The Missing Obituary and Choctaw First Lady Harriet Newell Wright

 

In case you have not heard, with all the daily distractions we endure nowadays, the New York Times has embarked on an incredible new project: writing the belated obituaries for trailblazing women who were ignored in their era. The project, called Overlooked, will be a regular feature in the newspaper. A few of the remarkable women the NYT has tackled include the much-revered poet Sylvia Plath [died 1963], photographer Diane Arbus [died 1971], journalist Ida B. Wells [died 1931], who campaigned against lynching, and Emily Warren Roebling [died 1903], who oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her engineer husband fell ill.

The Choctaw Nation could have its own “Overlooked Project”.  There are many women from the early Indian Territory days deserving remembrance.  To begin with, there was a  devoutly religious young woman who at age 21 embarked on a journey of many weeks in 1855 to begin a teaching assignment in the remote backwoods of  the fledging Choctaw Nation. She knew nothing of the people or the land, only that she was called to serve. She soon became the helpmate of one of the most respected chiefs of the Choctaw Nation and gifted spiritual leader, Allen Wright.

Chief Wright college president Ind Chieftain Vinita 1885-7-01-cropRev. Allen Wright as a civic leader was frequently in the news. In 1885, the year of his death at age 59, he appeared several times in the Vinita newspaper, the Indian Chieftain. In May the newspaper briefly mentions that Ex-Governor Wright stopped by on his way to New York.  In July the paper announces that Rev. Wright has been elected President of Union Theological College in Schenectady, NY (his alma mater).  We learn in August that his son Frank has been ordained as a Presbyterian minister in Vinita. In late October the newspaper again mentions that Ex-Governor Wright was a caller on his way back from Fort Smith and states that “if the views of Gov. Wright could be generally instilled into the people of his country, we should hear no more of lawlessness from that quarter and it would be a model for the nations of the earth.”

The last mention in the Indian Chieftain was a short tribute to Allen Wright, on Dec 10, 1885 in the wake of his passing on Dec 2:

DIED – Ex-Governor Allen Wright, of the Choctaw Nation died at his home at Boggy Depot, the latter part of last week. He was an eminent and Christian gentleman and one of whose name his people may feel proud. Miss Wright, who was attending school at Kirkwood, passed through here Friday on her way home in answer to a summons.

About the time of Harriet’s death in 1894, obituaries and death notices were becoming more prevalent as more people learned to read and towns such as Atoka came into existence. The Atoka newspaper, of Harriet’s hometown, most likely mentioned Harriet Wright’s death, but sadly those Atoka newspapers have been lost.  Only one death mention is found in the Fort Worth Gazette, the briefest of mentions out of respect for her son. Dr. E. N. Wright.

Notice of Death Mrs. Harriet Wright 1894

But 106 years after Harriet’s arrival in the Choctaw Nation and 66 years after her death, her missing obituary, detailing much of Harriet’s life and contributions, was restored to us.

A Son’s Tribute to His Mother

~written in 1961 by her youngest son James Brookes Wright


Miss Harriet Newell Mitchell, daughter of James H. Wright and Martha Skinner Mitchell, was born August 18, 1834 in Dayton, Ohio, and was a descendent of Elder William Brewster, religious leader of the Pilgrims who came to America on the good ship Mayflower in 1620, She is also a descendant of Edward Doty of the Mayflower Pilgrims and who was a signer of the Mayflower compact along with Elder William Brewster.

Her father James. H. Mitchell, a Yale University graduate, was a civil engineer. He migrated from Connecticut to Ohio and settled in Dayton. He taught school and practiced his profession as much as possible. He surveyed land in the Northwest Territory. He also surveyed the townsite of Dayton.

Harriet was reared and educated in Dayton and was a devout Christian. She said her mother was a Bluestocking Presbyterian, who believed the Bible was the word of God and meant what it said. Mother Wright was brought up on the Ten Commandments and especially strict on Sunday observance. She also believed and practiced that portion of the Bible where it said “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Although small of stature, she could wield the switch effectively.

Here we will preface further biography concerning Harriet by quoting from a short biography written by a friend who had known and appreciated her.

[…]Harriet was named for Harriet Newell, one of the first Missionaries to India. From a young girl, she seemed to feel that foreign missions was her calling and her education was directed toward that end.

In the First Presbyterian Church of which she was a member, and in which the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, afterwards of Washington, D.C., was pastor, she was known and loved as a sweet young Christian. After her course at school, and circumstances having changed as to her going on a foreign mission for the time being, she accepted a position as a teacher among the Choctaws, then living in Indian Territory.

Here she met Reverend Allen Wright, an ordained Minister from that Nation and after some time, was married to him [on February 11, 1857]. She became the mother of a large family, sons and daughters, who grew up in great Christian usefulness.

In her youth she had a beautiful voice which she used in the singing of hymns at her early home and at her own family altar. One son is quite a famous singer and all the sons and daughters are musical in a great degree.

As a help to her distinguished husband, only eternity can reveal the good she accomplished and her name should stand beside that of Reverend Allen Wright as a co-laborer in the field of Christian service.

As stated above, Harriet had intended to go to India, for which she had volunteered, but it seems that the Lord had other plans for her and she was sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as a Missionary teacher to the Choctaw Tribe of Indians, who inhabit the Southeastern corner of Oklahoma.

harriet crop
She was only twenty-one years of age when she set out on her perilous journey to the Indian Territory. There being no railroads West of the Mississippi River at that time, she traveled by railroad from Dayton to Cincinnati and there embarked on a steamboat and traveled down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and down that river, then up the Arkansas River to Little Rock, Arkansas. Like her ancestors who landed at Plymouth Rock, she landed from the boat at Little Rock. From Little Rock, Arkansas, she traveled by covered wagon to Goodwater, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, where she began her work at the Goodwater Mission, which was in charge of Reverend Ebenezer Hotchkin. She told the writer that her journey required six weeks. She labored in the mission field for two years.

In the meantime she met Reverend Allen Wright, a young full-blood Choctaw, who returned home in 1855 to the Choctaw Nation after spending seven years in New York in completing his collegiate and seminary education. He attended Union College, Schenectady, N.Y. and Union Theological Seminary, New York City, where he completed his theological course. He remained in the East the whole seven years without coming home, due in great part to the great distance and meager traveling accommodations. He was probably the most highly educated full-blood Indian of all time. He was well versed in five languages, viz: Choctaw, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

[…]After two years as a missionary teacher, Harriet married Reverend Allen Wright. When they married, they lived in a log house in the forest and she told how the wild deer and wild turkeys would come up around the house. The country will wild and sparsely settled by Indians, for the Five Civilized Tribes had been in the Indian Territory for only about twenty-five years of less, since the U.S. Government had forced them to leave their native land and move to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

About two years later [about 1860], Reverend Wright employed an English artisan to build them a residence at Boggy Depot, which at that time was one of the three principal towns in the Choctaw Nation. There was a seven room, frame plastered house, two stories high in front, with a dining room and kitchen attached in an L-shape [and six fireplaces]. The material was of the best and the lumber, iron, and glass were hauled from Fort Smith, Arkansas by ox team, a distance of one hundred fifty miles. This house was one of the best in Indian Territory at the time and stood for another one-hundred years. It was burned [on March 27, 1952] through the carelessness of a renter.

The Wrights moved in 1860 and lived there until a year after Reverend Wright died in 1885. The second eldest son, Reverend Frank Hall Wright, took charge of the place and lived there until 1893, when he went to New York. After that and for about sixty years, the place was rented, but was well cared for. There is now a state park on the place.

Mrs. Wright gave up her missionary status when she married and devoted her time and energy to her husband’s interests, which were becoming wide and varied and to the rearing of a large family of children. She gave birth to ten children, two of whom died in infancy. The other eight lived to maturity and seven to a ripe old age. Besides her own children, she reared two full-blooded Choctaw nephews of her husband.

Her husband, being a man of prominence, well educated, and well informed, had much company. Mrs. Wright said that when he was Principal Chief, that most of the time three tables were set at each meal to care for the family and visitors.

In those days, distances were measured by horseback and wagon and were great and when a man came to see the Governor, he usually persuaded a man or two to come with him. Governor Wright was fortunate in being prepared to take care of his guests, for he had a cattle ranch, a farm, and the woods full of hogs. Besides, he had a grist mill and a flour mill.

Mrs. Wright had plenty of help for there was a settlement of ex-slaves and their families about three miles west of Boggy Depot and they were willing to work. Many of them were experienced servants. One woman, “Aunt Charity”, the daughter of “Uncle Wallace” Willis, the author of the Negro spirituals “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away To Jesus,” was a cook par excellence. The Negroes all seemed to like to work for Governor Wright and his family for they received kind consideration. “Aunt Charity” and her descendants worked off and on for the Wrights for more than fifty years.

Mary, the eldest daughter of Reverend and Harriett Wright, remarked that she never knew of a person going away hungry, nor his horse not being cared for.

Mrs. Wright kept up her religious work as best as she could and at times, went to Indian camp meetings with members of her family and camped along with the Indians.

When the M.K. & T. Railroad built its line through the Choctaw Nation in 1872, it established many towns and Atoka was one of them. It was twelve miles from Boggy Depot to Atoka and nearly all of the residents moved to the railroad so that the Allen Wright residence, the most substantial residence, was left alone.

Reverend Allen Wright died in 1885 and lies buried in the Boggy Depot Cemetery, one of the principal historical spots in Oklahoma. After his death, Mrs. Wright moved her family to Atoka so that the younger children could attend school and she would have more outlets for her Christian duties. She also was a worker in the Eastern Star Lodge and was elected Grand Treasurer of the Grand Lodge of the Indian Territory. Her husband was a Master Mason who had joined the Mount Vernon Lodge while in Washington, D.C., and was a charter member of the first lodge activated in what in now Oklahoma after the Civil War. This lodge in now in Atoka and known as the Oklahoma Lodge.

The writer of this article gave the above lodge approximately one acre of ground where this lodge was located in Boggy Depot, as a memorial to his father and mother, and the Grand Lodge has erected a monument on the lot. This acre is enclosed in the State Park given by the above donor.

HARRIET NEWELL WRIGHT cropMrs. Wright was a devoted church woman and zealous in good works. Her friends were many and ranged from the highly classed to the plain folk.

She passed away on Christmas night of congestion of the lungs, while attempting to walk about three blocks on a bitter cold night to attend a church meeting.

She died in 1894 at the age of sixty years and lies beside her husband, the Reverend Allen Wright in the Boggy Depot Cemetery.

On the monument, which stands at the head of their graves, is inscribed the Biblical verse:

“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth; yea, sayeth the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.”


***CHILDREN of Chief Allen Wright and Harriet Newell Wright***

  • Dr. Eliphalet Nott Wright, 1858-1932; a physician and politician; wife Ida Richards; parents of Choctaw historian Muriel Wright, Margaret, and Eliphalet, Jr.
  • Frank Hall Wright, 1860-1922, a well-known evangelist, and a remarkable singer, wife Addie Litteanthal; two children: Gwladys and Frank, Jr.
  • Electra Wright, 1862-1862
  • Mary Wright, 1863-1960; wife of Thomas Wallace, a coal miner from Scotland, married Nov 13, 1888 in Fort Smith; five children; resident of  Wapanuka And Ada..
  • Anna Ballentine Wright, 1865-1955; wife of Edwin Ludlow, a mining engineer; married in 1893 at Atoka; no children. She was a resident of McAlester and kept house for her widowed brother Allen. She was part of the 1897 faculty at Tuskahoma Female Academy under Supt. Peter Hudson, with her sister Katherine.
  • Allen Wright, Jr., 1867-1955; a pioneer attorney; one of the first U.S. commissioners in Oklahoma; resident of McAlester; his wife Helen Skiles died in 1912; no children.
  • Harriet ‘ Hattie’ Wright, 1870-1870
  • Clara Eddy Wright, 1870-1953 (no photo); wife of geologist William Lincoln Richards, married in 1892 in Denison, Texas; three children: Harriet, Ruth and Allen; resident of San Antonio, Texas. She was named after the beloved pioneer teacher at Boggy Depot, Clara Eddy.
  • Katherine ‘Kate’ Wright, 1872-1953; wife of Robert H. Morris, manager of a West Virginia coal company; one daughter Anita. They lived in Ansted, West Virginia until Robert’s death in 1951. Kate was part of the 1897 faculty at Tuskahoma Female Academy under Supt. Peter Hudson, with her sister Anna.
  • James Brookes Wright, 1876-1963; long-time employee of Office of Indian Affairs; resident of McAlester; wife Bessie Hancock; four children: Lucia, Newell, Gene and Harriet.

 

Tuskahoma Academy-Anna Wright
1897 Tuskahoma Female Academy Faculty

A note about Goodwater Mission:

The original mission, founded 1842 by Rev. Ebenezer Hotchkin, was located at the mouth of the Boggy River about 4 miles west of Frogville (in present-day Choctaw County). The site was deemed unhealthy, probably due to malaria and other fevers borne by mosquitos, and the mission was eventually relocated to Goodland. An old mission cemetery [named the Hotchkin-Ussery Cemetery on Find-A-Grave] is still evident near the site of the girls’ school.

Rev. Hotchkin, who spoke Choctaw, was known by the Choctaw name of Lapish Hanta (Peace Trumpet), and “thousands of Choctaw’s have heard him sound the gospel’s trumpet.”  See more history at his Memorial Page. The esteemed Rev. Ebenezer Hotchkin died at Lenox, Massachusetts in October 1867, possibly while visiting,  and is buried there. His devoted wife Philena died November 1867 and is buried at the cemetery near the original mission.

50

***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

Sources:

The article by James Brookes Wright was published in the McAlester newspaper, Thursday, May 11, 1961, honoring 106 years since Harriet Newell Mitchell arrived in the Indian Territory as a 21-year-old missionary to the Choctaws.

Same article, Harriet Newell Wright Booklet, 1993, Minor Collections, Oklahoma Historical Society, Research Division

Featured Photo/top of page: Chief Allen Wright, Harriet Wright, and their first four children, Eliphalet, Frank, Mary and Anna, about 1866, the time of his election as Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation

All photos from the Muriel Wright Collection, courtesy of the Oklahoma Research Division

See Harriet’s memorial page at Find-A Grave for a photo of the Wright residence at Boggy Depot.

 

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