Indian Pioneer History Project for Oklahoma
Date: October 11, 1937
Name: Nathaniel Dow Willis
Post Office: Route #1, Welling, Oklahoma
Date of Birth: April 15, 1876
Place of Birth: Dawson County, Georgia
Father: Place of Birth: Information on father:
Mother: Place of birth: Information on mother:
Field Worker: Wylie Thornton
I was born April 15th, 1867, in Dawson County, Georgia. I received very little education there in the public schools.
I came to the Cherokee Nation at the age of twenty-two years. I bought my ticket for Illinois station, Indian Territory. This today is the town of Gore.
At that time, the railroad was the Arkansas Valley railroad, and then this later became the Iron-Mountain Railroad, and was then changed again to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. I got off the train at Illinois Station and hired a man to take me across the Arkansas River in a ferry-boat toward what is now Webbers Falls; then we went on southwest to a point near the present site of Briartown, beyond where Porum is now.
We came to a place where I expected to find [my] two brothers, Ben and John WILLIS, who had come to this country a year before. I was disappointed to find that they had left for a place near Wauhillau, Indian Territory, not over two miles from right here where I am today; they had rented part of Sicky SANDERS, place. Sicky Sanders was Long John Sanders brother and everybody knew Long John Sanders.
Here we all farmed for two years and made some mighty good crops on that rough land. The dirt we did scratch up was black as the ace of spade, and corn and cotton grew almost too large for us to gather.
We boys were making money all right and during all this time we were trying to learn the Indian language.
We talked it over several times and thought in as much as we were about one-sixteenth part Cherokee blood ourselves we ought to be able to master the Indian language, but we never have been able to talk the Indian language to this day. We can only understand the Indian enough to know when they are trying to tell us that they want something.
My grandfather and grandmother left the state of Georgia in the year 1833 and came to this new country of the Cherokees. They made the journey in a covered wagon. My grandfather=s name was Pickens Willis and Father was named after him. My grandparents endured great hardships on that journey in 1833; there were no bridges over the large streams of water; there were no roads, no medical aid, and few homes - and these homes were from fifteen to twenty miles apart.
The open Indian Country was absolutely alive with wild animals and game of all sorts, and the underbrush and grass and vines almost covered the dim, winding trails.
My grandparents were helped, and protected by some very faithful negro slaves who came out here with them.
The negro slaves went ahead of the wagons with axes and guns to cut out the way for the on-coming train of wagons and to kill any wild beasts they might see. The wolves were very dangerous at night, coming quite near to the campers.
My grandparents said afterward that they often saw panthers slipping up near them. The wild pigeons would come over in great swarms and in such great numbers that they would cover the skies and many times the daylight was shut off by these flocks of wild pigeons, and the sky as dark as on an evening after sunset.
My grandfather decided to go no farther, and they settled on a place a few miles south of what is now Siloam Springs, Arkansas, on what finally came to be known in the last few years as the Old Ledbetter place. They began to chop out and clear up the land for cultivation and they had to fight with wild fowls and "varmits" to keep them from eating up their crops.
The squirrels would run up and down the corn rows, and the dead trees in the new ground afforded roosts for squirrels to outrun their pursuers and they would just run up and down rail fences to keep from being caught by hand, and wild coons did about the same thing, and wild turkey gobblers would come into the yard to fight the home fowls.
Once, Grandfather sent two of his slaves to a certain place to hew out some certain kind of timber and instructed them to get a certain amount done for a day=s work.
Anyway they were until after dark getting it done, and they started home and got lost in the woods, and wandered in the woods for two weeks seeking their home.
They killed wild beasts for food and their clothes were almost worn out when they finally reached the camp.
Finally, my grandfather died up there on the newly settled place now known as the Ledbetter place and was buried by his own family somewhere on the place, and today no one knows just where his grave is.
A few years after her husband=s death, grandmother married a man by the name of Barnhill and he began to squander her savings and she left him and returned to her old home in Georgia and died in a few years and was buried in Georgia.
After my brothers and I had worked the Sicky Sanders= place for two years we separated or rather I ceased to work with my brothers. I got a job working in a store that was started by T. P. Tankersley about three miles west of Old Wauhillau, and Tip finally got a post office put in his store, and this was the first post office in this part of the country.
I worked three years for Tip Tankersley until he gave up the post office to Levi Keys who put up a small store. I changed and followed up the post office and began to work for Levi KEYS and I worked for Levi Keys for two years.
During all the time I was working for these two little stores and post offices I had quite a time teaching the people, especially the Indians, what the post office was for, and how they could write to distant relatives and these relatives would receive their letters. They could not understand why anybody would want to go so far to give a letter to a person for only two cents.
Many people would ride on horseback ten miles to our store to trade for a package of coffee, or just a block of soda or a little salt, or box of matches, or a dime=s worth of horseshoe nails, or a box of cartridges for a gun.
The price paid for produce was very small. There was no way out to market for most of the produce. Cattle was the only thing that a native or a farmer could possibly sell; we bought no eggs or chickens, no potatoes, tomatoes, onions or anything of the kind.
You could buy a two hundred pound fat hog for $12.00 and as for eggs, the boys often threw them at one another on Sunday while playing Indian War. Usually the farmers had eggs by the tubsful.
We had no trouble getting the hens to lay in those days and every little while another hen would show up with a flock of baby chickens. She would come up out of the weeds where she had hidden her nest, and we always had more chickens than we knew what to do with, and our hogs increased in just the same way.
The woods were absolutely full of hogs and many grew to be wild and no one knew to whom they belonged and did not care, as there was no market for them.
About 1890 some hog buyers came to this country and later on about 1895 or 1900 we began to handle a few chickens and eggs, paying about .05 to .10 per dozen for eggs and .15 to .20 apiece for chickens.
When I went into the little store, my brothers went down on the creek west of here and bought a place from Daniel RATLIFF, and it grew to be a famous little farm for those days. It was the original home place for General Stand Watie of Civil War fame.
Aunt Lucindie KEYS, Levi Keys= wife, told me about the place having belonged to Stand Watie before the Civil War. I have been on the place, and it looks like a choice old homestead, and there is where my two brothers, John and Ben Willis, lived and died.
About 1890 there was no Stilwell and no Welling, but instead of Stilwell, there was a small store located in a black-haw thicket, which was a very muddy place, and we called it The Flint Store, and Henry DANNENBURG was the first store-keeper in that country, and he finally had a post office in his store. The mail was carried by horseback from Evansville, Arkansas, to Flint, Indian Territory. Later on, about 1890, we succeeded in getting a man to bring the mail on to Wauhillau on horseback.
I ran a store of my own from 1909 to 1919 at the place where the Wauhillau store is now located, and I also helped plan many a community gathering such as the Anti-Horse Thief Lodge, and I helped with all kinds of religious campaigns. Prominent among the early day settlers who were interested in church and religious matters was Mat J. WHITFIELD.
Transcribed by Wanda Elliott <email@example.com> 10-1999