I'm carrying on my mother's research into our family history. I've self-published some family memoirs & learned a lot about different eras.
Navajo Methodist Mission School
In 1929, my great-aunt, Bertha McGhee started her life's work for the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Her service began at the Navajo Mission School in Farmington, New Mexico.
When she died a few years ago at the age of 94, she left behind notes, letters and photo albums. My mother, serving as the family historian, took Bertha's memorabilia into her care. Now we plan to create a book with this rich collection of primary source material.
The Call to Missionary Service
When schools closed for the 1918 flu epidemic, Bertha took a correspondence course to learn dressmaking. Since there was no high school in her town of Tyro, Kansas, she did not return to school. Due to family deaths and illness, they couldn't afford to pay for her room and board in Independence. Bertha became a high school dropout.
The summer of 1921 the church gave Bertha and her brother, Roy, a week at Epworth League Institute at Baldwin. Here is Bertha's account of that experience,
"There the morning watch, the fun and fellowship, the Bible and mission studies had combined to challenge me to dedicating my life to full time service, for the Lord through His church. The particular field that stirred me was our first Americans, the American Native Indians".
To prepare for work as a missionary Bertha returned to high school and graduated in 1924. She enrolled at Baker University that fall.
Navajo Mission Staff 1929 - 1930 - List made by Bertha McGhee
Staff at the Mission School
Mr. and Mrs. Newton (3 children)
Mr. and Mrs. Nolke (2 boys)
Before graduating in June 1929 Bertha received an appointment under the Woman's Home Missionary Society as teacher of the Navajo Mission School in Farmington, New Mexico. The Navajo Mission assignment was two years as teacher of upper grades Navajo Indians.
Bertha wrote, "It seemed my commitment was being fulfilled. The joy of working with the children, the fellowship of dedicated staff, all seemed to say I'd found my place. But God had other things in store for me. Other lessons He needed me to learn."
In researching Bertha's life, I found a more complete list in The Womans Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Forty-Eighth Annual Report for the Year 1928-1929, Volume 1, Page 35
NAVAJO Indian Mission, Farmington, New Mexico:
Mr. C. C. Brooks, Superintendent.
Mrs. C. C. Brooks, Assistant Superintendent.
Miss Mabel Huffman, Teacher.
Miss Bessie Ullery, Teacher.
Miss Bertha McGhee, Teacher.
Miss Clara Lenz, Girls’ Matron.
Miss Emily Guigou, Boys’ Matron.
Mrs. Nellie Hawthorn, Teacher of Sewing.
Mr. Eli Forman, Boys’ Supervisor.
Photo of Teachers at the Navajo School
Farmington NM Mission School
Here's how some staff for the school were listed on the 1930 census.
- Kitchen Matron - 52 year old, widowed, Mary A. Leckliter
- Girls Matron - 27 year old, Clara Lenz
- Seamstress - 44 year old, widowed, Nellie Hawthorne
- Boys School Matron - 39 year old, Emily C. Guigon
Bead Weaving - Navajo girls at Farmington, NM 1929-1931
Bertha's caption: "Some of my big girls working at bead weaving. They make their own patterns for necklaces, belts, headbands and so on. From left to right, they are: Mollie Eldridge, Lucy Weston, Martha Barbera, Anna Simpson, Jean Woody. Lucy is in the 5th grade, the others in the 6th."
How Was the Missionary School Supported?
The school had its own farm and received funding from the Woman's Home Missionary Society.
This photo shows boys cutting firewood at the school.
"The mountain, desert surroundings I loved, though some folk felt the mountains hemmed them in and that the desert was barren and desolate. Our school was located in a fertile, irrigated valley, a veritable garden spot on the San Juan River. With about 60 acres in orchards, gardens and fields, fruit and vegetables were abundant."
Navajo Children Playing at the Mission School - 1929-1931 Farmington NM
Photo from Bertha McGhee's personal album.
The play area is rather bare, but there's a large swing set with a teeter-totter.
A Typical Navajo Family 1929-1931
Bertha McGhee's caption: "A typical Navajo family as they came in here from time to time to see their children."
In a letter, talking about the Mission School and also the government schools on the reservation, she wrote, "The children did not even go home for a Christmas holiday. Many parents came and camped on the campus for several days to a week for holiday times and Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and sometimes for no special occasion. But the children went home only for summer vacation."
Bertha McGhee and Navajo children Farmington NM
"I loved the work, though I hardly know how to tell you just why. For one thing, in the Mission we had such a fine superintendent and group of fellow-workers. The children were lovable and responsive and we felt we were doing a little to offset the many, many wrongs done by our race to our Indian brothers." Bertha McGhee
Probably the Staff and Families at the Indian School
Message from a Relative of Mabel Huffman
Thank you for sharing your project and link. I am glad to know that someone remembers this school and those who worked there. I was told that by the time Aunt Mabel (technically my great-aunt) died the school had closed. I have her pictures from there and was preparing to pitch them because I didn't think anyone would know who was in the pictures or would care. I am willing to share with you.
I think the only picture of Mabel in your blog is the one you label as: "Probably the Staff and Families at the Indian School". The lady on the left in the middle row might be Mabel Huffman. I will have to look for pictures of Mabel at that age.
Probably Charles C. Brooks
Probably the Brooks Children: Marie, Amy and Robert
Brooks Family and the Browns at the School
Charles C. Brooks' wife, Alta B. was listed on the census as the Assistant Director in 1930. Their children were Marie E. age 8, Robert W. age 6, and Amy Y age 3.
Alta's parents lived there too. George W. Brown was listed as a carpenter. He was age 73 and born in Ireland. His wife Sophie K was age 69.
Could This Be the Hadley Sisters?
More School Staff
Walter H. Hawkins age 49, wife Edna M. age 32, their son David Ivan age 4.
Walter's occupation is listed as farming.
Edna's mother and sisters live with them, widowed Della S. Hadley (born 1871), Lois age 23 and Edith Hadley age 28 (born in 1907 and 1902). Lois works as a clerk.
The Foreman Family at the School
An Indian family lived at the school. Eli Foreman and his wife, Jerdie and oldest son, Leonard are all listed as being born in Oklahoma. The three younger children (Jimmie, Irene and Henry) were born in New Mexico.
Eli's occupation is listed as farming.
Friends or Co-Workers at the Navajo Mission School, Farmington, NM - I believe Bertha is the one on the right.
A relative of Bessie Ullery has identified her as the lady in the middle (with the dark hat) in the group of 3 women above.
The other woman (on the left) is unidentified. In 1930, according to the census. Bertha was 27 and Bessie in her mid-thirties.
Bessie was born in Nebraska, and Bertha in Arkansas, but grew up in the small town of Tyro, Kansas.
1930 Census Showing Bertha McGhee and Other Teachers at the School
Indian Mother and Child
Indian in Farminton, New Mexico
The Indian Infant with a Man (Possibly a Teacher at the School)
Navajo Rug Owned by Bessie Ullery, a Teacher at the School
Does Anyone Know the Name of These Children at the Navajo School? - Farminton, New Mexico 1929-30
Note that one child has a left shoe with a built-up sole. Possibly had polio?
In the 1930 census, there were 4 boarders listed as "full-blood Navajo." Their names are Charlie Shields age 9, John Shields age 11, Ruth Bassett age 7, Martha Kingsley age 14.
Helen Ruth Johnson said that Bertha "told me when she visited that although they were trying, the boarding schools only made things worse in the Indian community. The children came out not belonging anywhere."
Celebrating Christmas at the Navajo School
Ask Permission First....
These photos are from the family album and will be used in the book we are creating about Bertha McGhee's life. You must ask permission to use any of these.
Who Is This Man? Where Is the Photo Taken? - Farmington NM 1929-30
It is likely that he is one of the staff from the Navajo School. Does anyone recognize the rocks and dry wash as a possible hiking area?
Can You Name These Young Women? What Model and Year Is the Auto? - Farmington NM 1929-30
I believe the woman standing by the car in the top photo is my great-aunt, Bertha McGhee. Since this was taken on the same outing as the photo above, it would seem that the woman in the back seat is Bessie Ullery.
In the second photo, the woman on the running board is not yet identified.
Students at the Mission School in Farmington 1929 - 30
Read More about the School
- The tender plant: The history of the Navajo Methodist Mission, Farmington, New Mexico, 1891-1948
This book is out-of-print but a copy might show up once in a while on Amazon or eBay. I was able to get it through interlibrary loan. My Florida library requested it from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. The book includes a history of the mission school, telling how it was started by Mary Louise Eldridge. There are only a few photos and they aren't very clear. In the back is a valuable list of people who worked at the school over the years and lists of the graduates and veterans from the school.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Virginia Allain
Thanks for Stopping by - Please let me know you visited
Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on March 05, 2015:
In reading about the early Indian schools, I shared your concerns. Going through Bertha's letters, I find her speaking kindly of the children, but I do want to contact the local history society in Farmington for a wider view of the school's impact on the community.
Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on March 04, 2015:
Virginia, how lucky you are that your great aunt saved so much of her life, work and times. I look forward with great anticipation to the book. Do not hesitate to let me know when it is published.
Reading this, I have such mixed feelings, knowing what I know from descendants of children who attended such schools, and on one or two occasions, from actual students themselves. I have wept, listening to their stories of forced separation from their families, being denied their religion, their customs, and punished for using their native tongue.
Bertha's statement, "We felt we were doing a little to offset the many, many wrongs done by our race to our Indian brothers," gives me hope that the Methodist schools perhaps did not engage in the horrible abuses that we learn of from so many Native Americans.
That, and her consciousness, even then, that the Native Americans, "our first Americans, the American Native Indians," were, as some like to be called today, the First People.
She must have been a kind and comforting influence to children torn from their families, villages, customs, and even their language for most of the year.
Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on November 25, 2014:
Robert, I'm thrilled to hear from you! I'll look in my notes to see if I have a list of the other teachers there. It may be that my great-aunt had left before yours arrived. I'm pretty sure it must have been the same school.
Robert Blunk on November 24, 2014:
I had a great aunt that taught in an "Indian" School in Farmington in the 1930s. I do not know of what church or organization this school was associated with.
Her last name was Leckliter and her first name may have been Mary or Freida. I remember that she taught Home Economics and more specifically, canning.
Family lore also told of her jumping from a second story building when a fire broke out in tn the facility.
I am 90 years of age and I think she would have been active at the school in the 1930s and maybe into the 1940s. Any connections?
I live in Denver and my e-mail is...... email@example.com
anonymous on January 30, 2012:
Virginia, God is working in a very interesting way right now. I gave a small talk at church this past weekend and our pastor told me that one of the fellow in the congregation was a missionary to the same school he believes in his earlier days well after Bessie and Bertha would have been there. I will report to you when I know more.
I have desparately been on the search for the photo album of Bessie's time in New Mexico. I am sure that Bertha in some of the numerous photos that she has.
I do recall one interesting story of the early days that the children came to school and resided at school until summer vacation. It seems that when they went home in the new clothes of the Western "Civilized" culture that the Navajo parents were concerned about the fact that the clothing that they dressed in at home was "spiritual" and should not be discarded. There were examples of children coming back after summer with thread sewn through the cloths and attached to the skin of the children, I am hoping she ment wrapped but until I have the actual notes I will leave it at that. By the way we are over in the Fort Myers area. Feel free to email me at Jim@c4oe.com.
anonymous on January 28, 2012:
Yes I believe that I even have the velet hat Besie is wearing in one of the photos. There is an extensive set of notes and pictures that I am looking for in that were recently shipped from upstate NY to Florida where I one reside. We have several of the bead making diagrams, some blankets, and items of her 33 year time in New Mexico. My dad has been to the region an met some of her students. She passed away in 1960 at 90 years or so.
Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on January 27, 2012:
@anonymous: Jim - delighted to meet you. Look at the picture of Bertha with her co-workers. Do you think one of the ladies there might be Bessie Ullery?
anonymous on January 27, 2012:
Bessie Ullery was my great aunt. We have a lot of memories that match yours.
anonymous on April 06, 2011:
What a lovely calling Bertha had, and I'm so glad that she did what was needed at the time to help. I'm glad I read this and get to know about some of the events that took place. ~ Well done!
jolou on March 28, 2011:
Wonderful that you have all those photos. I was in New Mexico last year to visit a friend, but didn't get to Farmington. Looks like a great and interesting area.