obtained.
In 1879, four ministers returned and opened six Churches among the Choctaws, Creeks and Cherokees.
In 1882 Spencer Academy was re-opened at Nelson, by Rev. Oliver P. Starks, a native of Goshen, New York, who, for seventeen years previous to the Civil War, had been a missionary to the Choctaws, having his home at Goodland.
The Indian Mission School at Muskogee was also re-opened that year by Miss Rose Steed.
In the fall of 1883 the Presbytery of Indian Territory was re-established with a membership of 16 ministers, 11 Churches, 385 communicants and 676 Sunday school scholars.
In 1884 Wheelock Academy was re-opened by Rev. John Edwards, who for a couple of years previous had been located at Atoka. This was a return of Edwards to the educational work among the Choctaws. From 1851 to 1853 he served at Spencer Academy, north of Doaksville, and then from 1853 to 1861 had charge of Wheelock Academy, as the successor of Rev. Alfred Wright, its early founder.
In 1883 two teachers were sent, who opened a school among the Creek Freedmen at Muskogee, known as the “Pittsburgh Mission.” A teacher was also sent to the Freedmen among the Seminoles.
After a few years the Pittsburgh Mission was transferred from Muskogee to Atoka, where it supplied a real want for a few years longer. In 1904 when adequate provision was first made for the Freedmen in the public schools of that town this mission was discontinued.
Transfer Of The Freedmen’s Work
During this same year, 1884, the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, Pittsburgh, Pa., received the voluntary transfer from the Southern Church of all the work it had developed at that date among the Choctaw Freedmen. This transfer was made in good spirit. The motive that prompted it was the conviction and belief the Presbyterian Church could carry it forward more conveniently, aggressively and successfully.
The work that was transferred at this date consisted of Rev. Charles W. Stewart, Doaksville, and the following Churches then under his pastoral care, namely: Oak Hill, Beaver Dam, Hebron, New Hope and St. Paul (Eagletown).
Parson Stewart had been licensed about 1867 and ordained a few years later. With a true missionary spirit he had gone into these various settlements and effected the organization of these Churches among his people. During the next two years he added to his circuit two more Churches, Mount Gilead at Lukfata and Forest, south of Wheelock, and occasionally visited one or two other places.
Indians Make Progress Towards Civilization
About the year 1880 the social and moral condition of the Indians in Indian Territory was described as follows:
“About thirty different languages are spoken by the Indians now in the territory. The population of the territory, though principally Indians, includes a lot of white men and negroes, amongst whom intermarriages are frequent. The society ranges from an untutored Indian, with a blanket for his dress and paganism for his religion, to men of collegiate education, who are manifesting their Christian culture and training by their earnest advocacy of the Christian faith.
“The Cherokees were the first to be brought under direct Christian influence and they were probably in the lead of all the Indians on the continent in civilization, or practice of the useful arts and enjoyment of the common comforts of life.”
“In 1890, the year following the opening of the first land in the territory to white settlers, the mission work in the territory was described as “very interesting and unique.” The Indian population represented every grade of civilization. One might see the several stages of progress from the ignorant and superstitious blanketed Indian on the western reservations to the representatives of our advanced American culture among the five civilized nations. Our missionaries have labored long and successfully and the education, degree of civilization and prosperity enjoyed by the Indians are due principally, if not solely, to the efforts of consecrated men and women, who devoted their lives to this special work. Although their names may not be familiarly known among the Churches, none have deserved more honorable mention than these faithful servants of the Master, who selected this particular field of effort for their life work.”
“Events are moving rapidly in Indian Territory. Many new lines of railroad have been surveyed, and when they have been built, every part of the Territory will be easily accessible.”
“A new judicial system with a complete code of laws has recently been provided, and with liberal provision for Indian citizenship and settlement of the land question it is safe to predict a speedy end to tribal government.”
“This means the opening of a vast region to settlement, the establishment of Churches and the thorough organization of every form of Christian work. For this we must prepare and there is no time to lose. Our Churches and schools must be multiplied and our brethren of the ministry must be fully reinforced by competent educated men trained for Christian work. What the future has in store for the whole Territory was illustrated by the marvelous rush into and settlement of Oklahoma Territory during the last year.”
“A wonderful transformation has taken place. The unbroken prairie of one year ago has been changed to cultivated fields. The tents of boomers have given place to well built homes and substantial blocks of brick and stone. Unorganized communities have now become members of a legally constituted commonwealth. Here are found all the elements of great progress and general prosperity and the future of Oklahoma Territory is full of great promise.”
“Here the Presbyterian Church has shown itself capable of wrestling with critical social problems and stands today as the leading denomination in missionary enterprise. Every county has its minister and many Churches have been organized. Others are underway. With more ministers and liberal aid for the erection of Churches the Presbyterian Church will do for Oklahoma what it has done for Kansas and the Dakotas.”
In 1886 the mission school work among the Indians was transferred from the care of the foreign to the home mission board. Those in charge of the school work of Spencer Academy at Nelson resigned that work and the school was closed.
In 1895 the Mission school work at Wheelock Academy was undertaken and continued thereafter by the Indian Agency, as a school for orphan children of the Indians.