1845: Wilson L. McAlister to Paul M. Palmer

This December 1845 letter was written by Rev. Wilson L. McAlister (1803-1859), a native of Nashville, TN, and a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, while serving as superintendent of the Fort Coffee Academy (school for boys) and New Hope (school for girls) located on the Arkansas River in the Choctaw Nation. The Fort Coffee Academy occupied the abandoned military post on a high bluff named Swallow Rock overlooking the Arkansas River. New Hope was located some five miles distant.

Both schools were started in 1843 under the auspices of the ME Church with the appointment of Rev. William H. Goode as the first superintendent. The abandoned military buildings were repaired and used as school and dwelling houses for the Indian pupils and missionaries. The old quarters had been built of hewed logs, had window shutters and doors of battens, stone chimneys and formed a square of a hundred feet to the side. The side facing the river was open and afforded a fine view. Henry C. Benson who wrote Life Among the Choctaws (Cincinnati, 1860) was the first teacher at Fort Coffee Academy.

The coursework for the Indian boys included instruction in agriculture and mechanical arts as well as literature and morals. The females were instructed in domestic labors. Rev. Goode left the school in March 1843 and was replaced by McAlister later in the year and began to teach the students from more conventional textbooks such as “Goodrich Readers, Ray’s Arithmetic, Kirkham’s Prose, Mitchell’s Geography, Noah Webster’s Dictionary.” These works were not of practical value and consequently not so well received by the Indian students—particularly the older ones—and McAlister voiced his objection to continuing with any students beyond the age of fifteen.

Though I could not find a complete account of his years in the ministry of the Methodist church, I know that he served for a time in Florence, Alabama in the 1830s and later at Memphis, Tennessee. McAlister’s obituary claims he was a missionary to the Indians for the last twenty years of his life. He died in 1859. His wife, Nancy (Walker) McAlister (1805-1860) died the following year.

McAlister wrote the letter to Paul M. Palmer (1804-Aft1860), a merchant and slave-owner who lived in Somerville, Fayette county, Tennessee.

Fort Coffee, artist sketch (Oklahoma Historical Society)


Fort Coffee
Choctaw Nation
December 19th 1845

Mr. and Mrs. Palmer
Dear Brother & Sister,

In a mood of uneasiness bordering on distress, we have waited and waited and waited an answer to ours which was written a few days after we arrived. We should have thought the letter failed to reach you, and written you again, but we put it on the same steamboat with a few others sent to your vicinity, answers to all of which we received.

Then a conjecture; I have said something—or done something which has grieved your feelings. This may appear trifling to you, but it has cost us many uneasy moments. Again we heard you had been very sick and to what extent we were unable to ascertain—but thought probably disease was continued with you, and you was not able to write. And now an exclamation, O! they will write; wait another mail. And so we have been making the best of this case we could until waiting and conjecturing have become impracticable, and I have determined we will either have an eye tooth or an answer.

Woman, in whose heart the name “Jesus: is embalmed, never fails.” Therefore we call upon Elly to relieve us. Send us a letter, though Paul may fail.

Our work, I suppose, is progressing though we are so little acquainted with such a work. We hardly conclude ourselves competent to judge. The children are certainly advancing in letters greatly for Indians and we have an occasional accession to the church. We number in the male school fifty boys and thirty in the female. Many in both branches are very interesting boys and girls. Both the teachers in the male school [Benson and Brigham] are ministers who assist me in preaching about twice a week on an average. We have regular “Class Meeting,” never introduced among them at this place till lately.

We have appointed two of the young men (students) class leaders. It would be a matter of religious amusement to you to join us in class meeting. Our circuit preacher [John Page 1] is a native Choctaw—a man of more than ordinary abilities—in our tongue—and uncommonly eloquent in his own tongue. He renders us great assistance as an interpreter. And through him we have easy access to the scholars.

The country is pleasant enough. But we have suffered very much with afflictions—through September—and down till a few days since. Wife has been dangerously ill some three times. All the children have had various attacks and in the time your humble servant has been down five times, and twice for the want of a steamer, badly salivated. And am now but just able to write though not able to eat without pain. Afflictions are serviceable in a moral sense, in which we trust we have lost nothing. To be sick, however, is unpleasant anywhere! But to be sick—a whole family sick, in a heathen land, and they for the most part strangers and care nothing whether you die, is more unpleasant.

The people in this country say they have never seen such a year for sickness here so we are hoping for better times. As we, however, live immediately on the “Arkansas River,” may look out for chills all the time—I suppose somewhat like the Hatchie river and the balance of your country.

You have upon your circuit this year my last year’s colleague—Brother Knott. You will find him a brother true and good—an excellent preacher and pious. You will please give my love. I shall write him soon. The girls are at Jackson. Send them our howdy. Buck is with Dr. W. “Peace be to his soul.” Horace and Bills and Anna and little Mc. It would be thrilling if we were able to kiss them once more.

And Mrs. Stith—we would like to give her a hearty shake hands if her afflicted hand would allow it. And your niece—be sure and remember us to her on first sight. Sister McGowen and family are not forgotten by us and we hope you will say so to her.

And what for you and Emily? Why I must wait with my family till we meet you in heaven lest what we might say for you in this lonely and weak state would make you blush. But if we should be so fortunate as to meet you in heaven, “where friends shall meet again, who have loved,” you shall have the vast records of gratitude and love now upon the tables of our hearts, spread before you for your perusal. May the counterpart of heaven be in and about you, till you have heaven complete.

What are the times in your Tennessee? Write any and everything in your hearts—fully and freely. All will interest us. Fill up your sheet. Fill it full. Let it run over. And we would have no objection to an extra sheet sent out.

We are not situated as you are. You meet with friends daily to soothe out and cheer you up and we never. So we prize letters very highly. We call them our friends and rejoice over them like you would over a friend in person because that is the best we can do. Your brother and friend, — W. L. McAlister

My address is Choctaw Agency, Choctaw Nation, Via Fort Smith, Arkansas

That will be enough to bring the letter directly. Short of that, they come by Fort Towson.

1 In his book, Outposts of Zion, Rev. William H. Goode described John Page as, “my excellent young Indian colleague…, a fine traveling companion. modest and pious, but full of innocent glee.” [page 156]

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