I came across the name of Mary Semple while reading a book called Dust Bowl Girls, about a national champions women’s college basketball team in the 1930s. The book itself is a great read about women’s sports at that time, something I knew nothing about. Sort of like A league of Their Own, but a decade earlier and concerning basketball, which is on everyone’s mind with the national collegiate championship coming up.
Mary Semple was a cultured society girl from Steubenville, OH, born in July of 1836. Her father was a dentist so Mary enjoyed the luxuries of an upper-middle class young woman – pretty clothes, parties, and all the social advantages. She was also a top student with a strong Presbyterian upbringing. This religious background exposed her to various missionaries for her church, and when she was ten or twelve, at a lecture by Dr. John Scudder, a famous medical missionary to India, she was told to write in her Bible, “Mr. Scudder asked me to be a missionary.” She apparently felt bound to those words, keeping them in mind as she grew and at age nineteen, while singing a solo in her church choir with the words, “There comes a call and I must go,” she felt it was the call for her own mission and time to leave home.
Being a missionary in those days, as is often the case now, could lead to injury, illness, starvation and even death. When she met with Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, who was seeking teachers and other workers for missions in the Indian Territory, he disparaged her application. After all, she presented wearing fashionable hoop skirts and a guitar. She didn’t know how to cook, sew or raise vegetables. He told her of the poor food, the isolation, the difficult living conditions and the difficult Indian languages and vile customs (to him). She was not deterred and somehow managed to convince him she wasn’t soft, spoiled or naïve, so he sent her off to eastern Oklahoma, where the Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations had been sent by the federal government.
She travelled by boat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Arkansas, then overland by wagon through swamps, brush, streams and rivers, heat and swarming insects. One night she stayed at a plantation with the slaves and 30-40 children. The plantation owner asked her and her companions to stay to teach the children, offering them a salary three times what they were paid for their mission work, but they refused.
Mary’s first school had been founded in 1832 for Choctaw orphans, situated north of the Red River and the Texas border. Her arrival there caused great consternation among those running the school. How could a delicate teenager who spoke no Choctaw manage a classroom. She surprised them all – by the end of her first year all her students new English and she spoke fluent Choctaw. The next year, she was sent to the Bennington Mission Station, close to what is modern day Durant, OK, and the following year to the mission called Living Land, established by Ebenezer Hotchkin, Sr., where she met his son, Henry. Food was scarce – mainly bacon, corn bread and sorghum – and the accommodations wherever they lived, were primitive. Soon after Mary and Henry were married, he left to serve in the Confederate Army and I can only imagine how desolate she must have felt.
A few years after Henry came home, the couple was transferred to a new mission in Caddo north of Denton, TX, bringing with them their five children, four of whom were born between 1861 and 1866. They had the luxury of a two-room house near the Missouri- Kansas-Texas Railroad. Mary taught school wherever she was sent, and often taught with a baby in her lap since she eventually had twelve children (three died).
Her husband then moved his family to a wilderness called Chikiki one hundred miles north of Caddo. She and the children moved by covered wagon, camping in the wilds, and when they arrived, found her husband had purchased for them a two-room log cabin with one small window in each room. The school was an even more primitive one room affair, although over time her husband expanded it to six rooms.
Henry eventually went back to farming, but died soon thereafter from pneumonia. Mary ran the farm but broke her hip when she was thrown from a buggy, and lay in pain until she was discovered by a search party. The hip was not set and thereafter she walked with crutches. She kept teaching the Native American children throughout this time and at the age of 60 was teaching at a Chicasaw academy when she was asked to run the Oklahoma Presbyterian College for Girls, founded in 1896. Assisted by her son Ebenezer, the school grew and prospered.
How is she linked to the Dust Bowl Girls? Her son was the President of this college for which the dust bowl girls played basketball while earning a degree.
While mainly a teacher, Mary was also a nurse, doctor, friend and spiritual advisor to her classes, giving marked copies of the New Testament to her students. When she died in 1919, her last words were, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet.” She is buried in the Stigler, OK, cemetery under a white marble stone, with the inscription, “Came to Indian Territory as a Missionary to the Choctaw Indians in 1857. Taught for 40 years among the Choctaws and Chickasaws.” An inscription that understates her importance in the growth of the western United States and her devotion to Native Americans.
From her bones was this country made.