Project Canterbury

A Martyr's Memorial

By Henry Codman Potter.

Reprinted from American Church Review, c. 1877.

On a cold, blustering night in January, 1875, a clergyman in the city of New York was summoned to his front-door by a stranger who declined to give his name. The visitor was standing without the door, and was only induced after some persuasion to enter. His appearance when he did so was such as to excite immediate interest, for though he was but ill-clad and pinched by the cold, if not by hunger also, there was a simple dignity in his bearing which indicated innate refinement and more than usual culture. His head, when uncovered, disclosed to view a broad and strongly marked forehead, and there was a gentleness and ingenuousness in the expression of the eye, which at once enlisted confidence.

The stranger told his story and substantiated it by evidence which was beyond suspicion. He was a clergyman of the Church in Ireland, who had left his cure and his country under circumstances equally painful to himself and his people. He had come, as so many come, in search of a new and brighter future, and, like so many who have set out upon such an errand, he had failed to find it. Sickness had overtaken him and he had been an inmate of a city hospital, first as a patient, and afterwards as a nurse. When he sought the clergyman, to whom reference has been made, he was without friends, means, employment, or a home. He was thoroughly aroused to the mistakes of his past life, and was equally perplexed as to how he was to avoid repeating them. There were obvious difficulties in the way of his ecclesiastical transfer to the Church in this country, and he was unfitted, alike by training and by taste, for any other than his sacred calling. What was he to do, and how was he to live?

The problem was not easy of solution, but he contributed very largely to its solution himself In the first place, he was willing to do anything to which he was set, and he was willing to do it [1/2] for no other compensation than his daily bread. Again, he was thoroughly aroused to the danger which any man incurs who is willing to deal leniently with an evil habit, and he acquiesced at once in a daily rule of life, in which renunciation in the direction of his particular peril was the first and absolute condition, and in which the most ceaseless vigilance on his own part was to be accompanied with the constant oversight of others. With a touching humility and self-distrust he gave up the ordering of his daily life into the hands of those under whom he was set to work, and on the very next day began his work with single and unfaltering devotion.

It was such work as the humblest parish visitor or the least educated Bible reader might have done, and would, in fact, ordinarily be assigned to. But this cultivated, sensitive, gently-nurtured scholar; the graduate of a foreign university and wonted to refined surroundings and highly educated companionships, gave himself to it as though he had no other ambition in the world. With a tenderness and devotion which won for him friends wherever he went, he spent his days and sometimes his nights too, in ministrations among the sick, the aged and the needy,--ministrations which have left behind them a fragrance as fresh to day as when he first entered the homes of those to whom he brought them. His life was one of ceaseless drudgery, unillumined by any pause for recreation, and equally without the sunshine of any home fireside, when the day was done, to make that drudgery forgotten. And yet no one ever heard from him one slightest murmur of weariness, or saw upon his face any other than that expression of gentle patience, which those who once saw it will never forget. Above all, no one ever saw in him any slightest evidence that he had taken even one single step backward toward the infirmity from which, once for all he had, by the grace of God so resolutely wrenched himself. To the eyes of all men he was obviously moving upon a plane of single-hearted, stainless, and saintly service for the Master.

But though there was no impatience on his own part, there was something not unlike it in the minds of others. He was a clergyman of the Mother Church, with gifts and acquirements which fitted him for eminent usefulness in his sacred calling. Could not the way be opened for the freer exercise of those gifts? At [2/3] first it seemed impossible. His own diocesan, beyond the sea, was not unkindly disposed, but hampered by technical difficulties almost impossible to surmount. But, just when it seemed as if the way was hopelessly shut-up, it was generously opened by the hand of the wise and large-hearted Bishop of Niobrara. He expressed his willingness to accept this clergyman of a foreign Church, and to give him work as a Presbyter in his frontier jurisdiction. It would not be easy to tell here of the joy and gratitude with which that offer was accepted. The newly-appointed Presbyter set out for his new field, and in a little while his friends heard from him that he was at work in it with a heart full of courage and hopefulness.

They little dreamed how soon and how tragically the newfound task was to drop from the hands that had grappled with it, nor how soon those hands were to be folded in their last repose. Less than eighteen months since it was begun had past, when the telegraph brought to a thousand homes and more in the East, where the missionary work of the Bishop of Niobrara was a subject of almost daily thought and prayer, the tidings that "the Rev. R. Archer B. Ffennell, a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and a missionary among the Indians, had been shot by an Indian while on his way from the government agency at Cheyenne." And the despatch continued--even amid the eagerness of unnumbered other interests the press of the country found time for that--"it is believed that Mr. Ffennell was shot by mistake as he was extremely popular among the Indians."

This was all that they who had watched him and his work with equal sympathy and anxiety, could learn for days and weeks. And then they learned the rest. Already the story has been briefly and more or less imperfectly told in the columns of the secular and Church press, but it is only recently that a clear and accurate history of Mr. Ffennell's work and of the circumstances of his death have been in the possession even of his most intimate friends. The following letter relates that history with a simplicity and pathos which will need no other words to deepen their effect, and he who has told this story thus far gladly leaves it to a worthier hand to finish it:


Nov. 22, 1876.

REVEREND AND DEAR DOCTOR: I can hardly tell with what thankfulness I have just read in The Church Journal your words about our dear brother, the Rev. Mr. Ffennell. [The reference here is to the very imperfect report of an address delivered at a service memorial of the Rev. Mr. Ffennell, held in Grace Chapel, New York, on Sunday evening, November 12, 1876.] I have longed to hear from some one that knew him, that I too might bear my testimony to his noble life.

He came here but little more than a year ago, a perfect stranger to all of us. He passed up the river to his mission without stopping at Santee, but stayed for a time at Yankton Agency, to become somewhat acquainted with his future work. I first heard of him through the clergy and Sisters stationed there, as a man of most excellent spirit and as one singularly perfect and earnest in his preaching.

Last autumn, returning overland from a Government Commission to the Western Dakotas, I first met him personally at Cheyenne Agency on the Missouri. At that time his gentleness and humility, and most of all, his sweet, pure, earnest face, made an impression on me never to be forgotten.

Mrs. Hinman was also at the same time spending some days with her sister at the Agency, and meeting him nearly every day and attending his evening services at the garrison, became not only well acquainted with, but warmly attached to him, as one in every way fitted for and devoted to his high and holy calling, and most of all, one who though capable of filling an exalted position in the Church, understandingly and sincerely condescended to men of low estate, men more miserable than the most abject of the poor--to blind and cruel barbarians. The intimacy that grew up between them at that time lasted until the death of Mrs. Hinman, and it was from his letters to her that I learned most of the sweet spirit of the man.

He worked earnestly, not only for the Dakotas, who were his especial charge, but also for the soldiers at the garrisons, both at the Agency and at Fort Sully, ten miles away. I remember a circumstance connected with his work among the military people, that, though seeming strange at the time, your words have made plain. An officer of rank was being tried by Court Marshal for drunkenness, and Mr. Ffennell was summoned as a witness. His testimony was so kind and charitable toward the [4/5] accused that many of the officers were offended at him and stopped attending his religious services. He bore it all calmly and quietly, not losing heart or omitting any duty, though at times only two or three met with him. Now we understand his charity. It was a Christ-like pitifulness that held up to us by the Apostle in Heb. ii., 18.

Last spring I made another hurried visit to Cheyenne Agency and again met Mr. Ffennell. He invited me to accompany him to his Mission and stay a Sunday there, and talk to his boys and preach to his Dakota congregation. I knew he had no housekeeper, but as he insisted, I went with him gladly. I can never forget what I saw there. It shames me when I think of the devotion of the man. He was living alone (his house-keeper having been taken sick and being only a burden to him) with his school of twelve bright Indian boys, and with no other help than that of a Santee catechist, a man of fully his own age, and who had been sent up to assist him in his religious services among the Dakotas, he himself being yet unacquainted with the language.

There these two, one the Rev. Mr. Ffennell, a gentlemen of good family, liberal education and culture, accustomed to all the comforts and kindnesses of civilized life; the other, John Kitto, a man but now redeemed from heathenism, not understanding the English language, his only gift the grace of God, which had made him in gentleness and humility singularly like his white brother in character. These two were living together and without other help caring for and teaching their little family of Dakota boys, who were seemingly as dear to both of them as if they were their own children.

In the morning while John and some of the larger boys cared for the younger ones and attended to righting the Dormitory, Mr. Ffennell with others, prepared the table and did the cooking. After the meal and prayers, John and his party cleared the table, while Mr. Ffennell and his, attended to the stable and garden, and then all met in school until time to prepare for dinner; and so on through the entire day, and every day, both were entirely engaged in mission work. No office too mean for either, and no man, red or white, so poor, or wretched, or wicked, as not to receive their kind and prompt attention. On Sunday Mr. Ffennell not only read the service (very well for the short time he had heard the language) but also sat at the organ and led the chants and hymns. I found the public part of the house well kept and in perfect order, the table as nicely set as for a festival among whites, and the boys tidy, clean and well-behaved. A remarkably pleasant and cheerful set of fellows, when [5/6] you thought that they had but just been taken from a camp of wild and barbarous Indians.

In our brother's own room the evidences of his unselfishness appeared. He was poor indeed. He could find time to care for others but not to care for self. Everything that he did not absolutely need to make his appearance passable was given away, and he had no time to attend to, or hardly know, his own wants, and no time except late at night for correspondence or for reading. He denied himself proper food, proper clothing and needful rest, that he might have to bestow upon his work. The well-dressed, quiet clergyman that I met the Fall before, had now become the rough and hardy looking pioneer.

I said to him, "My dear brother, you can't stand this, you have not been accustomed to it, you will wear out and get sick. You had best stop and rest until the Indian Commission send you out some helper. The Church does not expect nor wish that you should live in this way. You are attempting too much and you certainly ought to take better care of yourself." I had told him before of my pleasure at seeing his boys, and their improvement, and of my deep interest in his large and attentive congregation in chapel. He said, "No, if you think I have accomplished anything, I am more than satisfied. It is very little one can do for the Master, especially in such a work as this, where everything is strange and the people heathen, and the language difficult. I have felt that I did not know how to work and could not understand the Indians, but I begin to know them better now. I really love my boys and some of the men. I most sincerely pity the condition of their people and feel outraged at the way they are neglected and despised by the American people. If I have done or can do anything whatever for them, I am more than paid for all my work and all my trouble." After a few words more between us, and an expression on his part of great grief at Mrs. Hinman's death, and of his sense of the good and quiet influence she had exerted while staying there, we parted. His English farewell, "God bless you, my brother," were the last words he ever spoke to me.

In September last, coming back with Bishop Whipple from the Treaty Council at Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies, at Missouri Valley Junction we met Bishop Clarkson. His first words were "Have you heard the sad news? Mr. Ffennell has been killed by an Indian, while returning from the Agency to his Mission." We had seen trouble and had reasons for apprehending trouble at the Agencies just visited, and these words fell upon our spirits like a pall. The Bishop loves the Indians as a man only can love a people for whom he has labored and [6/7] suffered. I never saw him more grieved at heart. He feared that our whole work for these people would be hindered and injured, especially where the disturbed state of the Indian country was not known and understood.

We thought and said, "It is sad indeed that he should die such a death, die alone and far away from home; above all, die by the hands of a people he would willingly have given his life to save. Yet it was so our Saviour died, and if he has vouchsafed us a martyr so soon, in our little mission among the Dakotas, we may well take heart; these troublous times will soon be overpast and the work so doubly dear will surely live." It did not seem strange to us that a Christian soldier should bravely fall at his post of duty, for that might any time have happened here, and as we know, has often happened in the history of all missions throughout the world; but it seemed strange that he, the last to come, and so unselfish in his spirit, should be the first to fall. And then we remembered the words of our Lord--"The first shall be last, and the last shall be first," and could not know but that he best deserved to enter into rest. We did not then know of his noble victory over self, and I am sure now his memory is doubly dear to us all.

I was somewhat delayed in my return to Santee. Leaving Yankton after morning service on Sunday, I had hoped to be at home for evening prayer in our own chapel. I did not arrive at the river bank opposite until after dark and had difficulty in finding the ferryman to take me across. As we approached the Santee shore we could see a man walking up and dawn on the bar of sand that reaches from the bank to the water. It was John Kitto. He did not certainly know that I was coming then, but had thought I might arrive that night, and was anxiously waiting for me. After greeting, his first words were, "We have heard that my friend is killed; is it true?" Then after being told, "My mother is here dying and he sent me down for a few days, that I might see her once more. Now I have a letter from him asking me to come back, and he is dead. I must go. I do not want the work to stop. The white missionaries will not be allowed to keep it up. I feel sad that God has ordered that I should be separated from him in his death. I would gladly have died for him. I am a Dakota and am of very little use in this life. I can do but very little. He was noble and wise and kind, and lived only to do good to the poor wicked people who have killed him. You did not know him. I lived with him day and night, and seeing him always, I learned as I never knew before what it means to live a Christian life. He was humble and unselfish and kind, and made himself tired and sick and poor to help those blind; foolish Indians. He cared for their [7/8] little boys as if they were his own. He was indeed nearer than a brother to me Do let me go up with you, and if thought best, I am willing, till this trouble is over, to live in the Mission-house and work alone. I can't do much, but perhaps I can keep the people who come to prayers from falling away. I think you can get one of your Santee catechists to join me and help me, if the Bishop will allow it. I would like George Paypay; I have talked with him and believe him earnest and sincere, and willing to work anywhere he may be sent." [It is proper to note here that I granted his request, and that the Bishop since visiting Cheyenne Agency, has approved Kitto's plan, and that George Paypay the Santee catechist, mentioned by him above, has gone up with his wife to aid him. The Bishop writes of them, "I trust he and John will do well. The latter has acquitted himself nobly."]

On reaching the Mission House at Santee, I found a letter from Mr. Ffennell, from which I take the following extracts:

"Some time since I had a letter from our Secretary respecting lessening expenses, etc., and I replied that I might perhaps now be able to get on without a catechist, stating at the same time that I should miss John Kitto very much, and that I hoped if he was taken from this, he would be provided for elsewhere. [I quote this to show how the neglect of Christian people to keep up their interest in Missions, cripples the work and breaks down the workers, just where help and work is most needed and deserved; also to show the simple self-devotion of the man who could thus, without a murmur on his own account, offer to give up his only helper.] Since then, I have heard nothing."

"I am glad to hear that you are coming with the new commission, and shall be glad to see you when you pass through here. I miss Major and Mrs. Bingham (the late agent) very much. They are a real loss to us all. Dr. Cravens, however, appears likely to make a good agent; and is very friendly to the mission. I expect we shall have not only rumors of war, but war itself, in our midst. Some troops have already arrived here; and more are on the way. When these come, I believe operations are to commence, but the military do not speak much of their intentions. If a rash step is taken, I believe that many of our friendly Indians would be changed into hostiles. I am glad to hear that Bishop Whipple is one of the Commissioners."

These words show not only his love for his people, but his bravery in working on, though he knew that danger threatened.

We two, Kitto and I, started that night for Cheyenne Agency. On [8/9] arriving there I learned the full particulars of Mr. Ffennell's death. I write them out, because your account, as reported, is wrong.

The attack, made by the troops under Gen. Custer, upon the Sioux of the far West and the overwhelming defeat of his command, had very naturally produced great excitement among the Indians at the Agency. Anger at the injustice of the attack on their friends, while the wrong of the forcible taking of the Black Hills by the whites was yet unsettled, and exultation at the defeat of the army in the first great battle were freely and loudly expressed. The whole Indian people were disturbed and unquiet. The bolder of the men left openly to join their hostile brethren in the war; others were very much troubled and restive; and almost all were in word, at least, disloyal to the Government on account of wrongs and deceits supposed and real, which had been practiced upon them by the whites.

Before the people had become quiet from this disturbance, and while troops, for what purpose was not known, were being sent among them, an Indian, a young man, was reported to the commanding officer recently come to the country, as having been engaged in haranguing the camp in favor of an attack upon the troops at the Agency garrison. He was arrested and put in the guard-house, though he denied the charge. The Rev. Mr. Ffennell, fearing trouble from this arrest, and believing the charge against the Indian to be ill-founded and probably only camp rumor, went and interceded with the officer for his release. The prisoner did not know of this. He had vowed to kill the first white man he met. He was released. He was not a Christian, had never attended Church and had never met Mr. Ffennell face to face.

Mr. Ffennell frequently came from his Mission, three miles away, to the Agency, to hold services, or make purchases, of for his mail. The chief, near whom he lived, offered always to accompany him and did often come with him. On this occasion he came down with only two of his smaller boys. He remained a long time at the Agency. In talking with Mrs. Cravens, the wife of the Agent, he seemed very sad and depressed, and gave as a reason that he thought the outlook very bad and the future very dark. She urged him several times to remain over night, but he said he must go home to his boys. He said, on leaving the door, to Mrs. Cravens, "I feel very badly; I am sure that something terrible is about to happen, not far away, but right here at the Agency." These, and the "Good-night" were his last words.

Riding home in his wagon, as he drove through the dry bed of a creek, two Indians mounted on ponies, rode up from behind, and as he [9/10] turned to look at them, he was shot through the head by one of them and through the body by the other. He fell from his wagon and the Indians fled. His horses ran away with the two little boys. In the darkness of the night the Indians were not recognized by the boys. They were supposed to be the man released from the guard-house and his brother, as both were missing from the camp in the morning. The shots were heard at the Indian village near the Mission, and a Christian Indian running down the road found the body and carried the sad tidings on to the Agency.

The Indians in camp were quickly mounted. A party of thirty went in three hours twenty-five miles up the river to the Mission Station of Rev. Mr. Swift, where he was living with his wife and family. They went of their own accord to protect them and bring them down to the Agency for safety. Another and larger party went till morning over the usual westward trail, in pursuit of the murderers. They were not overtaken; it was found in the morning that they had fled over an unused trail leading further southward. The friendly and Christian Indians were simply astounded at the dastardly deed, and to think that Mr. Ffennell of all men should be killed by one of their people. They came in large numbers to the Agent's house to look upon his face for the last time, and they wept like children. The effect upon the whole camp was wonderful. For whereas before they had been seemingly undecided what to do, and sullen and semi-hostile in their demeanor toward the whites (though never so toward Mr. Ffennell), now when they saw this cowardly act, they came out openly for the whites and their protection, leaving all questions of right or wrong between them, for future settlement.

So our brother lived and so he died. On one occasion before, an angry Indian had searched his house to find and kill him, but his time had not yet come. He was away on duty at Fort Sully.

In loosing him the Cheyenne Sioux lost one of their most devoted friends, and we of the Mission, a man that in such days as these was invaluable to the work. But we are in the hands of God, and whether by life or death, by weakness as well as by strength, He can and will make His own cause to triumph.

What you have said of our brother's past was not known to us, but we can testify abundantly concerning his "rising again." And after all, is not one who stands redeemed, lifted up from such and so deep an abyss as that, a wonder of the grace of God; a better man and a stronger, than the cold-hearted, selfish one, who has never fallen, (as men count falling) only from want of temptation?

[11] Bishop Patteson, working on amid known dangers, (and dangers, as was the case with Mr. Ffennel, an hundred-fold multiplied by the wicked connivance of the Government with wrong) and working among a like barbarous and simple-minded race, fell at his post of duty by the hands of his own wards, and after reading his life, I think, we rightly call him The Martyr of Melanesia. And may we not so call our dear brother, R. Archer B. Ffennell, a man saved by the Grace of God, gentle, humble, trustful, true, patient and faithful to the end--The Martyr of Niobrara?

Surely we cannot doubt that he now awaits in Paradise the crown of saintship and the martyr's palm, and better still, the priceless garment of those who "have come out of great tribulation and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

Those who have. read the Memoirs of John Coleridge Patteson, the first Bishop of Melanesia, will own that there is more than one point of resemblance in the work and in the end of the Missionary to the Islanders of the Pacific, and of the Missionary to the Indians of Niobrara. Bishop Patteson was unwilling to talk much of his own work, and was ever wont to make light of his own sacrifices. He prized especially his work among the boys of his Mission and drew these closest to himself. And when his end came, he fell by a blow dealt in blind revenge for the wrongs wrought by white men, and dealt by those to serve and save whom was the one thought of his life. As in the case of the American Missionary, too, the wound which ended the life of the English Bishop pierced his brain, and was struck from behind.

But there was another and more precious resemblance. Writing of the Bishop of Melanesia, soon after his tragic death, one of his native deacons, Henry Tagalana, said, in language of which the following is a literal translation,

As he taught, he confirmed his good life among us, as we all know; and also that he perfectly well helped any one who might be unhappy about anything and spoke comfort to him about it; and about his character and conduct they are consistent with the law of God. He gave the evidence of it in his practice, for he did nothing carelessly lest he should make any one stumble and turn from the good way; and again he did nothing to gain anything for himself alone, but he sought what he might keep others with, and then he worked with it, and the reason was his pitifulness and his love. And again, he did not despise any one nor reject any one with scorn, whether it were a white or a black person he thought them all as one, and he loved them all alike.

[12] "He loved them all alike!" "That," says the biographer of the Bishop of Melanesia, "was the secret of John Coleridge Patteson's history and labors." Yes, and of Archer Ffennell's no less! And so, as we close this volume of an heroic and martyred life, we bless God that, whether in the Islands of the Pacific or on the frontiers of the far West, He is giving to His Church new witnesses to the power of His redeeming grace, and other, but not less noble and saintly souls, who have not counted their lives dear unto themselves, so that they might finish their course with joy and the ministry which they, with Apostles and Martyrs gone before, received of the Lord Jesus.


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