In this land of ancient tombs at Spiro Mounds and prehistoric dinosaur fossil beds, of old-timers who talk still of mummified bodies being found tucked away in caves in the western Panhandle, it seems odd to talk of Oklahoma burials from the 1800s as significantly old. But few graves on the old frontier were marked with lasting memorials.
The first Oklahoma cemetery with evidence of Christian-style burials is Union Mission, established in 1820 in hopes of converting the Osage with education and evangelizations. Its first burials were recorded in 1822. The gravestone of the Rev. Ephaphras Chapman, who died Jan. 7, 1825, is preserved on the old mission grounds. (NOTE: We’ll explore his story next month.)
But one of the grandest burial grounds of the old Indian Territory was the Garland Cemetery in the far southeast corner of Oklahoma, tucked into a forest off a dirt road and surrounded by an ornate wrought-iron fence and giant yuccas. Established just over the border from Arkansas on land selected by one future Choctaw chief for another, its elaborate Victorian-era wrought-iron fence protects modest gravestones and a dozen marble tributes, some topped by obelisks as tall as three men.
The elegant monuments were designed as a lasting tribute to the Garlands and Pitchlynns, leading families of the Choctaw Nation.
Sophia Folsom Pitchlynn’s plan for a memorial was conceived years before she died. The mother of Choctaw Chief Peter Pitchlynn and mother-in-law of Chief Samuel Garland, she was a woman of means who hoped to perpetuate her legacy.
She was born two days after Christmas 1773 to Ebenezer Folsom, a trader and interpreter whose ancestors emigrated from England in the 1630s, and his Choctaw wife.
Her father’s brother, Nathanial Folsom, married two Choctaw sisters – nieces of Miko Puskush, chief of the tribe’s Northeastern District – with whom he fathered 24 children. Each of them was a first cousin to Sophia and, like her, half-Choctaw.
One of the cousins, Rhoda Folsom, married John Pitchlynn. He arrived in the Choctaw Nation in present-day Mississippi with his father at the age of 10, becoming fluent in the language and staying with the tribe after his father’s death. He would go on to work as an interpreter and mediator for the U.S. government for nearly half a century.
Major John Pitchlynn fathered three sons in 10 years of marriage to his first wife. After her death, he wed Sophia Folsom and fathered another three sons, plus five daughters.
His influence increased over the years. His holdings grew to include livestock, 50 slaves, 200 acres of corn and cotton under cultivation and part-ownership of a stage line, making him one of the wealthiest men in the Choctaw Nation prior to Removal.
The family’s political strength also expanded. John and Sophia Pitchlynn’s eldest daughter, Mary, would marry Samuel Garland, chief of the Choctaws from 1862-64. Their eldest son, Peter Perkins Pitchlynn, succeeded Garland as chief for a two-year term.
John Pitchlynn signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830. According to the Mississippi Encyclopedia, he and his sons Peter, John Jr., Silas and Thomas received 5,120 acres reserved in the Indian Territory. After liquidating most of their assets in anticipation of Removal, John and Sophia Pitchlynn opted to remain in the Old Choctaw Nation, where he died May 20, 1835.
Sophia migrated west to Indian Territory two years later. A house was built for her next to the two-story home of her daughter and son-in-law, the Garlands, who established a sawmill and cotton plantation.
Her last will and testament, dated April 23, 1859, contained instructions for her burial and dispersed her property – including nine slaves – among family members.
Preserved among the family papers of her son Peter Pitchlynn, in the Western History Collection at University of Oklahoma Libraries, the document states: "I commend my immortal being to Him who gave it and my body to the earth, to be buried with little expense or ostentation by my executors herein after named … It is furthermore my wish that a suitable monument be erected at my grave, so that my children, grandchildren and other friends may never forget my last resting place…"
After her death in 1871, nine days before her 98th birthday, Sophia Folsom Pitchlynn became the 11th internment in the family cemetery. Samuel Garland had been buried there the previous year. Mary would be laid to rest beside him in 1886.
Her tombstone is embellished with a carving of a hand emerging from a pleated cuff, index finger pointing to the heavens, above the inscription:
Wife of Major John Pitchlynn
Born Dec. 27, 1773
Died Dec. 18, 1871
Our dear Mother’s Grave
The cemetery is all that remains of the once-vast Garland holdings. Over the decades, the plantation buildings were destroyed and the forest encroached on the graves. The wrought-iron fence fell apart. Headstones began sinking into the earth.
In the mid-20th century, Garland Cemetery came under the care of the Oklahoma Historical Society. The property was restored: toppled markers repaired and reset, the fence stabilized.
In order that her children, grandchildren and other friends might never forget, the gravestone of Sophia Folsom Pitchlynn was cleaned and laid to rest on its back, embedded in concrete … its ancient finger pointing east toward the land where she was born.