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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Mission Neosho: The First Kansas Mission

by T.F Morrison

August 1935 (Vol. 4, No. 3), pages 227 to 234
Transcribed by lhn; digitized with permission of
the Kansas Historical Society.

IN 1820 the United Foreign Missionary Society, an organization supported by the Presbyterian, Reformed Dutch and Associated Reformed churches, [1] established among the Osages on the Neosho river, near Fort Gibson, Indian territory, a mission school known as Union Mission.

In 1821 the same organization, under the superintendency of the Rev. Philip Milledoler, established a mission near Pappinsville, Bates county, Missouri, known as Harmony Mission. The superintendent was the Rev. Nathaniel Dodge. He was assisted by the Rev. Benton Pixley. The mission family numbered altogether forty-one persons, of which twenty-five were adults and sixteen were children. Among the members were the Rev. William B. Montgomery, Doctor Belcher, Daniel H. Austin, Samuel Newton, Samuel B. Bright, Otis Sprague, Amasa Jones, John Seeley, Susan Comstock, Mary Weller, Mary Etris, Elizabeth Howell and Harriet Woolley. All the men were married and were accompanied by their families. In the group were ministers, a physician, blacksmith, carpenter, millwright, shoemaker and two farmers. The women, many of whom had taught school in the East, were fitted to teach sewing, knitting, cooking and music to the Indians.

Members of the missionary party traveled by wagon to Pittsburgh where two boats were built, on which, with their goods, they descended the Ohio river to the Mississippi and up this river to the Missouri. Thence they proceeded to the mouth of the Osage which was ascended to the place where the mission was to be built. The objective point was reached 112 days after leaving Pittsburgh. [2]

Harmony Mission commenced with two Osage pupils and increased this number to fifty-five. In 1825 the Osages relinquished, by treaty, all their claims to land lying in Missouri and removed to what is now Kansas. [3] Notwithstanding the migration of the Osages, which took them seventy miles from the mission, Harmony was continued until 1836. [4]

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228 THE KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

The migration to Neosho county, Kansas, had commenced as early as 1815, when 1,000 Great Osages under Chief White Hair built a village about four miles down the Neosho river from present Shaw, Kan. [5] The village was known as White Hair's Town and contained eight log houses and 100 bark and grass houses. It was a pretentious Indian town with flagstone sidewalks and a grist mill. The site of the village is on the west side of the river in section 2, township 29, range 19, Neosho county. When the first white settlers came there were eight stone chimneys standing; the houses had been burned. The Osages had been induced to come to their new home by Pierre Chouteau, [6] the Indian trader, who had established a trading post sixteen miles down the river from White Hair's village. [7]

Continuing the program of work among the Osages, the United Foreign Missionary Society established, in 1824, Neosho Mission. In September of that year, from Harmony Mission in Missouri, came Benton Pixley, accompanied into the wilderness only by his wife and two small children. Pixley was a college graduate, a Latin and Greek scholar.

The family arrived by wagon and moved into a vacant cabin that had been built by one of Chouteau's traders. Pixley selected a site for the mission in a stately oak grove about one half mile west of the Neosho river and forty rods from a small natural lake near what is now Shaw, Neosho county. He set to work felling trees preparatory to building a log house for his home in the coming spring. He continued at this work during the fall and winter, having at the same time to provide wild game for the sustenance of his family. In the spring white men came from Harmony Mission and assisted him in erecting a large log house. Another log house was built at the time for a school room for the Osage children, and hewn log seats were placed in it. This room was also used as a church for

MORRISON: MISSION NEOSHO 229

Osage adults on the Sabbath. The Osages built seven log houses near Pixley's for permanent homes.

In the spring of 1826, Daniel B. Bright, instructor in farming at Harmony, came to live with the Pixleys. Ground was plowed and crops were planted and cultivated. The Osages assisted with the crops and an abundance of beans, watermelons, pumpkins and 260 bushels of corn were produced. [8] These were probably the first crops of the sort produced in Kansas by white men. Also in 1826 came Cornelia Pelham to assist the Pixleys with the teaching. She had taught at Harmony and Union missions. Her letters and daily records of events at Neosho Mission provide an excellent description of the country and its agricultural possibilities. An attempt was made to teach the Osages how to farm, but no mention is made of their agricultural pursuits after their work with the first crops in 1826. A report from the mission to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1827 sets forth the following:

Neosho is about in the center of the Osage reservation from north to south, just within the eastern line of that reservation, and without the western line of Missouri. The face of the country is neither level nor mountainous, but what is called rolling prairie. There are few trees, except on the banks of rivers and smaller streams. The soil is good and capable of producing, in great abundance, the necessaries and comforts of life. If the Indians should become moderately industrious, their external circumstances would be rapidly improved; and they could soon get all the implements, which are required, in the ordinary progress of agriculture from a rude to a more perfect state.

From 1825 to 1828 Neosho Mission was a busy place. The Indian children came daily for two months in each year to the school, and Missionary Pixley was expected to see that the noonday lunch was provided for them. Here, too, came the squaws with their small children to beg for food, while the Indian men gambled in their skin tents and bark houses in the Indian villages. The Great Osages lived in a village four miles down the Neosho river and the Little Osages lived a few miles up the stream. Strange bands of Indians came frequently to pilfer and steal and make war upon the Osages. Amidst all these exciting and dangerous surroundings, eighty- five miles distant from the nearest white settlement, this lone missionary labored, prayed, preached and taught the untutored savages, truly one of the heroes of Christianity.

For three years Benton Pixley devoted much of his time to learning the Osage language. He spent many evenings in the Indian tents and rude bark houses listening to the talk of the Indians and ac-

230 THE KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

companied them for months on their summer and fall hunts to familiarize himself with the language. Once he went with them on a bear hunt. They started from what is now Shaw and went down through southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma, Arkansas and through the Ozarks of Missouri. They started on the hunt in the midst of a storm of hail and rain. When night overtook them their situation was frightful; the ground was covered with ice, and of course it was not a trifling labor to kindle a fire and prepare food. However, as the missionary said later, he might have had a tolerable night, as he had two blankets to lie upon and one to spread over him to keep off the hail and rain, if it had not been for the dogs, who, to use his own words, "contended for their share of the blankets and fire with a zeal not to be controlled. They were continually walking over me, and no whipping would drive them from their purpose." Night after night he passed with no other bed or shelter than the three blankets afforded him. His food was unsalted meat, boiled, without bread or vegetables, except that every day or two they had a little boiled corn. When they started in the morning he knew not where he was going. While the weather was the coldest the Indians were not disposed to talk much, and sometimes it seemed as if his labor was almost lost in following them.

While on the hunting trip with the Indians Pixley tried to impart to them all the religious instruction his imperfect knowledge of the language would allow. One evening the chief, under whose particular guardianship he was, and whom he called his host, proposed a variety of questions to him, which it was painful to feel himself unable to answer as fully as he desired. The Indian chief propounded the following: "What made the sun turn dark in the middle of the day?" (alluding to an eclipse.) "What makes white men so anxious to get money? Why do whites make the negroes slaves? What land is beyond the American? What beyond that?"

In October of 1827 the Rev. Benton Pixley wrote at length to the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, reporting conditions as he found them among the Osages. Of their family state he wrote:

As it respects the kinds of labor they perform I might say, speaking generally, that they perform none. They are lamentably destitute of ingenuity and aptitude in contriving and making things for their use and comfort. They seem in this respect to be inferior to the Indians, who formerly inhabited New England. Such a thing as a basket, I never saw among them. Their dress, excepting such as is used in their dances, exhibits deplorable negligence and laziness. Their game has been so abundant, that they have felt little need of

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agricultural labors, and have consequently established a habit of considering it dishonorable for a man to do much besides hunting and going to war. Other employments bring upon him an insupportable derision. Indeed it is hardly possible to make you understand with what an iron-handed despotism the airy phantom, Ridicule, holds this people in subjection and drives them miserably along to perdition. I offered large wages to a young Osage, Milledoler, who has long attended school at Harmony, to induce him to remain with me through the present winter, and assist me in acquiring his language, he, at the same time, learning the English. This, he said, he would be glad to do, but remarked, "The Osages call me a fool." Although he understands much of our language, he can hardly be persuaded to speak a word of it in presence of the Indians. [9]

Another instance, showing the current of feeling among the Osages, and the prevalence and power of this servile fear of ridicule, is set forth in a story told by Pixley:

A boy, of ten or twelve years of age, was lounging about my house, without clothing, and apparently without shame. When I inquired the cause of his being thus destitute, his mother gave as a reason, that they were poor, and had no clothing. I accordingly gave him an old gray garment, which would have been an abundant covering, according to the Indian fashion. But as he still continued to go in the same condition as formerly, I inquired the cause, and was told by his mother "that. he was ashamed to put on the cloth I gave him, because it was not blue,"-that being the color of the cloth uniformly sold by the traders to the Indians. Poor creatures l they are ashamed of nothing of which they ought to be ashamed, but are ashamed of every thing that is virtuous and praiseworthy.

You ask how this people live. If by living be meant place, manners, and accommodations,-in the summer it is on the prairies, in the winter in the village-huts; three months perhaps in these huts, and betwixt two or three months on the prairie; the rest of the time they are scattered here and there, a few families together, hunting, moving every day or two, and lodging where night overtakes them. Their accommodations are few and simple. A few wooden dishes, two or three horn-spoons, a knife, and a kettle or two, make up the amount of their household furniture. Their houses and manner of building them is equally crude. They set two rows of the little poles in the ground, of sufficient width for their accommodation, and bring them together in a curve at the top. These they cover with flags or buffalo hides, and when in their towns have mats laid upon the ground to recline and sleep upon. Their food, while in the town, is principally jerked meat, boiled corn, dried pumpkins, and beans. Wild fruits, acorns, and other nuts, in the season of them, make up what is lacking, and when their provisions are exhausted they move off on their hunts. If they kill nothing the second or even the third day, they are not alarmed. Acorns or roots of the prairie are still at hand to supply them with a supper, so that the fear of starving is the last thing that would be likely to enter an Osage mind.

The women plant the corn, fetch the wood, cook the food, dress the deerskins, dry their meat, make their moccasins, do all the business of moving, pack and unpack their horses, and even saddle and unsaddle the beasts on

THE KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

 

which their husbands and other male kindred ride; while the men only hunt and war, and, when in their towns, go from lodge to lodge to eat, and drink, and smoke, and talk, and play at cards, and sleep; for with them it is no mark of ill manners to doze away some hours of the day in their neighbor's lodge. And were you here now, just to go through their towns on a tour of observation, you would probably find more than four fifths of the men employed in gaming, and scarcely one engaged to any useful purpose.

Writing of their religious knowledge, beliefs and customs, Pixley said:

 

When I tell them I came to teach them the word of God, they sometimes sneeringly ask, "Where is God? Have you seen him?"-and then laugh that I should think of making them believe a thing so incredible, as a being who sees and takes knowledge of them, while they cannot see him. They indeed call the earth, the sun and moon, thunder and lightning, God; but their conceptions on this subject are altogether indefinite and confused. Some old men, who are more given to seriousness and reflection, frankly declare that they know nothing about God-what he is, or where he is, or what he would have them do.

They speak of him as hateful and bad, instead of being amiable and good. They often say, "They hate him; he is of a bad temper; they would shoot him, if they could see him."

Of a future state of rewards and punishments, they have no conception. Some, indeed, perhaps the generality of them, have some confused ideas of a future state of existence, and suppose if they are painted when they die according to the particular mark of their family, they shall be known, and join those of their relatives who have died and gone before them. But these ideas are only what might be called the traditions and superstitions of the common people, and are regarded as foolishness by others, who, in their philosophic pride, treat it as a chimera. Only a few days since, I was declaring to an Osage the fact, that the soul existed after death in a separate state from the body. For some time he seemed, I knew not why, strangely intent upon catching a fly. Having at length succeeded, he crushed the insect to death between his fingers; then laying it on the floor, and rubbing it about until not a vestige of it remained, he triumphantly exclaimed, "What remains to exist? Where is the soul?" drawing his conclusions that men died and returned to nothing in the same way.

Yet of all creatures, . . . they seem to be most subject to supernatural fear and alarms. This, of itself, puts a great check upon their nightly depredations, which would otherwise be intolerable. Darkness presents so many terrors to their affrighted imaginations, especially around their towns where their dead are buried, that few have courage to go abroad at night beyond the light of their own dwellings.

As it respects their religious customs, one is often reminded of several passages of Scripture. When the women cut off their hair, which is their glory and their ornament, as they often do in case of mourning, we are reminded of the prophet's declaration, "Cut off thy hair, 0 Jerusalem." In cases of fasting, also the women put earth on their heads, and men ashes or soot on their faces, forcibly reminding us of those hypocrites, of whom our Saviour speaks, "who disfigured their faces, that they might appear unto men to fast."

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If you invite them to eat, when their faces are thus covered with soot and ashes, they are very ready to comply, but only on condition that you first furnish them with water to wash, for except they wash they eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. In case of the death of any relative, they send for such as they choose should come and mourn for them, though others often join as volunteers. I was witness to a ceremony of this kind, where a child had recently died. While some were preparing the child for burial, five women of their choosing, as I was afterwards informed, stood around crying, or pretending to cry, making a doleful lamentation. At length they ceased, and each went to a skin of buffalo-grease standing in one corner of the lodge, and took two or three pounds apiece, as a remuneration for their services in mourning for the dead, and then quietly and cheerfully returned to their homes. [10]

An unfriendly Indian agent and two rival Indian chiefs brought Mission Neosho to its closing chapter. Chief Clamore of the Little Osages, who was unfriendly to missionaries, died about 1825; and his son, Clermont, succeeded him as chief. The young chief, Clermont, was also unfriendly to missionaries and encouraged his young warriors to commit depredations at Mission Neosho. White Hair, chief of the Great Osages, was friendly to the missionaries and encouraged them in their work. He and Clermont were rivals.

The religious services held by Benton Pixley at Neosho were often disturbed and broken by young Indian men. On one occasion a band of Indians broke up a meeting and destroyed the hewn log seats in the church room. Complaints were made to the Indian agent, who was not in sympathy with the mission, and Pixley closed the mission, expecting to reopen it; but it closed forever. The matter was reported to the Board of Foreign Missions and in the annual report of the board, 1829, we find the following:

 

In the course of last autumn and winter a difficulty arose between Mr. Pixley and the agent, which ultimately made it necessary that the station should be relinquished for the present. Mr. Pixley is not censured by the Committee. On the contrary, they deeply sympathize with him on account of the injurious treatment which he received; and especially on account of the trial which he experienced in being obliged to leave the poor natives without any teacher after he had so far acquired the language of the people as to make himself understood by means of it. In the circumstances of the case, the Committee could not take any other course than to advise him to retire from the opposition which had been excited against him by the most profligate means. He therefore removed his family to the white settlements in Missouri, whence he is expected to return to the mission whenever a suitable opening is found. [11]

The mission was relinquished in 1829, and the Rev. Benton Pixley and his family went to Independence, Mo., where he was retained as the first Presbyterian minister in that place. This was the closing

234 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

scene, and thus the curtain fell on the first mission in what is now Kansas.

Mission Neosho, from the viewpoint of the Indians, was a failure. It did not succeed in converting them to Christianity nor did it revolutionize their habits of living. The Indians were not exactly indifferent to the agricultural skill of white men, but they could not be induced to devote themselves to such pursuits. This was especially true of the men. They were content with the efforts of the squaws, who on small tracts of land along the creeks, cultivated and produced beans, pumpkins, watermelons and corn sufficient for the family needs. The importance of the mission lay in the fact that it was the first mission in Kansas and pointed the way to the establishment of other missions.

Notes

1. Green, Ashbel, A Historical Sketch of Domestic and Foreign Missions in the Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, 1838), p. 55.
2. [Pelham, Cornelia], Letters on the Chickasaw and Osage Missions (Boston, 1833), p. 68.
3. Indian Treaties and Laws and Regulations Relating to Indian Affairs, 1826, p. 254.
4. Missionary Herald, Boston, v. 32, p. 194.
5. White Hair's village has been variously located by historians. William E. Connelley in his History of Kansas establishes the location in section 16, township 28, range 19. However, Mr. Connelley also states that Boudinot Mission was established opposite the town of Whie Hair, and since the site of Boudinot Mission is known to be on the Neosho river near the mouth of Four Mile creek, it would appear that the village was somewhat south of section 16, township 28, range 19. The writer establishes the location in section 2, township 29 range 19 as the result of a study of the ruins on that site, also an Indian cemetery. Interviews with pioneers and the descendents of early settlers support the theory.
6. "About 1796, Manuel Lisa secured from the then government of Louisiana, a monopoly to trade with all the Indians on the waters of the Missouri river. This, of course, included the Osages. Previous ' to that time the trade went to traders in compeition, among these the Chouteaus. The monopoly of Lisa cast out the Chouteaus. Pierre Chouteau had at one time enjoyed a monoply of the Osage trade. When he was superseded as agent of the tribe by Lisa, he sought some means of continuing his profitable business relations with the tribe. He determined to divide it, and to settle a part of it beyond the jurisdiction of Lisa. He induced the best hunters of the tribe to go with him to the Lower Verdigris. . . The date of the formation of this band and its migration to the Verdigris is given as about 1803 by Lewis and Clark, Doctor Sibley and Mr. Dunbar, in their report published in 1806." Connelley, W. E., History of Kansas (1928), v. 1, p. 207.
7. [Pelham], Letters, p. 163.
8. Annual Report. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1827, p. 136.
9. Missionary Herald, Boston, v. 24, p. 79.
10. Ibid., pp. ?9-81. 11. Annual Report. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1829, p. 80.