It was during a period of transition when the Kiowa Comanche Apache Reservation was being turned into family land allotments in the late 1800s that a young woman missionary from Canada moved to Indian Territory.
The daughter of a Scottish father and Irish mother, Isabel Crawford, 28, arrived at the reservation at Elk Creek near Hobart in 1893. Her father was a Baptist minister and Isabel’s devotion to the church can be traced to her upbringing. When she was 18, Isabel contracted consumption, also known in the 1800s as tuberculosis. She wrote in a diary that the generous amount of quinine prescribed had left her hearing bad.
Clyde Ellis wrote in the introduction to Isabel’s published diary, “Kiowa: A Woman Missionary in Indian Territory” that the fever had left Isabel almost completely deaf. She relied on hearing aids and lip reading but believed God had tested and spared her for important work. After completing a two-year training course at the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society in Chicago, Illinois, she was sent to the KCA Reservation – 87 miles from the nearest railroad.
The reservation was made up of more than three million acres in the southwest corner of Oklahoma Territory and was home to more than 6,000 Indians from 10 tribes, including the Kiowa. Isabel, along with other Baptist missionaries opened Elk Creek and Rainy Mountain Missions in 1893 and 1894 among the Kiowas. The Deyo Mission was opened for the Comanches in 1894. Isabel spent three years at the Elk Creek Mission near Hobart before moving to Saddle Mountain. Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf had invited the missionaries
Ellis wrote that Isabel later remembered that conditions at Elk Creek were so crude that they made “my blood run cold.” She was happy when she got two cups of rainwater and was able to take a good bath. In April 1896, she moved to Saddle Mountain, where about 300 Kiowas lived.
“Lone Wolf and Big Tree (prominent Kiowa chiefs near Rainy Mountain) got the churches,” said one Saddle Mountain Kiowa (reported Ellis), “but the Indians live over here.”
In 1898, Isabel helped the Saddle Mountain Kiowas establish a local mission society and named it “Daw-kee-boom-gee-k’oop, which is Kiowa for “God’s Light on the Mountain.” They called her “Jesus Woman” and viewed her as a “special envoy – brave but demure, strong but dependent on their good will,” Ellis wrote.
“No White Jesus man ever sat down with us,” one Kiowa told Isabel shortly after she arrived. “You, one white woman, all alone among Indians and no scared – this is good.”
Kiowas accepted Isabel as a member of the community, Ellis wrote.
“She was the first one to live among Indians,” remembered Tonemah, a Saddle Mountain deacon, Ellis wrote. “She was just like a mother; she taught us the way to Christ.”
To win the Kiowas trust, Roger Bromert wrote at okhistory.org, “she cleaned, washed, baked bread, carried firewood, cared for the ill, and taught the women to sew while instructing them from the Bible. She taught the women quilting and through the sale of quilts saved money to build the Saddle Mountain Baptist Church.”
Isabel couldn’t speak the Kiowa language and was almost completely deaf. In addition to lipreading, sign language, a hearing device that hung around her neck and other missionaries that came to help, a member of the Kiowa community, Lucius Aitsan, provided valuable help.
Aitsan had been educated at Carlisle Indian School for three years and could read and write English. He was a devout Christian and a dedicated member of the Saddle Mountain Mission from the very beginning, Ellis wrote. He was baptized at Elk Creek in 1896.
He was devoted to Isabel and the work at Saddle Mountain. “He would visit the camps to introduce her, convinced skeptical Kiowas to listen to her message, and along with his wife, Mabel, looked after her daily needs,” Ellis wrote. Over time, he became one of the most influential Kiowa Christians on the reservation.
Aitsan became ordained as a minister in June of 1913 and died in the flu epidemic of 1918, which left the Saddle Mountain community grief-stricken.
“His abrupt passing in 1918,” wrote Kiowa author Harlan Hall, “made many tribesmen wonder at what might have been.”
Sources for this article include “Kiowa: A Woman Missionary in Indian Territory” by Isabel Crawford with introduction by Clyde Ellis; “Failed Assimilation: Anglo Women on the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation, 1867-1906” by Rebecca Jane Herring. M.A. Thesis, Texas Tech University, 1983; google.com: consumption; okhistory.org, “Crawford, Isabel Alice Hartley (1865-1961) by Roger Bromert; “Kiowa Ethnogeography” by William C. Meadows.