A Letter from Maggie Leonard

John Thiesen

The Mennonite Library and Archives recently received a box of papers of Heinrich H. Epp (1857-1933), who was a minister in the Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska, for many decades and elder of the congregation 1910-1924. As I unpacked the box, a folded-up document caught my attention when I noticed the signature “Maggie Leonard, Mennonite Mission, Darlington, Ind. Terr.”

Margaret/Maggie Leonard, first person baptized at Darlington, Oklahoma, mission in 1888; this photo probably taken while she was attending school in Halstead, Kansas (Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas)

Maggie Leonard was the first person baptized in the mission work conducted by the General Conference Mennonite Church among Cheyenne and Arapaho at Darlington and Cantonment in what is today Oklahoma. She was baptized in 1888, but did not come from the two groups among whom the Mennonites were working. Her father Joseph Leonard was white (likely an Indian agency employee) and her mother was Caddo. (Maggie Leonard is listed as Caddo in the 1900 census). She also attended the Indian Industrial School at Halstead, Kansas, run by Christian Krehbiel, and also the Mennonite Seminary (teacher training school) at Halstead (during 1890-1892).

This is the text of the document:

What I learned on my trip to Kansas.

When we went to Kansas I was very glad. And I learned some things that I did not know before.

I learned how to milk a little but not quite good enough yet. And that we must clean the yard every Saturday or at any time when it is dirty around the house. And I learnt how to play some games that I did not know before, and how they dry apples, cherries, peaches etc. And I learned how they put they prepare <sic> pickles for Winter. I learned something about the railroad I did not know it could run so fast, and that so many people could be in it at the same time. And I even saw a great many cattle in the train. I saw how the people thrash grain. I think it is nice to look at the thrashing machine when it is working. And I know how the people spend their Sundays. They always go to church. I wonder how many of you likes to go to church. I think it is nice to go to church or to Sunday Schools. I learned how they can make milk into clabber in a short while by putting rennet in it and then from the clabber they make cheese. I learned how they prepare can fruits. And I know how they water the flowers with a pump and it has a long rubber pipe fastened to it. And the person who waters the flowers and the grass, takes it and waters whatever he wants to water. And I know now how the large cities look and the hotels & stores, and the large streets. And I know many more German people than I would if I stayed here. I saw how they work on their farms & orchards. I think it is nicer to live on farm than to live in a large city. Because there is so much noise in the large cities and it may happen sometime that the city might catch fire and then may be the inhabitants that live in the city might have to burn up. And I also saw some large bridges, some are for the wagons to go over, and some are for the train. When the train goes over the bridge, it makes very much noise. Now I am very glad that I went to Kansas. I would not know so much now if I did not go there.

Maggie Leonard.
Mennonite Mission.
Darlington Ind. Terr.

It is unclear if she is describing her time in the Halstead schools or whether she had made a trip to Kansas before that already.

Maggie Leonard did not retain formal ties to the Mennonites after her baptism. Sometime in the early 1890s she married someone named Garen and had a son. In 1898 she married a widower, John David Downing, and they had 7 more children. Downing was apparently a prominent rancher and Freemason in Grady County, Oklahoma. He is listed as Cherokee in the 1900 census. He died in 1923. (see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53563566/john-david-downing).

Margaret Downing did keep some personal contacts with Mennonites over the years. In March 1936, Missionary News and Notes, the publication of the Women’s Missionary Association of the General Conference Mennonite Church, included this note:

Last week Mrs. Goerz received a letter from Mrs. Margaret Downing–nee Maggie Leonard. Some of the older readers will remember that she, then 17 years old was the first Indian who accepted Christ and was baptized in our Mission at Darlington on June 3rd, 1888. Rev. H. R. Voth was the missionary stationed there then. Later Maggie came to Krehbieltown, at Halstead, Kansas and during that time she attended the Mennonite Seminary at Halstead. She has been married twice, is mother of eight children–three girls and five boys–all living. At present she is keeping house for her youngest son who is in the government service as clerk in the Jicarilla Indian Agency at Dulce, New Mexico.

Mrs. Goerz was Martha Krehbiel Goerz, Mrs. Rudolph A. Goerz, a daughter of Christian Krehbiel. She was an editor of the Missionary News and Notes. Martha Goerz may well have been acquainted with Maggie Leonard already from her Halstead school days.

Margaret Downing returned to her home territory towards the end of her life. Here’s the death notice from the Chickasha Daily Express, Aug. 14, 1966, p. 3. (see also https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/25408163/margaret-l-downing)

Funeral services were held Thursday in Arcadia for Mrs. Margaret Downing, 97, who died Aug. 2 in Oklahoma City. Mr. and Mrs. Downing were early ranchers north of Verden. Surviving children are: Mrs. Thelma Moring, Mrs. Pearl Dennero, Mrs. Rena Topatche, Ernest and John Downing, all of Oklahoma City; and Eden Downing, of California.

A major unanswered question is, how did Maggie Leonard’s early handwritten account of a visit to Kansas end up in the possession of Heinrich H. Epp in Henderson, Nebraska? He was not a member of the General Conference mission board; there is no indication he ever visited Darlington, nor that Maggie Leonard ever visited Henderson. The link between the two persons remains a mystery.

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