Memoirs of a Pioneer Teacher

by Harriet Patrick Gilstrap


I was born February 1, 1870, on a farm near Centropolis in Franklin County, Kansas. We moved to Ottawa when I was three years old. When we moved to town, my brother and I were left with a neighbor overnight. When he and I were taken to our new home, the weather was cold and we were covered with buffalo robes during the drive. I do not remember much about the house except that it was on the west side of town. One time I ran away to visit a little girl. I graduated from high school in 1888, and attended Ottawa Baptist University for a year. In April, 1888, the Oklahoma country was opened for settlement, and Father and Mother moved down here in June. I was sent to Illinois to stay with my three maiden aunts, Father’s sisters.

In September, my parents came for me, and we came to Oklahoma City. We stopped at a hotel where the board walls of the bedroom had such large cracks that we had to put out the lights before we could prepare for bed. It took three or four days in Oklahoma City to buy supplies for the Agency which was located east about 75 miles on the Sac and Fox Indian Reservation. My brother, who had been working in a bank in Ottawa, Kansas, came in one night very proudly wearing cowboy boots and carrying a gun. I jumped up in surprise and more than half in fear, screaming, “You are not my brother! You are not my brother!”

We left Oklahoma City about four o’clock one afternoon and drove east on the way to the Agency, Mr. and Mrs. Graff and Birdie, their 14-year-old daughter, accompanying us: At “Choctaw City,” we stayed with a man and his wife who were building a home yet unfinished with a part of the floor laid in only two rooms. The next day we drove all day in the rain and reached Wellston. The men slept on the counters in the store owned by Mr. DeWeese, and the women stayed in the house, sleeping three in a bed. The baby cried all night for custard pie and milk. The next day we reached the Agency late in the afternoon.[1] For three months, I saw no other white girl except Birdie Graff.

I soon went to work in the post office located in the store owned by Chief Keokuk of the Sac and Fox tribe. I handed out and dispatched the mail as it arrived from Sapulpa one day and returned the next, weather permitting. One day a bunch of bandits, known as the Dalton Brothers, came in from the Turkey Track Ranch. They were nice and polite, and I enjoyed matching pennies with them.

After a time, I went to teach in the Shawnee School that had been in operation for many years as a government boarding school.[2] There was one building, the school room, dining room, kitchen, living room and guest bedroom downstairs. There was a sewing room and bedrooms on the second floor. Books were furnished by the Government. Some of the pupils were anxious to learn, others were very indifferent.

My stay at the Shawnee School was made horrible by my constant fight with bedbugs. They had really taken over! They were in curtains, door facings, everywhere. Every morning I got up and threw my mattress out of the window onto the roof. The matron was quite indifferent about the pests, and said that nothing could be done about them. I finally got rid of them in my room by papering the walls and painting the wood work. But it was all at the price of constant vigilance. Another trouble was the drinking water. I had always drunk a lot of water but here the water was hauled in barrels, and the very sight of it sickened me. I was the only teacher for all the grades, and I had teacher diaries for each of them, with a salary of $50.00 a month, paid quarterly, a very good salary in those days. I taught at the Shawnee School in 1890, and 1891, returning to the Agency a wiser young woman—much wiser.

Father erected new buildings at the Agency, including a girls’ dormitory and a laundry for the Sac and Fox Boarding School. The original building was of brick and housed both boys and girls. A builder employed in the States came and erected the new building with three school rooms on the first floor and a large recreation room on the second floor where we had our entertainments. Young people would come down from Chandler, and then after a big dinner at the Agency would dance in the recreation room.

Jim Thorpe went to school to me, an incorrigible youngster.[3]

He had a twin brother whose name was Charley, a sweet gentle little boy. After I went back to teach at the Sac and Fox Agency, there was an epidemic of typhoid fever. The superintendent was very ill. Many of the pupils were ill, too, and I took care of them, giving them medicine every hour but by the time that I had made the rounds, it was time to begin again. Charlie Thorpe had also contracted pneumonia. I took care of him at night with the other children. Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe came one night to relieve me, and I tried to get a little rest. At 5:00 a.m., word came that Charley was worse. I went to him and took him in my arms, put his little feet in mustard water, and sent for the doctor. But the poor little fellow just lay back and died. That was in 1897.

Editors note: This essay is excerpted from The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 28, No. 1, published in 1960. Harriet Patrick Gilstrap was 90 years old when she submitted the story, recalling her life in Oklahoma territorial days, to the magazine. 


1. The site of the old Sac and Fox Agency is about five miles south of Stroud, Oklahoma. The Agency comprised 1,500,000 acres in four reservations, on which five tribes were located: Sac and Fox, lowa, Kickapoo, Shawnee and Potawatomi.

2. The site of the Shawnee Boarding School (first buildings erected 1876) is now the location of the Shawnee Agency and Indian Sanitorium on State Highway 18, south of the North Canadian River between Shawnee and Tecumseh, Pottawatomie County.

3. Jim Thorpe became famous in history as the World’s greatest athlete, winner of the Olympic Games in Sweden in 1912.

Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, November 15, 2014.