Cyrus Byington – Missionary and Choctaw Linguist

by Louis Coleman

Cyrus Byington, a native of Massachusetts, went to the Choctaws in Missippissi in the spring of 1821 and remained to serve them as a Christian missionary for forty-five years, thirty-one of which were at Eagletown.

When he arrived among the Choctaws, they had no written language. The missionaries opened schools but efforts to teach them in English failed and it was decided that the native language had to first be learned and taught. 

Byington was detailed to concentrate on learning the language and developing the tools of the written form. He and Alfred Wright, later the founder of Wheelock Mission, cooperated on the project, developed an alphabet and Byington began, with the assistance of a few Choctaws, to develop a Grammar, Dictionary, Definer and Speller of the language.

Byington was the first of the missionaries to become sufficiently knowledgeable of the language to preach in it. He and other missionaries began to translate portions of the Bible and several hymns into Choctaw.

When the Choctaws moved to what is now southeastern Oklahoma, Byington, Wright and other missionaries followed. Byington arrived in late 1835 and established his mission a short distance east of where the town of Eagletown is now located. He lived at the site until 1844 when he moved about a mile and one-half north to a point east of where the Eagletown Cemetery is now located. The purpose of this move was to bring him closer to the new Iyanubbi Female Seminary which was part of the Choctaw Educational system.

From the new site he supervised the seminary, continued his work on the language, founded several churches and served them on his one hundred mile circuit. He also was frequently called upon to treat his Choctaw parishioners medically, there being no physician in the area.

During the early part of his mission tenure, he also farmed to help support his family and raise feed for his stock.

Byington and his family were frequently ill with the fevers and respiratory ailments, which afflicted the Choctaws. Both Byington and his wife were critically ill on several occasions. Their eleven years old son died after a short illness in 1840. Their youngest son, only two and half years old, died of a throat ailment in 1846. Byington’s sister joined his mission in 1839 and only lived a few weeks after arrival.

Byington’s family in the North tried to persuade him to give up the mission and join them there. He was a trained lawyer and could have expected a fairly affluent and comfortable life had he been willing to join them. Instead, he stayed, responding to their entreaties by saying, “I came for life.”

His Choctaw Definer, made up of English words and Choctaw equivalents, was published in 1852 but his Grammar and Dictionary were not printed until after his death.

Byington and his fellow members of the Choctaw Mission were involved in a serious dilemma over the question of slavery.

Many Choctaws owned slaves, particularly the more prominent and influential mixed-blood tribal members. At the same time the sponsors of the Choctaw Mission were mostly abolitionists who demanded that he missionaries speak out in condemnation of the practice of slavery. To have done this it would have caused their ousting from the Choctaw Nation. Most chose to pursue their missionary duties and remain quit about the issue. This caused their sponsor to discontinue support. It was to Byington, “like death” to be separated from an organization which had supported the mission for more than forty years.

With the coming of the Civil War, many missionaries left the Choctaw Nation. Byington, however, chose to remain, continuing his missionary functions and his medical efforts among the Choctaws.

When the war ended, he hoped to continue his mission but such was not to be. He became seriously ill and was not expected to live. He did survive, however, and in July, 1866, his only surviving son, Cyrus Nye, put him in a horse-drawn wagon and took him the two hundred miles to Little Rock, Arkansas, to board a steamboat for Ohio Where his only Daughter, now married, was residing. Enroot, he contracted small pox and was quarantined for a month after arrival in Ohio.

Though his eyesight and hearing were impaired, he recovered sufficiently to resume work on his Choctaw books and Bible translations.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Byington had remained at the Eagletown mission, hoping to see it occupied by a new missionary. She finally joined her husband in Ohio in the spring of 1867.

Byington completed translating the first five books of the Bible into Choctaw and took the manuscripts to New York for printing. He returned to Ohio in the spring of 1868, but later that year became ill and died December 31, 1868 in his seventy fifth year.

At the time of his death, Byington was working on the seventh revision of his Choctaw Grammar. Although the book would not be published until 1871, the various hand written versions had been used by the missionaries for many years. His Choctaw Dictionary was not printed until 1915.

The little Choctaw Hymnbook begun in Missippissi by Byington and his fellow missionaries has been reprinted in numerous editions and is still much in use. It contains fourteen hymns composed or translated by Byington.

Though Byington had assistance from fellow missionaries and some Choctaw in developing the written Choctaw language most of the credit for the accomplishment is his. He created the tools of the language which are still regarded as authoritative. And much of this work was done in what is now McCurtain County.