This is one of those books you hear about that the author didn't plan to or even want to write. These books slip in unobtrusively at first, lurking in the periphery of the mind, teasing for more attention. Slowly they get into the writer's system, and before long total invasion has taken place. In the fall of 1971, I was delving through Indiana Baptist history while researching another project. Almost every day I came across an item about a missionary I had never heard of. His name was Isaac McCoy. Only a line or two, but each one offered another intriguing piece of information. I began sharing these mere snippets representing one man's existence with a friend. Soon she was asking me every evening if I had found anything that day about Isaac McCoy. Like me, she couldn't believe a person who had lived such a life was unknown.
To aid my memory, I started writing these notes about him on scraps of paper. One day I looked at this collection and whispered to myself, "There's a book here." That was the last easy part of this entire project. These snippets of information that had seduced me in the beginning were indications of how my research would begin: snippets, snippets, snippets. I found Isaac McCoy mentioned in a few biographical dictionaries, but whatever I found about him in any book was always very little. I was dismayed to discover that most references to him were, if you'll excuse the pun, hatchet jobs. Wondering why authors, usually academics, would employ their few lines about him to write something negative from a life so full of sacrificial positives still gives me pause. Is it an aversion to things "religious?" to Christians? to missionaries? to the self-educated?
Here is but one example: Author Grant Foreman pointed out that Isaac planted his Indian delegation in tents a mile outside St. Louis, then found himself a comfortable room in town. In fact, Isaac could not find lodgings for his large group when they arrived at St. Louis in 1828, but he himself had to stay there to make an appointment with William Clark. When Clark told him he had to wait weeks for the southern delegations, Isaac was able to move the Indians to a boarding house twelve miles from town. He chose this distance because local white men were entertaining themselves by getting these natives drunk.
The bibliography of every book I read mentioned five more books that I just had to look at. After several years, my own bibliography was growing toward its finished count of 200 books. Eventually, when I found myself reading books I had already read, I had to initiate a list of "books that were of no use."
After finding a little about him in local libraries, I went to Franklin College in Indiana, which is a repository of Baptist History, plus Gov. Branigin's collection on Native Americans. Here I found a rare copy of Isaac's book, Baptist Indian Missions: Embracing Remarks on the Former and Present Condition of the Aboriginal Tribes; Their Settlement Within the Indian Territory and Their Future Prospects.
This book was the opposite of a snippet. It proved to be as wordy as its title. I was able to use some information from it, but the things I was most interested in, he touched on only briefly. Because he was so self-effacing, I finished reading that 611-page tome still not knowing most of his fourteen children's names. Finding these names would take many, many years. His book began at his entry onto the mission field in 1817, when he was thirty-three years old and married with eight children. It ended in 1838, eight years before his death.
Learning about those first thirty-three years was difficult. I did find a two-page, handwritten "autobiography" he had penned in 1817. Very late in my research I discovered through material written by his relatives that he had some fingers missing and how he had lost them as a child. The bulk of my research about Isaac centered on the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. Isaac's granddaughter, Nellie McCoy Harris, had donated all his letters and papers to that institution. They graciously mailed me the twelve microfilm reels of the material, two at a time. I spent 144 hours reading them at my local library, while making handwritten notes. These were actually drafts of his letters and papers. Hence they were quite messy as far as torn edges, ink spots, cross outs, and writing between the lines. The microfilm reels included letters he had received, too. How he was able to hang on to his journals and papers through all the floods, fires, windstorms, and moving around he experienced is beyond me. But I'm so thankful he did.
I found some gems in this material, such as the list of students that included Indian heritage, age, languages spoken, and the dates they came to the mission. Here I found also the actual letters from the mission board telling Isaac not to bring the Indian youths to their Columbian College and why they did not want Indian missions publicized.My book would have been complicated enough had I been writing only about Isaac McCoy, but I wanted to learn everything I could about the Native Americans of his time. According to my own index, he crossed paths with thirty tribes.
Sometimes, when reading about what whites did to Indians, or what Indians did to whites, I had to stop because the words became blurred by tears. As for learning about day-to-day living in the first half of the nineteenth century, I found nothing to be better than personal recollections. Soldiers' diaries, letters from women to women, these were my favorites. I hope my appreciation of things modern never fades. Anytime I find myself outdoors in the winter, rushing across the parking lot to my car, I often think of the McCoys. That family, including small children, traveling 100 miles by horse and wagon to get from one Michigan station to another in January. Or the sixteen grueling winter trips Isaac made to the east coast on horseback. When I toss out water in which I have boiled potatoes, I remember how the starving Indians waited outside the mission kitchen to have that very water for cooking their weeds.
I have located the only portrait of Isaac' wife, Christiana (see Points of Interest, Missouri), but am still searching for the portrait of Isaac. I can't even find his body. I know he is buried in Louisville's Western Cemetery, now in the heart of town. I have the inscription from his stone. But the stone is long gone, or smoothed out, and the cemetery is littered with wino bottles. My search continues.