Mission Work among Some Cherokee Remnants in Virginia
In an article published in the New Era Progress on October 22, 1908, the Reverend Arthur P. Gray Jr. writes of his missionary work among the Indians of Amherst County.
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MISSION WORK AMONG SOME CHEROKEE REMNANTS IN VIRGINIA.
BY ARTHUR P. GRAY, JR.
In the latter part of the 18th century, and the early part of the 19th, the inhabitants of the Piedmont section of Virginia were accustomed to see small bands of Indians passing through their farm, or stopping at their springs for water. These were generally members of the Cherokee or allied tribes, who dwelt on the borders of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and who were in the habit of making pilgrimages to Washington to see the “Great White Father,” their route passing through or near Lynchburg and Charlottesville. On one or more of these pilgrimages some members of the band dropped off in Amherst County. In the years between 1830 and 1850 there were two conspicuous examples of these Indians living near the foot of Tobacco Row Mountain, John Redcross and Bill Johns. The former was often an especially conspicuous example, as he frequently became intoxicated, calling himself “Cherokee John” and raising a good deal of disturbance. It was such as these, who, mixing with the lower class of whites, and sometimes with the negroes also, became the ancestors of a strange class of people in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of Amherst County.
They are known locally as “Issues.” This name has clung to them from ante-bellum days. Negroes who were not slaves were called “Free Issues,” and these people, being neither whites nor slaves, were classed with the “Free Issues.” They dislike the name very much, and they call themselves, “Indian Men,” and “Indian Women.”
There are at present about 325 of these mixed blood people in Amherst County. Their homes are mostly little log cabins about 16 feet sqare [sic], with a loft above, and a shed outside, and one such cabin will sometimes be the home of two or three families, and more than a dozen individuals. They live scattered about on the lands of the white people, raising tobacco on shares, women working in the fields along with the men. The moral conditions under which they have multiplied have been of a very low standard, but these conditions are much better now than they were 30 years ago. They seldom mix with the other races, as they have done, and almost every home now has a marriage “stiffizzy,” as one of them called the certificate.
In looking over a congregation of these people one naturally sees a variety of types. The white and the negro are both in evidence, but the majority are not like any other kind of people, and it would be hard to describe them. But when taken all together the average is seen to be more Indian than anything else. There are a number of handsome men and pretty girls among them.
Their characteristics are more strikingly Indian than their features, and chief among these is their stolid, unemotional bearing under all circumstances. They are fond of painting themselves, they are very observant and suspicious, and they are proud of their Indian blood, though generally not attempting to put themselves on an equality with the whites. Those who have most negro blood and least Indian, are not in the same social standing as the others.
Owing to the fact that they will not associate with the negroes, and can not associate with the whites, their education and religious training has been sadly neglected. It is only in late years that the county school board has established a separate school for these people in a little 16x18 log school house, and then it was hard to get a competent teacher for them. A few of the older ones have picked up enough “learnin” to read and write a little, and the few children who have attended the school regularly have progressed well.
They have never had a church, but occasionally during their history, evangelists have held meetings for them in the schoolhouse or in different cabins. A former preacher of the Methodist persuasion preached for them a while, about 25 or 30 years ago, and introduced the marriage ceremony, a hitherto almost unknown rite. A Baptist colporteur has held occasional meetings for them in later years, and he has baptized about 40 or 50 of them. Both of these started plans for a church, but one died and the other left the couty [sic] before anything was done. There are two old “Indian men,” who for a number of years conducted a sort of Sunday School and prayer meeting for their people. But these meetings were more in the nature of social gatherings and fighting grounds, or at best of reading lessons and musical concerts, than religious gatherings. They had a cheap, primitive little phonograph to lead them in their singing.
During the summer of 1907, a student of the Theological Seminary of Virginia, under the direction of the Rev. A. P. Gray (now of Hague, Va.), who was at that time rector of Ascension Church, Amherst C. H., began missionary work among these people. The little 16x18 log school house was used for a church, and an average congregation numbered about 100 persons. Seventy-five would crowd inside the building, and the other twenty-five would look through the door and windows.
The responsive and receptive spirit on the part of the people was most encouraging. A common answer to questions was: “I don’t know, but would like to learn.” The Bible Society gave them some prayer books, hymnals and Testaments, and they studied and used them faithfully. Those who could read helped those who could not, and they grew to love the service. One said, “I like your General Confession, it has helped me,” and one wanted to be shown the place where she could read for herself about the “Virgin Mary.” The attention and reference of the congregation and the heartiness of their responses, considering how few can read, are all remarkable. The real gratitude of the sick for reading and prayers at their bedside, though it was not shown in ordinary ways, is touching.
Miss Cornelia Packard came last January to do missionary work among these people. She goes about through the mountains, from cabin to cabin, reading and praying and teaching them the simple truths of the Gospel, and ministering to the needs of the poor and sick. On Sundays through the winter she conducted a Sunday School in the little school house, which was always crowded when the weather permitted. The people are all devoted to her, and have expressed their attachment in many quaint ways.
The workers in this field board in the home of Mr. John Jaquelin Ambler, who himself has been of great assistance to the mission, especially in helping with the Sunday School.
The greatest need of the mission has been supplied this summer in the erection of a churchly little chapel on a beautiful site which nature seems to have contributed for the purpose. It is a triangle of solid rock, formed by the public road crossing two streams just before they unite, with enough soil for a clump of trees about the front, facing the road. St. Paul’s chapel, as it will be called, was built mostly by the help of church people within and without the State, but partly by subscriptions and work from the “Issues” themselves. They have given about $150 in cash, which is a splendid offering considering their circumstances; besides over $100 in labor and hauling.
From the beginning of the work, the answers to the many prayers for blessings upon it have been most striking, and the outlook for the future physical, intellectual and spiritual development of the people is most hopeful. Miss Packard is taking a practical course in nursing in Richmond this summer; a health club has been organized to improve the conditions of living; and several cases of disease and injury are being treated at the University of Virginia hospital. The mission will combine with the county this session and erect a suitable school building in which Mr. Ambler and Miss Packard will both teach. There are 150 children under 16 years of age, who are capable of taking a good education, some of them being especially bright. There is sometimes one child in a family who reads the Bible daily to the less fortunate older people. These Indian-blood people like the Episcopal Church because they appreciate the interest church people have taken in giving them a chapel, because they like the service, and because they say they learn about Jesus.
The chapel will be consecrated in the autumn and at the same time there will be a class of 25 or 30 for confirmation.
Any who wish to contribute to the general expenses of this mission, or to obtain any further information, may communicate with
ARTHUR P. GRAY, JR.,
Theological Seminary, Virginia.
--The Diocesan Journal.