More Childhood Memories of Harmony Mission Families, 1845

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

Locations of former Harmony Mission families in Missouri, circa 1845[1]

Editorial Notes:

In January’s newsletter, we presented some memories from a grandson of Harmony Mission founder Rev. Nathaniel Brown Dodge, Jr.  Here John Milton Morris continues discussing his stay with his uncle and aunt, Dr. Leonard Dodge and Mary Coates Dodge of Balltown (Little Osage), south of present-day Rich Hill. The Mission had closed in 1836, but families associated with the mission remained in the area.  The writer was ten years old at the time of these events, about 1845.

The doctor [Leonard Dodge, son of Rev. Nathaniel Dodge], educated and studying medicine under Dr. Belcher (afterwards principal of Sing-Sing, N.Y.), was thoroughly Eastern in every phase of life.  The doctor was always ahead of his brothers in his profession.  The doctor used to say, “When Dodge talks, all listen.” 

He was the most systematic doctor we ever remember being acquainted with. Generally leaving home at six a.m., he as universally returned at six p.m. If anyone hurried him up by telling him of the urgency of the case, he would remark blandly, “If they are so bad that they will die before I get there, I could do them no good if I was there.”  If anyone asked what he was giving, he was just as likely to remark, “Medicine.” as anything else. And if anyone asked what ailed the patient, he would frequently say, “I don’t know.”  Unpretending, he got all the practice of all this country.

One peculiarity was he always rode a hard-trotting horse, and was nearly always away from home in the daytime, but if away of nights, someone must be dying, or else very bad. . . .

Dry, quaint, and always seemed in a deep study about his business or something, yet a fine conversationalist.  Quite a joker.  Well, and more than favourably, liked.  He died during the Civil War, lamented by all who knew him. 

He married Miss Choat, who volunteered her services as a teacher to the Osage Indians at old Harmony Mission.  She was a teacher of infant classes of children in Massachussets before coming west.  Some three or four years the senior of my uncle.  One of the best cooks and neatest housekeeper we ever met.  Very systematic.  The first child, Leonard, died when one or two years old.  They had two daughters afterwards that always called me their brother.  They were younger than myself.  And the mother took the greatest care of them, teaching them herself, at home.  She done all her housework, and besides teaching these two daughters, braided palm-leaf hats three or four hours each day.

Here we saw the first cook stove and thermometer, the first apothecary shop, filled up with cinnamon, all-spice, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg; and this may have been helpful in my aunt’s making the best pies and cakes ever eaten in that borderland.  But the cook stove was more of an ornament than useful nature, for my aunt used her oven and skillet in the old cabin, where it was my privelage to sleep by the old fashioned fireplace in a bed in a corner of the kitchen, covered with the huge buffalo robe and mackinaw blankets of the cold winter nights.  And the cook stove sat in one of the parlors in the frame building adjoining the old log cabin, only to be used when company came. . . .

A more benevolent woman, how many times (though no blood relation) has she helped us.  A wise counsellor.  A good mother.  An accomplished lady. It was a benediction to dwell under her roof, and I only think of her to love and respect her.

The old colored woman, a slave, who the doctor hired to do nearly all the farm work when there, belonged to Mrs. Merchant, an old widow lady, and was Mrs. Merchant’s only support.  This colored lady dressed in men’s clothes, plowed, husked corn, hauled hay, and stacked corn fodder, and cut up in the air (and many times that I fell off the wagon or cart, all the load on top.  One is incredible and [sic.] be alive).

The two girls of the doctor, my cousins, were very bright, and had a romp every night, after the doctor came home, on the carpet in the parlor. He was fond of music, but neither he nor wife sang often.  Though the latter was a good singer, she was always too busy to sing at home. . . .

One more patient sufferer we wish to call to mind before we leave Little Osage:  My uncle, Thomas Morris, who attended Ball’s grist mill at Balltown.  To conceive in the mold a man, a pattern of more native simplicity, more patient, persistent endurance, and kindly affectionate to all, so tall, lean, and people looking, yet so faithful in labours and care, having charge of this water mill for years.  Whose business it was to carry every boy’s grist brought to this mill, grind it, and carry it up and down a flight of stairs to and from the mill to the horse, and divide this two-bushel sack into two parts to keep it from falling off of the saddle horse as the boy went home.  The idea entertained in this age was that two bushel of corn meal was as much as would keep good until an ordinary-sized family used it up.  Hence, two bushel of corn, among the more wealthy, was all taken to mill at one time.  And corn was the principal bread of all classes. 

The time spent at this mill by my uncle no one knew but my uncle himself.  For The Governor, as we called him, was a hard task-master (this name, Governor, was given by Cecil Ball to my uncle Dodge when interpreter for him).  At any rate, uncle Thomas lost his wife just after coming west from East Tennessee to Balltown, and these six motherless children had to be taken care of, the oldest daughter being only thirteen years old when her mother died.  My uncle tending the mill day and night, he managed to raise the children, and keep them together until they were large enough to care for themselves.  We will not dwell upon this saint.  To think of his hardships makes us sad.  And my wife never allows me to read the deaths of martyrs to her.  If he misses a crown in that better country, we cannot now see why it was.


*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] Background 1845 map by Sidney E. Morse, Missouri Map, Morse’s North American Atlas, Harper & Brothers, NY, 1845, in David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Annotated 2021 by Julia Morse.

[2] Grist mill scenes captured and modified from an unidentified silent movie, early 1900’s, comparing “a pioneer grist mill” to a then-modern flour mill. “A Pioneer Grist Mill,” Ephemeral Films Collection,, Colorization by DeOldify through

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