Choctaw brothers and sisters – join me on a trip back to the late 1800s to visit a young orphan, one of many orphaned children in those days. This young orphan had in his family tree, both the celebrated Choctaw-French LeFlore family, and also the patriarch of the Spring family who was an officer in Bonaparte Napoleon’s army.
We would know almost nothing of his youth but for the biography written by his daughter Winnie G. Griffith of Hugo. This young boy never have a chance to truly know his parents. Instead he grew up in his uncle William’s home. His uncle just happened to be Uncle Billy Spring, one of the legendary figures in the Choctaw Nation, and also one of the wealthiest.
Running away from school at age 12, young Joel dismissed his uncle’s aid and took a round-about way to finding his life-long profession. Ironically he learned his retail skills from another runaway son, Victor M. Locke, the well-known merchant from Tennessee who founded the town of Antlers.
Winnie Griffith’s biography elaborates more on Joel’s heritage and on his early life:
Born within three miles of where Hugo now stands on February 2, 1863, Joel Spring came of unusual lineage. His grandfather, Christian Spring, was born in Switzerland, of German parentage, was educated in Germany and served a time in the army of that nation. Subsequently he was a commissioned officer in the army of Napoleon, and after Waterloo immigrated to America, landing at New Orleans, drifting into Mississippi, where he married Susan Bohanon, who was of mingled French and Indian extraction.
Samuel Spring, father of Joel, married Elizabeth LeFlore. She was a representative of that family which for generations furnished the Choctaws with their hereditary chiefs. One of them was Greenwood LeFlore, author of the celebrated Dancing Rabbit Treaty of 1830. Of Greenwood LeFlore President Jackson said: “There is no greater statesman among any people.”
Samuel Spring was a Confederate soldier, and died in service in the same year that his son Joel was born. The mother of this future merchant, banker and town builder also died when he was a child.
He grew up principally in the home of his uncle William M. Spring, prominently known in this section of Indian Territory as “Uncle Billie Spring.” Uncle Billie sent his nephew at the age of twelve to old Spencer Academy. He soon grew tired of books and the confining discipline of school, ran away to Texas, and finally entered the household of M. E. Savage in the vicinity of Whitewright.
He remained there two years, and then crossed the Red River and went back to his uncle’s home. He gained his first practical experience in merchandising as clerk for Victor M. Locke, Sr., in the latter’s store near the present town of Antlers. For a time Joel Spring was associated with Uncle Billie Spring in the proprietorship of a small store on Roebuck Lake, and then moved the store to old Rockwall Lake, a short distance south of the present site of Hugo.
About that time, on September 28, 1883, Joel Spring married Miss Winnie Richards Gooding, daughter of Henry L. Gooding of old Goodland and granddaughter of Governor Basil LeFlore, also a prominent member of the LeFlore family just mentioned.
Miss Gooding brought to her husband as her “marriage portion” a small herd of cattle. These were soon sold and the proceeds used to purchase Uncle Billie’s interest in the store. This was the commencement of Joel Spring’s progressive career as a merchant and businessman.
Joel Spring was surrounded by a very large support system – not only his Uncle Billy Spring, but also his wife’s extended family. His father-in-law was the son of George Gooding, the sutler at Fort Towson . Henry Gooding grew up watching the sutler activities at the busiest commerce center of the early Choctaw Nation, with the likes of the Robert M. Jones and Berthelet importers and the merchant Charles Stewart among others. Governor LeFlore spent years managing the finances of the Choctaw tribe; his wisdom being sought from miles around. I wondered if together they colluded in choosing the best wedding gift for the young couple: not a fancy lady’s pony nor a crate of delicate china, but a herd of smelly, hungry, bellowing cattle. How romantic! But the gift was the turning point in Joel Spring’s career.
Although Governor Basil LeFlore would pass unexpectedly in 1886, his wife Carrie Gooding LeFlore (older sister of Henry Gooding) would be a valuable guiding influence for Joel until her death. In Joel Spring’s letter dated Oct 4, 1889, to his aunt Carrie in Dallas, he relates his battle with malaria, among other things:
Winnie’s biography about her father continues:
When Joel Spring died at Hugo February 21, 1908, it was said that no other contemporary had done so much to enrich his community in those elements which make for civic wholesomeness and material prosperity. Such a citizen was an honor to Oklahoma history, and such an account of his character and activities as can be given in this article is but a meager memorial to one whose life left much that was practical in its accomplishment and inspiring in its character
Nearly twenty-five years before his death [in 1908] Joel Spring, having recently married, engaged in merchandising at Roebuck Lake in what is now southeastern Oklahoma. From Roebuck Lake he removed to Clear Springs Court Ground, about two miles west of the present Hugo and then the seat of Kiamichi County.
After the building of the Frisco Railway through that section of the country he removed his business and his household to Goodland, where for years he conducted one of the largest mercantile establishments in the Indian Territory.
Then in 1902 the new town of Hugo was established. Mr. Spring, quickly seeing the great promise for the new town, located there as one of its first merchants and from the first took the position of the most prominent business man and citizen.
He at once acquired an interest on the townsite on the east side, erected a large attractive and beautifully furnished residence on an eminence in that part of the city. He also built a number of the most substantial business houses of the place, and in every practical way showed his unbounded faith in Hugo and its people.
And this feeling was heartily reciprocated, for citizens and countrymen trusted in his judgment, integrity and generosity with unbounded faith, placing in his keeping their property and their future with no security other than that of his long-tried character. He became the friend, adviser, banker and father of the entire community.
But with all his later affluence and unique standing, he cast an affectionate eye over the struggling days of his early life. On the walls of his residence in Hugo was a reproduction from a small photograph of the tiny log cabin in which he commenced married life on the banks of Roebuck Lake, showing the proud nineteen year old husband standing in the yard and his fifteen year old bride in the doorway.
Of his part as a town builder, the editorial expression of the entire community at Hugo found in the columns of a local paper, should be quoted:
“As a town builder and developing force he was without a peer in Southern Oklahoma. He was a person of wealth and resource, and owned much property in this city. During the past five years he erected seven large brick buildings all of the very best and constructed with a view to permanency, majestically beautiful and an ornament to a city of many thousand people.
As are all great men, he was at times subjected to unjust criticism, but when a task was completed no fault could be found with it. He was charitable and liberal, giving freely to the construction and maintenance of the churches and other moral institutions. At one time, several years ago, the Methodist church was advertised for sale to liquidate its indebtedness, and it was Joel Spring who came to the rescue. He made a large donation and placed the then struggling band upon their feet, and that with only an expression of regret that they had not made him fully conversant with conditions before resorting to such extremities. By spending his money so freely to develop the town he encouraged others to do so; and he was indeed and in truth ’the father of Hugo. However great it may become in the future will be due to his efforts in its struggling pioneer days. One day, when Hugo shall have become a large city, we wish to stand on one of our principal streets with uncovered heads before an imperishable statue dedicated to the memory of this tireless man who was such a great factor when the town was in its infancy.”
From the columns of this same paper it is possible to learn some of the particulars regarding the business character and activities of the late Joel Spring. From an examination of the records and from such comments as are still freely passed, on his life and influence, the conspicuous attribute of Mr. Spring was undoubtedly character, that part of the human soul which dominates all else and which must stand imperishable while the earthly tabernacle falls.
As the article just referred to says:
“In his case it was a steady, honest character that formed the foundation of his success. In the early days he was the only man in this country who owned a safe. In those days many of the settlers were prosperous and had a large amount of ready cash at their command. They were afraid of the banks in the State run by men of whom they knew but little, but they were acquainted with Joel Spring, and knew that every dollar would be conscientiously accounted for; and for years he was not only a merchant but a banker for a large section of country. Men came from Nashoba County, seventy miles away, for the sole purpose of entrusting their savings with him for safe keeping. Many times a large herd of cattle would be sold and the owner knowing but little of the business world would accept nothing but a check payable to Joel Spring. He was the chief adviser of his people on business matters. He had at all times many thousand dollars deposited with him and while he kept a safe reserve in cash, robbers were not unknown and a large amount was kept invested in good security. He was a banker subject to no regulation or inspection, yet no man lost a cent or had cause for uneasiness. Thus his success was to a large extent built upon confidence, which the world entertains for only the highest order of manly character.
”In character Joel Spring was of the most manly and lofty type. He enjoyed the full confidence and respect of his fellow men, and we have yet to hear of the man who claimed that Joel Spring ever beat him out of a cent, or that in any instance did he violate that sacred honor which exists between man and man. He was systematic in his work and successful in every undertaking, and had he entered other fields of labor than that of business he would probably have reached the goal of his ambition with the same measure of success.”
Joel Samuel Spring passed away Feb 21, 1908 at the age of 45. At his death he was survived by his widow Winnie ‘Patsy’ Spring and seven children, three of which (Dewey, Robert, and William) were under ten years old. Joel was predeceased by his son Samuel “Pat” Spring who was one of the students killed in the tragic fire at Spencer Academy.
The eight children are:
- Samuel Guy “Pat” Spring, born Jan 23, 1886; died of his burns Oct 6, 1896, the day after the dormitory fire at Spencer Academy;
Antlers, I. T., Oct. 4.—At 11 o’clock last night Spencer Academy, located ten miles west of Antlers, burned to ashes, together with all the furniture and four Choctaw boys were burned up in the flames.
Their names are:
- John Smith, age 19, of Tobucsy County. He went to Spencer the day it burned.
- Daniel James, age 10, of Atoka County.
- Thomas Kuniotubbie, age 16, of Jacks Fork County.
- Wilman Wilson, age 14, of Blue County.
Those injured are:
- Alfred Bryant, of Blue County, bruised and burned in head, and inhaled flames.
- Harris Fisher, of Red River County, sprained foot.
- Colton Bacon, of Wade County, leg sprained.
- Edward Clark, of Blue County, jawbone broken.
- Sam Springs, of Kiamitia County, burned in face, on head, back, shoulders, feet and hands. His condition is critical.
The origin of the fire is supposed to be incendiary, as no one was occupying the room in which the fire broke out, and there had been no fire in it this season. Superintendent J. B. Jeter, who is in charge of the school, heard the flames popping and when he got up, the stairway was on fire. He ran on the outside and woke all the boys and barely saved his own family and the seamstress. The boys threw their beds out of the windows and jumped to the ground on them.
One of the boys burned was a cripple, and the other three were in rooms where there were no windows. It is said their moans and groans were heart-sickening in the extreme. Today when your reporter visited the ruins, what yesterday were five strong, healthy boys, were nothing but charred bones and ashes.
The academy was built by the Choctaw Nation, and 102 boys were there last night when it burned. Everything is a total loss as the nation did not carry any insurance. Superintendent Jeter does not know whether the nation is going to rebuild, as it is financially embarrassed and way behind with the school fund. Over $2000 worth of groceries were burned, together with the house. Two beds were all that the boys saved except what they had on their backs.
- Samuel Guy “Pat” Spring, born Jan 23, 1886; died of his burns Oct 6, 1896, the day after the dormitory fire at Spencer Academy;
- Joel “Jodie” Spring, Jr., born January 24, 1888; married Mabel Conrady of Paris, Texas in 1907. Mabel died about a year later, a few days after giving birth to a daughter. Joel was rejected for military service in 1917 due to his partially impaired hearing. He was a resident of Webber Nursing Home in Fort Worth, Texas when he died of a heart attack on March 11, 1975.
- Lawrence Emmett Spring, born Dec 15 1889; died Dec 15, 1917 at age 28;
- Jesse Henry Spring, born August 4, 1891. Henry, as he was known, was an IRS agent for many years, and then worked for a CPA firm in Hugo. He died Nov 13, 1978 in the Fairmont Nursing Home in Dallas, Texas.
- Winnie Gooding Spring, born November 20, 1894, married Harold S. Griffiths of Hugo in 1913 – three children: Lillian, Harold and Irene. She died Dec 26, 1991.
- Dewey LeFlore Spring, born May 14, 1898; married Roma Lee Griffin. He died about 1940 in Arkansas. His three sons – Albert L. Spring, Joe D. Spring, and Dan Verne Spring – all served with great honor in World War II.
- Robert Murray Spring, born October 27, 1900; served in World War I and became disabled as a result of a battle injury. He died Nov 16, 1973 in a Dallas hospital.
- William Cicero Ora Spring, born December 23, 1903; died Jan 12, 1986 in Los Angeles County, Calif.
***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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Biographical Sketch for Joel Spring and photos are part of the Spring Family Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division. See Box 2, File Folder 7 for the bio.
Joe Spring’s letter to his Caroline Gooding LeFlore is found in the Carrie Gooding Collection [correspondence], housed at the Western History Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla. and in the WHC digital archive here.
For more about the life of Caroline Gooding LeFlore and the Gooding family, read my blog, Choctaw First Lady Caroline Gooding LeFlore: a Sutler’s Daughter
Booming Business in Goodland, from Indian Citizen (Atoka, Oklahoma), Thursday, Oct 27, 1898, Page 4.
Spencer Academy Fire, from The Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Oklahoma), Monday, Oct 5, 1896, Page 2.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information [NCBI] offers this article, A Brief History of Malaria.