It will be remembered that at the session of the General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in the month of May, 1840, four Secretaries, or agents, were appointed to serve under the direction of the Missionary Board of our Church, Rev. E. R. Ames was appointed to the western portion of the work. The Secretaries were expected to travel extensively, to address the Churches on the subject of missions, to labor to arouse the people to a sense of their duty, to learn the wants of the destitute, and to devise means for the support of such new missions as the parent Board should feel authorized to establish.
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The office involved immense responsibilities, no less than herculean labor. The western Secretary, after carefully consulting the map of his field, determined to explore the entire western frontier from the northern lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. A faithful history of that prospecting tour would of itself be a volume of intense and thrilling interest.
Mr. Ames left his family at his residence, in Greencastle, Indiana, and, traveling by coach to St. Louis, he took passage on a steamboat bound for the upper Mississippi. He ascended the river to the head of steam navigation, visiting the frontier settlements and all the Indian tribes on the tributaries of the Mississippi. As there were Indians located further up, and near the sources of the smaller rivers, he procured a canoe and native oarsmen to ascend the streams as far as possible. It was not an unusual occurrence to take the canoe upon their shoulders, and make a portage from one river or creek across the country to another, where they would launch their craft and navigate its waters as far as desirable or possible. Thus every tribe was visited, and the condition, wants, and prospects of each were ascertained.
In those travels he secured provisions as best he could; he frequently procured a scanty supply of jerked venison and hominy of the natives of the forest, cooked it by their camp-fire, and, seated with them upon the ground, ate it with a relish only known to those familiar with the hardships and privations of pioneer life. Mr. Ames and his dusky companions would sometimes be so fortunate as to procure a joint of fresh meat, which, broiled upon the coals, was regarded as a luxury of no ordinary character. They slept as they ate, in the open air, under the outspreading branches of some giant tree of the forest . Mr. Ames was sometimes forced to put himself on short allowance, and once or twice to proclaim a fast.
Having reached the highest point of bark-canoe navigation on one of the western rivers, the Secretary felicitated himself upon having reached new ground; he was evidently now in “the regions beyond,” of which he had read and which his heart had yearned to reach, where he should not be compelled to ” build upon another man’s foundation.” He could discover no footprints of the missionary of Christ; there were no visible marks of civilization. While busily engaged in cooking his dinner at the camp-fire he was secretly rejoicing in his success in reaching a field of labor hitherto unknown, when he heard a voice, the intonations of which were both strange and familiar. He paused to listen, and then heard the words distinctly; he looked and saw, at a few rods distant, an athletic Indian, seated at the root of a tree, singing, with a zeal and unction that was refreshing to an earnest Christian,
“Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed his precious blood.”
The missionary had been there before the Secretary; the signs were infallible. Mr. Ames yielded the point, and, hailing the native convert as a brother in the Lord, he invited him to share his dinner with him, spread out upon the grass.
From the tribes on the Mississippi the Secretary traveled down the western border toward the south, visiting the Indian tribes on the Missouri and its tributaries. He called at the various missions and learned their plans of operation, their past history, and their prospects present and future. Taking leave of the Shawnees, Delawares, Kaws, and Kickapoos, he continued his journey further south, making the acquaintance of the Pottawattomies and Osages, on the Osage river ; he next called at the settlement of a mixed tribe of Shawnees and Senecas, who were located near the south-west corner of the state of Missouri. In that vicinity there was, also, a small remnant of Quapaws. He was now on the border of the Cherokee nation, and, as he was anxious to make the acquaintance of their most influential and worthy men, he went directly to Tahlequah, the council-ground of the nation.
Remaining at the capital sufficiently long to visit and converse with the chief, the judges, agent, and old missionaries, he pursued his journey still further south, and finally came to the Choctaw tribe. As their territory extended from the Arkansas river to Red river his travels extended no further; as Texas, at that period, was an independent republic, he did not conceive it to be his duty to prosecute his work any further in that direction. That long and tedious journey was through a wilderness country, occupied only by Indian tribes. He traveled in the bark canoe, on foot with his baggage upon his shoulders, and on the backs of the mustang ponies.
His food consisted of various articles, affording some variety, although the courses at any single meal were by no means numerous. The table furniture was of a primitive character, consisting of wooden platters, a tin or leather cup, a wooden, bark, or buffalo horn-spoon; and in lieu of towels and napkins, they dried their dishes and hands upon the grass.
But in the Choctaw tribe Mr. Ames received better accommodations than were to be obtained further north; for he was cordially invited to partake bountifully of the never-failing “tom ful-la”–a preparation of sour hominy and he had the use of a buffalo horn-spoon all to himself.
He traveled without weapons and alone over a region of country where no United States officer would dare to go without a military escort.
The Secretary first made the acquaintance and gained the confidence of Major Armstrong, who was Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and also Agent for the Choctaws. Through Mr. Armstrong he obtained an introduction to the chiefs and other influential men of the tribe. He inquired into their financial condition, learned the extent of their annuities and of their power to control them, and also the amount of their school funds. His next step was to visit the national council, which was in session at the time. By frequent conversations with the most talented and best educated men in the council, he prepared their minds to receive favorably a new school system which he originated. It met the cordial approbation of the agent and the chiefs. A bill was accordingly drawn up chartering for a period of twenty years three seminaries of learning, for males and females, in which the children should be boarded, clothed, and taught both a knowledge of books and of useful manual labor.
For the support of those academics liberal appropriations were made from their annuities. There was to be an academy located in each district. The fourth district was occupied by the Chickasaws; and as they kept their annuities and school funds separate from the Choctaws, no school was established by the council for them. They were left to act for themselves in the matter. They were abundantly able to educate their own children.
One of the seminaries thus chartered was to be under the exclusive supervision of the council–it was to be a national school. The other two were to be under the supervision of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A board of trustees was appointed by the council, consisting of three chiefs and one trustee from each district. The board took the oversight of all the schools. Spencer Academy was located in Puck-che-nub-bee district; it was under the direction of the council. Nun-ne-wa-ya Academy was to be located in the Push-ma-ta-ha district. Fort Coffee was the academy for Mo-shu-la-tub-bee district. To each of the last-named two schools the council made an annual appropriation of six thousand dollars out of their annuities; and the Missionary Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church made an appropriation of one thousand dollars annually to each of them. The teachers of those academics were to be chosen by the authorities of the Church; but the trustees alone were authorized to select the pupils, and to take such oversight of the schools as to secure the attainment of the objects contemplated in the charter. And although they could not discharge or dismiss, any of the officers or teachers, yet they might officially report to the national council, who were competent, for sufficient cause, to withhold the appropriations and abolish the charter. Each seminary was designed for the whole tribe, and not far the exclusive benefit of the particular district in which it was to be located. Such an arrangement was necessary to prevent jealousies, rivalries, and animosities of the several districts.
A special provision of the school act secured to orphans the preference, when a greater number should apply for admission to the schools than could be received. And other things being equal, small boys had the preference over larger ones, because they were considered more promising in every respect.