Some Childhood Memories of Harmony Mission and Balltown (Little Osage), Missouri, 1837 – 1845

Excerpts from the Autobiography of John Milton Morris* (circa 1885)

Harmony Mission Main Building, as described by J. W. Barrows. Painted by Lucile J. Stevener. [1]

Editorial Notes:

The writer of this narrative was a grandson of Harmony Mission founder Rev. Nathaniel Brown Dodge, Jr.  John Milton Morris was born January 1835, probably at or near Balltown–he says on a hill of what is now Vernon County.  His parents were Rev. Milton Morris and Sarah Dodge Morris.

The village of commonly referred to as Balltown or Little Osage was located on the Osage River on the western edge of Vernon County, south of present-day Rich Hill.  It was settled in the 1830’s by associates and relatives of the nearby Harmony Mission. 


The first recollections of my infant musings occurred on my father loading up his effects on an ox wagon, and starting for the state of Illinois.  The grief being so great on my mother’s parting with her relatives at Balltown, when I was about two and a half years old, that the then sad event impressed me so tenderly as ever after to have a lodgement in my little heart, never to be forgotten.

We only journeyed twenty-five or thirty miles to Deepwater, in the same county, before my father found lands so desirable as to give up the trip to Illinois; and, in two days, to locate on unsurveyed government lands, where the second recollection of my mental facilities were shocked and awakened.  When near three years old, a large wild hog (just after my father’s getting moved into his log cabin) came into the yard.  The dog took after the hog, and the hog, making a lunge for the dog, both came to the door, and into the front part of the cabin.  Being the only child in the cabin, rustling for the beds, my small legs slipped down through the truncheons of the floor, skinning both sides of one leg.  And to this day, the affrighted child, scrabbling for life, cannot tell whether the scare or wound were the worse.


Missouri Locations of the Harmony Mission Families on 1845 Map[2]

. . .   Here my father thrived for a few years, until the hard times set in, caused by the failure of the United States bank, and sickness overtaking the family.  He had entered land at $1.25 per acre that he could not sell or turn over to his creditors for the government purchase money, having borrowed $200 of my uncle, Nathanael, who the Indians killed, he was never able to pay the estate this amount, and turned over the whole place to settle the heirs’ claim.  Taking the fever and aug, we would all be down, not one able to help another.  Thus the struggle set in, and the next three or four years at Deepwater was more like a hospital than a farmhouse. 

My lot, besides having the malaria, was to be given out by a good physician, ever recovering from spotted, or typhus, fever, my mother thought to be at the point of death at the same time.  My parents had, in order to eek out a mere support, to move back and forth from Little Osage to Deepwater, from Deepwater to Little Osage, where we received much of our support from my mother’s people and others of the old missionary families, and much of my time was spent at my grandfather Dodge’s until nine years old.

This grandparent, the Reverend Nathanael Brown Dodge, of Barre, Vermont, was sent as missionary by the American board of missions in 1820 or 1821 to the Osage Indians. He established Harmony Mission, long years ago discontinued, then near where the town of Papinsville, Missouri, now stands.  When the government removed all the Osages to the Neosho river, he followed the tribes and established Boudinot mission on the Neosho river.  He put out fine apple orchards at each mission, which the natives destroyed, and not a vestige of house, barn, or orchard for forty or fifty years remain. 

. . .  My grandmother Dodge, whose maiden name was Gale, we never remembered seeing out of humour.  Always at work, always  humming some tune, though she could never sing, she was good for about three ordinary women’s work.  Every child, severely or otherwise hurt, received the same treatment at her hands.  She ran with sugar bowl in hand and applied it inwardly and outwardly for all known disease.  And this medicine was very scarce, for sugar was a very scarce article in those days.

While among the relatives at Little Osage, my first labours of life began in the way of feeding stock, gathering eggs, and going on errands. During corn-planting time, at eight or nine years of age, girls and boys got from ten to twelve and a half cents per day for dropping corn, (ten cents was called a short bit, and twelve and a half cents a long bit), and men fifty cents for covering the same with a hoe.

Being sick so much, it was impossible for me to go to school much. My grandfather taught about sixty scholars, and a most excellent teacher he was.  Grave, serious, always kind, we never met a man, woman, or child but reverred and loved him.

One day two French men of the American Fur Company fell out (high in standing), and one was cursing the other to an old friend; but on seeing Grandfather turning the corner of the garden fence, Shoto remarked to his friend, “George was in…” (and, seeing Grandpa turn the corner, he added) “in heaven.”

During three months of my attending the school at his church, we never saw him reproove a scholar, and complete quiet and order prevailed. This school, taught in the white church belonging to my grandfather’s congregation (then Presbyterian) was all the place for meeting of any kind for miles away.

When about nine years old, after getting better of my inflammatory rheumatism, most of one year was spent at my grandfather Dodge’s, and my uncle, Newell, the interpreter, was at home.  He was but a child when leaving Vermont.  He spoke the Osage language before he was grown to manhood as well as any Osage chieftain in the nation.  He took up with the habits of the Indians, and would go further, when grown, to eat a bowl of buffalo soup made by an Indian squaw than the finest dinner his mother could get him, she being an excellent cook at that.  He was fairly well educated in English, and his father sent him to Andover, Indiana, to high school.  He returned in a little less than one year, remarking that he had been “through college”–that he “went in at the front door and out the back door.”  He would step off thirty steps, split a stick about two feet long with a little slit in the top, and stick twenty-five cents in the top of the stick (in the slit, stick the other end in the ground), and take his bow and arrow, and every time he knocked the twenty-five cents out of the stick with bow and arrow, he took the money. . . .  He soon had all the students’ quarters that would gamble, and the professors had to send him home. 

He always had money and property, gave away more than anyone in that country, and, like Victor Hugo, died more lamented by the poor than any man in that part of Missouri.  His religion was that of the Indian, and my father used to say that Father Dodge went out to Christianize the Indians, and made Indians of his two younger boys, who were children when he came from Vermont. At any rate, the older stock, when he left Vermont, were all the most respectable, married, and Christian people of the land, and so remained. But the younger boys took up in great measure with the habits of the Indians and the traders on the frontier.

My father, when getting over the aug to some extent at Deepwater, rented land of Dr. Reckwa [Requa] (an old missionary of former years) at Double Branch, Missouri.  The doctor was a practicing physician, Presbyterian preacher, and a farmer, a very fine man, and doctored us for nothing. During this summer, being at home most of the time, the first sad grief of death visited our home, the sixth child, a very bright, handsome babe of six weeks old, took the krupp [sic.], and in three or four days breathed its last.  We well-remembered the throng that gathered at our house, it seemed all the neighbourhood were out, and at the burial, not a preacher offered a word, and there were three standing there, and why not, we cannot tell to this day, but just before lowering the angel form into the grave, a Presbyterian deacon of Dr. Reckwa’s church, and a nephew of the doctor’s, stepped forward. . . .   But be it said, in all human probability, not one of those three or four ministers present could have done so well in an address on this occassion as good, honest George Reckwa (as he was called) had done.

. . . In the fall, when ten years old, the damp weather brought back the inflammatory rheumatism.  My parents being very poor, it was thought best to send me to my uncle, Leonard Dodge’s, to be doctored, he being the most eminent physician of that country.  Having to be pretty well on leaving Dr. Reckwa’s at Double-Branch for Little-Osage.  On arriving at my uncle’s, he took me to his quiet country home, one mile and a half from the trading post that Cecil Ball had established to trade with the Osage Indians, who had the only store in the whole country and the little village gristmill and blacksmith shop, which afterwards took the name of Balltown. 

He set me to feeding cattle, husking corn, and running general errand jobs on his farm.  But nothing escaped my eyes, and on the return of the doctor to his home the next day, he brought a roll of red flannel, and my aunt went to cutting it up.  Before she had made up the red flannel, the doctor brought home a roll of what they called full cloth, and my aunt, although a cultured lady, tacked that heavy roll of full cloth.  But of nights, she would take up her knitting, which looked to be men’s socks, with long legs ribbed. 

After this had went on for a week or two, it seemed to me the doctor must soon begin to give me medicine.  But being averse to taking medicine, having had a great deal of that to do, and my stomach quite weak, this part of the neglect did not worry me.  One morning, after noting all this preamble, the doctor took me with him as he went his daily rounds to see his patients as far as Ball’s store, and said to Mr. Ball, “I want you to make or pick out this boy a pair of boots that will turn water.”  He got me a seal skin cap, and what we called then a comfort, or what we now call a scarf, to wear around the neck.  And some way or other, the next morning, the mystery of the whole matter was divulged by an under-shirt and a pair of drawers being laid on a chair, made of red flannel, a pair of long-legged ribbed men’s socks, a pair of full cloth pants, and round about (or a blouse) of the same full cloth we had formerly seen.  The seal skin cap, scarf, and boots set by the chair when the doctor said to me, “Put them on, and never do you let me see you get your feet wet!”  They were put on, and that was all the medicine taken for inflammatory rheumatism. 

The doctor sent me with Old Lucy, an old colored woman, to have the stock corn on a cart with a yoke of oxen (to feed forty to sixty head of cattle), and a much more busy winter we cannot recall in our boyhood days.


Sources: 

*John Milton Morris’ manuscript is housed in the microfilm collection of the University of California Berkeley Library as John M. Morris Diary and Autobiography, 1885-1906. It was transcribed and published online by his grandson Chaumont Devin, circa 2005, as The Autobiography of John Milton Morris. 

[1] Alpheus H. Favor, Old Bill Williams: Mountain Man, Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 1936, p. 28, https://archive.org/details/oldbillwilliamsm00favo/page/n87/mode/2up.

[2] Background 1845 map by Sidney E. Morse, Missouri Map, Morse’s North American Atlas, Harper & Brothers, NY, 1845, in David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~21745~660109:Missouri-. Annotated 2021 by Julia Morse.

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