AUGUST 29, 2001

by Ron Parks

Eliza Huffaker

This year the Kaw Mission State Historic Site and area residents celebrate the 150th birthday of the historic Kaw Mission. This is the eleventh in a series of monthly articles describing themes, events, and personalities associated with the Kaw Mission 150 years ago.

In September 1851 fifteen-year-old Eliza Ann Baker was in a courtship with a young man who lived under the same roof as she. Her suitor was twenty-five-year-old Kaw Mission teacher Thomas Sears Huffaker and their common roof was that of the newly-constructed Kaw Mission.

It must have been a heady experience for the young Eliza, as Thomas was considered a man with a bright future. Though his schoolmaster’s wages were meager, Thomas was a well-connected and ambitious young businessman with political aspirations.

Presumably, the courtship was carefully chaperoned, as residing with Eliza and Thomas in the Kaw Mission was Eliza’s mother. Mrs. Baker was employed as the Kaw Mission housekeeper by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Eliza and her mother arrived in Council Grove in 1849, at which time Thomas was a teacher at the Shawnee Mission near Westport.

Eliza’s parents were from Virginia. In the fall of 1835 they started on a long journey from their native state to the frontier state of Iowa. Overtaken by a bitter winter in Carthage, Illinois, they waited there for spring and during their stay Eliza Ann was born on April 22, 1836.

Little is known about Eliza’s parents. Her father, Joshua, was a blacksmith for the Sac and Fox tribe in Iowa. After her father died, Eliza and her mother came to Council Grove with Mrs. Baker’s sister and brother-in-law, Emanuel Mosier, who was a blacksmith for the Kaw Indians.

Other people were living in the Kaw Mission one hundred fifty years ago. The man hired to teach the Kaw boys to farm, H. W. Webster, lived there with his family. And the students, approximately thirty Kaw boys aged six to seventeen years, lived upstairs in four dormitory rooms.

Because of her father’s position, Eliza was no stranger to Indians. However, it is unlikely that her previous experiences had required such a close association with Indians as did the domestic arrangement in the Kaw Mission.

It is very likely that during their courtship Thomas shared his frustrations with Eliza as he struggled to teach the young Kaws to read, write, and do arithmetic. But it surely was a romantic setting to fall in love.

Just outside the door the couple could sit and contemplate the Neosho River. Across the river a towering forest loomed green and inviting. A short climb up the hill west, and they could gaze out across the lovely prairie.

Four years before the courtship of the Kaw Mission couple, Council Grove entranced another young romantic. Susan Shelby Magoffin, a 19-year-old bride traveling the Santa Fe Trail, recorded in her journal a description of this same landscape:

We struck our camp on the hill. There is a large mound just by us, from the top of which a splendid view is to be had. On one side, to the west, is a wide expanse of prairie; as far as the eye can reach nothing but a waving sea of tall grass is to be seen.

On May 5, 1852, Thomas and Eliza were married in the Kaw Mission. They were married upstairs in the southwest room by Reverend Nicholson, a missionary on his way along the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. On July 4, 1853, Eliza gave birth to a daughter, Susie, the first of ten children.

We can only speculate about the challenges Eliza faced as the teen-age matron of the Kaw Mission. In addition to performing her domestic duties as wife, mother, and daughter, she was expected to provide hospitality to a number of prominent guests who lodged in the Kaw Mission while traveling the Santa Fe Trail.

She also helped Thomas with the instruction of the Kaw students and the white pupils as the two separate schools co-existed in the Kaw Mission from 1851-54. In 1854 the U.S. government, acting on the advice of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, closed the school for the Kaws.

Many factors undoubtedly contributed to the failure of the Kaw Mission. For one, Thomas, who initially had not mastered the Kaw language, was forced to rely on a mixed-blood interpreter to communicate with his students.

Considering the diverse individuals assembled under the Kaw Mission roof, chances for a successful school were hardly auspicious: a young teacher and his younger wife, Huffaker’s mother-in-law, a baby, and two dozen or so Kaw boys who had been abruptly uprooted from their tipis and forced to live in an alien environment.

The Huffakers continued to reside in the mission until 1862 when they moved into a new house one-quarter mile northeast. On May 14, 1872, tragedy struck when their daughter Susie drowned in the Neosho River within one hundred yards of where she had been born.

Soon after the turn of the century, Thomas and Eliza moved back into the Kaw Mission. Thomas died here on July 10, 1910. On July 5, 1920, Eliza passed away in the same room where she and Thomas had been wed sixty-eight years before.

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