Centennial marks memory of Dwight Mission tragedy
This story is about how 13 Indian boys, who were students between the ages of 9 and 17, died during what has been described as one of the most horrific events to occur on Sequoyah County soil after a fire broke out in the middle of a cold winter night on Jan. 12, 1918, at Dwight Mission Indian School.
Did the children suffer? What events took place before, during and after the fire? What thoughts were running through the minds of the children during that time and the families who had to identify the bodies, and the people who operated the boarding school? What changes took place at the school so tragedy such as this would never occur again?
Some of that we may never know.
Much of what you will read in this story is based upon news reports from at least three publications at that time. Also from a few people from around the community including one family member, who has collected stories over the years from his grandmother, and from accounts possibly some based on speculation, here say or rumors that followed whether we choose to agree with them or not.
But as Jan. 12, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the fire at Dwight Mission School, bear in mind the tragedy happened so long ago and with that, there's uncertainty if any other stories were written about the tragic event over the years, maybe most or few may be based on oral tradition, stories that were passed from generations of family or people living around Marble City or Dwight Mission.
Although there is no formal centennial ceremony that has been planned by descendants of families of the victims or tribes of which the boys belonged to, or Dwight Mission itself, Your TIMES chose to not let this story go untold for anyone who remembers hearing about the fire or for the families of the victims who may or may not know of the incident and for historical reasons.
Many thanks to Rick Stahl, Peter Newbury, Rebecca McCoy, the Cherokee Language, Culture and History facebook group with David Cornsilk as the administrator, the Sequoyah County Democrat, the Stilwell-Sentinel, the Westville Record and anyone else who may have contributed with a story, comment, pictures, a poem or their time.-- Lynn McCulley
'There's a Fire at Dwight Mission!'
On a cold winter night on Jan. 12, 1918, sometime around 2:30 a.m., a fire broke out on the first floor of the Sleeping Boys Dormitory at Dwight Mission Indian School killing 13 Indian boys ranging in ages nine to 17, who were sleeping on the second floor of the two-story wooden building.
Reports from articles printed during that time indicate that by the time the fire was discovered, the whole building was engulfed in flames and students on the second floor, where the greatest loss of life occurred, were trapped by flames.
The second floor included a big screened in porch divided into four sections. The only stairway leading from it was blocked by flames when the fire was discovered forcing the boys who escaped to jump from the second floor onto the ground which was covered in snow and ice.
Dwight Mission, which is presently a camp and conference center, is located about eight miles north of Sallisaw near Marble City. Peter Newbury, who served as an executive director for seven years at Dwight Mission, said a man whose father had assisted with the fire visited with him one day in 2010 and shared what he knew about it.
“I am somewhat of a history buff,” Newbury said. “I came from Montana to work at Dwight Mission. When I arrived and became familiar with the center, I could not believe all the history there. It was there I met Quincy Robertson who had lived in the community all of his life. One day Quincy came to visit me and told me about what his parents had told him about the fire. Quincy wasn't born yet when the fire happened but he had been told about it,” Newbury said.
“He told me that on the night of the fire, Quincy's mother happened to look out the window and told Quincy's dad there was a fire at Dwight Mission. It was freezing temperatures but his dad bundled up, as all neighbors did when help was needed, and slushed his way through two fields to get to where the fire was to help,” Newbury said.
“When he got to the school, the building was in flames and Quincy said his father saw the older boys leaning over the porch holding the younger boys by the arms and dropping them as low as they could so others could catch them or they fell to the ground,” he said.
As reported, some of the boys, wearing only their night clothes, had tore through the wire screen and jumped to the ground then began trying to help the others, he said.
The fire had occurred on one of the most severe nights in Sequoyah County with temperatures plummeting to 15 below zero and snow and ice covering the ground. It was reported the fire could not be extinguished because the water was frozen.
The Story of Nighthawk McLemore
Rick Stahl, whose grandmother was a half sister to Nighthawk McLemore, one of those who died in the fire, says he has kept up with some of the stories through what his grandmother shared with him.
“Nighthawk's father, Sam, had two daughters from a different union. One of them, Esther, was my grandmother. She was a half sister to Nighthawk,” he said. Noting Nighthawk had other siblings who included his older brother Jess, also a student at Dwight Mission, Robert, Kohini and baby Margaret.
“On the night of the fire, Jess was one of the boys who jumped from the second floor. He went back trying to look for Nighthawk but Nighthawk had crawled under a bed and Jess couldn't find him,” Stahl said.
Stahl, who lives around Adair County presently, said Jess grew up and lived to be an old man but always spoke with a raspy voice due to smoke inhalation he had encountered from that night.
“I've been following this for years,” Stahl said. “I go to visit the monument at times and probably will on the anniversary date.”
Although Nighthawk's name on the stone is written as “McLemore,” old records supplied by Stahl spelled the family's last name as “Macklimore.” Some names were spelled differently among the three newspapers which carried the story in 1918.
Out of all the names inscribed on the monument, which was later erected by the Women's Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as a memorial for the fire victims, Nighthawk McLemore is one of the most popular and his name acclaimed some fame from a song written about Dwight Mission several years ago from a musician named Robert Thomas Quiring. The song is called “Eyes of True Believers” and can be found on You Tube.
Delbert Barnes Obit Runs in Westville Record
Delbert Barnes, another victim, whose name in some old articles is spelled “Dilbert” was 14 years old when he died in the fire.
His mother, Mrs. B. Barnes, a native of Westville, located in Adair County north of Stilwell, had gone to Texas and placed her son at Dwight Mission during her absence the summer before the fire took place.
The Westville Record reported Mrs. Barnes was notified of her son's death and returned to the mission to attend the funeral along with Lester and Mrs. A.B. Stanford “who were the only one's that could attend the funeral.” the paper wrote.
“Delbert was raised here and was well-known by everyone who are grieved to learn of his death. He leaves a mother, a sister, three brothers and a host of relatives and friends to mourn his death,” the story states.
The Westville Record apparently wrote the story on Jan. 18, 1918. The reporter went into detail about the rescue efforts made by some of the older students in the following excerpt:
“Several sensational rescues were made by the older students who re-entered the roaring furnace in their scanty night clothes in search of their unfortunate brothers. Among the boys who were rescued were Horace Moore of McKey and Robert Goings of Smithville, whose brother, Newton, lost his life. They were carried from the building after having been overcome by smoke.
“The youthful heroes lost their lives in the fire. They were Phillip Correll and Wilson Beaver. They were asleep on the second floor of the dormitory and had plenty of time to make their escape. Instead of doing so, however, they ran through the room arousing the other sleepers and saved their companions instead.
“It is believed these boys made an effort to extinguish the fire. This theory is advanced because the fire extinguishers which were located in the north end of the second floor were found in the ruins in the south end where the fire came up the stairway from the first floor.
“Another hero of the fire was Joe Asbury, 18. Asbury dashed into the flaming building and carried out a boy who had fallen unconscious from smoke in the stairway.
“Ross Robe, son of Superintendent J.N Robe, was the first person to awaken on the lower floor. He aroused the boys and hurried them out of the building with the result that not a life was lost on the first floor. All the boys who sustained injuries have recovered with the exception of Jess McLemore, whose brother Nighthawk McLemore perished.
Jess sustained critical illness with bronchial pneumonia from the fire.
The other boys, the newspaper reported, were able to be about as usual.
The newspaper described the building which housed the boys to be 40x90 feet and had only been erected three years prior to the fire. It was heated with a furnace and wood was used as fuel.
“It is the opinion of the school authorities that a stick of burning wood rolled upon the floor and fired the building,” The Westville Record reported in their paper.
Rumors and Stories Circulate Following Fire
There have been stories of why the 50 boys were sleeping inside of the screened in porch on one of the coldest nights in January.
It might explain why one paper reported “Many parents were mad as they attempted to identify the charred remains of the 13 boys. Since none could be identified, the 13 victims were buried in one grave which is located near the central area of the cemetery on Dwight Mission grounds.
One person, who did not wish to be identified, but who had spent much time at Dwight Mission, said stories that revolved around the incident were that the boys were sleeping in the screened in boxed area because they were being punished by a teacher for acting up during rehearsal for the school's annual play. He said the teacher had experienced much guilt after the incident and reportedly hung herself on the top floor of the main office building which was a part of the old orphanage.
He also said her rocking chair where they found her is still there.
Since the incident happened, there was another fire which destroyed the girls dormitory. After that, the dormitories that were rebuilt were made of rock.
A publication provided by Rebecca McCoy, who works for Dwight Mission's business office, reports in 1924, five years after the “disastrous series of fires,” the new buildings were formally dedicated with fireproof dormitories of native stone.