Chronicles of Oklahoma 06-1931
Emma Ervin Christian
Choctaw Original Enrollee reports her memories of an interesting childhood
From the Chronicles of Oklahoma, June 1931
Reprinted from the “BISHINIK” official newspaper of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Many years have passed over this hoary head of mine since I came into existence, in the early sixties on a farm three and one half miles west of old Doaksville; many years have flown, marking many changes as time swiftly passes by, yet youthful dreams often call me back to the grim past, to remind me of the many joys, pains, and sorrows I experienced in those by-gone days. The name of Doaksville may not be found on the map of Oklahoma today (1928) yet no town that has banished so completely ever kept itself so alive in the memory of the people who once knew it. My earliest recollection of Doaksville gives a picture in my mind of a thriving village. In the days of its wealth; long before the Civil War, Doaksville was one of the important social and intellectual centers of Choctaw life. Here and in the neighborhood of Doaksville, on their big plantations, lived the Choctaw aristocrats, who owned many Negroes that cultivated these plantations, while their masters, the leaders of the Choctaw Nation, indulged in sports of various kinds. At an early day, Doaksville was the Capitol of the Choctaw Nation; here the Indian Legislature and courts were held, and all the important business of the time was transacted; but as the leading men began to move to the western part of the Territory our officials advocated the removal of the Capitol to Armstrong Academy, now near Durant. Accordingly it was done and for many years the Choctaw council met here for the execution of our tribal laws. Fort Towson, the new town, has absorbed all that remained of Doaksville, but there is one thing that still survives and that is the Cemetery. No one now living knows when the clods first fell upon a coffin in that cemetery. It stands on a hillside fringed on the canyon’s edge by a heavy growth of timber; while here and there among the graves stand somber pines. In spring and summer the place is bright with wild flowers; in the fall it is brown with withered grass, and yet the growth of aromatic weeds fills the air with sweetness, as if speaking of the good as well as the bad that lie buried in the old cemetery. Could one hear an old Choctaw patriarch tell the annals of Doaksville Cemetery, it would make the blood curdle in his veins, for the victims of many a bloody tragedy lie buried there. While Doaksville has passed into oblivion a few years ago, there will remain the little rock jailhouse the first of its kind ever built in the Territory. It was a small structure built in the Territory. It was a small structure built of rocks; it had no floor inside and has a common board roof. Its dimensions were about 16x20 feet; such a building today would not hold the modern culprits one half night. All those that were put in there however, remained, with the exception of one man by the name of Jones, who was set at liberty by his friends. He was sentenced to be shot for murder so some of his friends cut a hole in the roof, let a rope down, and helped him to escape. He never came back to this country. I can remember just after the war, when my father had the post Office on this farm home of ours; how long he was Postmaster I do not remember, but I never forgot the name of a boy, some seventeen or eighteen years of age that carried the mail from Clarksville, Texas, to our home, because he always spent the night at our home as it was a day’s ride to Clarksville. We children were always glad to see him because he seldom failed to bring us candy, which was a rarity to us, as my father did not approve of children eating candy. If this man is alive today, he is quite aged. His name was Alfonso Lane. A mile and one half northwest of Doaksville was an Indian boarding school for girls. The name of this institution was Pine Ridge Seminary, deriving its name from the vast pine forest that traversed the entire county extending east into Arkansas. My older sisters, three in number, attended this school. It was managed by the Presbyterian Board, and Cyrus Kingsbury, a Presbyterian minister, was the Superintendent. Ten miles northwest of Doaksville was another Indian boarding school, but this was for the boys. These schools were closed during the Civil War and Spencer Academy was used as a hospital and home for the soldiers. Many of them died there, for in a half a mile of the Academy was a large graveyard and my father said that most of the graves were those of soldiers. My first memory of Spencer Academy was of a Presbyterian minister named Alexander Reed, who with his family, lived there, taking care of the place and property, as it was managed by the Presbyterians also. In 1868 my father was put in charge of Spencer Academy, to rebuild, recover and repair all damages, which had been done during the war. One can well imagine how dilapidated and forlorn the place was after the ravages of the war had ceased. No one lived there for several months as A. Reed and family had gone back to New York from whence they came; he engaged an old colored man to go there and look after the things until someone was appointed to take charge of the place. So, as might be expected, numerous were the ghost stories afloat, about the old deserted place—so much that it took some persuasion to get my mother’s consent to move there. She was superstitious and believed in all the old Indian signs and ghost stories, and really it was a haunted looking place, far from any neighbors. Some people told that before the sun went down, the tables and chairs would begin to move around as if by magic, the windows would fly up or down and that it was an impossibility to keep the doors closed. My father did not believe in such bosh, as he called it, so in the fall of 1868 we moved into the haunted Academy and lived there for two years. The ghosts did not get any of us, but the wolves were as plentiful there as the cottontail rabbits are here around my weedy place.
Old Spencer Academy was east of the Kiamichi River; several years later they built a new Spencer Academy some thirty miles west of the Kiamichi River. The reason for moving the school was that it was so inconvenient about getting supplies; the roads were bad and often the river would get so high that they would not ferry any one across. There was only a small ferryboat at the old Rock Chimney Crossing, which I suppose is known far and near. The two rock chimneys which marked this crossing on Kiamichi River were there as far back as I can remember. The houses were built and owned by an Irishman by the name of Patrick. The houses were burned but the chimneys stood for years and years. The old Spencer Academy was sold to an Indian preacher named Robert Frazier. He sold a great deal of the lumber there, but the place is known as Spencerville today. The new Spencer Academy in some unknown way caught fire and burned down; that is, the largest building was consumed by fire and several boys were burned completely to ashes. I had a boy there and he barely escaped, just in his nightclothes. One of the boys, who was more fortunate and had his clothes out, gave him a pair of great big overalls and that is what he had to wear home. The place was then sold to the highest bidder and one Thomas E. Oakes of Altas, was the man that bought it. He afterwards filed on this land for his daughter, Mrs. Howard Morris of Soper, Oklahoma. Said Thomas E. Oakes was at the time, the Clerk of the Supreme Court of the Choctaw Nation. His uncle, Joel W. Everide, was the Supreme Judge of our district for twenty years. The first school that I attended was taught by a Chickasaw Indian lady named Selina Ayahkombee. Before the Civil War they owned a great number of Negro slaves and had a large plantation one mile northwest from our home. They had an orchard of all kinds of fine fruit and berries, as the sandy soil was especially adapted to the growing of fruit. Though the Negroes were free they continued to live in their old slave homes, which were built on a sandy ridge not far from their old master’s home. There was a deep canyon between Sand Hill and the master’s home and down in this deep gully was a spring of water as pure, cool and clear as crystal bubbling up through the white sand. We had to go one mile beyond this place to our little log schoolhouse. The size of the house was 16x20 feet; one door to the east, one window (that is an opening, but no glass) to the west and one to the south. We had puncheon seats, that is what they called benches made out of a log split in the middle and smoothed off with an ax or a plane. We had a large playground, as there was only one home in half a mile of the place, consequently at noontime we would wander out of sight or hearing. Then Miss Selina would blow the great long cow’s horn, which she kept (and could blow) to bring us in to books. My studies were a reader and the old blue back spelling book, which has long ago been discarded. The little log cabin was common and the seats were rough, but we had just as good a time then as the children do today.
One of my greatest pleasures in my childhood days was a day spent at my father’s old water mill, which was two miles away from home on what was then called Cedar Creek, the boundary line between Towson and Cedar Counties. I suppose that it would be a treat to the modern girl or boy to see one of those mills today, as I doubt of there being one in existence anywhere. The creek had a wall or dam across it which made a large lake of water about the mill building; about the middle of this dam was a water gate which was raised to allow the water to gush through onto the mill wheels with such force as to start them turning around and around. The mill was ready then to begin grinding. Oh! Such terrible racket as it did make when it was in operation! The next thing of importance to me was when the journey began to my next school, which the rip commenced in the latter part of August 1871, to old New Hope Seminary. My first trip in a covered wagon was quite a thrill to me (equal to our champion debaters trip to Washington) as I had never been any distance from home, and Oh! Horrors, such rough roads as we had to travel. Virtually speaking, there were no roads across the mountains that we came over, until we struck the stage line running from Fort Smith to Stringtown and other points south. I went over these bad roads twice per year for five years. My father, Mrs. William Byrd, (whose husband was in later years Governor of the Chickasaw Nation), an orphan girl by the name of Carrie Stewart, a hired boy and myself composed the party that traversed this rough, wild and unpopulated country. We saw wild game in abundance. We saw one bear, and at night we frequently heard the shrill squall of the panther, which would send an icy sensation down our spines. Arriving at New Hope about the first of September we found there Rev. J.Y. Bryce, Sr., with a bevy of Indian girls. Some of the girls were fair, some very dark, some fat, lean, tall, short some pretty and some monstrous ugly.
I will now give some of the Indians’ way of doctoring and cooking, which were common when I was a child. The Indian doctors that I knew were mostly women and they made their medicines out of various kinds of weeds, the bark and roots of trees and herbs, and they also believed in witches. My oldest sister had a bad sick spell, and mother sent for an Indian doctor. She came, examined Sister, then she went off to the woods to get her medicines. There was a room built off, separate from our bedrooms that the boy’s generally occupied. This room had a fireplace and the floor was very near the ground. She demanded the use of this room and called for an old fashioned pot to cook her herbs and roots in. When she got them prepared, she took one or two planks out of the floor, then she dug a hole in the ground to fit this pot into, then she fixed a concern for Sister to lie over this place and then she steamed her several times a day for three days in succession, and gave her teas to drink. After the time of steaming was over she showed Mother a little ball, presumably made of hair and a clot of something like blood on it. She pretended that she drew this out of Sisters side by the steaming process. She said that Sister had been shot by an enemy with a poisoned ball; well, she got well and lived to be seventy years of age. NO doubt she had pneumonia and the steaming was good for her, but the poison ball was a hoax. We went to several Indian homes where they had the conjuror or witch doctor, where they served pachofa and had dancing while doctoring the sick, which was a queer way of doing in case of sickness.
I will give the particulars of one which I attended as the sick man was a brother of my first teacher; his name was Gipson Ayahkombee. Late in the evening Father, Mother, and all of us children walked to the home of the sick man, as we had an invitation to come, and they expected us to come, or we were no good friends. They had a large yard, nicely grassed over, and each family was seated around on the grass in groups, then we were served with pachofa in large vessels, and all of one family had to eat out of this vessel. We had paddles made out of cedar and horn spoons to eat with. Some of the spoons were made of cow horns and some were buffalo spoons. The vessel we ate out of was made of cedar, and we used to call them keelers, and the smaller ones with a handle were called piggin. This pachofa was made of corn and fresh pork cooked together. When all were through eating, the weird music of the tom tom began in front of the room where the patient lay; we were not allowed to see in this room nor to pass around it, so in order to prevent any one from passing around this room, a rope was secured to the corner of the room and stretched out for a considerable distance. When the doctor began her queer noise in the room, all the young men and women lined up on two rows opposite each other to commence their odd way of dancing. I listened attentively to the whimsical noise the doctor was making in the room, which to me, sounded like a dried gourd, with shells, dried peas, beans or buttons in it, and her mutterings were a continued he, he, ho, ho, and something else that I could not understand. There was a sound that seemed like she was spitting on him, I couldn’t describe the noise made by the tom tom man with all kinds of shells and everything that would jingle around his body and limbs. When all this was over and all starting for home, one of my mischievous sisters raised the rope and ran by the forbidden room; the guards chased her but it was dark and she got away.
The man died and they blamed Sister for his death. If the guards had caught her they would have stripped her clothing off and dipped her under cold water thereby dispelling the evil spirit. The custom of the Indians was to go and cry at the grave of the dead, with the wife or mother, once in a while until the final funeral was preached, or you were not considered a true friend. The final funeral was preached from six to twelve months after burial. So many used to come to our home to cry with Mother after the loss of some member of the family. On one occasion I remember and old friend of mother’s passed away, who lived about six miles from us on the west side of the Kiamichi River; owing to inclement weather, Mother did not attend his burial, so not long after she was going to cry at the grave with the widow and took me along. I was small but could ride a pony and I was thrilled with joy over my trip, as I was going to a place I had not been to before. On arriving there a boy came out and tied our ponies, and Mother sent me to the house and she proceeded to the grave which was about 150 or 200 yards from the home. The family could not speak a word of English and as I could not talk the Indian language at that time, all my joy and thrills were gone. It seemed to me like they cried a half day, for I could hear them and felt like crying too. Some would cut or bob the wife’s hair when the husband died. They always buried their dead at home and sometimes under the house. I remember an instance where a wealthy Chickasaw Indian named Pitman Colbert was buried under the porch of his home on his big plantation just a mile west of old Doaksville. I did not know the year he was buried (perhaps before I was born) but I knew the family and knew he was buried there.
Some four or five years after I moved away from Doaksville some robbers went into his grave and secured all the valuables that were buried with him, but in the dark they missed several pieces of coin which were found in the dirt the next day. After I was ten or twelve years old, I asked Mother why did the Indians bury at home instead of taking them to the graveyard, as the white people did; she said that it seemed like you were throwing them away to take them away from home and bury them so we had a family grave yard at our home too. The last Indian cry that I attended was over the Jackford Mountains. It was conducted similarly to those in my childhood days; they had a large brush arbor built and seats for all, they sang and prayed then preached the funeral sermon, after which all proceeded to the grave, where all are supposed to cry, but they do not. After this all were invited to a dinner or barbecued beef and various kinds of food. I will now give recipes for a few Indian dishes made from corn that Mother used to make. Most everybody knows how to skin corn and make what we used to call bighead hominy. White people used canned lye to make this hominy, but Mother used lye made from wood ashes. One kind of Tafulla was made by placing corn in a mortar, sprinkle water on the corn a little at a time and beat with a pestle lightly, until the husk is off the grains; then take out, put into a riddle basket and shake the husk out; place grains back into mortar, then pound with pestle until grains are broken to desired size (fine or large pieces); the small pieces you can cook, adding half cup of cornfield beans and this is called a bran hominy, or you can add weak lye dripped from wood ashes and you have lye hominy. This hominy can be kept in a warm lace until it begins to sour and makes good eating. The large grains you can cook with fresh meat and make pashofa. Again you can cook small grains and make hickory nut hominy. The kernels of the nuts were prepared in the following manner. Mother used a large square cane basket, five or six inches deep, then she placed a flat rock into the center and pounded the nuts with a mallet on this rock; when the required amount was pounded out she placed all in a latticed bottom can basket and shook all the beaten kernels out—then she placed the kernels into a mortar (or hominy block) and beat them to a fine pulp. This she put into a basin of water, stirring it up well; then she held a sieve over the pot of hominy and poured this water into the hominy; let it heat to a simmer but not boil—this thickens the soup and gives it a delightful taste. The Mother used to take roasting ears (too hard to fry) and roast bushels of corn in the following manner. She would have a trench dug about twelve inches long and about two feet deep; she filled this trench with oak bark off dead trees and let them burn to a heap of red coals; then she stood an andiron at each end of the trench and then placed a green pole or log on the middle of the andirons; then she stood ears of corn on each side of the pole which was soon cooked half around the ear; then she turned them around and the corn was soon cooked. The turning of the corn was a hot job, but by such process, it did not take so long to cook a big pile of corn. A wagon sheet was spread on the ground nearby on which the baked corn was thrown. As soon as it was cool enough, all the members of the family began to shell grains off the cob, after it was shelled the corn was poured onto a sheet and spread upon a scaffold to dry. After the corn was dry you prepared it the same way as the uncooked corn, by beating in a mortar; beaten into small pieces then cooked with chicken, made an appetizing dish. This roasted corn was good, cooking the whole grain. You can parch corn in an oven until it is a pretty brown color, then beat in a mortar into meal, mix the meal with water, add some sugar, and this makes a delightful beverage. This was called cold flour. To make beaten corn bread, you husked the corn fist, as in making hominy, then beat the grain in half or quarter pieces, sift through he riddle basket to separate the fine from the lager grain, then soak the larger grain in luke warm water for half a day; then take out of the water and let drain an hour or more; then put into mortar and pound into meal; sift through a sieve-take the coarser part that wont go through the sieve and cook as you do rice; when done, mix the fine meal with this cooked grits, into a dough about the thickness of ordinary corn meal dough, place this in a stone jar and let set over night. In the morning add soda and salt, then bake. This makes fine bread but it was awful hard work to make it. Then we used to have gritted corn bread made out of roasting ears after it was too hard to fry. To make banaha, the meal was pounded in a mortar; ashes burnt from pea hulls was put on the corn in small quantities as it was pounded into meal; this gave the meal a greenish gray color and a good flavor too; on mixing the meal; beans or peas already cooked were added to the dough, then a small amount of dough was made into shape of an ordinary size cucumber, put into shucks or green corn blades, tied in the middle put into a pot of boiling water and cooked for an hour or more, serve while hot. I have mentioned mortar and pestle so often, those that do not know what they are will have to visit the museum and see for themselves.