Opening of the Fort Coffee Academy
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On the ninth day of February, 1844, the school opened with six students from the Pushmataha district; they presented certificates of appointment signed by J. Folsom, chief, and S. Jones, Trustee. On the following day a number of pupils came from the Puckchenubbee district with certificates signed by James Fletcher, chief, and P. P. Pitchlynn, Trustee; also from the Moshulatubbee district, with certificates from Nat Folsom, chief, and Thomson M’Kenny, Trustee.
In a few days we had received thirty pupils into the school to be clothed, fed, and taught. In addition to these we had consented to teach all the day scholars who should choose to come, boarding at home and being clothed by their friends. There were only a few who availed themselves of this privilege.
The lads came in dressed in the prevailing fashions, having generally shirts, pants, and calico huntingshirts; a few had shoes or moccasins, but the majority came with the feet bare. Not more than two or three wore hats; the balance were either entirely bareheaded or had a cotton handkerchief twisted around the head, making a sort of turban. According to Indian taste they all had long hair, and a few of them wore it braided.
Our first work after their arrival was to wash and clothe them; we had entire suits prepared in advance for them. The coat and pants were of Kentucky jeans; good stout shoes, sealskin caps, white shirts of stout cloth, and cotton handkerchiefs completed the outfit. We had a tub of water for ablutions; then Mr. P., armed with stout shears, soon reduced their hair to our notions of taste and comfort. They generally submitted to our requirements without a murmur, but occasionally one would reluctantly consent to be shorn of his locks. The next step was to make a proper fit of clothing. With their new suits they were much gratified, and in coming out of the dressing-room they were so changed that their friends could scarcely recognize them.
One little fellow, about eight years old, had come a distance of a hundred and twenty miles, dressed in drilling pants, check shirt, and calico hunting shirt, but destitute of hat and shoes. When dressed warmly and neatly, in new clothing, he manifested great delight with his improved circumstances; but, just in the dusk of the evening, he was seen standing behind the dining-room weeping most bitterly. When asked, through an interpreter, the cause of his trouble, he replied that he “had good pants, good jacket, good shoes and cap, and was much glad, but he had no blanket to wrap himself in, and thought that lying upon the ground without a blanket he would be cold.”
We took him into the dormitories and explained to him the mysteries of a bedstead, with its mattress, pillows, sheets, and blankets; and, pointing to the particular one upon which he. should sleep, we left him, with his eyes sparkling and his face beaming with happiness. He had never before conceived the idea of any better sleeping arrangements than the earth and a blanket could afford.
When we came to register the names of the lads we found a number who had none but Indian names, many of which were lengthy and difficult to remember. To such English names were given, but, whenever it could be done, the Indian name was retained and used as a surname. In one instance a lad came with a short Indian name –“Belah” which we thought would do, and, hence, did not give him any other; but he was not satisfied, and in a few days came and requested us to give him an English name, which was accordingly done.
When we came to assign lessons in the schoolroom we found that not more than six or eight of the scholars knew the alphabet; two or three could spell in one and two syllables. The school-room was furnished with blackboards, upon which we taught the alphabet in classes. Our method was to form two or three letters upon the board, and then pronounce them, having the school so arranged that all could see; then we would have the school to pronounce the letters. We would then have a portion of the class to go and take the chalk and write the letters, and then another portion of the class, and thus continue till all had learned both to speak and write the entire alphabet. The exercise was full of interest to the lads, and very soon all the pupils could write and pronounce the alphabet with facility. The first lessons in forming letters into syllables and syllables into words were also taught upon the blackboard. In teaching the elementary studies we found the board and a piece of chalk to be much more useful than the old-fashioned cards and primers; that method was of special service in teaching them to pronounce words correctly. The Indians learn to write with great facility; they are very apt at imitation and active with their fingers. Of course we did not wholly dispense with the elementary spelling-books and readers.
In traveling around his circuit Mr. Page frequently collected a few natives at a shanty, and preached to them in a plain and simple style, which they could easily comprehend. He never failed to urge the necessity of a change of heart and life as a qualification to enter heaven. In a recent tour he called at a cabin where he had preached two or three times on previous occasions. A little daughter, not more than four years Of age, recognized him, and addressed him as follows:
“Are you the heaven–talker?”
“Yes,” said Page, “I am a preacher.
” Will you heaven-talk now?”
” No, not now,” said Page.
“Will you heaven-talk after we eat supper?”
” Yes, I will preach after supper. Do you love such talk?”
“Yes,” said the child, “I do; for it will make our hearts good and then take us up to live with God in heaven.”
That little daughter had never been taught the truths of revelation; her parents were not pious and wholly destitute of education, not even speaking a word of English. The child had learned the first lessons of Divine truth from the lips of the minister of the Gospel, and in listening to the word on two or three occasions only she had grasped the great and essential doctrines of practical religion.
In the humble hovel of the rude denizens of the forest there are many bright intellects that eagerly search for living truth, and the messenger of Christ, with the Divine blessing, will gather many of them into the fold of the good Shepherd jewels that shall bedeck the crown of the Savior.