Either Family or Friends – If you lived in the rustic settlements of the early Choctaw Nation, you were either one or the other.
There were no towns at first in the Indian Territory, only a few places such as Skullyville or Eagletown or Boggy Depot, where government annuity payments were paid out. Some choose to settle near trading posts such as Doaksville and Perryville. Slowly other places developed usually bearing a family name: Wadesville, Conser, Honobia, Durant, Colbert’s Ferry, Nail’s Station, and Fisher’s Station, to name a few early settlements. Then there were the missions: Wheelock, Pine Bluff, Goodland among others.
The Choctaws that came from the old lands in Mississippi were accustomed to scattered cabins and few neighbors. Distance did not matter – doors were always open, food was shared, shelter given, news and stories swapped. In shaping the new Choctaw Nation, the Choctaws took one important step. They let go of their dark despair and grief, instead turning their eyes to the future.
How can you begin to build a great nation in an attitude of despair? I can sense the presence of the ancestral elders lined up over the campfires, shoulder to shoulder, in praise of this brave step.
“Nothing has been lost,” they would have said if their voices could have been heard. “Remember that you are strong and courageous, as your elders before you were strong and courageous.”
And indeed what the Choctaw people accomplished in that raw wilderness is just short of amazing. Government rations were barely at subsistence level and not always in usable conditions. Think of what happened to the early English immigrants to our eastern shores:
- The Lost Colony of Roanoke was set up in 1585 and its first settlers lasted almost a year, until they went back to England with Sir Frances Drake. A small force was left to guard a fort.
- A second expedition returned in 1587 to try again to establish a settlement. The guards were all missing. About 115 people stayed behind. When English ships returned three years later, all the people, and their buildings, were gone.
- The Popham Colony in Maine was established at the mouth of the Kennebec River, at the same time as Jamestown but only lasted for one year. The former site of their tiny village is now within the Popham Beach State Park.
- The 1607 settlement at Jamestown, although eventually successful, almost collapsed due to starvation and disease. The winter of 1609-10 is known as the “Starving Time.” During that winter the English refused to leave their fort, due to hostilities by the Powhatan Indians whom the pilgrims had alienated. As a result they ate anything they could: vermin, leather from their shoes and belts, and sometimes fellow settlers who had already died. By early 1610 most of the settlers, 80-90% had died due to starvation and disease, according to William Strachey, one of the Jamestown survivors.
- Of the 102 original passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1620, only 47 were still living three months later. Of that group only six were well enough to care for the others.
The Choctaws faced an enormous task, turning a raw wilderness into prosperous farms, and needed the talents and energies of any willing body. White men with valuable skills were welcomed into the Choctaw Nation. These white newcomers were the blacksmiths, the masons, the carpenters, the wheelwrights, the grocers. Many chose to stay because of the warm-hearted Choctaw people and their deep sense of community.
Lucy McDonald Culberson Evans
Mrs. Lucy Evans was the red-headed daughter of Alexander McDonald, a Scottish blacksmith at Scullyville, and his wife Catherine. Lucy was enrolled as a Choctaw inter-married white #1108 (Enrollment Card 2324). No one remembers Lucy Evans, but her first marriage was to the legendary Tushpa, who left us with a mesmerizing account of his emotional and brutal journey on the Trail of Tears. Yet despite the ordeal, Tushpa chose a fair, red-headed woman for his wife and partner.
During the Civil War, Tushpa converted to an English name “John Culberson” at the request of his confederate officers. Among their five children was James Culberson, a brilliant linguist and interpreter for the federal judicial courts at Durant. James Culberson’s fair-haired granddaughter Beverly Bringle became a well-respected artist in New England. She brought her great-grandfather’s story to life with her poignant illustrations for the children’s book “Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery,” a story of a young girl caught up the violence of the forced removal. [By Marilou Awaikta, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 1983 (out-of-print)]
Victor M. Locke, Founder of the Town of Antlers
There are many stories about Victor M. Locke, some true, and some myth. One story relates his first impression of the Choctaw people
At the time, so the story goes, he was unhappy with his mother’s choice of a second husband (a Union supporter). The Civil War was over, but resentment still ran deep in young Locke. So, grabbing up his Spencer rifle, he left his Tennessee childhood home heading for Mexico. Somehow, things went awry in Louisiana, where he was badly wounded, and barely evading pursuit from a group of black men, who had taken offense at something he unwisely said to them.
Thus, on death’s door, he came to the Red River, desperately in need of passage across the river, but with no coin to give the Choctaw ferryman. Seeing his plight, the ferryman took him across to the Indian Territory, beyond the reach of his pursuers, and to his own house, where his wife cared for him and fed him until he was able to tend for himself.
Perhaps during his convalescence, at the hands of his generous Choctaw family, he decided that he could do no better than to live among the kind-hearted Choctaw. So Mexico was forgotten, and Dick Locke quickly found employment as a freighter with the Choctaw plantation owner Robert M. Jones, who owned twenty-eight stores across Indian Territory, and operated six plantations along the upper Red River.
Locke soon picked up the Choctaw language. Combined with his education and his innate skill with people, his ability to speak Choctaw made him a valuable employee at the various trading posts in that area. He worked hard, saved his money, married a Choctaw lass, and in time opened a store near a spring he would name “Antlers,” for the rack of horns he found there. He took to Choctaw politics like a native, and was a staunch defender of the full-bloods in the area, for better or for worse, a story for another time.
Descendants of George Risner
Another white immigrant, George Risner from Tennessee, became indelibly linked to the Choctaws. He had a tannery near Nelson, later moving to the Armstrong Academy community. He is buried at the Old Bennington Presbyterian Church Cemetery. His son Atwood Risner, a successful businessman at Caddo, adopted the full-blood children of Choctaw Sheriff J. H. Bryant. The Bryant father-son duo was featured in my blog “Service and Honor“.
George Risner’s daughter Tennessee married a Choctaw man Bennie Hunter, a survivor of the Trail of Tears. They were the parents of County Judge Thomas Hunter, who ran against Green McCurtain in the last Choctaw election before statehood. See his photo and obituary on his memorial page – Thomas Woutin Hunter.
Tennessee’s daughter Mary Jane Hunter married Simon T. Dwight, first superintendent of Jones Academy. She became widowed in January 1894 when Simon suddenly passed away. You can read more about Superintendent Simon T. Dwight in my blog “The Woman Who Saved Jones Academy.”
Their son, Ben Dwight, fatherless at age four, was appointed Chief of the Choctaw Nation by President Herbert Hoover in 1930 and later served as congressional aide to Senator Robert S. Kerr in Washington, D.C.. See his photo and obituary on his memorial page – Ben Hunter Dwight.
After Simon’s death, Many Jane married John A. King of Durant. Somewhere along the way she developed a good set of business skills and for a number of years managed the popular Atwood Hotel there.
She was the person her family turned to in times of trouble. When her brother George lost his young wife Minnie in 1914 she found a convent in Ardmore to temporarily shelter his two young daughters, Ethel and Mabel Hunter.
In the late 1920s, after the death of her second husband, rancher John A. King, Mary Jane and her sister Emma Dwight elected to move to California. They took Emma’s four sons – Simon, Edwin, Hunter, and Max – and the five children from George Hunter’s first marriage – Ethel, Mabel, Bennie, Elizabeth, and Mary Jane.
Eleven people making the long move to California – that was quite an undertaking! The reasons are not recorded anywhere but I suspect that illness and a drier climate played a factor. Emma’s son, Simon T. Dwight, at age 44, died in 1942 at an Arizona hospital from tuberculosis. His younger brother Max Dwight, died in 1945 at age 38 in Los Angeles, cause unknown.
By 1937 Mary Jane King had returned to Choctaw County and was employed as a house mother at Goodland Academy. She had done her best for her brother’s five children who all established their own lives in California. If her niece Ethel’s obituary is any indication, Ethel’s life was full of joy as the wife of a famous Swiss chef, and full of gratitude for her aunt’s devotion and wisdom. A partial obituary is below; see her complete obituary at her memorial page – Ethel Hunter Naef.
Santa Maria, Calif. – Mrs. Ethel Hunter Naef, age 95, passed away Tuesday, October 3, 2000 at her residence of natural causes.
She was born Sept 8, 1905 in Boswell, Oklahoma. Ethel Naef was raised in Indian Territory and rode horses bareback at the age of 5 years. Ethel was enrolled with the United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs with a 5/16 degree of Indian Blood in the Choctaw tribe. She was a distinguished member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
After the age of eight, she was raised by her revered Aunt Mary Jane Hunter King, an accomplished businesswoman. Ethel’s school years were spent in private schools and she attended business college.
During the depression years she worked as a bookkeeper in the hotel industry in Southern California and met her husband, Max Naef, an international chef. Ethel and Max married in 1931. Together they opened their own restaurant, Swiss Chalet, in 1939 on Wilshire Blvd, in Santa Monica. The restaurant was a primary choice of almost all the old-time movie stars. Ethel knew them all and had many vivid stories to tell.
Ethel loved the outdoors, her animals, and the farming lifestyle as conveyed on her ranch in Santa Maria in 1959. Ethel and Max retired to their ranch in Oregon and it was there that one of her proudest achievements took place; alone and by herself she assisted the birthing of her prize-winning horse. Miss Joy.
Later Ethel and Max moved back to Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara. Ethel and Max started coming to Santa Maria to visit friends in the 1930s. Ethel loved the people in Santa Maria and years after Max’s death, she moved here in 1979. She had a passion for traveling and traveled around the world three times after the age of 75. She could tell stories about all the different peoples from every corner of the earth; her stories were fascinating. Ethel loved ballroom dancing and spent many years enjoying it. At her 90th birthday celebration, she danced all evening. Ethel will be greatly missed by many.
Susan Blackburn Bohreer, Dedicated Midwife
There were countless others who integrated into the Choctaw culture. A name that is hardly ever mentioned is Blackburn. Points given to any reader who remembers that midway through the Choctaw Nation, the Butterfield Stage route crossed through Blackburn’s Station at Pine Top near Pittsburg in Pittsburg County.
The station was at the home of Casper John Blackburn, an inter-married Choctaw. Casper was a botanist by training who came to the Indian Territory to research and document the native vegetation, and then elected to stay, perhaps because of a certain beautiful Choctaw maiden.
After the Civil War, he also had a ranch place on or near the present town of Kiowa, in Pittsburg County. His wife was Mary Walker, a sister of Choctaw Chief Tandy Walker (according to some genealogies – their parents being the same: John Walker of Alabama and Mary Riddle, daughter of the well-known Capt. John Riddle.) It is interesting to note that both Tandy Walker and the Riddle family also had stations on the Butterfield Stage route.
Mr. Blackburn and his wife Mary had one daughter named Susan, who was the only child to live until the Choctaw enrollment. One of the family stories passed down over time tells of Mrs. Blackburn purchasing a boarding house with the family savings after her husband passed away. Since she was a full-blood Choctaw she had to tell everyone that she was only half-Choctaw so she would be allowed to own property.
Like her father, Susan learned to love plants and their healing properties. Perhaps from her mother, she learned the skills of midwifery because she became a respected midwife in Tobucksy County.
Susan married a white man, John Jeremiah Bohreer, from Washington, D.C. On their small farm near Kiowa, they raised six children: John Henry, Lelia (Hewitt), Nettie (Waite), Addison, Alfred, and Ursula ‘Sula’ (Hightower).
Susan was enrolled into the Choctaw Nation as Roll#14340. Four of her children are also original enrollees (Card #3102).
In 1903 Susan died at age 47 from pneumonia caused by a late night ride through pouring rain to help a woman in birthing difficulties. See Susan’s memorial page. See a photo of Susan’s granddaughter, Rita Bohreer Hood, who looks just like her.
Her oldest son John Henry Bohreer spent the next ten years helping his father raise his two brothers and youngest sister who was ten years old. Later with money from the sale of his allotted lands, he established a store in Kiowa and named it New State Furniture and Hardware. In addition the store carried musical instruments and photography equipment (his two great interests). After a short time in Krebs, and another store in Kiowa, he eventually settled in McAlester, working as a barber for the rest of his career.
John’s son Roy followed after his father with his love of photography. Roy was a professional photographer, owing Roy’s Studio in McAlester, also working at the McAlester News Capital. He was a theater manager for United Artists then Telecommunications for 46 years, operating all of the theaters in the McAlester area.
James Wood Kirk, dedicated to his Choctaw Community
A southern bred gentleman from the coastal lowlands of Beaufort County, South Carolina, James Wood Kirk, found a welcome near the Wheelock Church community. The place where he set up his cotton gin and tannery he named Garvin, for Chief Isaac Garvin, the father of his first wife Mary Jane who died of tuberculosis in 1880. In 1894 Mr. Kirk was the first postmaster for Garvin. He also held a coveted seat on the Choctaw Board of Education along with his Choctaw neighbors Judge Henry C. Harris, Rev. John Turnbull, and the four Wilson brothers – W.W., John, Edward, and Raphael Wilson. See his photo and obituary at his memorial page – James Wood Kirk.
David Randall Swink, born Aug 15, 1848 in Madison County, Tennessee, arrived in the Choctaw Nation in the fall of 1885. His first wife, Bettie, was the adopted daughter of Judge Henry C. Harris. His second wife was Lena Harris, a daughter of the Judge. Lena and her husband David had eight children, all said to be born in the Chief’s House (the Council House built for Thomas LeFlore).
It was said about David Swink, that when called on for a favor, he never refused. At the time of allotment, no town-site had been provided for their community, so David Swink gave land for a townsite on his allotment (as an inter-married white) for the town of Swink (Choctaw County). The Swink Cemetery was established on allotted lands belonging to his son, Burt. And so the name Swink has become an indelible part of all Choctaw landscape. See his memorial page – David Randall Swink.
The white carpenter from North Carolina, Thomas Oakes, who contracted with the government to build council houses for the Choctaw leaders, married a young Choctaw woman, Harriet Everidge, who survived the Trail of Tears, and ended up the patriarch of many, many Choctaw descendants.
Each of these white neighbors lent fascinating stories to the fabric of the Choctaw society. There were many other good neighbors whose stories perhaps will come at another time. All were first strangers who became respected friends and family, and in their unique way, added to our rich Choctaw culture.
Remember the words of the elders:
“Nothing has been lost.”
***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
Please sign up on my blog page to receive notifications by email (since Facebook notifications do not work well for this blog.)
Featured image: artwork by the fantastic Choctaw artist Valjean McCarty Hessing (1934-2006).
Valjean Hessing has won national recognition for her paintings of the traditional Choctaw world. In the course of her career, Hessing has won more than seventy-five major awards, and her work is part of the permanent collections of American Indian art in museums across the United States. In l972 Valjean Hessing and her sister, Jane McCarty Mauldin, were honored by the Heard Museum in Phoenix by an exhibition of their paintings, and in 1973 Valjean Hessing was honored with a one-woman exhibition of her work at the Heard Museum. In 1986 the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma, recognized Hessing’s accomplishments in painting by elevating her to the Masters category, a special level reserved for a few outstanding artists of the Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw Nations.
Throughout her career it has been important to Valjean Hessing to work in a two-dimensional linear style used by traditional American Indian artists throughout the twentieth century. Hessing explains that two-dimensional painting is “a very demanding, disciplined art form and there are only a few of us left who practice it. I continue because I am just as concerned about preserving the traditional Indian art techniques for future generations as I am their legends.” Hessing’s work is distinguished by the subtlety and beauty of her palette which features earth tones and celebrates the harmony of nature. ~from “Earth Songs, Moon Dreams, Paintings by American Indian Women”, Patricia Janis Broder, (St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
Obituary: Valjean McCarty Hessing, 72, of Onarga, IL and formerly of St. Charles, IL., departed this life on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006 at her home. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006, at Segur-Knapp Funeral Home, in Watseka, IL. with Joe Hughes officiating. ~~Chicago Tribune (IL), October 14, 2006
National Park Service, Historic Jamestowne.
More about the early Mayflower pilgrims: John Brown,”The Pilgrim Fathers of New England and their Puritan Successors”, (1895, reprinted 1970).
A beloved book on the Victor Locke family: Vance H. Trimble, “Choctaw Kisses, Bullets, and Blood”, (Market-Tech Books, Wilmington DE, 2007).
An excellent book on some of the Choctaw Original Enrollees: Wesley and Charlene Samuels, ed, , “Life and Times of the Choctaw Original Enrollees”, (self-published, 1997).
Also see the Choctaw Nation website for stories about Original Enrollees submitted by their families or friends.