Chapter VI

By-Paths to Forgotten Folks "Stories of Real Life in Baptist Home Mission Fields", Author: Coy Hayne. Judson Press, Los Angeles, CA - September 1921.

Chapter VI - Pages 59-73


PHONE Mr. Brendel, of Clovis, that we have some of his Indians in jail down here and that we would like to know what to do with them."

In this brief way the police magistrate of a San Joaquin Valley town dismissed from his mind one item on the day's calendar. Brendel had answered that he would be right down. And he kept his word. Old Lizzie was in good running order. Within less than an hour the Baptist general missionary to the Indians of the San Joaquin Valley was before the judge. The Indians, who had been jailed as drunks the night before, were brought in. Brendel said that the Indians should be allowed to go back to the vineyards to work; if he had recommended thirty days in the workhouse, the judge would have pronounced this sentence. And thereby the judge would have done no violence to his sense of justice. Each year since the coming of the missionary the city and county officials had had less trouble with "those worthless Digger Indians," and they knew that every year Brendel remained at work among them the trouble would keep on growing less.

"I ought to send the whole pack of you over the road for ninety days," said the judge as he glared sternly at the men under arrest. "If it wasn't for the good word Mr. Brendel has spoken for you, I wouldn't hesitate a moment. See that you come up to his good opinion of you."

"Now, your honor, please don't be too hard on these men," said Brendel as a look of perfect understanding passed between the preacher and magistrate. "Bill here is a good boy. And Pete - why, there isn't a better grape-picker in Fresno County. They'll need him out at the Hillside Ranch all this week. And Joe there - "

"Take 'em away!" thundered the judge. "You may know what you can do with them."

These verbal exchanges varied as occasion demanded; a harsher treatment of a particularly hard case was sometimes recommended by the missionary. Fines were paid as a matter of course. Sometimes an Indian was remanded to jail for further hearing. Yet Brendel was always to be counted on to intercede for the Indians. Long ago he established a reputation among them as a man who would befriend and not exploit them. They have read his character and what they have seen spells brother. There is no other way to account for the fact that all the tribes or sections of tribes inhabiting the region covered by this missionary, have voluntarily come under his guidance.

Patiently, fearlessly, the missionary had waged warfare against the bootleggers and their atrocious liquor which he early discovered were the Indians' worst enemies. With the whole hearted cooperation of the government agents and local authorities the fight was practically won before State and national legislative measure relegated whisky-selling to the list of outgrown customs of an archaic civilization.

In addition to the heartlessness of the white wolves who preyed upon the Indians of the Sierras for years, Brendel was obliged to contend with the wiles and cunning of the medicine-men. To one less persistent and of weaker faith in God's power to rescue the children of men from the powers of darkness, the fight against these tribal pests would have seemed hopeless. Little by little, through the gospel message and brotherly kindness in many forms, the eyes of the Indians had been opened to the methods practiced by these impostors. Then one summer there occurred what might be termed a systematic drive of the medicine-men. From distant tribes they came into the Mono territory to try to undo the work of the missionaries. With them came Indian men and women adept in savage arts peculiarly alluring to an Indian. All methods known to the Indian priest-craft, from the "fandango" to the feast, were employed to draw the Christians back into paganism and hold the unconverted under the ban of superstition. Indian hand-games were vigorously promoted, and the gambling spirit took possession of the Indians as they congregated in the valley during the fruit harvest.

While the Christian Indians did not waver in their loyalty to the cause, there was a tension and unrest in the tribal life that was disconcerting and threatened the peace of all.

The Indians of the Sierras long have had the belief that their medicine-men employ a deadly poison with which to destroy those who gain their enmity. Where the medicine-men get this poison no white man has learned, to the knowledge of our missionaries. If there is such source the medicine-men have guarded the secret. Within recent years there have occurred several mysterious deaths which have been ascribed to the medicine-men. Brendel followed up one of these cases with a county sheriff, interviewed several Indians, and convinced some of the leading men of the tribe in that remote section of the mountains, that the medicine-man who had been carrying on his operations in that tribe, should take his departure out of the country. That medicine-man has not been heard of since.

One of these Indian charlatans was haled into court for manslaughter following the death of a tribesman caused by the blood-sucking treatment for a minor ailment. In the end the case was dismissed, and the medicine-man disappeared.

The gambling craze among the Indians was effectually checked after Brendel had drawn up, under expert advice, a county ordinance making gambling outside of incorporated cities with any kind of a device, or even the witnessing of a game of chance, a misdemeanor punishable by fine or imprisonment. The supervisors of Fresno County have looked to our missionary more than once for assistance, and in this instance were more than glad to cooperate in a movement to abolish the Indian hand-games. Only those who have seen this game can conceive of its harmful effects upon the participants. The game itself is simple. The company is divided into two groups, and the game is presided over by an umpire, who designates the person to hold a small stick and the person on the opposing side to guess in which hand the stick is held. Tally is kept by means of twelve sticks. When one side has won all twelve sticks by reason of its successful guessing, the money that has been pooled is divided among the members of the winning side. Excitement is wrought to a high pitch by the beating of the tom-tom and the wild chanting of the official criers.

In 1914 Miss Christensen helped to give a Christmas festival at Table Mountain and described the impression this Indian gambling game made upon her.

After all was over we wondered that so many of the men did not return to their homes, but soon we were to learn the cause. The only bed in the house, a homemade one, was offered to us as our resting-place for the night, which we gratefully accepted, using our own bedding. As the hours of the night passed, the wind and rain shook the little Indian hut so that it seemed that it surely would blow over. Above the storm was heard Indian chanting from a teepee near-by where the men were gambling. This kept up till daybreak with no a moment's pause. Could we have been at the mission (Auberry) at an early hour that same evening and stood at an Indian cottage to listen, we would have heard, instead of the gambler's chant, earnest voices of Christian Indians ascending to God in prayer, and soon all would have been still for the night. The next morning the men who had spent the night in gambling came to tell us good-bye, but on their faces were signs of a long sleepless night. The previous week these same Indians had met for one of their fandangos, a dance for the dead that lasts a week. Much of the time had been spent in gambling.

Could Miss Christensen have looked ahead a few years she could have rejoiced at the change that was destined to take place at Table Mountain. Captain Wilson, the leader of the "fandango" referred to, is now a Baptist deacon. He and his sons and his neighbors and their children live sober, industrious lives.

"We go to bed when night come," said the captain in a council meeting which the writer attended last fall. "In the morning we feel good. Our heads not down this way (illustrating), and we get up happy and ready for word."

After Mr. Brendel had made a survey of the needs of the Table Mountain Indians, he persuaded the Bureau of Indian Affairs to purchase one hundred and sixty acres of land, which was allotted to the homeless families of that section. The members of the Baptist young People's Union of the San Joaquin Valley and the northern California Baptist State Convention supplied funds for the erection of a mission chapel. A school that had been closed because there had not been seven white children in the district to attend, opened when the Indians came out of the gulches and settled in their nice new community. The four white children of the neighborhood who had been deprived of public-school privileges, were just as happy as the Indian boys and girls whose coming now necessitated the opening of the school.

Stranger than romance is the story of the transformation of the Table Mountain Indians - a narrative that cannot be told in detail here. It must begin in the dim past when the Spaniards discovered this continent, and it must be carried forward through the Spanish and Mexican persecutions to the time when the gold-camp was established at a point of the San Joaquin River almost within sight of the Baptist Indian chapel. From the days when the gold-camp became silent and deserted, down to the coming of the women missionaries and of Brendel, we should trace the story, following the Indians to the high foothills where, living like the squirrels and rabbits on acorns, roots, and berries, they were found and brought into a world of light and beauty by the faithful followers of the Great Pathfinder.

Perhaps the Mono work has furnished no more striking example of the power of the gospel to overcome the powers of darkness than was witnessed in the conversion of Captain Pete Westfall, the priest and master of ceremonies in the old Indian rites at Nippinnawasee on one of the trails leading to the Yosemite Valley. How the Indian preacher Neas-je-gar-gath (Alfred Lord) first came in contact with Captain Pete is told elsewhere. Captain Pete had built an old-time Indian ceremony house called the "Round House," and for many years had conducted the heathen ceremonies in the building. A few months after the old priest had declared his acceptance of Christ, Brendel went to Nippinnawasee to hold services, presenting the Bible stories in a graphic way by means of pictures and charts. At the close of one of the meetings Captain Pete, who had been visibly affected by all that the white missionary had said, rose and made the following speech:

"Last spring when this Indian preacher came to teach us God's Word I believe it, I thought surely so it pretty good; I believe it was ever since and tried to walk in it. Now, when this man comes today and teach us, I see it plain and today I cut loose all ropes and let everything fall back behind me. I right now throw away all old Indian ceremonies and beliefs, and I walk out on the new road with Jesus, a new man. I am a free man with a happy heart. Way down at my place I have old 'Indian Round House' - that is, center place where all trails come in from different bands; if you want to build 'Jesus House,' I will give you land down there and when you build house all people can come."

The next morning Brendel took Captain Pete in his machine and drove down the mountainside to see the "Round House." Much to his surprise, he found about half the band of Nippinnawasee Indians already there; they had come to see what the white missionary was going to do. The old priest took Brendel inside and showed him the building and all the paraphernalia that had been used.

"Long time ago," said Captain Pete, "Indians gave me money and I bought all these things you see, dishes and cooking utensils; now, if you build the 'Jesus House' here, I will have all these things cleaned up and will turn them over to the new house. They were used in the old bad way long enough; now we will use them for God." (The dishes were of good material, and with the cooking vessels were worth about $150.) "This old 'Round House'," he continued, "we will use for Jesus too. We will use the house to cook and eat in when the Indians come for a big time, maybe so when it rains or snows we can hold services in here until we get better 'Jesus House'."

Right there and then Brendel read some of the promises of God concerning the kingdom of this world becoming the kingdom of God, and they knelt in prayer with the band of Indians all about in the old heathen temple now set apart for divine service.

Arrangements were made at once to have a Christmas service in the old "Round House", and when Brendel returned about a month later he found Neas-je-gar-gath, Captain Pete, and the band there awaiting him. They had been in camp two days during which Neas-je-gar-gath had held three services daily. As he drew near the camping-ground the Indian boys and girls, who had been sitting on the high rocks listening for the sound of the missionary Ford, quickly carried the news to the crowd in the "Round House". The Mono's Santa Claus had arrived, and there was joy unbounded. All rushed outside and surrounded the automobile loaded with good things.

Within the "Round House" a tree was set up, and around this a canvas was stretched to hide the presents until the time for Christmas service scheduled for New Year's Day. This first Christmas for the Nippinnawasee Indians held in the old pagan ceremonial house was an occasion of great happiness and religious enthusiasm. The Indians listened with silent rapture to the Christmas story told in such a way that all could understand that a new world of joy and light had opened to these poor souls, who forebears had been driven from their rightful domain to this inhospitable mountain wilderness. There were presents for both men and women as well as for all the children - presents from the white people of the valley and from all parts of the State. Surely the Jesus Road was good to walk in! And better than the possession of these beautiful and useful things was the knowledge that after many years of neglect, there were people in the white man's world who had remembered the mountain Indian in his destitution.

Health conditions among the Mono bands early received the attention of our missionaries. Until within a few years ago nothing had been done by Federal, State, or local health officers to lessen the ravages of diseases to which these Indians were particularly susceptible. Measles, pulmonary and bronchial troubles were the principal ailments, especially among children. In 1917 Missionary Brendel went before the board of supervisors of Fresno County and made a stirring appeal in behalf of the Indians in his territory.

"I have watched men, women, and children die because of no medical service," he said. "It is a long way back into the hills, and an Indian ordinarily will not earn more than enough to provide the necessary food to keep up life. During winter they almost starve, and when sickness comes they generally die. Once there were many Indians back in the hills, but the diseases they are subject to have eaten up the population fast. I often wonder how it is that we have any left, for the government has neglected to give them the aid that the reservation Indians are entitled to. (The Mono are not reservation Indians.) We missionaries have done all that we can in the medical line, but the demands upon us have become too great unless we have money for medicine and mileage for the physician."

To the credit of the supervisors let it be recorded that Brendel was authorized to secure medical service for the Indians and present bills to the county for payment. This was the first step Fresno County took to render systematic medical aid to the Indians.

Upon the Auberry mission property was erected a small building which became known as the "Hospital", and which has been used to good advantage many times during epidemics. At first the adult Indians, in case of sickness among them, would not consent to leave their homes, or allow their children to do so. But in time they overcame their superstitious fears in this respect. The resident women missionaries have proved to be excellent practical nurses and, in several very serious cases, have shown how useful a hospital, in the heart of the Indian country, may become. These demonstrations of what the white man can accomplish with his medicine and sanitary methods also have had the very desirable effect of turning the Indians more willingly away from the medicine-men who have held things firmly in their hands so long.

During the epidemic of Spanish influenza, and later during a smallpox scare, Missionary Brendel was deputized as a special health officer by the Fresno County health officer. It is of interest to observe that the United States Government, through its Indian agent for this district, officially recognized the health service of our missionaries as of high order. It is permissible to quote a passage from a report of Col. L. A. Dorrington, special agent in charge of the Indian Agency, Reno, Nevada, to the Indian Office, Department of the Interior, Washington, D. C.:

In Fresno County, the missionary, Rev. J. G. Brendel, took charge of the situation promptly at the outbreak of the epidemic. Through his efforts, the Board of County Supervisors appointed a special physician for the Indians, and as the epidemic broke out in a community, it was immediately quarantined and special treatment given the afflicted. Fourteen of the most serious cases were sent to the County Hospital, where three deaths occurred. In all there were three hundred cases and nine deaths. The low percentage of mortality is due entirely to the activity of Rev. Brendel and his associates. The little hospital maintained by the Baptist Board at Auberry was crowded to overflowing and the women assistants gave up their own quarters as well.

At Coarse Gold, Maderia County, where one of our missions is located, there were thirty cases of the influenza reported by Mrs. Harriet M. Gilchrist, "half-matron", stationed there. The conscientious work of Mrs. Gilchrist, assisted by a doctor, no doubt saved the situation and there were no deaths.

Long and patiently the missionaries labored before they induced the Indians to adopt the Christian marriage ceremony. In their pagan life marriage for the Mono Indians had been a means of money-making. The father sold his daughter for five or ten dollars, perhaps more. Often a girl became the wife of the man who would pay the most for her. The teaching that the man and woman shall follow the dictates of their own hearts in choosing a mate for life was hard for the Mono to accept. With admirable courage the younger converts were the first to adopt the Christian marriage custom. Then a number of the leading men of the tribe, who had found the Jesus Road, became convinced that it was their duty to renew the marital vows in accordance with the teachings of the gospel which had brought them happiness. By this step they would openly renounce all connection with or belief in the pagan custom of barter and exchange.

Accordingly the licenses were secured and the day set for six wedding ceremonies. In response to invitations sent out by Indian messengers nearly two hundred Indians gathered to witness this unusual event. Six Indian couples, accompanied by their children, many of the latter grown and some married, stood before Missionary Brendel while he spoke the words which united them according to the will of God and the laws of the State.

After the ceremony a reception, arranged by the children, was held for the six remarried couples. The brides and grooms stood in line while all the Indians marched by, shaking hands and gravely offering congratulations. A wedding-dinner, served out-of-doors, followed the reception.

Missionary Brendel has obtained work for the Mono Indian. He has done this in a systematic way by organizing the various bands in his territory into camps over which leaders are appointed. At first the fruit men were reluctant about hiring the Indians. One grape-grower, who had eight hundred acres of vines, the first year refused to have anything to do with "those lazy, drunken, good-for-nothing Digger Indians." He tried one or two, nevertheless, and the next year a few more. The third year he came to our missionary and said: "Can you get me enough Indians of your kind to harvest my whole crop? I have tried laborers of every nationality on the globe, but these Christian Indians are the best workers I ever had."

For several years past no trouble has been experience by Brendel in securing employment for all the Indians he can bring down from the mountains. We conclude this chapter with a statement from a report forwarded to Washington, D. C., by Col. L. A. Dorrington, Special Indian Agent at Reno, Nevada:

At Clovis, Fresno County, Calif., is located the headquarters of Rev. J. G. Brendel, who has charge of the Baptist activities among the Indian people of Fresno and Madera Counties. Mr. Brendel is a practical religious worker. He not only looks after the spiritual welfare of the Indian, but enters fully into their very life. He assists them in procuring work, advises them in business matters, secures medical attention for the sick, and relief for the destitute, he instills in them an ambition and a desire for progress. Since his advent in this field, there has been a wonderful change in these Indians. From a shiftless, drunken, immoral band, they have become industrious and ambitious.

J. D. Murchison Home Page Web Site created by Lorraine Adams Douglass March 4, 2000.

Contact J. D. Murchison

Last updated: January 11, 2002.