Rev. John Page, a Choctaw Preacher
On the fifth day of November Rev. John Page, a Choctaw Indian, preached to us at Fort Coffee. The services were held in the little office, where I was still confined with the fever. The sermon was plain, Scriptural, and earnest, rendering the exercises interesting and profitable. Mr. Page preached in English, speaking the language intelligibly, but not correctly ; his custom was to preach to his people in the native tongue.
During the week Mr. Page spent with us he gave us a brief sketch of his life. When a lad, in a heathen state, he had been sent to the Choctaw Academy, where he remained a number of years, and only left when the institution was disorganized. At the time of his entering the school he was utterly destitute of moral and religious instruction; he had never been taught his duty to himself, his fellowmen, or to his God. He was received into the Sunday school, where he received his first lessons of a religious character; he there received light into his dark and benighted mind; there he felt himself to be a sinner exposed to death. His faithful instructors impressed upon his mind and conscience the duty of repentance and faith in the Savior as conditions of mercy and acceptance with God.
While under strong convictions for sin, with a soul yearning for peace, he attended a protracted meeting; he became deeply, penitent, made sincere confessions, sought the Lord with all his heart, and obtained “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He united with the Methodist Episcopal Church, and became a diligent student of God’s word.
Soon after his conversion the Academy was closed up, when it became necessary for Mr. Page to seek instruction elsewhere; for he was not yet qualified for the work to which he believed God had called him. He was taken into the family of a minister, where his privileges for mental and moral culture enabled him to make rapid advancement. Believing that God required him to stand as a watchman upon the walls of Zion he devoted his last year in Kentucky to theological studies, receiving instruction from the pastor of the Church of which he was a member.
In the summer of 1842 Mr. Page was licensed to preach, and recommended as a suitable person to be admitted into the itinerant work. His purpose was to go to his own tribe and labor with his own people, from whom he had been separated from his early youth, and whom he had not visited since their removal from Mississippi to the Indian territory. Mr. Page’s recommendation was sent to the Arkansas conference, which, at that time, embraced the state of Arkansas, the greater portion of the Indian territory, and the northern portion of Texas. Its session was held in the month of November, 1842, at Helena, on the Mississippi river. Mr. Page was present, admitted, and appointed to the Puckchenubbee circuit, in the southern part of the Choctaw nation. To reach the session of the conference he had traveled near one thousand miles, and from Helena to his circuit required a journey of seven hundred miles more through a wilderness country.
Such was his initiation into the work of a traveling preacher of the Methodist Episcopal Church. At the time of his visit to Fort Coffee he had just completed his first year in the ministry, and was on his way to the conference which was to hold its session at Clarksville, Arkansas.
Mr. Page, at that time, was twenty-two years old, rather below the medium height, and neither stout nor muscular. He was scrupulously neat in his person, well-formed, active, and sprightly. He was gentlemanly, self-possessed, and graceful in his manners, and though modest and unobtrusive, yet not wanting in confidence. His head was of medium size and well formed; his check-bones were high and prominent; his eye sparkling and very expressive; his mouth large, and his teeth, though perfect, were irregular. He was by no means handsome, even for a Choctaw; but he was bright and sensible, a man of unflinching integrity and moral worth; and was eminently qualified for usefulness in preaching the Gospel to his own people.
He loved his nation devotedly, and was indefatigable in his efforts to advance their interests, and to improve their condition intellectually and morally.
On Sunday afternoon, November the twelfth, Mr. Page and myself went down to Fort Smith, where an appointment had been made for us to hold religious services. Mr. Page preached from the words of the prophet Daniel, xii, 4, “ Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” The discourse was of the missionary character. He quoted, very appropriately, many of those texts of Scripture which contemplate the complete success and triumph of the Gospel in all lands. He spoke eloquently of what the Gospel had done for the people of his own tribe; the spirit of war and bloodshed had been superseded by the peaceful and forbearing spirit of the Christian religion. God’s word had shined upon them as “a light in a dark place;” the rites and superstitions of their heathen ancestors had been abandoned; and the ordinances of the Christian Church had been introduced successfully in his nation. The sermon was plain, simple, and practical, and listened to with interest by an intelligent congregation, some of whom were officers of the United States army.
On Monday morning Rev. John Cowle, of the Fort Smith circuit, Mr. Page, and myself set out on Horse back for Clarksville, to attend the session of the conference. Crossing the river at Van Buren, we traveled down the Arkansas in an easterly direction. The bottom lands were not extensive; and though very rich and productive, yet they were rendered almost valueless by reason of the floods that spread over them annually. The uplands were very poor, the soil being thin and gravelly, and the surface almost covered with sandstone. The timber, like the most we saw in that state, was a stunted and worthless growth of oak, embracing every known species of the genus quercus. The variety known as the ” blackjack” was said to be the most valuable, as it was made to serve an important purpose in the administration of justice. Judge Lynch presided over the SUPERIOR COURT of that country; and all the culprits found guilty at his tribunal, were taken and lashed to the nearest blackjack, while the penalty was duly inflicted. ” The Black-Jack Court” was an established institution, for which the people entertained profound respect. The most fearful words that ever fell upon the ears of a poor culprit were, “You are doomed, sir, to look up a black jack !”
The White Oak Mountains were in full view on our left, some twenty to thirty miles distant. We crossed but two living streams of water in the journey the Little Mulberry and the Frog Bayou. They were small creeks of clear, pure water, having their sources in the neighboring mountains. As the sun set we came to the cabin of a widow lady, who consented, for a consideration, to give us shelter. There were no hotels in that section of the country for the accommodation of wayfaring men. But to the credit of the people of that renowned state I will here record, that they were never known to bolt their doors against benighted travelers; the unfortunate, the hungry, and the destitute were always sheltered and fed. We were duly thankful for admission to the cabin, for the marsh hay upon which our animals fed, and for the cornbread, baked yams, and sweet milk with which we refreshed ourselves. We regarded the house as justly belonging to the “better class.” Tuesday morning we paid a moderate bill, and renewed our journey. The dinner hour found us at the log shanty of Doctor M., who was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, as he informed us. From his own lips we soon learned that he was eminently successful in the practice of medicine. He had professionally visited sixty patients during the “sickly season” had lost none. He had effectually cured all, and had so thoroughly done up his work that he was now out of business. But the Doctor thought it was “kind o’ providential that there was no more ayger in them thar parts; for his pills, iles, and intments were used up, and there was no money in his beat; and he was not the man who was gwine to buy physic on tick.”
He was evidently a character, and might be regarded as a representative man in that country, and one who was doubtless a leading spirit. He was over six feet high, with a huge frame, considerably stooped forward, with a rough and haggard outline. The Doctor was probably about fifty years of age, dressed in cotton pants and shirt which was literally “homemade,” as the cotton had been grown, carded, spun, and wove by his wife and daughters. He had coarse brogans on his feet, while his legs were bare, and was destitute of vest and coat; his face, beard, and hair were, with an emphasis let it be said, “unwashed, unshaved, and unshorn.” Our horses were fed, and we sat down to a substantial dinner of jerked-beef and potatoes, with a dessert of corn dodger and sour milk. When we inquired for the bill the Doctor was well nigh insulted. “Me a Methodis an charge a pas’n! never done sich a thing no how! am allus glad to see ’em an have ’em stop at my planlation. We hain’t got nothin much nice, but you shall allus be welcome to the best we’ve got, that’s sartin!”
We sincerely and heartily thanked the hospitable Doctor, and ever since remember him as one of the benefactors of his race. Arriving at Clarksville in the afternoon, we found it to be a village containing two or three hundred inhabitants; it was the county seat of Johnson county, had a small brick court-house, a small school-house, and a church in process of erection. The buildings were mostly one-story frames, rough and unpainted; there were a few log-cabins, and a very few comfortable and well-finished family residences.
On Wednesday morning the conference session was opened, and, in the absence of the Bishop, Rev. J. C. Parker was chosen President; Rev. Mr. Ratcliff was elected Secretary. Here we met Rev. E. R. Ames and Rev. W. H. Goode. Mr. Ames was traveling and attending to the duties of his office as Missionary Secretary, and Mr. Goode was returning to Fort Coffee after an absence of five months.
On the second day of the session Bishop Andrew arrived and took his seat as President; and, on the third day of the session, J. C. Parker, W. Ratcliff, and A. Hunter were appointed delegates to the General conference, which was to convene in the city of New York the following May.
A missionary meeting was held on Monday evening, at which addresses were delivered by Revs. E. R. Ames, W. H. Goode, and John Page. The session had previously adjourned. W. H. Goode, H. C. Benson, and John Page were appointed to Fort Coffee Academy and mission.
On Tuesday morning we mounted our horses and set out upon our journey home, to renew our labors in the field to which we had been reappointed. Reaching Fort Coffee on Wednesday evening we were rejoiced to find all in health ; for in that country we were never without apprehensions of bilious attacks, especially during the summer and autumn.
Owing to the low stage of water in the Arkansas Mr. Goode and family had been delayed several weeks, rendering their journey to the Indian country very tedious. Before reaching Little Rock the boat in which they were ascending the river was snagged and went to the bottom, but, providentially, the accident occurred in shoal water. No lives were lost, but the goods on board were seriously damaged, and the more perishable were utterly destroyed. Mr. Goode sustained heavy loss in the destruction of his library and the damage done to his family’s wardrobe, as well as to the supplies which had been purchased for the mission, none of which were insured.
Mr. Goode obtained a temporary refuge for his family at the humble quarters of an overseer on a cotton plantation, from which shelter they were soon driven by Romish intolerance. Mrs. Goode was prostrated by sickness, and altogether too feeble to give the required attention to her little children, much less to endure the fatigues of a land journey to Little Rock. Providence sent relief in the hour of need; they reached the city in safety, where accommodations were procured, and where they were compelled to remain till there should be a sufficient rise in the river to enable a steamboat to ascend as far as Fort Smith. Mr. Goode purchased a horse and set out by land to attend conference, where we met after a separation of seven months.
My first itinerant year was now closed, during which I had preached one hundred and eighty-eight times, had traveled four thousand, one hundred and sixteen miles, and had received just two hundred dollars for my support, out of which I had paid the traveling expenses of Mrs. B. and myself from Greencastle to Fort Coffee, a distance of sixteen hundred miles.
During the five months immediately preceding the conference session I had superintended the mission, looking after the temporal interests during the week, and preaching regularly on Sunday at Fort Coffee in the morning and at New Hope in the afternoon.
Our repairs were now completed, and all things well-nigh ready for the reception of the pupils and the opening of the Academy, but the furniture and bedding were stored at Little Rock waiting a rise of the river.
During the first week of December there was a small swell of the Arkansas, which enabled a light boat to make a trip to Fort Gibson, but it was wholly freighted with supplies for the troops at that station, and, hence, did not bring our goods. Mrs. Goode and children, however, were on board, and most heartily did we welcome them to their new home in the wilderness. The children were five in number, ranging from two to twelve years of age, all of whom are still living, and four of the number have become heads of families since that period. But I must regard them as children still; the little girls of six and eight years, with faces bright and beaming with laughter, and fun, and frolic, surely they can never be grave and sedate matrons! and the boys I can only imagine to be running, leaping, trundling hoops, and shooting with the bow and arrow. Tempus fugit!