Rescuing the Dead

One of my favorite authors is Captain John Smith. Smith, the founder of Jamestown, of Pocahontas fame, was a contemporary of John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Francis Bacon. Smith did not write poetry like Donne, sonnets and plays like Shakespeare, or essays like Bacon; Smith wrote largely autobiographical histories, mostly of his adventures in America. His style is earthy and unrehearsed, plain yet often satirical, and above all, brutally honest.

Captain John Smith was the first historian of America. He defined history, in one of his final books, Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, as “the memory of time” and “the life of the dead.” History has been kind to Smith, because he is well-remembered, even four hundred years after the founding of Jamestown. But to most of the dead, history is not kind, particularly to the millions upon millions of anonymous everyday common men and women of the past.

I have tried in my books to follow Smith’s definition of history as “the life of the dead.” The job of the historian is, in short, to rescue the dead.

During the past year I have written a 300 page history of Bacone College, during the course of which I have aimed to “rescue the dead.” How does one accomplish this? How are the dead to be rescued and, in Smith’s words, given life?

In one respect the remains of the dead are all around us. On this campus, in these buildings, on these grounds, the dead were once alive, were once living, breathing humans laughing, crying, experiencing pleasure and pain. But for most people who have lived, worked, and studied at Bacone College over its 135 years, they are long gone, now just simply dead.

The remains of the dead are often governed by chance. Most of what has happened in the past, the actions, words, feelings, of people long dead, have disappeared, are irrecoverable. Fortunately Bacone had a library, and had people, especially faculty and administrators, who wanted to preserve the past and the present, who believed that there was a historical significance to Bacone College. Hence for many years materials and books were deposited in the library in the basement of Samuel Richard Hall. Some are yet there. Most have been moved to the new Betts Library. They were allowed over the years to accumulate dust and mold; some were lost; many have been recovered and restored. Through these documents and photos and other material remains the historian can try to reconstruct the past, to bring life to the dead.

For some people of Bacone’s past, this is quite easy. Almon Bacone, for example, the namesake of the college, left his mark on it in more than his name: his shadow, as it were, falls all across the campus: in its aims and goals, curriculum and reason to exist. Bacone left behind some works—manuscripts, letters, photographs, as well as his body. Yes, that’s right, Bacone College has a cemetery located north of the President’s residence. Almon Bacone was buried in this cemetery in 1896, and he yet still lies there. So there is a very real presence of Almon Bacone on this campus.

Almon Bacone was not the first person buried in the cemetery. He was proceeded by at least one person, a teacher named Alfred Shoemaker. Shoemaker was a Baptist minister in Philadelphia who in 1886 felt the call to travel west and minister to the American Indians. He arrived at Indian University—the original name of the college—in 1886, and taught for only three months before he succumbed to illness. He became quite popular during his short stint, so that everyone—students, faculty, administration, trustees—were affected by his death. People recalled that only a week or two before his death, he had told the students of life, “It is but a shadow. It lasts only an hour; only an hour.” These words are etched on his monument.

Bacone joined Shoemaker ten years later. On his granite monument are these words:

“In memory of Almon C. Bacone President and founder of Indian University, Indian territory. Born April 25, 1830, died April 33, 1896. Erected by his wife, children, pupils, and friends. No man in Indian Territory was more greatly esteemed and loved than President Bacone, who rests from his labors, but his works follow him. ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.’ Numbers 23,10. ‘A Christian school planted in the midst of a people, becomes one of the most powerful agencies in the work of civilization.’ ACB. Hundreds of Indian youth were inspired to a higher life by him, who was actuated by the above and like principles.”

Benjamin Weeks realized, during the course of his twenty-three year administration, which lasted from 1918 to 1941, that Bacone College had been and still was Almon Bacone’s college—Weeks emulated Bacone in everything: mission of the school, curriculum, emphasis on Christianity, reaching out to American Indians. Upon Weeks’s death in 1950, the new president of the college, Francis Thompson, directed the memorial service, during which these lines from Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” were read:

“Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me

And may there be

no moaning of the bar

When I put out to sea.”

The Bacone Indian, the student driven newspaper of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, quoted just as aptly from the words of English architect Christopher Wren’s gravestone: “If you would see his memorial, look about you.” Indeed, most of the buildings then and now that stand about the Bacone campus are from Weeks’s administration.

Thirteen years before, Benjamin Weeks preached at the memorial service honoring

Mary Prosser Jayne, long-time missionary to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Pawnee, who was laid to rest in the Bacone cemetery. During the late 1920s and 1930s, in retirement from active missionary work, Jayne was matron of Barnett Hall, the boy’s dormitory. As she became more feeble, she built a small cottage on campus. Here she died January 5, 1937. President Weeks said of Jayne: “When [the students] were sick, she was their physician; when they were in trouble, she suffered with them; when they were in sorrow, she was their comforter. Words, of which she was so great a master, were not needed for the lesson she taught them. They learned from her a way of life, and they will never forget it.” Her headstone reads: “Mary Prosser Jayne, 1867-1937; Thirty-six years a missionary to the Indians of Oklahoma; Faith, Service, Immortality.”

In death, of course, there are no rich and poor, no great and obscure. Death’s egalitarianism is represented in the Bacone cemetery, where alongside presidents and their wives, faculty, and missionaries, are the graves of people for whom there is no record—they are unknown, at least to us. Such is M. Parker Sleeper, buried in 1891; Bessie Lee Cowan, an infant buried in 1907; and Baby Spinks, buried in 1953. Little is known of these people save their names. Others lying at rest were current and former students when they died. One lonely monument stands to commemorate the life of Abel Archibald, who died in his 23rd year. Abel and his twin brother Cain attended Bacone from 1910 to 1918; they were orphans who lived at the Murrow Indian Orphan’s Home, founded by Joseph Samuel Murrow in Atoka, Oklahoma, and relocated to the Bacone campus in 1910. The Archibald brothers were Creek Indians. Bacone at the time they attended mostly instructed students in the primary and secondary grades; there were also a few college students. Cain and Abel slowly moved from the third to the seventh grades during the eight years that they attended Bacone. Abel succumbed to meningitis in 1921. Another Indian student who lived in the orphanage and attended Bacone was Lovina Wallace, born in 1909, who attended the first grade from 1915 to 1918, and died February 25, 1918. Likewise Solomon Folsom was a sixteen-year old fifth-grader, Bacone student and orphan, when he died in 1915.

In January, 1909, before the Murrow Orphans’s home moved to Bacone, while still at Atoka, ten-year-old Solomon wrote a letter to Joseph Murrow:

“Dear Uncle Row:

I am glad holidays are over and I can go to school again. Miss Rogers says I can soon get into another reader. I like the Bible study. I am beginning to read in the Bible I bought. . . . I love you and Aunt Row.

Your little boy, Solomon Folsom”

Aunt Row was Mrs. Murrow, the former Kate Ellet, who was an instructor at Indian University in the 1880s before she married Joseph Murrow, known to students as Father Murrow, or Uncle Row.

When Solomon Folsom died in 1915, the same year that the Jefferson Highway began, one hundred years ago, students dedicated the school newspaper, the Bacone Chief, to Uncle Row, proclaiming:

Today, a man’s life is reckoned in terms of service rendered. This man has served all men by carrying the Gospel to those who had not heard the call and by helping to establish institutions of learning which have been the means of educating thousands of Indian boys and girls. He has lived a conscientious and godly life. And by doing so, he has ennobled many characters. He is looked upon as a ‘Father’ by many of the Indians. He has the honor of being a member of the committee who helped to establish this university.

There were several hundred students in attendance at Bacone College in 1915. The President, J. Harvey Randall, the pastor the Bacone Baptist Church, and the sixteen members of the faculty and staff, many of whom had been missionaries, promulgated the Word of Christ to the students of the college, most of whom were American Indian. The year before, the Bacone Baptistry, which still stands, was constructed, and dozens of students every year were baptized by the college chaplain and area ministers. Chapel and church services, of which there were many, were held in the chapel, which had been opened in 1914 in Rockefeller Hall. Under Randall, as under his predecessors and successors, the College operated through the generosity of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, wealthy alumni, such as Patrick Hurley, and regional goodwill. Few students had adequate resources to pay for their schooling. All students worked to contribute toward their tuition, room and board. The College, surrounded by acres of land, grew crops and raised livestock. The local newspaper, the Muskogee Times-Democrat, reported that Bacone crops “are the best in the surrounding neighborhood. The farm is also well stocked with a high grade of horses, cattle and hogs, there being some especially fine registered cattle and hogs on the farm.” In 1916, the College purchased “four handsome and aristocratic Holsteins,” making “the Bacone college herd . . . the finest of its class in Oklahoma.” Randall announced “that the farm now has nine of the best Holsteins in the United States, two males and seven females.” Students adopted “the Holstein as the official college cow.” As successful was the poultry farm; many regional Indians bought their poultry from Bacone.

Nevertheless sometimes the college finances were tight, and the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner restricted. One student commemorated the Bacone diet, rhyming:

There’s nothing like Bacone beans,

That are eaten by the Bacone fiends.

Beans, beans, beans, morning, noon and night,

Baked, stewed, and fried they are just all right.

Beans in the porridge, beans in the pot,

Beans served cold, beans served hot.

Bean bag socials, beans in College,

Beans, beans, beans make more knowledge.

Bacone College was connected to Muskogee by rail and, in 1915, a highway. Students took the trolley to the city on day’s off. Oklahoma was a dry state (in terms of alcoholic beverages), but there were a number of ne’er-do-wells who brewed and sold illegal spirits. In April, 1915, one man, Charles House, sold liquor to a couple of Indian boys who attended the college. The liquor was “rotten,” and the boys became extremely intoxicated, and landed in jail. The next day, President Randall bailed them out, and addressed a crowd of Muskogee businessmen. “Tears” streamed “down his face.” Randall appealed to the citizens of Muskogee to do something, which they did. The sheriff raided liquor “joints” in an attempt to stifle drinking and gambling.

To try to keep the students occupied the College in 1915 had a the Sacajawea Literary Society for girls and the Sequoyah Literary Society for boys; an active YMCA and YWCA; vocal and instrumental music lessons; holiday parties, picnics, and frequent socials; and athletics such as football, basketball, “soccer football,” baseball, tennis, and track. Boys learned manual training, working with tools, and girls learned domestic science, cooking and sewing. Boys lived in Rockefeller Hall, on the west side of campus, while girls lived in Sacajawea Hall, on the east side of campus. In-between was an area for walking, talking, thinking, and holding hands known as the “heart.” Romance was, however, under the watchful eyes of faculty and administrators, and typically boys and girls could woo only on supervised Sunday afternoons.

There are several unmarked graves in the cemetery, mere stones signifying a person’s remains, one of whom belongs to Janet Treat Rice, daughter of Professor and Mrs. Ambrose C. Rice. Ambrose Rice taught science at Indian University. He was a former Baptist missionary serving in Burma, as were so many of the faculty and staff in 1915. Rice had taught at the Rangoon Baptist College until 1910. He came to Bacone in July, 1912, and his family prepared to move into a “cottage south of the street car line,” a bit away from the center of campus. His little girl Janet, 3 years and ten months old, died July 22, and was buried July 26, 1912.

A colleague of Professor Rice and fellow missionary, Prof. W. A. Seward Sharp, who taught Bible at Indian University, wrote a poem in commemoration of Janet:

Oh thou my bonnie blue-eyed girl

With laughing glee and song,

I’ve wondered, if we worshipped thee,

Our hearts were sadly wrong.

How oft thy head of golden curls,

Brought sunshine in our home,

And led our hearts to follow thee,

Where’er thy feet did roam.

With dimpled hands to help us work

Our labors turned to play,

The darkest hours thy face beguiled

And night was turned to day.

We may not worship thee, ’tis true,

But we shall ever love,

And give again, our gift, to God,

To take thee safe above.

My child, whene’er our Father speaks,

We bow in humble prayer,

And when our toil on earth is done,

We’ll join thee over there.

The verse tells us something of the little girl: that she had blue eyes and sun-shine hair that matched a sunny disposition; she loved to laugh and sing; her parents and all about her adored her; she had soft, plump hands and sometimes helped her mother and father and siblings in simple chores. She was a blessing, and made those who watched her buried yearn to join her in the hereafter.

Yet Janet Rice has been dead for 103 years, and when she died she was but a child, having accomplished nothing comparable to the likes of Almon Bacone, whose monument dominates the cemetery. Many people remember Almon Bacone; few have heard of, much less remember, Janet Rice.

No image, no epitaph, recalls her for us; only a poem.

Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist of the sixteenth century, who spent so many years pondering life and death, had a response to this juxtaposition of the great and memorable and small and insignificant. “We are great fools. ‘He has spent his life in idleness,’ we say, and ‘I have done nothing today.’ What! Have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most noble of your occupations. ‘If I had been put in charge of some great affair, I might have shown what I could do.’ Have you been able to reflect on your life and control it? Then you have performed the greatest work of all. . . . Our duty is to compose our character, not to compose books, to win not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.”

During Janet Rice’s three years, she brought joy to many, and lived appropriately.

Life is a series of singular moments that follow one upon another. In such moments of time are often found a brief portrait of the whole. Hopefully our examination into a singular moment of time that occurred a century ago has allowed us a glimpse into the life of otherwise forgotten or lesser known people, to resurrect, if for a few minutes, the memory of, in John Smith’s words, “the life of the dead.”

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
This entry was posted in History and Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rescuing the Dead

  1. jyoti says:

    I really enjoyed reading this especially the last four lines. Thank You!

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