Reverend Mr. Fisk, Indian Preacher
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On the seventh day of November two Indians came to Fort Coffee to visit the Academy and to make the acquaintance of those who were laboring in connection with it. Rev. Mr. Fisk was a full-blood Choctaw, a member of the Presbyterian Church, and an assistant at one of the missions on Red river. He had been on a visit to Park Hill, and had returned by the way of our mission. In the evening we assembled the family in the chapel for religious worship, as Mr. Fisk had consented to preach to the students. His text was the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of the Gospel by St. John: ” For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” His manner was pleasant, and his emphasis and fervor were peculiarly impressive and appropriate. The theme was the love of God in giving his Son to die for sinners. He spoke of Gethsemane and of the cross with solemnity and appropriateness. He crossed his arms to describe the instrument of torture upon which the Savior was crucified. He struck in the palms of his hands to indicate the manner in which Christ was nailed to the wood, and then a significant movement of the hand reminded us of the stroke of the soldier’s spear which pierced the Savior’s side. The sermon was delivered in the native language ; it was earnest, impressive, and deeply interesting to the students, as was evident from their undivided attention from the commencement to the close of the discourse.
Mr. Fisk was not educated in English, and hence used the Choctaw Testament and hymn-book; he was able to converse in our language to a limited extent.
The other visitor was the father of Oakchiah, of whom an account has been given in a preceding chapter. He had received intelligence of his son’s death, and had come to learn the particulars, and to take the pony, saddle, blankets, and clothing home to the bereaved wife and children. The old gentleman was near sixty years of age, yet in the enjoyment of vigorous health. He felt deeply the death of his son, spoke of him with tenderness and affection, and even made a visit to Fort Smith, that he might see the grave where his remains were deposited.
The horse and outfit of Oakchiah had been sent to Fort Coffee immediately after the funeral had taken place. When the father returned from his visit to the grave he emptied the saddle-bags of his son, to ascertain their contents; and as they had contained the outfit of an itinerant minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, I will name the articles. There was a shirt, a pair of stockings, a box of matches, a leather cup, an English grammar, a Choctaw Testament and hymn-book, a small package of brown sugar, and about a quart of the kernels of dried hickory-nuts. Such was the outfit of an ambassador of the Lord Jesus, and such his preparation for a journey of over two hundred miles to attend the session of his conference.
The outfit of the white minister in that country did not materially differ from that just described. Every traveling preacher would carry his blankets, his provisions, a cup, matches, and a rope with which to “stake out” his pony. He might be so fortunate as to find a comfortable bed beneath some friendly roof, but he would more probably be compelled to wrap his blanket about him, and then lie down beneath the shelter of a forest oak to enjoy the luxury of sleeping in the open air. We knew a minister who was uniformly permitted, in a certain neighborhood, to sleep in a vacated corncrib; and he was thankful for the privilege, especially in rainy weather.
During the latter part of the winter and the spring of 1845 our community was seriously afflicted with pneumonia, which fell upon us like an epidemic. Within a short time after the disease made its first appearance, there were more than twenty cases of it in the mission family. As there was no physician at Fort Coffee at that time, we were compelled to send to Fort Smith, which was not only inconvenient, but very expensive. Dr. M. came promptly, was skillful in his treatment, and soon the patients were relieved. We found it necessary, in many instances, to assume the responsibility of prescribing in the absence of the physician. It required no great skill to use the lancet, apply the blistering plaster, and administer proper doses of tartarized antimony and other expectorants. We kept a small stock of medicines; and as Mr. Brigham was a professional druggist, and was quite familiar with the medicines, we were able to pass through the season of sickness with only an occasional visit from the Doctor.
In January I visited Massard, and formed an acquaintance with Rev. William Graham, of the Fort Smith circuit. It was his first year in the west, and the first also in the itinerant ministry. He had been licensed to preach in the state of Pennsylvania; and having been recommended to the conference, he had taken his recommendation and had presented it to the Arkansas conference, had been admitted, and sent to its extreme western limits. I was not surprised to find Mr. Graham very much discouraged, and entertaining serious thoughts of quitting his circuit and returning to his friends in the east. His field of labor was hard and very extensive, spreading over an immense territory of a wild, poor, wilderness region of country, which was very sparsely populated. The society was sui generis, and such as can only be found upon the extreme frontier of a very poor country. They had never known anything of life in the “old settlements;” but having always rode upon the crest of the advancing tide of emigration, they had remained gloriously free from the trammels and conventionalities of refined and fashionable society. “The schoolmaster was” literally “abroad,” but in his travels had never passed that way.
But I must not be unjust to the sturdy pioneers of that country; for they intended nothing but kindness, and their rude hospitality knew no bounds within the range of possibility. They always cheered the “parson’s” approach with a hearty welcome, and would feast him on corn-dodger and milk, jerked-beef, and the never-failing yams. Many of the families were supplied with hand-mills upon which to grind their corn into meal. They resembled mammoth cast iron coffee-mills, and were nailed to a tree in the yard or to a log of the cabin in the chimney corner. There was a small water-mill in Crawford county, on the Vache Graisse, known as the “corn-cracker,” but there was a violent prejudice against such monopolies; and many of the people could scarcely afford to pay toll for grinding. There were, no doubt, good mills in some sections of the state, but I never saw one, except hand mills, on the west side of the Mississippi river.
But there was a dearth of money; the parson must do without money, as it was with extreme difficulty they could raise enough to purchase salt and leather for themselves. He must dress in plain style, for they didn’t want a “stuck-up preacher;” if he were a proud man, he need never come to preach to them. A calico hunting shirt in summer, a chip or straw hat, striped domestic pants, and coarse shoes were surely good enough for any good, humble, Christian man, and they hoped the parson was just such a character.
The town of Fort Smith had many intelligent and interesting people in it, but it was not embraced in the circuit, nor was there any village or even a Post within its limits. There was no social interoffice of a moral and intellectual character that could possibly give interest to a young, man of taste and cultivation. I am rejoiced to be able to record, however, that the labors and privations of that sterile field did not drive Mr. Graham from the itinerant work. After spending two or three years in that country he went to Indiana, where he is still actively employed in the work of the ministry, with a good prospect of continued and increasing usefulness for many years to come.
On the eighth day of February I rode to Cedar Prairie, to attend religious service and administer the ordinance of baptism. In crossing the Poteau my horse got into the quicksand, where, after considerable floundering, with imminent peril to both horse and rider, we finally succeeded in reaching the bank, but in a drenched and half-drowned condition. The day was chilly and cloudy, and no house or fire in reach at which to warm myself or dry my clothing. After a ride of six miles through the wind and cold the house was reached at which our services were to be held. But the symptoms of an ague here clear and unmistakable; a few minutes of chill were succeeded by a regular shake of an hour’s duration. Mr. Graham was to be present and preach, but had not yet arrived. When the congregation had assembled and we were about to commence the services, we heard a cry of distress, which seemed to proceed from the opposite side of Cedar Mountain. The cry was prolonged and earnest, giving token of impending danger or extreme suffering. A friend hastened to the rescue, anxious to extend relief, if possible, to enduring agonies as the piteous wail indicated. But on arriving at the summit of the mountain he gave a shout, which was answered from below. It was the preacher lost in the woods; and the prospect of spending a night on the mountain side alone, without a blanket or fire, had inspired him with astonishing energy in the exercise of his vocal organs. Such lusty shouts echoing along through the hills, could not fail to bring some one along to pilot him into ” the settlements.” The guide soon returned, chuckling over the parson’s want of sagacity and qualification to engineer his way over Cedar Hill, when ” the trail was just as plain as day.” He could scarcely imagine “whar the pas’n had been brought up airly training had been mighty badly neglected, sartain !”
The found preacher, after regaining his equilibrium, conducted the services ; and the invalid assistant, after administering baptism to the applicants, retired to one corner of the cabin, to endure a burning fever, with its concomitant tortures and agonies of pain and distress in the head and spine, till the dawn of the morning.