A Journey Almost Beyond Endurance

 In HONOR of one of THE GRANDMOTHERS

Elsie Beams Roebuck, 1800-1863

 Elsie’s ordeal on the Trail of Tears and struggle in the primitive new lands of the Choctaw were deftly described in a story by her great-granddaughter, Josephine Usray Latimer, a hundred years later. We honor Elsie’s desire and commitment for a better life for her family.

The Story of the Honey King and the Little Blue Hen

The Choctaws in Mississippi were a law abiding and cultured farming people. They had good homes, churches, and schools, all of which they were forced to abandon and move out west.

The great grandfather of Josephine Usray Latimer, Ezekiel Roebuck, and family lived on “Honey Island” in the Pearl River (Mississippi). This island included about eighteen acres, thirteen of which comprised an Apiary.

The bee hives were hollow trees or stumps. They didn’t have bee hives, as we do now, but this was a big industry and brought them quite a bit of revenue and Ezekiel Roebuck was called the “Honey King.” Through Alex McGilvary, who was the Trades Commissioner for the Indians, who traded with Foreign Countries, it was made possible for Ezekiel to dispose of all of his surplus honey to England, making him very independent.

When he was 14 years old and in the spring time, he went into the woods to have his dream (the guiding Spirit of Destiny). He fell asleep and slept for three days and nights and in his dreams he was along wild roses, the bees were humming, the birds singing, water splashing, geese cackling, and white feathers falling like snow. He returned home and related his dream to his mother. She translated his dreams for him in this manner. That in the near future he would live near the water, and would hear it splashing. There would be lots of timber and wild roses, and he would have many bees all around him. The geese honking and feathers falling were wild geese lighting on the water near his future home.

She told him she would make him a medicine charm bag, a custom of Choctaw Indians years ago. Ezekiel’s mother then set about to make the medicine bag as follows:  The medicine bag is a mystery bag and is of great importance and meaning in the Indian’s life, being constructed from skins of birds, animals, and reptiles, ornamented and preserved in many ways.

After these bags were finished and decorated, they were religiously sealed. The Indian carries his bag through life for good luck, strength in battle and assurance in death that his guardian Spirit would watch over him. The medicine bag was always buried with him, thus aiding him the crossing the great beyond to the Happy Hunting Ground.

She told him to go and visit Elsie Beams, who had a goose farm and was called Queen of the Yazoo River and ask her for some geese down to go in his charm bag, and that would complete his dream.

He did this and found her a very charming person. He related his dream and she gave him the down he needed. From this meeting a friendship developed, which ended in love and marriage.

Elsie Beams was the niece of David Folsom of the N.W. District in Mississippi, which District was the first to move to the Indian Territory. All of the Indians of this District gathered at Memphis, Tennessee in 1832, and were transported across the Mississippi in steamboats: The Reindeer, The Cleopatra, The Talma and Sir Walter Scott.

In crossing over, the Choctaws sang this song, Fare Well to Nunialchwaya (meaning – to the land we love so dear). Nunialchwayah was in memory of the leaning pole (Fabuasa), the legend of which may be found at the close of the history of the Choctaws.

When the Choctaws reached Arkansas, the Government had wagons and teams there ready for them. The Indians were loaded into wagons and they started for the Government Post, near Little Rock, Arkansas.

In loading, my people got separated from each other for there were hundreds of wagons on this journey. When they reached the Ouachita (meaning 4th river), it was on a rampage and out of banks. The roads were impassable. It was raining and cold.

Even for the well and strong, the journey was almost beyond endurance. Many were weak and broken hearted, and as night came there were new graves dug beside the way. Many of the Indians contracted pneumonia fever and the cholera.

They camped a mile from the Ouachita, waiting for the water to recede so they could cross. While they were camped there, Ezekiel Roebuck, father of my grandfather, William Roebuck, became ill but said nothing. When the river was low enough to cross, everyone got in the wagons and started on the journey, but Ezekiel was so sick he became unconscious and fell over. Someone told the driver and he said, “I will have to stop and put him out as we can’t afford to have any one with the Cholera along.”

So they stopped by the road side and put him out. My great-grandmother said “You can put the children and me out too”, and the driver replied, “Alright, but he will soon be dead and you and your three children will have to walk the balance of the way.”

Each child had a small blanket. My great-grandmother had a paisley shawl, she had also brought along a bucket of honey and some cold flour from their home. This flour is made by parching corn and grinding it in a coffee mill until pulverized. This food she carried along for her six month old baby.

She begged the driver for food and a blanket for great-grandfather, and he grudgingly gave the blanket and one day’s supply of food.

Great-grandfather was conscious at the time. He had dubbed great-grandmother “Little Blue Hen” and when he became conscious of the plight, he said:

“Dear Little Blue Hen, why didn’t you take the children and go on, I can’t last much longer, and my soul will rest much easier if I knew you were safe. My body is just dust and will be all right at any place.” She replied, “As long as you live, I’ll be with you, Dear.”

The Little Blue Hen and two boys, aged ten and twelve, set about fixing a bed. The boys had knives with which they cut the long stemmed grass until they made a fairly comfortable bed, and then the three pulled their father on it. They were fortunate to be where there was pine and the boys weren’t long in gathering plenty of wood and pine knots; not only for warmth and lights but to keep hungry wolves and panthers away as they came circling around, growling and vicious looking.

The boys threw up a high barricade behind their father’s pallet, of brush, then a big fire a few feet in front, and here the little family huddled together. They dared not let the fire die down until after day-break, when the beasts went back into the woods.

When the father became conscious, he praised Little Blue Hen for her loyalty and he prayed that his little family might be spared from the dreaded disease. He lived only twenty-four hours after being put out of the wagon, and at sunset his soul passed on.

The little mother with sticks and the boys with knives dug a grave deep enough to bury him, and piled rocks and dead trees on top of the grave to keep the beasts from the body. Then the boys blazed the tree all around the grave. They wanted to leave the grave well marked for they intended to return for their father’s body someday.

They fed on roots, wild berries, a spoonful of honey and a small portion of the cold flour and the next morning the brave mother with her three children bade farewell to the Honey King’s grave, by the roadside of the Trail of the Tears, and they traveled on to the post, following the wagon tracks to the river, which they realized they would have to swim across.

Undaunted she took her paisley shawl and tied the baby onto her back, and cautioning her boys to stay close to her, they all swam across the river. Here they found the wagon tracks but they stopped long enough to build a fire and dry their clothes. They then walked all the way to the Government Post, where they were given food, clothes, and shelter.

The next day they were carried to the border line in a wagon and from there they walked all the way into Doaksville, where Captain Doaks gave them plenty to eat, and clean clothing. They rested there several days. Captain Doaks sent word to her uncle, David Folsom, and he came for her and took her and the children down to Kiamichi.

The Honey King’s prayers were answered; not one of them took the cholera. The Government had established a trading post and named it Fort Towson. This post was used as a Fort during the Civil War. These Choctaws made “half dug out” homes for them, and they used them for several months until she and her boys could cut down trees enough to make a permanent home.

They were never idle; there were days of hardships and toil, tilling the soil from dawn until dark, bitter, trying days. The first year they didn’t get to put much in cultivation and most of it was planted in corn. The mother and boys cultivated and harvested the crops and cared for the livestock, believing they were building a permanent home.

In the late summer, they started cutting down trees and built a log house of which they were very proud. Their home had very little furniture. Their beds were homemade, constructed of four forked posts, set deep in the earth, forks up so as to hold the side railing posts; these were slatted across with small poles held securely by a rope; upon this they piled high hay and even with their scant bedding this made a very comfortable bed. They had a homemade table and sawed off logs for seats. A mortar was made first, as many good Indian dishes came from grain pounded fine in the mortar.

A sod fireplace cooked the meals and an ash popper made from a hollow log in which dripping water through wood ashes made lye for soap. She dried wild plums, berries, and grapes. The boys killed wild hogs and game for their meat as game was plentiful. They had pine torches for light at first and homemade candles. This little family was very industrious and later on with the small remuneration received from the Government, they saved enough to buy two slaves and they prospered.

She was very ambitious for her children. They each went to Missionary Schools at Goodland where the oldest sons, William and Ben Franklin finished, and then going to Choctaw College in what is now Blue County, Kentucky. They spent five years in this college where William finished in law.  

Note: Elsie’s son William Roebuck grew up to become an important lawyer in the fledging Choctaw Nation. Among other contributions, he was a representative to the Skullyville Convention of 1857 that re-wrote the Choctaw Constitution.  At his wedding, Elsie presented his new wife with her beloved paisley scarf that traveled over the Trail of Tears with her.

>>>See the story Josie Latimer wrote about her grandparents, William and Mary Homma Roebuck, in Cupid’s Arrow, and the story she told about her parents, James Usray and Malinda Roebuck, in A Trio of Love Stories, Part 1.

***Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

 Source: Indian Pioneer Papers (WPA), University of Oklahoma Libraries Western History Collections, Interview with Josephine Usray Latimer, #8822, October 13, 1937.

Graphics by Opia Designs

 

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