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Kansas Historical Quarterly - The Pratt Collection

by Esther Clark Hill

February 1932 (Vol. 1, No. 2), pages 83 to 88
Transcribed by lhn; HTML editing by Tod Roberts
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

THE Pratt collection of manuscripts and documents takes its name from that of John G. Pratt, a young missionary-printer who came to the old Shawnee Baptist Mission from Reading, Mass., in 1837, to take the place of Jotham Meeker, who was going farther south in the Indian Territory to found the Ottawa Baptist Mission on the Marais des Cygnes (Osage) river.* These two young men operated the first printing press in Kansas, and there is much mention (and some samples) of their workmanship among the Pratt papers.

The collection, which had lain for years in the attic garret of the old Delaware Mission house (since torn down), was given to the Kansas Historical Society in 1907 by Rosamond Pratt Burt, a daughter of John G. Pratt. The original mission building was of walnut logs, with hewed edges, and stood, in 1837 (the year of its founding by Ira D. Blanchard and his wife, Mary Walton Blanchard, Baptist missionaries), on the present site of Edwardsville, Wyandotte county, Kansas, at the Grinter crossing of the Kaw river, on the old military road between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott. The flood of 1844 broke up the school, and in 1848 John G. Pratt removed the log building to higher ground, putting it up again in its first form, and for fifty years it served as the middle part of the Pratt homestead.

It was from this old mission-homestead that the Pratt collection was removed by George A. Root, a member of the staff of the Kansas Historical Society. The Society had had some correspondence with Mrs. Burt on the subject. Mr. Root's diary in 1907 records:

"Nov. 5. Called on Mrs. Rosamond Burt, daughter of Rev. John G. Pratt, the Delaware missionary. She gave me several papers to add to the Pratt collection, one being Rev. Pratt's last sermon, and another a photo of him. Mrs. Burt asked me to go down to the old mission at Piper, Wyandotte county, and tell Mrs. Pratt [her sister-in-law, widow of E. H. Pratt, who was living in the old Pratt mission-home] that she was anxious that her father's old papers should be added to the Historical Society collection.

*. See the next article, Some Background of Early Baptist Missions in Kansas, in this issue.

84 THE KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

Reached the Pratt home about 7:30; found Mrs. Pratt absent, but a daughter of one of the Journeycakes in charge. She was also looking after the four Pratt children. She got me a supper, saying that I was expected. Mrs. Pratt got back about 9:30, and we had a pleasant chat for an hour or more.

"Nov. 6. Raw and chilly. Good frost. Put in entire day ransacking the attic, third floor, hunting up boxes, papers and manuscripts. Packed a number of curios, a communion set (pewter) globes for studying geography in school room, a cuspidor used by Rev. Pratt and his Indian callers, etc . . . .

"Nov. 7. Finished packing the last of the things I had boxes for this morning . . . . In the afternoon I got a relative of Mrs. Pratt to drive to the depot, where we went with the load of Indian things I brought back with me. There was an Indian-made bookcase, cherry lumber and glass front, which was in the collection. Ran out of nails and had to take the last of the collection to the depot loose, where the station agent, a young girl, kindly offered to procure string and wire and bind them for shipment."

There are, it is estimated, 10,000 papers in all; handwritten and printed, with not a typed line in the lot. There are letters, land grants, allotments, deeds, contracts, government papers and a variety of miscellany, covering a period of more than sixty years, the bulk of them lying between 1837 and 1870. John G. Pratt was not only a missionary-printer, but teacher, preacher, United States Indian agent, and physician extraordinary to the Indians, in the course of his western life.

Taking it as a whole, the collection falls logically into the following divisions of Pratt's varied activities:

From 1837 to 1844 he was missionary-printer at the Shawnee Baptist Mission in Johnson county.

From 1844 to 1848 he was in charge of the Stockbridge Mission, near Fort Leavenworth. (This was abandoned in the latter year.)

From 1848 to 1864 he was in charge of the Delaware Baptist Mission in Wyandotte county (from which the collection was taken).

From 1864 to 1868 he was United States Indian agent at the old Delaware agency, with headquarters at Leavenworth. He was the last of the Delaware agents, as the tribe removed to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1868.

HILL: THE PRATT COLLECTION 85

Other Indian agents and individuals are represented to a lesser extent in the collection, which is broken and in many instances illegible from stains and the wear and tear of the manuscript. The government papers are for the most part intact, and the series fairly in order.

The letters for the first few years are altogether personal; even those from officers of the missionary board in Boston, under whose auspices the Pratts had taken the Indian post, were often pleasantly chatty of mutual acquaintances and interests. What, after all, were these two adventurous young missionaries but babes in the dark woods along the shores of the sullen Missouri river, alone save for other missionary company hardly older than themselves?

The families of both John G. Pratt and Olivia Pratt are well represented in this correspondence. The letters are extremely religious in tone, and those of friends and acquaintances not the less so. Even the younger children of the Evans family caught the solemnity of the elders, and the letters that passed between the young Pratts before their marriage are not only models of propriety, but deeply serious in contemplating their coming separation from home and kindred, and the spiritual importance of the western undertaking. Their very youth made the step the more momentous, for all their high courage. And their inexperience in the wild new country and the perils that may befall them there is never for an instant out of mind with those in the east, who had sent them forth with blessings and prayers and not a few tears.

The reports of the missionary-printer from the beginning of his long correspondence with the secretary of the missionary society in Boston, Dr. L. Bolles, are almost painfully detailed as to the expenditures of the slender funds placed in his hands, and his recital of the hardships and privations of the Indian wilderness. The last penny is faithfully accounted for; the calculations of how much more will be actually needed for bare comforts are stated with an apologetic hesitation.

Practically all the letters of those first years, both from the board and the families and friends, as well as the western Pratts themselves, are written on the old-fashioned, unruled foolscap, once white but now yellowed with age and much handling. There are one or two daintily penned missives on a faded pink paper, from the young ladies of the female seminary which Olivia Pratt had so lately left, but even their cheerful color does not relieve the awful solemnity of their religious tone.

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There being no envelopes used in this country until about 1845, the letters are addressed in the middle of the back, or fourth, page. In many instances they were sent by persons traveling west, or tucked in the "missionary barrels" and boxes that were sent from the missionary rooms in Boston to the several stations under their supervision in the Indian Territory of that day. Lists of the articles sent always accompanied the container, and were usually a part of the letters. Homely and useful items, all of them-clothing for the children, which were beginning to arrive in the missionary families, as well as for their elders; bedding and household necessities of the plainest character.

With the removal of the Pratts from the Shawnee Mission to that of the Stockbridge Indians (still under authority from the Boston board) the letters are infrequent from the families and friends, but increase in volume from the mission board as the scope of the work in the west widens. The bookkeeping is somewhat involved and irregular, as the business accounts are almost invariably included with letters, and often on the same page with personal matter. But John G. Pratt remains faithful to detail and conscientious in the smallest expenditure, to the very end of his dealings with his Boston superiors.

In the beginning the salary for the double office of printer and missionary had been $300 annually; on Pratt's taking charge of the Stockbridge Mission, in 1844, this was increased to $400, and by 1859, according to the letters, he was receiving $500 a year.

From 1844 to 1848 there is an appreciable increase in the accountancy contained in the letters, both to and from the board. At times the soul of the conscientious young missionary was sorely tried by the demands made upon him from headquarters. There seems to have been one kind of accounting done there and another at the mission. More than once he writhes, in his letters, at what he deems injustice done him by those to whom he is humanly accountable. Once, indeed, he and Mrs. Pratt gave up the Shawnee Mission and went back to Massachusetts. But that was for barely a year, and in 1841 they had returned to their first charge.

After the abandonment of. the Stockbridge Mission, and the reopening of the Delaware Mission, the letters of various Indian agents begin to increase in this collection. Also those of a certain shrewd commission merchant in St. Louis, R. H. Stone, whose business correspondence is mixed with much dry humor and a bit of Baptist piety. His bills of lading, however, of which there are many

HILL: THE PRATT COLLECTION 87

as the letters drop into the 1850's, are scrupulously drawn up, and his accounting with his missionary customers is rigidly correct, in figure and in detail.

It is not until 1864 that John G. Pratt was made United States Indian agent for the Delawares and took up his office in Leavenworth. In the following four years the government papers of the collection swell in volume, running into the thousands, of printed form and more or less filled in. These usually follow a series, and considering the length of time the papers have lain in the old walnut log building's attic, it is remarkable that they have retained as much of their physical integrity as they have; and there are few missing numbers in any given series. Treaties, land allotments, reports of Agent John G. Pratt to the government, letters to and from politicians in Washington and elsewhere these form the mass of the papers of his four-year term. That his relations with his charges were almost invariably cordial is richly in evidence all through the collection, both in letters-some from the Indians themselves-and in contracts and treaties made with them.

With his entrance into government service Pratt seems to have left behind him the pressing cares of the missionary and the factional differences that grew up with the new territory. The last years of the letters are devoted to government business: with officials and commissioners of the Indian Department in Washington, superintendents in St. Louis, St. Joseph, Atchison and elsewhere, and with other agents at different stations. There is not, in the official correspondence, a very clear distinction between agents and subagents, and the seat of the superintendency shifts often. In the latter years, too, there was some desultory communication with army men; sometimes Indian guides were wanted; in one instance the Pratts, for all their kindly character, needed the protection of the army from an unfriendly Stockbridge Indian, one Konk-a-pot, whose viciousness aroused the commandant at Fort Leavenworth to a most spirited letter to the Pratts.

After the retirement of John G. Pratt from his duties to the government, in 1868, the letters dwindle down to personal and real estate matters until the time of his death in 1900. The letters of the last of the century are negligible in quantity and in historical value.

The miscellanies of the collection include some irregular church records of the Delaware and Stockbridge church, beginning in 1841 and ending abruptly in 1848, about the time of Ira D. Blanchard's abrupt dismissal from the church and the withdrawal of his ordination.

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There are also many fragments to which there are no supporting papers that might add a valuable chapter to the history of this section of those days. Painfully scrawled Indian letters; others purporting to come from the Indians but written in the intelligible and by the intelligent hand of the white man-usually some Indian agent. Many of these leave a speculative interest with the reader as to how much of the first American's demands on the government and the Great White Father (as he is addressed) originated with themselves, and how often they were prompted by the cupidity of the white men.

Two letters, in a class by themselves, are in the year 1855, from a Mrs. C. P. Chapman; one addressed to Commissioner George W. Manypenny, of Washington, and the other to the local Delaware agent, B. F. Robinson. They outline a most ingenuous plan for an Indian school along communistic lines, which is rather startling at that date in the United States and in that particular section. The fact that the proposed school was to be nonsectarian is indicated in so many words, and the inference left that it was to be more cultural than religious, with only women in charge of the boys and girls proposed to be taken, and a single man-of-all-work.