“The past is all around us. We live our lives against a rich backdrop formed by historic buildings. . . . Historic buildings and artifacts can define a region’s localities and communities.”
—Alice Rogers-Johnson, the Lakeport Cemetery Committee,
quoted in “Lakeport Plantation to host reunion celebration,”
McGehee [Arkansas] Times, July 1, 2009
This second essay on Oklahoma was part of my unsuccessful proposal to the Oklahoma newspapers for a column I planned to write titled “Sooner Living.” I wrote it sometime after my family and I moved into our neighborhood in Sapulpa in the fall of 1977 from Tulsa where we had lived for several months before Mari got the job teaching here.
I have to give credit for most of the factual and historical information in it to the now unknown author of a similar piece on the Rock Creek Indian Church that was published before mine was written and from which I “borrowed” freely. I would give more formal and specific credit except that it has been so many years since I wrote the piece that I could not locate the original piece or discover its author.
If you recognize any portion of this post as being from that original article, please let me know so I can give proper credit to its author and publisher. Except for the three color snapshots from my personal collection, all of the photos in this post are courtesy of the Sapulpa Historical Society. To magnify them for better viewing, simply click on each photo.
Here is my version of that piece as I originally wrote it back in 1981 and revised it in 2012:
“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”
—John Quincy Adams
A few years after my family and I moved to Sapulpa in 1977, we watched the demise of the old Indian church in our neighborhood. After having withstood for almost seventy-five years the ravages of wind and weather and the abuse of vandals, the gaunt old relic, sagging and decayed, finally fell prey to a fire of unknown origin, probably arson.
Like a venerable old patriarch, the ancient structure succumbed to what would have been described, had it been a person, as “old age.” But in a larger sense perhaps the common enemy of all human life and monuments—that destroyer of all that is fine and noble and good in life—is not so much time alone as it is human apathy and unconcern. The old church burned more than three decades ago, but it had died long before, and the cause of death was neglect.
Built soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the Rock Creek Indian Chapel came into existence because somebody cared. That somebody was Mrs. Elizabeth Sapulpa. Born Elizabeth Barnett, this dedicated lady was the widow of James Sapulpa, son of “Chief” Sapulpa, for whom the city was named. A full-blood Creek Indian whose descendants have been active in the religious, civic, and tribal affairs of the area, Mrs. Sapulpa devoted her life to the home mission work of her denomination.
In 1894 she opened the doors of her log cabin for worship. Burdened by the spiritual need of her fellow Native Americans, she labored tirelessly to achieve her dream of a suitable place of worship for her people.
In a period when money was scarce for everyone, especially Indians, she sold part of her own Indian land allotment to raise money for the building. After months of effort and sacrifice her dream was realized with the erection of this sturdy Gothic-style frame structure.
Although affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church South as a mission, the church was actually staffed by Indians since it was on Indian lands. It is said that the door of the church was always open to people and that it enjoyed a reputation of being warm and caring.
In the early days it was surrounded by camp houses built by members as temporary lodging while attending the old-fashioned camp meetings, which might last a week at a time. At a time when distances were great and transportation slow, such week-long gatherings for worship, singing, praying, and visiting served both the spiritual and social needs of the members.
Church worship differed from modern practice. True to the customs and beliefs of the day, no piano or other musical instrument was ever used in the services. The congregation was divided, with the women sitting on one side of the room and the men on the other. The pastor, elders, and deacons sat on the stage and led the singing and prayers. Individual seating was also established by tradition, and no one would dare think of occupying a seat reserved by custom for another.
The Rock Creek Church was one of four served by a circuit rider, who drew no fixed salary other than the collection. Early records show that one such collection netted 54 cents and 9 mills. The preacher kept the 50 cents. Four cents and the nine mills went into the church’s funeral fund.
Located on the southwestern outskirts of the city of Sapulpa, the church served its people well for many years. At least once several of the camp houses were destroyed by fire, and the church itself was damaged.
Through time the Indian population became reduced in number and scattered. The congregation fell on hard times. Finally, only a handful remained—too few to continue the maintenance of the church—and it was disbanded.
In the 1960s the Sapulpa Historical Society, in an effort to preserve the historic old building, managed to lease it from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the heirs of Mrs. Sapulpa (since it was built on land that had belonged to her).
A new cedar-shake shingle roof was put on it, but the lease and provisions were too expensive for the Society with its limited funds to maintain, so the edifice again fell into disrepair.
The Society was able to acquire two paintings (one a 1912 work of Christ on the Cross), the pulpit, and several of the worn pews for preservation. Plans were underway to expand the Sapulpa Historical Museum to include a room-sized facsimile of the interior of the old church.
Unfortunately, despite several later attempts by the Society to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the church building, sufficient support could never be generated.
Then, litigation over the disputed Indian land was settled, the land was sold at public auction, and the combined efforts of the city and the Society were outbid by a land developer.
So, when our family moved into the neighborhood in 1977, there it sat—grown up with weeds, surrounded by its own decayed timbers and shingles, widows broken, doors askew, unpainted and untended, abandoned and forlorn.
Then one night soon afterward, it burned. Since it was only a few blocks down the hill from our home, we walked down to join the neighbors who stood watching the tottering ruins crumble in a shower of sparks and smoke.
Standing there watching the smoldering embers gradually dying out, my wife seemed to voice the sentiment of the scattered crowd: “Well,” she remarked sadly, “I hate to see the old thing burn down, but it’s just as well, I guess. They were going to tear it down anyway to put in a housing development.”
Yes, I suppose it was better to go out in a blaze of glory than to suffer the indignity of being shoved aside by a bulldozer to make way for a housing development.
Still, it does seem to be a shame. Housing developments “ye have with ye always,” but seventy-five-year-old Indian churches, like two-hundred-year-old trees, are rather hard to come by these days.
Note: If this historic old church had been preserved and restored as the Selma Methodist Church of my childhood has been, it would now be about a hundred and ten years old.
Incidentally, as noted, the land on which the old church stood was owned by Mrs. Elizabeth Sapulpa, a Creek Indian. According to the abstract of title, she sold it to a rancher. It was later sold to a developer who built the house in which we live. So the land we now own passed through only two hands from its original Creek Indian owners.
After the Revolutionary War, my Peacock ancestors in North Carolina were allotted land in Middle Georgia for their service in the North Carolina Militia. That land was taken from Creek Indians who were forcibly moved by the U.S. government to Indian Territory, which became the state of Oklahoma in 1907.
So my Peacock family has benefited from land in both Georgia and Oklahoma that originally belonged to the Creek Indians. I wonder sometimes whether that land is blessed or cursed. There is evidence for both possibilities.
I do know that I would be perfectly happy to take my little piece of land in Oklahoma and “give it back to the Indians,” its original and rightful owners, if I could be provided a similar piece of land in my native and beloved state of Arkansas—back home where I belong. (See my earlier posts on the Southern sense of place and love of the land.)