Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Cholera on the Missouri (ii)

(continued from yesterday)

Father Christian Hoecken was called, by some, "the Kickapoo Father" because of his ministry to the Kickapoo tribe, who'd been pushed west from their homelands in Indiana, first to Missouri, and then to Kansas. Even though the word kickapoo may mean "he who moves from here to there," make no mistake: the Kickapoos in Kansas were refugees.

Father Hoecken's propensity for language was legendary. He probably knew Dutch and Flemish when he came to America; he had to learn English, and in hardly any time at all he picked up the language of the Kickapoo.

But he didn't stay. In 1838, 800 Potawatomi had been herded from the Great Lakes region to Kansas on that tribe's own "Trail of Tears." Only 650 arrived--some simply disappeared, went to Canada or returned home in hiding, and 30 men, women, and children died. Father Hoecken was assigned to minister to the needs of those who survived and was there to welcome the Potawatomi refugees to a new country. Many of those who arrived were already Roman Catholic.

Once again Hoecken learned the language quickly, with such propensity that the church determined he should continue to use those skills with tribes farther up the northern Missouri regions and as yet without a mission. That's where he was going on June 19, 1851, when he was suddenly called to the bedside of his friend Father De Smet to hear his confession and administer last rites, all of which he did, tears coursing down his cheeks, some say. De Smet wasn't the only one dying. Father Hoecken consoled many who'd contacted the cholera on board, or so history says.

On September 20, the St. Ange had stopped somewhere near Blackbird Bend to try to rid themselves of the contagion, "to take better care of the sick and to bury the dead," or so wrote the German artist Rudolf Kurz in his diary. 

Then, in just a couple of hours, the whole story reversed itself. Father De Smet seemingly recovered, at least sufficiently enough to hear Father Hoecken's confession and administer last rites to him because in a matter of two hours Father Hoecken had fallen victim to the dreaded cholera. 

Here's how Kurz describes what happened:
June 21. Father Van Hocken is dead. He died as a Christian. Had been sick only two hours. It was about 4 o'clock in the morning when I was awakened by his calling me. I found him, half-dressed, on his bed in violent convulsions. I called Father De Smet. We anchored in the evening and buried him by torchlight. 
Father Hoeken's hasty burial in a grave unmarked along the river was not the only one for passengers on the St. Ange. In fact, his body was retrieved some time later and then buried again in a cemetery in St. Louis. 

And, the story of cholera in the region is much larger. It took many, many more victims in many, many more places, thousands of Native people in horrible outbreaks of pestilence.

But this story is somehow unique, full of memorable images. One, to me, doesn't leave--a crowd of mourners, some of them ill, standing with bowed heads in prayer, only their outlines visible in the jumpy torchlight, all of them standing on the banks of the Missouri, dropping a casket rough hewn from the woods behind them into freshly dug river sand. They're burying a man some of them might well have considered a saint.

It happened not all that far away aboard a steamer coming up the river, a steamer named the "Holy Angel."

No comments: