Burney Academy
Near Lebanon, Marshall County, Oklahoma



The historical marker reminds us that Burney Institute was authorized by the Chickasaw Council in 1854.

CHICKASAW NATION.--An Arrangement has been consummated for the establishing of a high school for girls in this Nation, under the control of the Board. Rev. R. S. Bell, of Searcy, Ark., is the superintendent. The Board look to this school with much interest, and believe it will be a powerful auxiliary in elevating and christianizing the Chickasaw people.

[Source: Report of the Board of Missions in The Minutes of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1860, pages 45]

Atop a small knoll, Burney Institute. Here, a school for 40 Chickasaw girls opened in the spring of 1859,
under the direction of Rev. Robert Bell

Burney Academy rediscovered

A significant chapter in our history was found
by Claude Gilbert, Director of Indian Work

For many years I had heard of an old Indian school which was still standing somewhere along the Red River. I also knew the Cumberland Presbyterian Church had built and operated a school somewhere in the Chickasaw nation before the Civil War. However, as all the antebellum structures in Oklahoma could be counted on one hand, I had serious doubts that this could be the old Burney Academy.

Last fall I packed an extra pair of jeans and a clean shirt, took my pickup and drove west 150 miles, then south to the Red River. I was surprised to find a small town in Marshall County named Lebanon, Oklahoma. The familiar name suggested I was near the place I was seeking.

I could not find a single Chickasaw Indian in the area, and several residents of the town knew nothing of an old school. After inquiring of perhaps a dozen people, an elderly gentleman told me there was an old Indian school in pasture about two miles from the small town and gave me general directions.

On Highway 32 I found a historical marker, stating that the site of Burney Institute was south of the area. Traveling along a rough dirt road, I came to a broken-down cattle guard which had large signs on either side warning. "No Trespassing." Carefully crossing the cattle guard, looking straight ahead so as not to see the signs too clearly, I followed a deeply rutted road which wound over the rolling landscape. I reached the top of a small knoll, and there it was; Burney Institute. The beautiful old building, two stories high, was covered with a heavy metal roof. The great, arched doorway and the large pair of windows on the upper floor somehow reminded me of a giant jack-o-lantern. Fifty yards to the left was a large frame house, a mesh-wire fence surrounded the neatly kept front lawn.

I parked in front of the gate, got out, and called out "hello" several times without response. Finally, carefully checking for dogs, I opened the gate, crossed the yard to the large porch, and knocked on the front door several times. Still no response. I then went around the house to the back gate. There I could see a large barn about one hundred yards away. In front of the barn stood an elderly man, attempting to untangle a large pile of rusty barbed wire and secure it in a roll. He didn't see me. I first thought to simply retrace my steps, snap some pictures of the old mission, and be on my way. However, I learned a long time ago, in Oklahoma the old-timers had much rather see you approach unannounced than to see you leaving the same way, I yelled "hello." He continued working with the tangled wire, not looking up. I noisily opened the back gate, cleared my throat several times, and had taken perhaps fifty steps in the direction of the barn when I suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Two large black dogs burst from their place in the shade of the barn. with fierce barking and teeth flashing, they were covering the distance between us in ten-foot bounds. The old man looked up, I looked back at the gate, and realized once again that I had gone too far. With great self-discipline, I stood perfectly still, at least from the waist up, for I had attempted to outrun dogs before, and knew it couldn't be done. The old man continued in his place, and worse yet, remained silent. The dogs were within ten feet of me and I had all but exhausted my ability to control my feet, when the sound of "heaw" came from the old man's throat. The dogs slid to a halt, then circled me, snapping their teeth and growling from deep within. Another command from the old man and the dogs reluctantly trotted back in his direction, stopping occasionally to turn around and snarl fiercely in my direction.

The old man continued his task, I slowly began walking in his direction. Immediately the dogs again lurched toward me. A quick command from their master sent them back to their shade.

As I reached my host, he still refused to look up, continuing the difficult task with the wire. I announced myself. "My name in Claude Gilbert, I am Director of Indian Work for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church," I explained. "It was our church that built the Old Mission." He was not impressed. "What do you want," he asked, ignoring my extended hand. I explained I wished to take some pictures of the old building as the Mission was important to us.

Continuing with his work, he simply answered "No," and then grumbled about a reporter who was there some time ago who had printed a picture in the Daily Oklahoman. It brought dozens of people here, he complained, one walked directly through his garden, several had attempted to remove the barriers from across the door of the old mission. They climbed his fences, breaking wire and pulling down posts. "You a reporter?" he asked. I again told him who I was, and assured him I did not wish to put the pictures in a newspaper, or cause unwanted intruders on his place.

At this point I had concluded he would not allow me to take the pictures. I had decided to use a telephoto lens and snap some pictures as I drove back toward the highway.

Suddenly the old fellow came to the end of one of the wires, he tightly wound the small roll he was holding, threw it down and walked to a water faucet which had an old handle dipper hooked to a wire on the valve. Filling the dipper with water, he offered me a drink, which I took and thanked him. He then drank, turned and dashed a half dipper of water into one of the dogs' face. The dog yelped, jumped back, then looked at me and growled. I felt a need to explain to the dog that it wasn't me, but doubted he would believe me.

The old man then returned to his pile of rusty wire, found a loose end and began working with it. "Go ahead," he said, "and take your pictures. Be sure and shut the gate."

[Source: The Missionary Messenger, May 1981, pages 2-3]

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Page Last Updated on 22 August, 2003