A sacred space: Time-worn graves on a remote ridge remind of Indian heritage and church roots

May 11, 2013 8:48:38 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Sunlight performed a dappled dance through new growth overhead, as a gentle wind sent tall grasses brushing against tombstones that have stood vigil for almost two centuries. The peace was palpable on this rural ridge in Oktibbeha County, where eight marked graves are all that remain of Mayhew Mission. The school for Indian children was founded in 1818 by Presbyterian missionaries. They faithfully taught Bible, reading, writing, carpentry, farming, sewing and weaving to the young people in their charge, until the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit and the Removal Act of 1830 sounded the decimation of Mississippi's Choctaw Nation, as it existed. 


On a brilliant Tuesday morning in May, historians Jack Elliott and Rufus Ward revisited the small Mayhew Mission Cemetery, moving respectfully among headstones that mark the final resting places of a few of those missionaries and their family members.  


"All the missionaries wrote that this was one of the most beautiful spots -- some called it 'New Eden,'" said Ward, gazing out at pastures, woodlands and, nearby, to where the school settlement's houses, barns and outbuildings once stood.  


Punctuated only by birdsong, the quiet lent itself to imagining what life might have been like on that ridge, before there was a Starkville, before there was a West Point, and when Columbus was just an emerging township. 




Changing society 


The mission helped a number of young Choctaws adjust to the new society that was building all around them, as more white settlers migrated to the region. In a new reality, where tribes could no longer survive by trading furs and depleting game, the mission offered a chance to learn blacksmithing, brick making, farming and lumber work. Students wore clothing donated by Presbyterians to the north. They learned to speak English, and they heard the gospel. 


In an excerpt from the "Missionary Herald for the year 1822," Volume XVIII, a missionary's journal entry tells us, "The moral condition of this people is truly deplorable, and must cause every benevolent heart to weep. ... They say that 'the Choctaws talk about the great Father above. But they do not know who he is, or what he wishes them to do. They think that if missionaries should come among them, and talk with them, it would do good.'" And that is what the Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury and his dedicated helpmates at the mission did, converting many of the Choctaw to Christianity. 


According to a history of the mission by Libba Johnson on the Lowndes County history and genealogy website lowndes.msghn.org, the school was partially supported by the federal government and the church, but Indians also contributed. They not only gave gifts of livestock, but allowed $6,000 a year in annuities due them for Indian lands sold by the government. And, of course, the resident students assisted with expenses by doing farm work and household duties. 




Written word 


Journal entries in the "Missionary Herald" offer glimpses into daily life at the school and settlement named for missionaries Thomas Mayhew and his son, who ministered to Indians in New England. 


Some passages tell of joys, such as how Choctaw chiefs and parents gathered from many miles to tour the school, to see how it could provide their children with "the better way of life, which was found in the 'White Man's Book,'" and of the official opening of the school in April 1820, with an initial 12 students.  


Other entries speak of traveling brethren who stopped for evenings of fellowship, prayer and singing. Records also tell of hardships, of illnesses and eight degree temperatures. They talk of wagon loads of lime, tar, flour and other provisions moving back and forth between the Mayhew Mission and similar but distant stations.  


By 1830, however, the federal government's acquisition of Indian lands in exchange for land west of the Mississippi River led to the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of tribes to the present-day state of Oklahoma. The majority of Choctaws moved westward, accompanied by many of the missionaries. 


"But there were some real lasting things that came from this mission, like the establishment of the Choctaw dictionary by Cyrus Byintgon, a missionary at Mayhew," said Elliott, who not long ago retired from his position as historical archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. "This place provides access and memories of a bygone era and all that was accomplished here." 


Certainly that includes the area churches whose roots trace back to the mission -- First Presbyterian Church in Columbus and in Starkville, Bethel Presbyterian Church and United Presbyterian Church of Caledonia, according to Johnson's Mayhew Mission history. 




Planting seeds 


"The ordained missionaries went to Oklahoma with the Indians and the un-ordained stayed and many moved to Starkville," said Jack Forbus, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Starkville. He is the church's recognized and avid historian on the subject. 


The original Church of Christ organized at Mayhew Mission on May 6, 1821, became a Presbyterian church in 1830. After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit, the church moved to the town of Starkville and eventually became First Presbyterian Church. The current congregation cares for the Mayhew Mission Cemetery and held a moving commemorative service there in April, in conjunction with Starkville's celebration of its 175th birthday.  


"Mayhew Mission was the beginning of all of it in Oktibbeha County," stressed Forbus. First Presbyterian of Starkville, he said, will dedicate a near 2,000-pound boulder and marker this summer at the cemetery, proclaiming for future generations the mission's significance to the founding of the church. 


So, the small graveyard and vanished mission are not forgotten. The history of the missionaries, the Choctaws and the evolving way of life the era was marked by, hasn't passed into total obscurity. 


When the Mayhew Mission broke up, it effectively contributed to the founding of Tibbee, the town of Mayhew several miles to the east, and the Starkville area, noted Ward. 


"And the mission is really the bedrock of Christianity in the Golden Triangle, because the missionaries went into Columbus and the surrounding areas to provide (worship) services," he said.  


In the minds of many, the serene site on top of the ridge is, as Forbus asserted, "where it all started."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.