A’AGA Something to be told or talked about

By Billy Allen 



Cook Memorial Church, the historical edifice in our community that was destroyed in April, anchored many O’otham and Piipaash adapting to a changing world. We know its loss was lamentable. At times Cook’s ministry met some resistance.  What do we know of that man who wore some many hats- US veteran, teacher, store keeper, surveyor, musician, O’otham speaker?


Charles Koch was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1856.  He enlisted in the United States Calvary in 1857.  While serving in New Mexico territory, Koch received injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life. When discharged, Koch “Americanized” his name to Cook.  Back in New York, he joined the New York Light Artillery in 1864, reaching corporal rank. In New York, a Presbyterian minister’s teachings so moved Cook that he vowed to devote himself to Christianity.  When his enlistment was up in 1865, Cook moved to Chicago.  Chicago had a need for change: crowded slums, a burgeoning immigrant population, factory worker exploitation, a huge gap between the rich and poor.  (Maybe not so different to modern day Chicago?) Mr. Cook was put in charge of the Halstead Street Mission, one of many “settlement houses” in Chicago. Settlement houses opened their doors to the down and out; to the newly-arrived; provided social services, and pushed for social change.  While in Chicago, Cook’s interest in Native America was sparked when he read a letter about the need for religious and educational work among the O’otham.


With no personal or church funds to ease his travel, Cook began a trek –walking—to Arizona. He set out on September 1870 and arrived at the Pima Agency on December 23, 1870.  In preparation to serve our community, Cook learned O’otham from Louis Morago.   Cook opened the first school on February 15, 1871. A rock monument west of present-day Sacaton, alongside the Casa Blanca Highway, marks the location of the school.  Those children/a’al scholars spoke English with a German accent, echoing Cook’s pronunciations. (Ja, I sure know that!) He wrote, "Some thirty-five scholars and some chiefs and parents were present; the children behaved well on the whole and showed some aptness to learn.” In September, 1878, Cook resigned from the school to devote more time to missionary work. He worked at Charles T. Hayden’s store at Gila Buttes. As noted, there was some resistance.  Cook closed the store on Sundays to hold religious services. But a group of O’otham threatened to tie Cook to a tree to use him as a target unless the store was reopened on Sundays.  Mr. Cook replied if the store was opened, O’otham would have to buy things to make opening the store worthwhile. Upon hearing this, the O’otham left because they knew it was best not to anger the man who would be buying their wheat crop later. Another Vah ki group wanted to eliminate Cook, and when they arrived and saw the family kneeling in prayer, they thought the family was afraid. The O’otham left, feeling they had proven their point. Once he took a’al on a picnic and a group of O’otham horsemen decided to scare Cook. They galloped towards him, and at the last moment, turned their horses to avoid running into him. When one of the instigators, who happened to be blind, was told how Cook stood his ground, he converted to Christianity.


In 1880, Cook was hired as a surveyor and interpreter to assist the government in laying new irrigation ditches. The O’otham and Piipaash came under the influence of the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church. (Earlier the government had assigned religious denominations to work among the Indian tribes.)  Mr. Cook became an ordained Presbyterian minister on April 8, 1881.

Reverend Cook wanted an improved economy for O’otham and Piipaash. At the time, he wanted boys to learn about cattle and horse raising, modern farming, become engineers, run businesses. However a lifetime of injuries were beginning to take their toll on Reverend Cook and realized he needed help. Dirk Lay arrived to assist Reverend Cook and intended to stay for one year but wound up here/i:ya much longer. His story will be continued next.     

Information was taken from A History of the Presbyterian Work Among the Pima and Papago Indians of Arizona by John M. Hamilton.