An Orphan In Search of Family

Joshua Bohanon was already 57 years old, with three marriages behind him, when one day at his trading post in old Eagletown, he met a young eighteen-year-old Arkansas girl named Serena Chastain. As a half-blood Choctaw born in the old Choctaw Country, Joshua spoke only a few words of English and Serena spoke not a word of the Choctaw language; still the sparks flew between the two, and soon after they were married on March 5, 1876.

Serena never returned home to Arkansas. Their daughter Emma was born at Eagletown on January 29, 1877 followed by several more children. Two years later, Joshua sold his store and the family migrated westward into Kiamitia County on the southern edge of the Choctaw Nation, settling in the old Pleasant Hill area where Joshua had a large extended family, including his sister Susan Bohanon Spring.

Susan had married a German, Christopher Spring, in Mississippi in the early 1820s prior to removal. They were blessed with a large family, eight boys and two girls. By the time the Choctaws were required to leave Mississippi, several of the sons were almost grown and able to help their parents settle in the new Indian Territory. Christopher Spring and his sons built a double log house, located in the middle of present day Springs Chapel Cemetery. About a half-mile away, toward present-day Mount Olivet Cemetery at Hugo, OK, William Spring, one of the couple’s adult sons, built a one-room log cabin to serve as the school house for all the neighboring children. When the families had sufficient money, a teacher was hired. Instruction was intermittent at best, sometimes only one month in the summer, but enough that most of the children learned to read and write and to do simple math.

Emma grew up helping her mother with the daily chores around the farm and tending to her younger brother and sister, and when school was in session, getting a few lessons in her ABC’s. Life took a turn for the worse for young Emma when in the year 1887, she lost her mother Serena. She was only ten years old. In 1891 her father Joshua passed away at age 77, leaving her an orphan at age fourteen.

As typical in those days, Emma went to live with the closest relatives, a half-brother and his wife, but she did not thrive in that setting. Using Emma as free labor, her relatives bestowed no affection or kindness on her, no matter how closely related she was. One day a friend of her father’s happened to be visiting and saw how Emma was being treated. Emma never knew what words were exchanged that day between her father’s friend and her brother, but when the man rode away that day, Emma rode behind him on his horse.

The next stop was at Doaksville to buy Emma a new dress, then twenty miles further to the Wheelock Academy for Girls, where Emma would remain for the next four years until she graduated in 1895.

No doubt one of the structures Emma first saw at Wheelock was the old bell tower, equipped with a special bell, made to order in a Cincinnati foundry, with the inscription from Psalm 82:3.

“Defend the poor and fatherless”

This quotation was hand-selected by  William B. Robe, Wheelock Superintendent, a reflection of his dreams and plans for Wheelock.  In a Holy Bible owned by Mr. Robe, on the bottom of the page for the 82nd Psalm, is written in Mr. Robe’s own hand-writing: “Inscription on Bell at Wheelock, Indian Territory, cast by order of W.B. Robe, Supt, 1884.”

~~”Wheelock-Through The Years”, by Toru Wilson Herndon, p 22.

Years later in 1937, Mr. Robe’s son, Robert corresponded with Miss Minta Ross Foreman, the current superintendent, about his own observations during his tenure as Wheelock superintendent 1890-1893. It almost seems that he was thinking about Emma as he wrote down his thoughts.

“Now a word as to the personnel of the school. The girls were all orphans—most having lost both parents. Ages ran from five to eighteen, mostly not more than twelve on admission. As these girls were held in some cases as no more than slaves by some relatives to do the drudgery for maybe a whole family, it was sometimes neces­sary after a county judge had made an assignment to send a sheriff to take away the orphan by force and take her to school. Pitiable in­deed was the plight of some of the girls on admission—vermin-covered and filthy. But after a few days of cleaning, hair cutting, and clothes suitable to the age, the transformations made them almost unrecognizable. The majority were very tractable and took hold of the new life in a way that would have been a credit to their white sisters.

Every year the Choctaw Superintendent of Schools called on us for the names of two of our most promising girls, to the end that they might be sent to some of the schools in the states for advanced education. The lot as often fell to a full blood as to a mixed blood girl. We were never disappointed in the outcome. The girls all made good and were a credit to the Choctaw Nation as well as to themselves and the school from whence they went.”

~~”Wheelock-Through The Years”, by Toru Wilson Herndon, p 26-27.

Some of Emma’s memories of the school were written down by her daughter, Toru:

Emma Jane Wilson labeled“In talking with my mother, the former Emma Bohanon, who was in school at Wheelock during the period covered by [superintendents] Dr. Robe, Mr. Ellis, and Mr. Wilson, many interesting things were learned:

All water, including bath water had to be carried in buckets and tubs. The making of apple butter was an all-day process since it was made in large wash pots and stirred with wooden paddles. Soap making was another chore of the older girls. Under the direction of “Aunt Lottie Cole,” who was a small negro girl during the Civil War, all of the soap used for laundry and kitchen was made.

One way of impressing the girls with the fact that they must eat all food taken on their plates was to leave on each plate for the next meal all uneaten food.

Practically all clothing was sent to the school by missionary so­cieties from over the United States. Some of the girls were “adopted” by societies which supplied them with clothes and other necessities.

Since the girls were orphans, they had very little money. In order to earn a few pennies with which to buy candy and maybe a few trinkets, they washed and ironed handkerchiefs for the employees, cleaned their rooms, brushed the women teachers’ hair, and carried wood for them. “

~~”Wheelock-Through The Years”, by Toru Wilson Herndon, p 29-30.

four Wilson BrosEmma never forgot the shelter that Wheelock provided for her, both in education and in a sense of family. At Wheelock, she met her husband Rafe Wilson, the brother of Edward H. Wilson, who was the last Choctaw superintendent before statehood, serving from 1894 to 1898. Emma had frequently cared for Mr. Wilson’s young son (Edward Jr.) after school was finished for the day. On Jan 16, 1896, Emma and Rafe Wilson were married at the plantation home of Henry Harris, a prominent supporter of Choctaw education. The couple continued to live near Wheelock where Rafe had established himself as one of the best cattleman in the area. It was not long before their home was filled with the sounds of children’s laughter and play.

Education for her own children was never far from Emma’s thoughts. With statehood quickly approaching, new town sites were being surveyed and in 1904 Rafe helped to name the streets for the new town of Valliant, choosing the name Wilson for the town’s main avenue. Emma quickly saw the opportunity for a new school to serve the town’s children. The first classes were taught at Emma’s house, but a new building for a subscription school was soon built. Families paid seven dollars a year for their children to attend.

In 1906, Emma’s oldest daughter, Toru, was ready to be one of those students. In later years, Toru reflected on her life and said “I’ve been in school, as student or teacher or administrator, every year since I entered first grade.”

Her mother Emma could not have been prouder of her daughter, who graduated from Southeast Oklahoma Teacher’s College in Durant and completed further training at Central State College and Oklahoma State University. By 1940 Toru had been married, then widowed, then married again to Edward Herndon, and was busy raising three children.

On August 29, 1949, Toru Wilson Herndon started on her path to becoming one of Oklahoma’s outstanding educators when she accepted a job offer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as an elementary teacher at Wheelock Academy, her mother’s beloved school. When Wheelock Academy was permanently closed in the summer of 1955, Toru transferred to Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte, Oklahoma. In June 1958 she was transferred and promoted to Principal at the Eufaula Boarding School. Then on July 5, 1964 she was honored with an appointment as Principal at the historic Jones Academy near Hartshorne, Oklahoma.

Toru Herndon collage

Six years later, her retirement party, held at Jones Academy in May 1970, was an outpouring of love and respect for her many contributions to education and to the community of Hartshorne. She had served as the President of the Methodist Church Board and the President of the Business and Professional Women’s Club as well as a member of the Hartshorne PTA. She also was a distinguished member of the Choctaw Nation, being an original enrollee, and had served on the Choctaw Council.

Toru’s sister, Eleanor, never wanted to leave the Valliant community and married a local man John “Mack” Floyd in 1925. Like her sister, Mrs. Floyd was also a dedicated educator, teaching school for 47 years in Valliant Public Schools, She was a member and choir director of the First United Methodist Church of Valliant.

Grandma Wilson-grandkids

Emma’s family ties to Wheelock:

  • Emma’s mother-in-law Jane James Wilson (above) was orphaned shortly after coming with the Chickasaws to the Wheelock area in 1838 when she was one year old. She stayed at Wheelock until her marriage in 1851 to John Wilson, a cousin of District Chief Thomas LeFlore. Toru is standing in the middle at the back; Eleanor is standing, far left.
  • Emma’s sister-in-law, Emma Everidge Wilson, wife of Supt. Edward H. Wilson, hired Emma to look after her young son, Edward, Jr., and no doubt introduced Emma to her future husband Rafael “Rafe” Wilson.
  • Emma’s sister-in-law, Ollie Biard Wilson, wife of W.W. Wilson, taught the primary and middle grades from 1892-1896 and had been one of Emma’s teachers at Wheelock in the mid-1890s.

OllieBiard-EmmaJ-EmmaE labeled

Upon the closing of Wheelock Academy in 1955, Toru Wilson Herndon wrote this tribute:

“Defend the Poor and Fatherless. So reads the inscription on the bell that hangs in the old belfry at Wheelock Academy. Now that Wheelock has closed, the old bell is silent. No longer do its mel­low tones float out over the country side. Now only the birds use this old belfry as a resting place. Thousands of girls from all over the Choctaw country have lived by this old bell during their years at the School. Winds and rains have lashed upon it during the seventy-one years that it has hung there, but they did it no harm.

The old bell has hung there during years of progress. It has seen thousands of young girls grow into fine women and take their places in the great world. It has marveled at the changes in the country side. Good highways have replaced the muddy country roads, modern buildings have taken the place of the old log cabins, telephones and telegraph carry messages that once took days to come. Now the old bell along with the School has served its time. All things must give way to progress.

The Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington has set as part of its program the integration of Indian students into the public school system. Officials feel that this approach will help make the Indians more self-sufficient and depend less on the Federal Government for aid.

So with the official announcement on July 30 that Wheelock would close and be merged with Jones Academy, Hartshorne, Okla­homa, the children left on August 27, 1955. Thus, ended one hundred twenty-three years of continuous service to the Choctaw people.

The Poor and Fatherless have been defended. The mission of the School has been fulfilled. The old bell, like the founder of the School, now rests in the spot that they served well.”


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

SOURCES (under fair use exception;  not-for-profit educational purposes):

Featured photo of Wheelock Academy: WHEELOCK – STUDENT BODY, WITH R.C. ROBE & TEACHERS ON PORCH, 1880s; from the Muriel Wright Collection, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society.

Photos from the private collection of Edward Lewis Wilson, Jr., Dallas, Texas, and from the Jones Academy Museum, Hartshorne, Okla.

Toru Wilson Herndon, “Wheelock-Through The Years” (pamphlet), 1959, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City (closed stacks).

Interview with Emma Jane Wilson, an orphan girl, No. 12528, Indian Pioneer Papers, 1937, Western History Collection, Oklahoma University, Norman.

The neighbor who rescued Emma Bohanon from her half-brother’s house was later identified as Emma’s cousin Joel Springer, per a letter that her daughter Patricia sent to a relative Wilbor O. Wilson; a copy of the letter was obtained from the private collection of Edward Lewis Wilson, Jr., Dallas, Texas.

“3 Indian Instructors To End Careers Soon”, undated newspaper clipping.

“Toru Herndon Set To Retire”, McCurtain Daily Gazette, Weds, May 20, 1970.

“Appreciation Dinner Held For Mrs. Toru Herndon”, McAlester Capital-News, June 1970 clipping.

Memorial Page for Mr. William Bay Robe, buried at Greenhill Cemetery, Muskogee, Okla.

Memorial Page for Dr. Robert Chalmers Robe, buried at Roselawn Cemetery, Pueblo, CO.

Memorial Page for Emma’s sponsor Henry Churchill Harris, buried at Harris Cemetery in southern McCurtain County, Okla.

NOTE: Regarding the spelling of surname BOHANON, there were many different spellings of this name among the Choctaw but this is the family spelling.



5 thoughts on “An Orphan In Search of Family

  1. Thank you for posting this. I am a descendant of William Bohannon and his Choctaw wife through their child Susan Bohannon Spring and husband Christopher Spring

    I just recently found out about Eagletown and am looking for more info on their settlement by the federal government and why the moved to present day Hugo/Goodland

    Roger Spring

  2. Thank you, Roger. I hope to blog soon about Joel Spring. For such a well-known family, it is hard to find information about them. Good luck in your search.

  3. Wow, thank you as well. I am new to this “spring” family history since learning more from
    My mother Edith Spring is also a defendant of bohanans. She always spoke about a chocktaw heritage, but didn’t truly understand the history for various reasons. Lots to learn and am enjoying it immensely.

  4. Emma Jane is the sister of my great great grandfather Brazil Bohanon. Thank you for the information

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