Moses of the Choctaws: David Folsom (1791-1856)
As the ancient Jewish prophet Moses led his people out of bondage and into the Promised Lands of both this world and the next, so did Mississippi-born Choctaw mixed-blood David Folsom. Like Moses, too, Folsom faced enemies within and without, and required rescue as an infant from the hands of legally-empowered murderers.
In Folsom’s case, his birth occurred in 1791, while his white father Nathaniel conducted business away in New Orleans. His brother and sister had just died of pneumonia and his full-blood mother Ainichihoyo contracted it, too. Doubting Ainichihoyo would survive, the Choctaw “doctor” attending advised the standard full-blood practice of killing a baby whose prospects for proper nurture and care looked bleak.
That practice, exercised by other tribes, too, was one of many that the teachings of Christ among the Natives soon eradicated. In this case, Folsom’s grandmother spirited him away until Nathaniel and a healthy Ainichihoyo could take home their baby boy.
Folsom mastered English and other subjects, taught himself the violin, and proved himself a vigorous outdoorsman during a youth spent partly with his parents and partly with his Choctaw aunt and her U.S. Indian Agent husband. As a teenager, he raised a farm crop, sold it, and used the proceeds to finance a 250-mile solo journey on horseback to a Tennessee mission school. His parents provided him home schooling instruction when possible.
Along with Pushmataha and the other Choctaws, Folsom fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Andrew Jackson and the Americans against the British and Creeks at the pivotal Battle of Pensacola in the War of 1812. His deeds won him the rank of Colonel, which contributed for the rest of his life to the esteem he held in the eyes of the Choctaws, other tribes, and the Americans. Nathaniel cited his son’s industry and honesty as the twin pillars that sparked his commercial success as a trader.
While only around 34 years old, Folsom rose to leadership as one of the Choctaws’ three chiefs and the first ever elected by the voice of his people, under the tribe’s 1826 constitution. Like most if not all the other tribal leaders, mixed-blood as well as full-blood, he owned a Southern plantation and black slaves who worked it. He differed with some of the full-bloods, however, in his belief that the Choctaws must embrace the American and Christian cultures of the westward-migrating whites.
“I have been talking to my people, and have advised them for the best, turn their attention to industry and farming, and lay our hunting aside,” he wrote in 1818 upon Cyrus Kingsbury and the Presbyterians’ founding of the first mission and school among the Choctaws. “And here is one point of great work…the establishment of a school.”
“We rejoice to think that we have a chief who is a friend to his people, and wishes their good, and favors the schools in the nation,” students at the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ (ABCFM) Mayhew Mission School wrote a few years later after he visited them. Aware of full-blood opposition to the school, they added, “Had it not been for you and the friends of the mission, we think we should have been wandering about in the wilderness."
Indeed, Folsom embodied a new breed of American—Indigenous men and women who married the signal tribal attributes of honesty, self-reliance, heritage, culture, and a discerning eye, with the character and soul-transforming power of the Christian faith. Chronicles of his life and extant photos of Folsom both indicate his physical similarity to his brother Israel, whom one historian described as “a handsome man, standing over six feet tall and muscled accordingly, a type of man found in those days among the Choctaws, especially those of white extraction.”
They grew to share a common spiritual conviction as well—Israel labored for decades as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister in the Choctaw country’s old Blue County, Indian Territory, and first translated the Lord’s Prayer into the tribe’s language.
It rests me to look upon its varied lovely scented landscape which is in reality a means of education to the susceptible mind, and which so often has been invested with the charm of poetry and romance.
— David Folsom, writing of God’s physical creation
Lifting His People
Also like Moses in the Old Testament, Folsom made great progress against his own human imperfections, including ambition, shouldered the responsibility and sacrifice of leadership, and threw his heart and mind into striving for the best for his beloved people in every way a man could. He grew into a powerful speaker among them. The Missionary Herald printed many of his speeches, including one to the young people (specifically referencing the girls) at one of the Choctaw mission schools from which this excerpt is drawn:
“It is true your fathers have long possessed this land, notwithstanding their ignorance of these things, but this you cannot be expected to do unless you become civilized. Your situation is rapidly becoming different from the situation of those who have gone before you. The white people were once at so great a distance that there was but little intercourse between them and your forefathers. Now the white people are settled around you in every direction. It is therefore indispensably necessary that the rising generation shall be educated and learn the ways of the white people.… The girls can also acquire an education and learn to manage domestic affairs as the white people do. When they are grown and their education finished they will marry young men who are refined like themselves.”
Folsom’s vision for lifting his people proved comprehensive and vast. It included spearheading the establishment of America’s first agricultural and mechanical college, developing roving “lighthorsemen” law enforcement squads, and championing unusually effective prohibition efforts against the alcoholic beverages, and their white purveyors, so destructive to Natives. It further encompassed translating the Scriptures into Choctaw, securing teachers for the Choctaw girls and eventually developing the former from among the latter, and persuading ABCFM missionary stalwarts like Cyrus Kingsbury (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 5) to establish efforts among his division of Choctaws, and very near his own home.
After arriving in Indian Territory, Folsom wrote the widow of Presbyterian missionary Samuel Mosley regarding these and other such efforts:
“If we do these things in sincerity and love of God, he will surely bless our endeavors. Here is the work of God’s love, as I trust God was preparing us to rejoice more still. Mrs. Folsom, her sister and mother, and my own mother and sister with multitudes of others came out on the Lord’s side and united with the church. The like we never witnessed among us before, it seemed a miracle God had wrought with his Holy Spirit.”
The Choctaw Moses
The difficult, sometimes chaotic events leading to Choctaw removal from their ancient homeland ensnared Folsom and other Choctaw leaders, mixed-blood and full-blood alike, into a series of divisive and regrettable political moves about which historian Grant Foreman lamented, “does not make a pretty picture.” It encompassed chasms between the mixed and full-bloods, the acceptance, or not, of American culture and education, and Christianity and traditional paganism. The U.S. government and public, however, foisted much of this upon the tribe, and set a notable example for such behavior themselves.
Folsom labored long and hard for the Choctaws to remain in their lands. Yet, through the Christian acquiescence he now practiced, he concluded at one climactic summit with the U.S. government: “We’ll do as you wish.” He stated upon confirmation that his tribe must emigrate west:
“We are exceedingly tired. We have just heard of the ratifications of the Choctaw Treaty. Our doom is sealed. There is no other course for us but to turn over our faces to our new homes toward the setting sun.”
Yet, amidst those heart wrenching emotions, he prepared his people through word and deed for the next chapter of their earthly pilgrimage. He exhorted the Christian missionaries who had long labored among the Choctaws to accompany them west—permanently. And, the image of Moses rising yet higher, the Choctaw government chose him to lead half of the thousands-strong first party along their Trail of Tears, in 1832, as well as to lead them once they arrived in Indian Territory.
These exiles suffered horror and death from cholera outbreaks, exposure to a savage winter that wore many of them down to near nakedness, and a terrible, 30-mile-long swamp of freezing cold, waist-high water they had to cross on foot in eastern Arkansas. Chickasaw historian Czarina C. Conlan wrote how Folsom’s leadership saved the lives of many Choctaws both during this and the bitter first winter following their arrival.
The girls can also acquire an education and learn to manage domestic affairs as the white people do. When they are grown and their education finished they will marry young men who are refined like themselves.
He Yet Speaks
Amidst all else, Folsom proved a man of the land, from start to finish, in Mississippi and Indian Territory alike. He wrote of God’s physical creation: “It rests me to look upon its varied lovely scented landscape which is in reality a means of education to the susceptible mind, and which so often has been invested with the charm of poetry and romance.”
The Christian faith that had blossomed from a pragmatic approach to advancing his people’s interest to a deep, abiding belief that guided him through many valleys and helped him guide his people, shined in a poignant letter to Presbyterian missionary Cyrus Kingsbury upon the death of the latter’s first wife, Sarah. It included these words, shared exactly as he wrote them, which might have been written about Folsom himself, at the time of his own death in 1847:
“We read in the Bible, the same God who has seen best to take our mother from us, did command his servant Abraham to offer his only son on the sacrifice—God did try our father Abraham, and I can only say he has tried you also—I hope this same God has seen you humble before him, and give yourself up to him to dispose of you as he sees best. And that you will go forth with more zeal in up building Zion in this land more than you ever did—Please to receive this as coming from a person who share the sorry with you.”
Engraved on Folsom’s headstone in the old Fort Towson Cemetery when he did die were these words:
“To the memory of Colonel David Folsom, the first Republican Chief of the Choctaw Nation. The promoter of industry, education, religion and morality, was born January 25, 1791, and departed this life September 24, 1847. Aged 56 years and 8 months. ‘He being dead yet speaketh.’”
Mrs. Folsom, her sister and mother, and my own mother and sister with multitudes of others came out on the Lord’s side and united with the church…it seemed a miracle God had wrought with his Holy Spirit.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
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