Friday, September 20, 2019

From North Carolina to Indian Territory

The train traveling west from Greenville, North Carolina, left the station three hours late. But Meta Chestnutt didn't mind. The only thing that mattered to her was that she was going to Indian Territory and the challenges awaiting her there. The conductor eventually made his way to her row.

"What city, Miss?"

"Silver City, Indian Territory."

"I beg your pardon."

"Silver City."

"You must be mistaken. There is no such place."

"Oh, but there is and I am going there."

"I will have to let you off at the next stop and you can talk with the station agent."

After looking at his map, the agent repeated what the conductor had said: there was no Silver City, Indian Territory. The best the agent could do was to send Meta some forty miles further west, to Goldsboro, North Carolina. Perhaps the people in the station office there could help her.

The agent at Goldsboro gave her no more help. He suggested that she take the next train to Richmond, Virginia. Chestnutt had letters with her, sent by Annie Erwin and postmarked "Silver City, I.T."  She insisted that there was such a place, and that she had to get there. Her only choice was to go to Richmond. Maybe someone there could help her.[1]

Thanks to the nineteenth-century's transportation revolution, by 1889 the United States had been knit together by an ever-expanding network of railroads. From 1850 to 1870, massive investment in railroad construction created a web of tracks totaling 53,000 miles. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869. By the end of the 1880s, the decade that witnessed the greatest amount of construction, there were 164,000 miles miles of track in operation.[2]

Still, for all of that, no railroad ever reached Silver City, Indian Territory. Meta Chestnutt knew the place was there. But judging from a map of the nation's railroads, it wasn't. She must have felt anxious as she rode the train 165 miles from Goldsboro, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia, following the path of present-day Interstate-95. If she was ever going to make it to Silver City, she would need to travel west-southwest. At this point, she was going north-northeast!

At Richmond, the agent encountered the same problem, but had the presence of mind to ask, "Do you know of any town that might be near where you want to go?" Looking at the map, the only place Meta could suggest was Oklahoma City. So the agent sold her a ticket to Oklahoma City and suggested that she send word to her friends in Indian Territory to pick her up there. She was starting her trip to the west all over again. This time, she was further away.

It would be difficult to trace the exact route that Chestnutt followed from Virginia to Indian Territory. It appears, however, that she eventually traveled west through Missouri and into Kansas before heading south into I.T.

At some point in Kansas, she had a brief encounter she remembered for the rest of her life. A black man boarded the crowded train and looked for an empty seat. He noticed the spot next to Meta and sat down. Immediately, the white woman from North Carolina, the grand-daughter of slave owners, reacted. Not once in her life had she been that close to a black man. In fact, the only time she could remember seeing an African-American beside a white person, it was a servant girl sitting next to her white mistress.

Meta concealed her anxiety and disgust as best she could, but her emotions much have shown. Soon, a white man spoke up and asked the black man sitting next to Chestnutt to move and sit next to him instead. With no apparent surprise or indignation, the black man stood up and moved to the seat next to the white man.

Telling this story years later, Meta insisted that the black man who sat next to her that day was someone whose photo sometimes appeared in the newspapers: George Washington Carver. When recalling the episode, she would add, "I would be proud to have him sit beside me today."[3]

The available facts support Meta's story. For example, the train that brought her to Oklahoma City in 1889 ran on the Southern Kansas Railway, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, traveling south out of Kansas.[4] Also, as a young man, George Washington Carver left his home in Diamond, Missouri, and moved to Kansas. For several years until 1890, Carver spent much of his time in Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa "seeking an education while supporting himself doing laundry, cooking, and homesteading."[5]


[1] Eva Heiliger, "Born to Meet Adversity (and Rise Above It)," 31-32. The unpublished book typescript is located in box 1, folders 6 and 7, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City. The spoken words here do not come from a transcript. Instead, they represent what appears to be Heiliger's imaginative recreation of what could have been said--and might likely have been said--at a certain point in Meta Chestnutt's story. Heiliger was Sager's great niece as well as biographer. As the Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection reveals, the two women corresponded with one another for many years.

In a work that contains several examples of reported dialogue, William F. Buckley wrote, "The reader is entitled to ask if the material here is factually reliable. Reliable is the perfect word in this context. The book is not strictly factual, in that conversations are reported which cannot be documented as having taken place word for word. Yet it is reliable in that these words might well have been spoken. There are zero distortions here--no thought is engrafted in anyone that alters the subject's character or inclinations, or even habits of speech." William F. Buckely Jr., Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2008), xi-xii. It is in the spirit of Buckley's apology that this book occasionally reports dialogue taken from Eva Heiliger's manuscript.

[2] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 532.

[3] Heiliger, Born to Meet Adversity, 32-34. Chestnutt's emotional reaction in this instance might be compared to a story Melton A. McLaurin tells in his memoir, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South, 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 27-41. McLaurin's chapter titled "Bobo" is named for a black childhood acquaintance of the McLaurin's. The two boys had gone to a store where they used an air compressor to inflate a leaky basketball. Bobo put the air needle in his mouth first. The first attempt at airing up the basketball didn't work. So McLaurin, without thinking, put the needle in his own mouth. Instantly, he recognized what he had done. For a moment, he imagined that Bobo's blackness was somehow already infecting him. Still, he managed to conceal his distress. Part of his assumed white superiority meant that he could not visibly react. Later, though, he went by himself to an outdoor spigot where he repeatedly rinsed out his mouth.

[4] See Augustus J. Veenendaal, Jr., "Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,, and Linda D. Wilson, "Oklahoma City," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,

[5] Linda O. McMurry, "Carver, George Washington," in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4:513.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

R. W. Officer Reports on Stone-Campbell Churches in I.T., 1890

During the second half of 1890, only a year after Meta Chestnutt first arrived in Silver City, R. W. Officer reported on the state of Stone-Campbell churches in Indian Territory. There were, he said, about 2,200 disciples in 54 congregations (an average of approximately 41 members per church). Fourteen of those congregations met in homes. Thirty of the churches met in community school houses. Only ten worshiped in a building owned by the congregation. There were a total of nineteen preachers in I.T. Virtually all of them, "by the work of their own hands," supported themselves and their families.[1]

Officer seems to have had mixed feelings about an entire region made up of congregations whose preachers were bi-vocational. On the positive side, those preachers followed in the footsteps of Paul, the apostolic missionary who worked to support himself. Officer noted that to the church at ancient Thessalonica the Apostle wrote, "Ye ought to follow, [imitate] us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you; . . . "

Still, Officer knew from experience that strong financial support for missionaries and their ministries led to success:
The different religious communities (denominations) sent missionaries to this country with the Indians when they came years ago, sustained them by their missionary societies through their boards, sent men to assist them when the interest demanded, sent teachers, and helped to sustain them. They sent money to aid in building institutions of learning, and had the assistance of the Church extension funds to aid in building church houses.[2]
What might the Stone-Campbell churches in I.T. have been if they had received the same kind of support? What was more, Officer said, when he first came to I.T. ten years earlier, he could not build on the work done by others who had come before him. J. J. Trott had worked among the Cherokees some twenty years before. But after his death, the mission outpost Trott had established "went down," so much so that his own children "took membership with the denominations in their communities."[3]

In the mid-1880s, the Disciples' American Christian Missionary Society had sent Isaac Mode to evangelize the Creek Indians living in and around Wetumpka, I.T. Various hardships, especially Mode's difficulties with the Creek language, "were of such a nature that he did but little, and from some cause resigned."[4]

Besides those failures, Officer had always known a variety of "religious neighbors" in I.T. who collaborated in "a kind of a union of action to spoil our efforts." Sabotage by outsiders was compounded by "men claiming to be Christian preachers who seemed not to care for the cause." The progress that Officer and his colleagues witnessed had not come easily. He and other Stone-Campbell missionaries had overcome difficulties that were, said the Civil War veteran, "hard to imagine."[5]


[1] R. W. Officer, "Indian Territory," Octographic Review 33 (December 18, 1890), 6. The date of Officer's report is uncertain. The article appears after an editorial preface: "The following document had the misfortune of being delayed in Bro. Officer's hands before it was sent to us, and of being delayed in our hands after reading this office. Publisher."

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. For a brief discussion of Mode's failed mission, see Stephen J. England, Oklahoma Christians (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), 42.

[5] Ibid.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

R. W. Officer Writes from Minco about Meta Chestnutt

Part of R. W. Officer's report from Indian Territory in the fall of 1890 includes the following, written at Minco, I.T.:

Miss Meta Chestnutt of Nashville, Tenn., formerly from N. C. is teaching. I said once that she was a whole state convention by herself. I am not going to take it back. With brother and sister Erwin to co-operate with her I would not take a national convention for them, with the Y. M. C. A. thrown in, for the work needed in this country.

R. W. Officer, "Indian Territory," Octographic Review 33 (November 20, 1890), 2.

Clearly, Officer mixes his admiration for Miss Chestnutt and her educational mission with his objection to para-church organizations and religious societies, none of which are the church described in the New Testament.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Protestant Dominance in 19th-Century America and Stone-Campbell Churches

During the nineteenth century, Americans could hardly fail to notice that although Protestant Christianity was officially non-established, it was the unofficially-established religion of the United States. Most American Jews and Roman Catholics simply tolerated its dominance.[1] The supremacy of Protestantism showed up at every turn. Buildings that belonged to Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists could be seen on street corners in virtually every town in America. Members of these and other sizable Protestant groups, like Lutherans and Episcopalians, participated in countless inter-denominational and non-denominational voluntary associations. These included the American Bible Society (established in 1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and the Evangelical Alliance (formed in the U.S. in 1867). In addition, a wide variety of educational and journalistic institutions served to reinforce the cultural influence of Protestantism. For example, from the 1636 founding of Harvard, America's first college, until the late nineteenth century Protestant higher education was nearly synonymous with American higher education. Even state universities operated much like Protestant schools. Finally, extended networks of business owners, ministers, educators, government officials, and benefactors created a sort of Protestant fabric that covered the entire country.[2]

Nineteenth-century Christian Churches and Churches of Christ--congregations affiliated with of the Stone-Campbell Movement--were part of that tapestry. It is true that some of these churches were prone to a sectarian spirit, and that the strict independence of all those churches created a situation in which congregations were so autonomous the movement was nearly anonymous. Yet they still made up a part of American Protestantism.


[1] William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 59-60.

[2] Ibid., 61. See also W. C. Ringenberg, “Higher Education, Protestant,” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 530-32.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

J. Alba and Meta Sager at the Lake Mohonk Conference 1910

In late October of 1910, Meta Chestnutt and J. Alba Sager traveled from Oklahoma to New York to attend the annual Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian. No evidence suggests that Mrs. Sager delivered a speech to the participants. In fact, her name never appears anywhere in the published report for that year. It simply lists "Sager, J. A." of the "Indian Service, Minco, Okla." as one of the conference participants. Ironically, only an asterisk next to Mr. Sager's name indicates that he was "accompanied by his wife," the president of El Meta Bond College.[1] It appears this was the only Mohonk Conference the Sagers ever attended.[2]

Five months later, on March 20, 1911, William Arthur Jones, a former commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote a letter from his Mineral Point Zinc Company in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Jones addressed his letter to "Mrs. M. C. Sager, Minco, Oklahoma."

Dear Mrs. Sager: --

I am just in receipt of a postal card of the cut of your college building. The picture shows that you have made wonderful improvement in the building and grounds since I last saw a cut of it. I congratulate you heartily on the success of the school, and only regret that the federal or state government is not more liberal with you in the way of appropriations. It was too bad you were unable to get a more extended hearing at Lake Mohonk last fall, as I am firmly of the opinion that the endorsement of the conference would have helped you materially in bringing out your plans for the future.

Please remember me kindly to Mr. Sager, and believe me

Sincerely yours,

W A Jones[3]

Although short, Jones's letter points to development at El Meta Bond College, and to a plan of Mrs. Sager's. Early photos of the school house at Minco show the three-story building towering over a stark landscape. During those early years, Meta, who had grown up in North Carolina surrounded by trees, saw to it that dozens were planted on the property. At least some of them survived and flourished so that later photos reveal a school house surrounded by trees.

The letter also indicates that Meta Sager had gone to Mohonk hoping to gather support for a plan. It would be something new, at least at her school, and that would require government funding. The specifics of her idea are unknown.


[1] Report of the Twenty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, October 19th, 20th, and 21st, 1910 (N.p.: Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, 1910), 187. The explanation of the asterisk next to Mr. Sager's name appears on page 185.

[2] See the annual Reports or Proceedings of the Lake Mohonk Conference. So far, I have been able to scan the following years: 1885-87 and 1894-1916.

[3] W. A. Jones to Mrs. M. C. Sager, March 20, 1911, box 3, folder 34, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. The William A. Jones Papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society contain no correspondence between Mr. Jones and Mrs. Sager. Susan Krueger, e-mail message to author, September 5, 2019. My thanks to the archivists at the WHS who conducted the search of the collection.