We may not be able to change things on a national scale, but we can still extend a hand or even offer a smile to others.
At this time of year most of us recall the age old story concerning the small towns of ancient Israel where, one after another, each refused shelter to Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary until they came to the poorest settlement of Nazareth and the poorest of accommodations, an animal pen.
Personally, I think often of my grandfather at the cusp of Oklahoma statehood, having just lost the core of his being – the glorious Choctaw Nation – and yet he found his own way to welcome the mass of white people moving into his community. When other stores might have catered to only the folks who mirrored themselves, his mercantile put up this simple sign in the window:
~ALL PEOPLE ARE WELCOME~
As Choctaw, we know intimately what it is to be disempowered and displaced. Most of us in the distant past have an ancestor that walked the Trail of Tears. Muriel Wright’s excellent article on the Choctaw Removal describes the Choctaw people’s state of mind on the brink of removal. They would find that reluctant hearts make for heavy steps along a difficult trail.
Consternation reigned among the Choctaws when word spread throughout their country that the treaty had been signed at Dancing Rabbit Creek, for the great majority were bitterly opposed to the sale of the tribal lands and the removal to the West. It was truthfully said that the nation “was literally in mourning.” The thought of some of the Choctaws was expressed by one who said, “I will not go to the West; I might as well die here as there.” Yet another who had been under the influence of the Christian missionaries made the statement, “I can neither sing nor pray, and why should I pretend to do so when my heart is not in it?” A third said that he did not wish to leave the country where his ancestors lay buried; that many relatives were dependent upon him, some of whom were old people, and since he had no means to move them to a new country, they might die from exposure to cold and hunger on the way. He added that, “The Secretary of War came and took my country. I am in distress. … When I see the women and children weeping in sorrow, I am distressed. This I tell you.”
Eight Survivors of the Trail of Tears
(photo montage above, clockwise from top left corner)
*Harriet Everidge Oakes, born 1824; daughter of Eve Brashears and Thomas Everidge; wife of Thomas Wilson Oakes; died 1906 near Frogville, I.T.
*Lovicia Nail Folsom, born 1807; daughter of Henry Nail and Mary Bates; wife of Rev. Israel Folsom; died at Caddo in 1876.
*Susan James Colbert, born March 27, 1783; daughter of Benjamin James, interpreter and agent to the Choctaws and his Choctaw wife; wife of Maj. James Colbert. She died Dec 3, 1863 near Soper, Choctaw Nation.
*Jane Folsom Perkins, born 1823; daughter of Robert and Susan Folsom; wife of George A. Perkins; died 1893 at Indianola, I.T.
*Mary Ann Wilson Gardner, born 1824; daughter of Clarissa LeFlore and James Wilson; wife of William A. Gardner; died 1912 at Bennington, Okla.
*Mary Anna Homma, born about 1820; daughter of John Homma; wife of Judge William G. Roebuck; died 1901 near Goodland, I.T.
*Jane James Wilson, born 1837; daughter of Dace James and Rutha; wife of John Wilson; died in 1909 in Fort Towson, Okla. One-year old Jane and her mother came over the Trail of Tears with the Chickasaws, her white father having died in Lowndes County, MS in June 1837.
We know from many recollections, that everybody who was able to, had to walk. Every rest day taken meant less food for the rugged journey still ahead. Children who were too young to walk had to be carried. The ox wagons, driven by government men, hauled only necessities: food, clothes, bedding, garden seed, and a few vital metal implements or kettles. Nobody rode – room was made for only the elderly and infants. If by sickness or disease you could not keep up, you were left behind to make your own way. Read my blog “A Journey Almost Beyond Endurance” about Elsie Beams Roebuck’s difficult choices on the Trail of Tears when her husband fell sick with the dreaded and highly contagious cholera.
The Rev. Israel Folsom was one of the Choctaw men appointed to assist with the Choctaw removal. His daughter Christine Folsom Bates recalled some of her father’s experiences. In between the lines, you can read his concern for his people and his search to find ways to motivate them.
“It was in the winter time when the long journey was started. There was much suffering and many deaths along the way. He started preaching on this journey to the new land and the people had much faith in him. He would ask them to “Keep the Sabbath Day Holy” or they need not expect to get over the road safe. The trip was made in wagons with oxen, leading their horses and cattle.”
By the time the Choctaws reached Arkansas, most were in desperate straits. For many it was still winter with little or no time to rest. A month later these exhausted people arrived in the heart of a vast western wilderness where immediately they faced another kind of hard relentless labor – logs had to be cut to provide shelter against the freezing rains and ground broken for the critical first crops.
I want to share a man’s story about the most difficult time in his life – being an impoverished “stranger in a strange land.” In the interview he places no blame on anyone, just frankly states the brutal struggle he and his family encountered almost two hundred years ago. After you read his story, remember and give thanks to the white Arkansas farmer that was so moved by the plight of starving and struggling Choctaws passing by his farm that he gave them his whole field of pumpkins when they asked for help.
THE JOURNEY TO THE INDIAN TERRITORY BY THE CREEKS
When Chili McIntosh started to immigrate, they got somewhere down the Mississippi River. [Chili McIntosh was a Chief but not the same person as William or J. R.] The boat was no good and it sank. A lot of lives were lost; some of them helped the others who couldn’t swim out of the water. The ones who could swim worked all night saving the others.
What was left took the trail on west to the Indian Territory. They had the smallpox, measles, and other diseases which killed a lot more of them on the way. They were awful weak from the lack of food. There were no stores to get food; some had corn in sacks.
They would stop to rest for two or three days then journey on. While resting they would parch the corn and make coffee of it as there was no coffee among them. They would pound it up into coarser particles and make “sofkey” [from the Creek word safke or osafke, meaning a sour corn drink or soup]. There was plenty of fresh meat but a lack of bread, salt, pepper, baking powder, and beverages.
As they were going through the woods and crossing rivers, they killed and caught the meats of different kinds. The rivers, creeks, and ponds were pure and clear as there were no dead bodies, nor cities to pollute them. So they had good water wherever they found it. Sometimes they found good springs of water.
When they finally got to this country, they were not used to the climate and didn’t get used to it for quite a while. They worried, for there were a lot of deaths occurred when they first came to the new country. They started to settle, and settled close together in villages, because they were afraid of the wild animals. They built log houses and made furniture to go in them. They had a prop to lock the door from the inside but didn’t need to lock it from the outside because the women folk didn’t leave home at all, but stayed at home for fear the fierce wild animals in this country would eat them.
Against all odds, our ancestors were not helpless; and we are not helpless. When you smile at a stranger, you are empowered and you become the giver.
“Ask yourself often: What can I give here; how can I be of service to this person, this situation?” – Eckhart Tolle
People express generosity and compassion in the most ingenious and unexpected ways. A spontaneous charity called the SCARF PROJECT has been sweeping the country in the past few years. The idea is simple: to knit scarves and hats for anybody in need and leave them in public places such as libraries or churches.
We will always encounter people who are different from us, but we don’t have to shut them out because of who they are. A person much wiser than myself advised each of us, when we start our day, to find three things to be grateful for and to think of three ways to be kind to others.
Today I am grateful to the long ago farmer with a pumpkin patch and a loving heart; and for fragrant homemade muffins made with white flour and spices my ancestors did not have; and for the coming new year that hopefully will be full of more Choctaw stories.
***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]
Muriel H. Wright, “THE REMOVAL OF THE CHOCTAWS TO THE INDIAN TERRITORY 1830-1833,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 6, No. 2, June, 1928, pages 105-106.
Interview with George Looney, ID #55, Indian Pioneer Papers, 1937, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.
The definition of “sofkey” is found in the OHS Online Encyclopedia HERE.
Interview with Lem W. Oakes, ID #68, Indian Pioneer Papers, 1937, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.
Lemuel Wellington Oakes, 1857-1940, was the son of Trail of Tears survivor Harriet Everidge Oakes, wife of Thomas Wilson Oakes, a white carpenter from North Carolina hired by the government to build the first Council houses for the Choctaw in Indian Territory.
Interview with Effie Oakes Fleming, ID #30, Indian Pioneer Papers, 1937, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.
Effie Oakes, 1888-1962, was the grand-daughter of Harriet Everidge Oakes, and daughter of Joel E. Oakes and Josephine Eunice Cronk. She married Milton Esley Fleming.
Interview with Christina Bates, ID #6, Indian Pioneer Papers, 1937, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.
Christina, 1849-1937, was one of eight children, her parents being Lovicia Dovie Nail and the Rev. Israel Folsom, one of the many children of Nathaniel Folsom and his Choctaw wife.
Facebook page for the SCARF PROJECT.