Reminiscences of Life Among the Indians


The two most controversial subjects of early American history are slavery and the treatment of Native American populations. Ironically, those who were most committed to relieving the plight of Native Americans appear to the modern reader as narrow and condescending stereotypes. We like our heroes to have modern sensibilities, and to avoid the politically incorrect comment or opinion. The simple truth is that those Hollywood so quickly caricatures were simply men and women motivated by Christian conviction to share the things they valued the most, education and the Gospel. They made mistakes, and embraced opinions that sometimes proved to be wrong, but how wrong we would be to dismiss their love as anything but genuine. Among the many pastors who gave up the comfortable parsonage to live among the Indians was John Jasper Methvin, descendant of Scottish Successionist churchmen. A Confederate soldier turned preacher, Methvin spent the major portion of his remaining years ministering among the Choctaw, Kiowa, Apache and Comanche. He became a prolific writer, frequent magazine contributor and poet. We include here selections from his “Reminiscences” that touch upon the labors of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodist Episcopals and others, working together to bring the Gospel of reconciliation to war-ravaged peoples.

Soon after taking charge of New Hope Seminary there came to visit me the Rev. Willis Folsom, a member of the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He was tall, erect, eagle-eyed, a typical Indian.
He was sweet-spirited, a pure-hearted man of God and holy purpose. He represented the highest type of Christian character among his people. We worked much together. Let me give you this instance.
It was Christmas Sunday, and by reason of a twelve inch snow which had fallen during the night, we could not take the pupils as usual out to church half a mile away, so we held services that morning in the school auditorium. We conducted the services in an old fashioned way—Folsom and I—one preaching and the other following with earnest exhortation, I preached and Folsom followed with an exhortation, and such was the forcefulness and earnestness of his plea that one of the girls in the back of the audience cried out in the agony of conviction, and then another and still another. An awakening swept through the whole school and a revival began that lasted throughout the school year, under the glow of which the school moved on in every department in perfect harmony to the end.
Folsom, a settled faith begot in him a positive way of declaring himself, and there was no uncertain sound in his preaching. His was as eloquent in English as in his native tongue. He had some of the Indian traits and peculiar idiosyncrasies of his tribe lingering with him but none mar his usefulness. One evening after preaching, he went to his room in a high state of ecstatic joy. He knelt there and asked God that if it could be His will to take him, he would be pleased to go now while in this high seraphic state. But he seemed to feel the touch of a loving hand upon him and to hear a voice saying, “Not yet, I still have work for you to do.”
He was then sixty-two and he lingered with us some ten years longer when he met with us for the last time at Annual Conference at Vinita. There one day he stood before an audience, still erect in spite of age, and delivered his last message. The spirit of the Lord was upon him and he spoke in the simplicity of the gospel. In the ecstasy of seraphic ardor he cried out, “I glad would climb to the summit of some lofty mountain and with the voice of an archangel and with my last breath proclaim to all the world this wonderful truth and experience of full salvation.”
Soon after this conference he was called home. He left to his people and the world the fragrance of a beautiful life, and to his people the heritage of a high and holy example.
One day Folsom said, “Don’t you want to go to an Indian cry?” “Yes,” I replied, “I don’t know what an Indian cry is, but anything that is Indian I want to know for that is what I am here for, to learn and to do all the good I can.” He said, “To-morrow, about ten miles away, I am to preach the funeral of an Indian and after the funeral we will have the cry. I will be glad to have you with me.” We were in our saddles the next morning and on the way he explained the Indian cry. In those days it was the custom when an Indian died for the friends and relatives to continue mourning morning and evening till the final cry at the funeral even if that was postponed ten years. I said to Folsom, “Don’t you encourage these superstitions by officiating at these funerals?” With a faint smile on his face, he replied, “You don’t know the Indian.” I learned later. We reached the grounds in due time. It was in the open, under heaven’s blue canopy, in God’s free air. A brush arbor with logs for seats had been erected. It was a scene wild and weird. On every hand crowds were grouped here and there. Pots of tafula and beef were boiling hot preparatory to the feast after the cry. At the signal given the crowd gathered at the arbor, men, women, children, dogs, a unique audience. Willis Folsom stepped upon the platform and began the service. He spoke in Choctaw and I understood only an occasional word, but I caught the spirit of his earnestness and thereby got benefit out of the service. While he was preaching, a dog fight began out in the audience, creating quite a panic. Folsom stopped and stood in dignified composure and watched while the disturbance was being quelled. Casting his eye down, he discovered at his feet, in front of him, a dog that had jumped upon the stand while the confusion was at its height, and raising his foot he gave the brute a kind of lifting kick that sent him out into the midst of the surprised audience, saying as he did so, “Beware of dogs.” He finished his discourse and then announced, “We will now retire to the grave and cry.” The crowd all arose and marched out to a grave about one hundred yards away. They circled around the grave wailing as they did so, and then kneeling they continued wailing for some time. At length it was all over, the crowd arose and marched away chatting and laughing and found their places around the feast prepared for the occasion.
The next character of note with whom I became acquainted was John J. Jumper, an old ex-chief of the Seminoles. I was with the Seminoles one year in charge of Seminole Academy, and I had opportunity to meet with Jumper quite often. During the Civil War he was colonel of a battalion of Seminole troops, and did gallant service for the Confederacy. At the time that I knew him, he was a Baptist preacher and still stood forth among his people as a trusted leader, erect and strong in spite of years.
At this time John Brown was chief. Whatever may have been his faults, he was a man of strength, well educated, and commanding in the management of his people. I said to him one day that I had just been reading a magazine article upon the extermination of criminals. I answered that it proposed that the law stand as it is for all capital offenses, but for all minor offenses the person found guilty the third time should be kept for lifetime in duress at work for the state. He laughed and said, “We are a long way ahead of that, for you notice we have no jails or prisons for confinement. For all capital offenses, after due trial and found guilty, we shoot them for the first offense, but for minor offenses we whip them for the first two and turn them loose, but for the third we shoot them and there is an end. This is the way we exterminate criminals.” I had occasion to be at the execution of two Seminoles soon after that by shooting, upon whom he had pronounced sentence.
But I pass on to reminiscences among the “Wild Tribes.” Previously I had spent some time among them, but in 1887 I was officially appointed to missionary work among the wild tribes. My appointment was to all the western tribes to be found west of the Indian Meridian and from on the north to Texas on the south and west. After taking a survey of the whole field, my work centralized at Anadarko.
Here was located the United States Indian Agency, and it was headquarters for all the tribes south of the South Canadian—ten or twelve tribes in all, all speaking a different dialect, and unwritten. The Indians were peaceable enough but nevertheless in a wild state. They were camped in great numbers down on the river bottom in winter and out under summer booths on the open prairie in the summer. They hung around the Agency most of the time waiting for the next issue of beef and other supplies from the commissary, which was made every two weeks. They were feasting and gambling and racing by day and indulging in their wild orgies by night. Their homes were the brush arbors and the teepees pitched here to-day and yonder to-morrow. They lived really in the open.
The Agency itself was in a chaotic state at this time. The agent himself had been removed, the superintendent of one of the Indian schools was suspended for drunkenness, one of the Government employees in a drunken carousal had shot himself and was suffering from a severe wound, and some of the clerks had been drinking. An investigation was going on and things were in a stir. At the time the civil service did not extend very far and “To the victors belong the spoils,” was the rule of action in all appointive offices, and the Democrats who had been out of office so long were making use of the spoils in wild abandon, for it was Cleveland’s first administration. Through the influence of the politicians, it seems that many had been appointed to the Indian service without regard to mind or matter, creed or conduct. There were some exceptionally excellent characters among them but as a rule it was a crude and crusty crowd and as clever as they were crude.
The equipment for the transaction of Government business was meager. It consisted of a small three room house for the agent and his clerks, a commissary building, a doctor’s shop, a jail, a sawmill, and the housing for the agent and employees. There were two Government schools of about two hundred pupils each and four Indian traders’ stores.
In communicating with the Indians there were about ten dialects and none of them written. The sign language was in common use and that, with the broken English and Indian, could do for the transaction of business but it could not answer the purpose for the message I had to deliver. So in my helplessness, I sought for someone who could interpret the message I brought. In this extremity, I came upon a young man of the Kiowa Tribe who had recently returned from the East where, after a course in Carlisle, he had been under Presbyterian training. Years before he had been captured by the United States soldiers when the Indians were on the warpath. He was but a boy when he was sent away to school and now had come back full of purpose for the good of his people. He was as sincere and pure-hearted a man as I ever knew among any people. Many were the meetings we held together. I give here a brief sketch of his life to illustrate some of the customs we had to meet in our work among the Indians.
One afternoon about three o’clock we had a great concourse around us, and we were giving them a lesson from the Bible, and great was the interest aroused. As we broke up, many of them went away angry and threatening that some evil would befall us if we did not stop teaching the Indians this new way, that it was not for the Indian, that it struck them like arrows right here, pointing to the heart. The next evening old Stumbling Bear came in great haste for me. He said, “Docte, hudlety (hurry) Etalye sick, maybe-so die.” I mounted my horse and hurried to the place two miles away where I knew he camped. Before I reached the place I met the Government doctor who informed me that Etalye was already dead. I hurried on to the scene and there I had my first witness of their wild death orgies. The women had stripped themselves down to the waist, and with butcher knives sharpened on whetstones held in their left hands, were cutting arms from the point of the shoulder down to the wrist and the blood was running down over their bodies, a sickening sight to see, and a number had cut off the ends of several fingers. The men also were torturing themselves and all howling like demons from the world of fiends. They began to gather up all the property belonging to the deceased preparatory to burning, as was their custom, but calling for the government police I prevented that till next morning. When we went away to bury the body, the police left the camp and the Indians remaining set fire to the goods and all went up in smoke. We gave him Christian burial, singing as he requested “When the Surges Cease to Roll,” at his grave.
The next one that came to my aid was Tsait-kop-ta. He was on the warpath in 1874 during the last great outbreak of the Indians and was sent with others to the prison barracks near St. Augustine, Florida. While he was there, Mrs. A.A. Carithers, from Tarrytown, New York was spending the winter in St. Augustine. She was a devout Christian and undertook the task of teaching the Indians in prison. She became very much interested in Tsait-kop-ta, and when at the close of winter, she was returning home, she asked the privilege of taking Tsait-kop-ta with her and training him for Christian work and a better life. He remained there for several years and under the wise counsel and instructions of Doctor and Mrs. Carithers he came back well equipped for elevating and helpful work among his people. He offered to aid me all he could but he frankly told me that he had lost the way and was entangled with the old way of the Indians. Here is the story he told me.”While I was at Tarrytown, Doctor and Mrs. Carithers treated me as their own son and instructed me well. But I got sick and gradually grew worse and it was found that I had tuberculosis. I was confined to my bed and was very weak, but one day I was reading Matthew’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus and it stirred me so that I could not keep from crying. That night after I had fallen asleep, Jesus came to me in my dreams, and said to me, “Tsait-kop-ta, today when you read an account of my suffering and crucifixion you felt sympathy for me and shed tears, and I came to tell you that I have great sympathy for you and will heal you.” With that he took me by the hand and lifted me to my feet and as he did so I awoke and found that I had been dreaming. But I felt the coursing of new strength through my body and a new faith and love burning in my soul. I recovered entirely and now twenty-five years I am still here and can never forget that time He came to me, but I must tell you that, after coming back to my old home full of purpose to live and teach the Christian way, I met with persecution and threats from my own people and ridicule from the few whites here who I hoped would be a help to me so that I became discouraged and soon found myself drifting into the old life with which I have become hopelessly entangled. Had you come sooner with your help, I could have stood, but now it is too late, but I am going to give you all the help I can for I want to see my people saved from their present condition.”
He did help me what he could for a man in his condition, but he is gone now and sleeps beneath the most costly monument in the Anadarko cemetery. But I can hope that the same Jesus who spoke peace to his soul and health to his body there at the Carither’s home, in Tarrytown, New York, met him at the Gates and brushed away his guilt and sent the gush of eternal life coursing through his soul.
There is another interesting character that became conspicuous in the life of the Indians thirty years ago.
This audience is doubtless acquainted with the history of old Sa-tank, the war chief, who was shot and killed by the soldiers near Fort Sill, when they were taking him and Sa-tan-ta to Texas for trial in the Texas courts for murder—how Sa-tank slipp-ed the handcuffs off his wrists and sought to kill another white man, when the soldiers shot him and he fell from the wagon. He was a blood-thirsty character and many were the scalps he had taken. He was a terror to Texas and glad were they when they learned of his end.
But Sa-tank had a little son. This boy was ambitious and wanted to learn the white man’s ways. He made application for admission to the Government school during the Quaker administration of Indian affairs. There was no room but he insisted that he be admitted and at last a place was made for him. He then asked for a name and was given the name of the Government doctor, Joshua Givens. After awhile spent in the reservation Indian school, he was sent away to Carlisle, and later to a school under Presbyterian training. He made rapid progress and became well equipped for Christian work not only among his own people but among any people. Once he was in Texas (Paris), and while there one Sunday, he was asked by the Methodist minister to talk to his congregation. He began by saying, “You Texas people killed my father. Why did you Texas people kill my father? Because my father made raids upon you Texas people and scalped many victims. But why did my father make raids into Texas and scalp the people? Because you withheld from him the gospel of peace and love, and not knowing otherwise he went on the path of war and plunder.” And then he gave the audience a most telling speech upon the subject of missions.
Before returning from the East, he had married an accomplished white lady whom he brought home with him. He joined readily with me in an effort to help his people. Such was his friendship for me that through him and other Kiowa friends I was adopted into the tribe and given certain privileges among them, but I never took advantage of these privileges.
The most remarkable character with whom I have been associated in my mission among the Indians is Andres Martinez or “Andele,” as he is called by the Indians. I will not attempt to give a full sketch of his life here; that is recorded in a book I wrote of him some years ago. He is still living and is with us to-day. He was captured by the Mescaleras, sold to the Kiowas, reared among them, and in all their habits, customs and superstitions became one of them. After more than twenty years of wild Indian life he was recovered and found his way back to civilization. I will pass over the details of his life and record here one incident in my association with him illustrative of Indian life as he lived it. Together we had been holding an open air meeting with the Indians at the foot of Mount Scott. We had continued the meeting for several days and at its close we climbed to the summit of Mount Scott to enjoy for a season the scenery of the surrounding country and to rest.
Sitting upon a boulder, he pointed out to me many places of interest where wild scenes had taken place in the days gone by, and finally said, as he looked out toward the west, “Yonder in that depression in the mountains is where I crucified myself.” When asked to explain he gave me about this statement:
“It has been the custom for many centuries among the Indians to go through a certain form of torture in worship to find out their mission in life. Especially was this necessary if one aspired to accomplish any great achievement in life. I was anxious to find out my mission, whether I was to be a war chief or medicine man. So I went there in that depression in the mountains where I would be alone. I stripped and painted my body white and for four days and nights, without food or drink, prayed and cried to the false gods of the Indians, calling upon my ancestors long since gone, prodding my body with some sharp pointed instrument and cutting off bits of my skin and offering the blood and skin to the sun, for we were sun-worshippers. My body is now covered with scars where I mutilated myself in those wild days.”
I asked him if he would show me the scars. Declaring himself ashamed of it now, he said as we were there alone he would show me, so he disrobed and there in many places the scars appeared over his body. After this exhibition of the results of false worship, he explained to me that in the feverish condition brought on by long fasting and torture he dreamed that he was to be a great medicine man, but ere he attained any great efficiency either as a medicine man or a warrior the gospel message of light and truth came and he became a new man. Before descending, we knelt there together and in the sunlight of that mountain top poured out our souls in thanksgiving to Almighty God for the revelation of himself through Jesus Christ and redeeming grace….
There is nothing that transforms life like the gospel of the Son of God. A veneering of civilization may be given or forced upon a people and yet leave them void of the real purpose and high aspirations of life and it soon wears off. Many methods have been tried by the Government and benevolent organizations for the civilization of the Indian and the work done was meant for his good, but not in a single instance have these efforts ever been made effective and abiding without the stabilizing power of the gospel through the ministry of the missionary and without this there has never been any real reform and permanent good.
Where the Government has worked alone there has been failure. External methods and forced treaties have never resulted in his highest good. Efforts to better man’s external condition is good as far as it goes, but you may change and better a man’s external surroundings to the most favorable, but if that is the limit he is left the same unchanged and unreformed creature, But if the man himself is changed, he will arise in the strength of a new life and change his own conditions and better his own surroundings. The work must be from the inside out and not from the outside in. To do this there must be a message that appeals to the inner man and meets and satisfies the heart hunger and soul thirst, for deep down in the savage heart, as in all hearts, there is a yearning and longing and striving for the good they know not, a felt need they do not understand, a need that must be met by a higher power than that of man—the felt want of the soul for God, and nothing short of finding God ever adjusts a man to the true conditions of a real manhood. Nothing but the gospel of the Son of God revealing unto us a knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ can ever transform human life.

Methvin, Rev. J. J., Reminiscences of Life Among the Indians, “Copyright 1927” Reprinted from The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society,1994, with thanks to the Methvin Family (to learn more, visit

George Catlin (1796-1872) was the first artist to record the Plains Indians in their own territories. He made more than 500 paintings during five journeys in the West during the 1830s and 40s.