Friday, July 24, 2015

Asbury Manual Training School and Mission, North Fork Town, IT by Linda Morgan Clark

Asbury Manual Training School and Mission, North Fork Town, IT
            In 1821, Bishop William McKendree (Methodism’s Senior Bishop at the time) appointed 30 year old Rev. William Capers of South Carolina, to serve as Superintendent of Missions to the Creek Indians whose lands included parts of western Georgia and eastern Alabama.  Capers was sent to Fort Mitchell, Alabama, a fort built during the Creek War in 1813 by the Georgia militia.  The fort was originally located on a horse trail through Creek lands that allowed whites to travel from Georgia to New Orleans.  At the time Capers was sent as “missionary in South Carolina and to the Indians” the trail had become a postal road known as the Federal Road and the fort a trading post for the southeast region.  Here at this important crossroads Rev. Capers was to fulfill his mandate to carry out “the benevolent purpose of teaching [the Indians] the ordinary arts of civilized life and their children the common rudiments of education.”  It was hoped that the Federal Government would fulfill its promise of providing $10,000 if the school taught “reading, writing, and arithmetic [to] all students. Boys would also be taught knowledge of the modes of agriculture while girls would also be taught spinning, weaving, and sewing.”
            After successful negotiations with the chiefs of the Creek Nation, in 1822 Rev. Capers opened the Asbury Manual Labor School and Mission one mile north of Fort Mitchell near the Indian village of Coweta (one mile west of the Chattahoochee River and nine miles south of Columbus, Georgia) to teach Creek children reading, writing, and other “civilized” skills.  When it opened there were twelve pupils under the direction of Rev. Isaac Smith. 
            Soon there were three teachers, several buildings, and a farm of about 25 acres. Rev. Capers served the school and mission until 1824, to be followed by a succession of missionaries. It is believed the school was the first formal educational effort of any kind in the Chattahoochee River Valley. Throughout its history, the school had, on average, 35 to 50 boarding students. 
            Today, the location of this school is recognized as a United Methodist Heritage Landmark.  An historical marker has been erected near the site and is listed as a destination point in A Traveler’s Guide to the Heritage Landmarks of the United Methodist Church (at
            It is to this school and this first missionary to the Creeks that we can give credit for the seeds of Christianity in general and Methodism in particular being placed in the heart of one of its young pupils, i.e., Samuel Checote, who was sent by his parents in 1828, at the age of nine, to board at the school. 
            Two years later, on February 3, 1830, the South Carolina Conference formally discontinued the Asbury Manual Labor School and Mission. Five years previous to the closing, on February 12, 1825, (and only three years after the school was established) the National Council of the Great Creek Nation had signed a Removal Treaty by which it relinquished all Alabama and Georgia lands in exchange for lands in Indian Territory. 
            Adding to this atrocity were the deplorable conditions of the Indians.  Contact with white intruders exacerbated the pervasive use of alcohol among Indians and their destitute condition led to the theft of the cattle, poultry, and corn that belonged to the School and Mission. The combination of losing their native homelands and the appalling conditions in Alabama dealt a devastating blow to the Creeks and contributed to their increasing indifference to white man’s religion. Other barriers had produced mixed results and little immediate success in converting Creeks to Christianity, i.e., a ban on preaching, the entanglement of the missionaries in the politics of Removal, and their cultural biases, to name but a few. As the Methodists turned their attention to the masses of white people that flooded into the new Georgia counties on the east side of the Chattahoochee River, the fate of Alabama’s Asbury mission with the Creeks was sealed. 
            So in 1829 before the Asbury school and mission in Alabama faded into obsolescence and closed, ten year old Checote and his parents moved from their home near Ft. Mitchell to Indian Territory and settled just west of Okmulgee, IT.  
            In 1847, three years after the General Conference meeting in New York City that created the Indian Mission Conference (IMC), the third Annual Conference of the IMC met in November 1847, in Doaksville, IT, and made plans for re-establishing Asbury Manual Labor School and Mission in the Creek Nation, IT.  Rev. William Capers, now a Bishop, and the one who had organized the school with the same name in Alabama which Checote had attended, appointed the Rev. Thomas B. Ruble, missionary among the Pottawattomies, to select a site and supervise the construction of the new school buildings.  Ruble secured the help of Colonel Logan, the U.S. Indian Agent for the Creek Nation, and Colonel Rutherford, superintendent of the Western Territory.
            A site was chosen the following year for the school on an 80-acre farm at North Fork Town, on the Texas Road where the Creek Trail of Tears ended and 10 Miles northeast of what is now Eufaula, Oklahoma.  About 30 acres was fenced.  Included on the property was a stable, chicken house, a few fruit trees and a 20 square foot house with porch and kitchen,.  From the $1,000 alloted by the Board of Mission, Ruble purchased the site and improvements from a widow for $300 (about $10,000.00 in today’s money).
            The cornerstone was laid July 19, 1848, for what is believed to be the largest mission school built in Indian Territory.  The first classes, however, were held in the log house starting in August, with the Reverend W. S. Cobb as teacher.  The classes continued in the log house until the new buildings were ready to use in 1850.  A stone and brick building 110 feet long, 34 feet wide and three stories high was built with materials shipped by boat from Louisville, via the Arkansas River, then overland to the site by ox-drawn wagons.  The design of this building proved to be a model for a few mission schools built in later years.  The bottom floor housed the staff and missionaries, the second floor was reserved for classrooms, and the top floor was divided into girls’ and boys’ dormitories.
            The U.S. Government paid $5,000 ($150,000.00) to build the school from the funds promised to the Creeks under a treaty in 1845 whereby they were to be compensated for their native lands.  The balance of the total cost of $9,169 ($284,000.00) was paid by the Board of  Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  The building contained 21 rooms, large halls, and would accommodate 100 students along with the faculty. In 1848, before the school was even complete, the annual report to the IMC records that there were 30 Creek boarding students, one local preacher, 24 white teachers and staff and a small balance of $6.75 on hand. 
            The school continued to be financially sustained from the Creek’s annuity, making it an official “Indian Mission School”.  The Creeks supplied textbooks and financial support for the students.
            Early schooling experiences were checkered with frustrations of erratic attendance, unsupportive parents, and inexperienced teachers.  Sometimes it was a struggle to keep students and missionaries on task.  In 1851 the Superintendent informed the commissioner of Indian affairs, that half the students had the measles and the Baptists had opened a school in the area, both of which were robbing the Asbury School of its pupils.  Then on top of that a great wind storm caused a great deal of damage to the large school building alarming students, their parents, and the staff.  The missionary then chose to abandon his post and take his family to safety.
            Yearly reports to the IMC Annual Conference as well as the U.S. Government reflect the details of managing the endeavor up to the outbreak of the Civil War.  Rev. Thomas Bertholf, Superintendent at the beginning of the war, took his wife and went south to the mouth of Washita River (near present day Kingston) until the hostilities ended, but still remained Superintendent of the Asbury school.       
            The Civil War and Reconstruction was devastating to the Indian tribes in IT.  Inter-tribal rivalries continued to fester.  Marauding soldiers from both sides of the conflict overran Indian lands.  Cattle were driven off, buildings were burned, many Indian settlements were destroyed, the people scattered, and mission work disrupted.  The Indian Mission Conference (IMC) struggled to take up its work again. At the Asbury School, the smaller buildings had been burned and the large building was severely damaged and in disrepair.  Rev. Bertholf returned in 1866 from his place of refuge and was given the task of rebuilding and reopened the Mission and School.  Samuel Checote, now a Methodist minister in the IMC, helped Bertholf secure an appropriation of $6,000 (almost $100,000 in 2015 dollars) from the U.S. government for the task.  However, Reb. Bertholf did not live long enough to accomplish his assignment.  He died June 18, 1867, and was buried on the school grounds.
            Rev. John Harrell, Checote’s mentor, was then appointed superintendent of the Mission to serve for the remainder of the Conference year.  Next, Rev. Thomas B. Ruble, who was assigned in1848 to complete the project.  But the restoration work had barely begun, when the very next year the main building of the school was destroyed by fire.  Rev. Harrell then returned to the school as Superintendent, to complete the Conference year, and using his considerable influence with the Creeks and government officials, had new buildings built once again and the school reopened in 1870.
            The Indian Mission Annual Conference was held at the school in 1874.  Rev. Harrell, appointed again as Superintendent in 1876, like Rev. Bertholf, died while serving the mission.  While preaching in Vinita, he collapsed in the pulpit, Dec. 8, 1876.  Five years later, in 1881, the School burned again and burned again for the final time in 1887, never to reopen (reportedly boys burned down the school in both instances).  Some students were sent home, and the missionaries and remaining students went to live in the nearby home of Judge Stidham until the end of the term.  That was the end of the Asbury Manual Labor School and Mission in old North Fork Town, IT (now an Oklahoma ghost town).  Neither the church nor the Creeks could agree to having it rebuilt since jointly financing Mission Schools by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Indian tribes was drawing to a close.
            This account certainly reflects the concerted effort on the part of the government, church, and Creeks to keep this school in operation for as long as possible. Not only was it vital to the work of Methodism among the Creeks but it also played a significant role in the education of many, many Creek children who went on to be leaders, educators, and outstanding citizens in their tribe.  One such individual was Creek Chief, Peter R. Ewing, an outstanding Baptist minister, educator, and Bacone College alumus who ran away from home when he was 10 years old so he could attend the Asbury School.
            It is told that Peter Ewing, born Peter Chuffee, whose last name translated from Creek into English is “Rabbit”, was teased mercilessly by the children at the school by calling him “Peter Rabbit”.  He was discouraged to the point of quitting school, when Rev. Young Ewing, the last Superintendent to preside over the school, took special notice of Peter and the teasing he was enduring.  He took Peter under his wing and told him he could be his boy and he’d give him his last name.  So ever after that Peter Chuffee/Rabbit was Peter R. Ewing.
            After the school burned for the final time, the Creeks were without a school for a few years.  So in 1892, the Creeks built their own school to fill the void left by the abandoned Asbury School.  This school eventually became Eufaula’s High School.  Today Creeks operate their own boarding school called Eufaula Dormitory, located on the outskirts of Eufaula, which they view as the Asbury School’s logical successor.
            Asbury School and Mission holds a special significance as well for Muskogee Methodism.  The very existence of the school and its high regard in Indian Territory is the reason Rev. Theodore Frelinghuysen Brewer was sent in August 1878 by the Arkansas Conference to be a teacher and eventually principal of the school.  In the scant notes of his life left in his own handwriting, he says that he was appointed principally to do educational work.  However, in October of that year, at the third Annual Conference of the Indian Mission Conference, held in Muscogee, IT, he also became the founding pastor of the “Rock Church” in the little village of Muscogee that had sprung up around the MK&T/KATY railroad station.
            But the Asbury school also has a relationship to the town of Eufaula and the First United Methodist Church of Eufaula, that deserves notice (Rev. Brewer established the Eufaula church in 1879, the year following the beginning of the “Rock Church” in Muscogee.)
            When the present day Lake Eufaula was being built, the Eufaula church decided to take charge of the reinterment of several of the school’s workers who were buried in its burial ground located about ½ mile west of the School site near the old Jefferson Highway. Two Superintendents of the School, Rev. Thomas Bertholf, and Rev. John Harrell, were buried on those school grounds (as were their wives, some of their children, and others who died while working there). 
            Beginning in 1961, First Methodist Church in Eufaula worked with the Corps of Engineers and Eufaula’s City Council to relocate the graves of the missionaries to an addition to Eufaula’s Greenwood Cemetery before the old school site and cemetery disappeared under the waters of the new lake. A block of cemetery lots was purchased by a group of Eufaula citizens and donated to a committee from the church working on the relocation.  Had the church not prevailed, the Corps would have relocated their graves along with hundreds more from other cemeteries effected by the proposed impoundment area of the lake, to a location the Corps carved out on the western shore of the lake adjacent to an old burial ground near the ghost town of Fishertown.  Approximately 20 or so graves of infants, children, and young women from the Asbury Cemetery however were moved to the Fishertown location by the Corps.
            Thus only eleven individuals from the Asbury Cemetery were reinterred in the new addition to Eufaula’s Greenwood Cemetery.  The location of these graves was then marked by a memorial stone structure from the original hand-hewn stones of the school the Eufaula Methodists were able to save before the clearing of the land for the lake (the Eufaula newspaper reported in 1941 that the commissary building was still standing).  It took about three years and countless hours of volunteer labor; the cooperation of the Corps of Engineers, citizens of Eufaula, its City Council, the official board of the church; and thousands of dollars in donations to complete the project.  It is said that the memorial cost more than twice the $10,000 original cost of the School in 1848.  The stone monument was designed by the church’s pastor, Rev. Cecil L. Bolding, and marked with aluminum lettering and a bronze tablet furnished by the Oklahoma Methodist Historical Society. It was dedicated May 30, 1964, only months after the dam was ready for the lake to fill to its capacity.  At the Oklahoma Annual Conference in June that same year, the Asbury Memorial was designated a Methodist shrine.  As far as it is known this is the first place of Methodist historical importance so designated (its predecessor of the same name in Ft. Mitchell, Alabama, was not designated as a shrine until after 1984).
            The following graves and headstones/monuments were moved to Greenwood Cemetery:
Bertholf, Marcus
12 Feb 1814
1 Mar 1869
Bertholf, Thomas, Rev.*
12 Jul 1810
28 Jun 1867
Harrell, Elisa
16 Oct 1816
20 Nov 1876
Harrell, John
22 Oct 1806
8 Dec 1876
Lindsey, Edward Allen
27 Aug 1882
Pifer, Caroline
9 Dec 1870
17 Jul 1882
Pifer, Eufaula
28 Feb 1880
6 Feb 1883
Ruble, James M
9 Oct 1839
11 May 1859
Scott, Altha
4 Apr 1877
24 May 1878
Waggoner, Payfont L
16 May 1856
30 Dec 1882
Wilkey, M. J.
5 Nov 1866
6 Feb 1882
*Rev. Bertholf’s wife’s burial place is uncertain.  She may have been in an unmarked grave and lies instead under Lake Eufaula.  Her cenotaph is on her nephew’s monument (Charlie H. Bertholf), in the Combs, McCurtain County, Cemetery.
            Countless articles in the Indian Journal (Eufaula’s newspaper) reference the old school, even going so far as to credit the Methodists and their Mission School with the very existence of Eufaula.  However, after the lake was impounded and the property was no longer visible, the role of this school and its history seems to have faded.  It would appear that those reinterred in the Fishertown location have been forgotten as well, for now it is overgrown and nearly abandoned.  A feature article in the Muskogee Phoenix, July 3, 2015, reported on its current neglected condition.  Obviously the Corps made a major blunder in relocating the cemeteries effected by the building of the lake to a place they carved out adjacent to the burial ground of a small village that vanished even before Oklahoma statehood.

* * * * * * *

Information on Fishertown:

Linda Morgan Clark

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,

    I wanted to thank you for the article on the Asbury Manual Labor School.
    My name is Mark Mann and I am a licensed local pastor in the United Methodist Church serving in Tulsa, Oklahoma at
    Sheridan Avenue UMC. I have long been interested in the missionary efforts of my G3 Grandfather David Thomas Holmes.
    David was commissioned by the Arkansas Annual conference in 1871 to serve as the director of the Asbury Manual Labor School from 1871-1874.
    Your great research really answered a lot of questions for me, of course, many still remain.

    Thank you so much!


    Mark Mann, Ph.D., Ed.D.