A Brief Talk On Choctaw History
(at Thanksgiving, 1976)
From Hello Choctaw, December 1, 1976 Page 2
By Chief David Gardner
Perhaps our earliest childhood memory of holidays is the traditional picture of early American settlers and Indians gathered around a bountiful table to feast in celebration of a year of survival in an alien wilderness. A vast amount of time has passed since the story of these white settlers of America unfolded. But there is another story, perhaps not so well known, of a group of settlers who faced many of the same problems the pilgrims did and whose story is not as well known, nor can it be. because it was never completely documented by the historian. These settlers do not have a moving portrait of their first step on the rock-strewn coast of New England and the famous Plymouth Rock. These settlers had no rock on which to stand. What they had was a river they must bridge and a wilderness they must tame before they could call again the place they lived their home. And these people faced many of the adversities of the early American pioneers - the hunger, the loneliness, the crippling illnesses of their loved ones and their ultimate death - and their story is truly a story of American history. I am speaking about the 60,000 Indians who were removed from the southern states of Mississippi and Alabama to their new homes in a vast wilderness west of the Mississippi River on land now known as the state of Oklahoma. These were the Cherokee, the Creek, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw and the Seminole Indians, who were known in the early 1800s as the Five Civilized Tribes - a name which the group bears to this day. Through close association, living side by side with white settlers, these Indians mastered many of the arts of the more numerous white men and along with his culture, they also learned some of the white man’s vices. Our interest and attention will be focused on the Choctaw Tribe of these people.
If the Choctaws were to be compared with other Indian tribes of the time, they would be described as of peaceful character and friendly disposition. They were dependent on agriculture in these early days and held a tremendous enjoyment for games, particularly stick-ball, and social gatherings. They were by nature a mild, quiet, and kindly people, practical minded and adaptable rather than strong and independent and fierce.
Prior to their removal to Oklahoma territory, the Choctaws had lived for almost three centuries among the white people. They found themselves under the rule of the Spanish, Great Britain, the French, and lastly, the U.S. Colonies. Oftentimes during the rule of these governments they were obliged to take warlike roles and stand beside whoever their parent country might be at the time. During all these periods the Choctaws were not only the victims, but the pupils of the white man’s diplomacy.
But the Indians were astute. They realized that if they were to survive in the white man’s world, which inevitably it appeared they must, education must be secured for them and for their children. They knew that missionaries would be allowed to come among them if they petitioned the government, so early in the 1800s these letters of request were answered by the emigration of numerous missionaries from the New England states. All the Indian tribes had been introduced to Christianity in the 1700s when missionaries from the Catholic church came among them. The Catholics were not too successful, but the Protestants who were to follow in the early 1820s began to convert the Indians. The Indians initial support of these Protestant missionaries was not religious, but it was an educational and economic interest. The missionaries established an effective system of schools for the Indians, and in this interest they received encouragement from the government.
When these missionaries first moved among the Choctaw people, they found a large majority living in one room cabins made of split logs chinked together with a combination of mud and grass. A center opening in the roof allowed the smoke from wood fires to escape. The only furnishings were generally a crude bed about 12 inches from the dirt floor which served as table, chair and bed. For the most part, these were agricultural people and their fields were generally small and poorly cultivated. Many families suffered from want of food. Their diets mainly consisted of three main staples and the loss of any one of these due to drought or bad crops would leave the people open to malnutrition and related illnesses. These were a quick people, eager to learn, and they made dramatic advances. By 1820, many were extremely wealthy, owning extensive heads of cattle and numerous slaves. They raised cotton which they carded, spun, and wove into clothes. But in proportion as they improved in culture, wealth, and enterprise, the white man coveted their land and encouraged their removal.
Naturally, this kept the Indians in a constant state of confusion and insecurity. Treaty after treaty was made and the Indian found himself pushed further and further westward. It was a sad time for the Indians. They knew the time was fast approaching when they must be removed from their homeland entirely and placed in the wilderness west of the Mississippi River. They, like their Puritan brothers, were being forced by circumstances over which they had little control to remove their families to a strange and alien land - a desolate wilderness. Behind them they must leave the bones of their beloved ancestors, their small homes, their cattle and livestock. Ahead of them lay an unknown land to which they would travel with few leaders of their race among them.
During these years the Indians found themselves pulled in many directions. Everyone it seemed, wanted to have a hand in shaping their destiny. In 1829 the Mississippi legislature provided for a state law over the Choctaws and on January 29, 1830. the Indians were granted Mississippi citizenship, which naturally abolished the Choctaw government and put them under penalty of fine and imprisonment should any Indian be found who exercised the office of chief or other post of power.
The missionaries were quick to note that the Choctaws would be better off away from the demoralizing contacts with the white people. They were particularly attuned to the fact that liquor served no good, and they were particularly faced with this problem when they came under Mississippi rule. Prior to that time the General Council of the Choctaw Nation had outlawed the traffic in liquor in the entire Nation. The Choctaws thus seem to have been the first people in our country to enact a “prohibition law”.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 negotiated the removal of the Indians to Oklahoma territory. It provided each Choctaw head of family a choice -the opportunity of remaining in Mississippi where he might select an allotment of land and become a citizen or moving on to Oklahoma Territory. About 7,000 elected to stay, and against their wishes the others agreed to the terms to move, believing as past experience had taught them that it would only be a matter of time before they were forced to move anyway - and in fact this did actually happen although a remnant of the original Choctaws still remain in Mississippi.
Thus the first Indians began their removal as early as October, 1830, although the main removal was to occur during the years 1831, 32, and 33. It was a 350 mile journey. Most of the territory covered was wild and unsettled. It was not uncommon for the emigrants to walk for half a day through waist high water in a swamp.
Little has been documented about this transfer of human beings from one domain to another. It was properly known as the Trail of Tears. Death followed every step. When they arrived at their destination, few of their elders had survived the trip. They were a bewildered, dirty, bedraggled and ill group when they arrived. After all they had been through together, it was natural when this first group settled they would choose to remain close together for comfort. They settled along the river bottoms in what is now McCurtain and Choctaw counties. Through the streams and woods and mountains of this beautiful, wild country, roads and trails were established and settlements sprang up.
The shock of the removal appeared to be over, but in 1833 there was a vast amount of rain and illness swept over the settlements. About 600 died as a result of fever following the flood. No home was left untouched by death. Cattle and livestock were lost. Crops were ruined. The Indians again faced the confusion and uncertainty they had lived with for many years in Mississippi. Many families were left completely homeless and destitute for food. Some went for a week, ten days, even two weeks without meat or bread. The settlements were plagued with illness and death. Chickasaws arriving in the Choctaw Nation in 1838 brought an epidemic of smallpox which quickly spread throughout the Nation. Particularly hard hit were the people who lived along the Arkansas River where the pox caused the deaths of 400 to 500 Choctaws. Added to these problems were prairie and forest fires which devastated the property and bands of hostile Indians who roamed the country and continued to disturb their peace.
During these trying years, their leaders were not completely at a loss to bring some order to the people. They built up a comprehensive law code out of a curious mixture of English law and savage customs. Use of lighthorsemen as policemen was their first formal law enforcement agency. Through the use of lighthorsemen they accepted the principle that law enforcement was a matter of tribal concern rather than of private revenge. When they began to modify their ancient customs by decision of their warriors in council, they recognized the legislative character of their legal code. They established a system of courts and adopted jury trial and their General Council became strictly a law making body in the Anglo-American sense. They adopted several constitutions after moving to their new homeland. They built a commodious council house near the present site of Tuskahoma, the Nation’s capitol, and there was held the first tribal council meeting in 1838.
Another thing all the tribes realized was the need to live together in peace and harmony. So in 1835 they met and a pact was agreed upon between the Osages, Comanches, Wichitas, and other native tribes and the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws. In truth, the Choctaws felt, and probably with good reason, that they had lost their national identity through this consolidation of tribes.
Most of the missionaries had journeyed west with the Indians and they were a constant source of encouragement. As early as 1833, they worked toward establishing schools in the new territory. At first the schools did not enjoy too much success. It was not because the Indian pupils were not as quick to learn as they might be, but because their families were in such poor states of near starvation that schooling was of little importance to them. In the summer they were needed to help on the farm, in the winter there was scarcely enough clothing to cover their bodies. And there was never enough food for them to have a meal at school.
But this did not always remain the same. Gradually as things became better for the Choctaws, they again turned their interest to education. They eagerly attended all of the graduation exercises of the students, making an outing of the occasion and camping out during the examination periods which sometimes lasted as long as twenty hours. The adult Choctaws were most interested in learning and they found it very easy to learn to read Choctaw. Before they had been in their new home a generation, the Choctaws, became, at least as far as their, own language was concerned, a literate people.
During the Civil War period, all the schools in the Choctaw Nation were closed and again the Indians found themselves forced into a war. They sided with the Confederacy probably because so many of the people owned slaves. But by 1867 the schools began to open one by one. During the winter of 1869, it was reported an enrollment of 1764 students in Choctaw Nation schools and this did not include those in schools in the “states” – that is Kentucky and elsewhere. Many of the teachers were not properly qualified to teach, but the students seemed to learn under them.
The missionaries served the Choctaw people faithfully. Gradually. the old guard who had carried the burden of the Indian missionary work so many years began to lay down their arms. The names which had emerged as foremost in assisting the Choctaws and developing them into Christians were: Kingsbury, Copeland, Byington, and Stark. The decade ending in 1870 saw the passing of these veterans who had worked tirelessly with the Indian people. But other missionaries were to take their place and continue to serve the people. The Choctaw Nation had been influenced by Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other denominational groups and all had strived toward one goal - the birth of a Nation in Oklahoma Territory. These servants of God had not only brought Christianity to the people, but they had encouraged education and formed many schools for the training of Indian youth. They had assisted the Indians in their political renewal and had constantly been their friend. Is it not surprising then that religion still remains an important part of the Choctaws daily life; that religion remains such a simple thing with the people. It is not something which is shown by the way they dress, by the houses in which they live, by the cars they drive or by the food they eat. But it is shown in the very simplicity of their worship for a higher Power, Chitokaka. And as we stand and sit here today celebrating another Thanksgiving we must remember the past history of your people and my people that has brought us together in this one place to give thanks to this one God for the blessings that are ours, for the future that belongs to our children, and for the heritage that makes us strong and steadfast.
On average the relations between the Choctaw and the various European powers were friendly. This friendly relationship came to an abrupt halt when the United States came into sole possession of the region, and, hungry for land adopted an imperialistic attitude toward the Choctaw.
Beginning in 1786 with the Treaty of Hopewell, the United State’s intentions were made clear. This treaty was the first attempt by the U.S. to establish hegemony over the Choctaw and it required the return of escaped slaves, turning over of any Choctaws whom had been convicted of crimes by the U.S., and the return any property, which had been captured during the Revolutionary War. The treaty is even more arrogant in tone when consider that up until 1798, the territory occupied by the Choctaws was technically Spanish. As soon as Spain ceded the region, U. S. began enforcing the Treaty of Hopewell.
Actual loss of Choctaw land began a scant three years later with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Adams in 1801. This treaty strengthened the Treaty of Hopewell, directed the construction of a wagon road called the Natchez Trace and “compensated” the Choctaw $2000 in trade goods and three sets of blacksmithing tools for 2.5 million acres of land referred to as the “Old Natchez District”.
Further treaties in 1803 and 1805 (The Treaty of Hoe Buckintoopa and the Treaty of Mount Dexter) resulted in the loss of an additional 850,000 and 4.1 million acres in exchange for a small cash payment to be applied to the accrued debt the Choctaw had built up with certain traders, a $3000 annual payment to the tribe and some manufactured goods.
With the urging of Mississippi, which became a state in 1817, and despite the service the Choctaw provided the U.S. in the War of 1812 (including fighting alongside Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans), the first small step toward full-fledged removal came in 1820 with the Treaty of Doaks Stand. The Choctaw agreed to cede 13 million acres of land in exchange for land in what is now Arkansas. Any Choctaw wishing to relocate was given provisions: a blanket, a rifle, bullet molds, and ammo and corn for one year. The remaining Choctaw land in Mississippi was to remain autonomous, under Choctaw control until “said Nation shall become so civilized and enlightened to be made citizens of the United States…” and was to be provided with schools, a police force, and individual pensions for its inhabitants. Due to the presence of settlers in the promised territory, however, this treaty was not finalized until 1825, at which time the Choctaw had a government based on a constitution of their own design, a court system and their own police force.
Despite the relatively generous terms of this treaty, immediately after its passage the Mississippi state government declared the Choctaw government, and all its laws, void and branded its officials outlaws. The Federal Government, which was dominated by southerners at the time, rather than honor the Treaty of Doaks Stand and redress the wrongs committed by Mississippi, chose to do nothing until 1830.
In 1830 the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act, which was to affect all southeastern Native Americans, and immediately followed it up with the Choctaw specific Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. To this day there is a tombstone-like marker at Dancing Rabbit Creek to commemorate the signing.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek abrogated all previous agreements and called for the removal of all Choctaw from their remaining ancestral lands to reservations in what was to eventually become Oklahoma by 1833, though each individual had the option of accepting a parcel of land and remaining in Mississippi. However, the price of doing this was the loss of Choctaw identity and the acceptance of U.S. and Mississippi citizenship.
The First removal began in October of 1831 with 4000 Choctaw being transported on foot and by wagons to the Mississippi then west on steamboats. Due to poor planning and bad weather, however, the river leg of the journey was shortened and the Choctaw were forced to walk much farther than had been planned. Most of the first wave didn’t arrive, tired and ill, in Oklahoma until March 1832. The second wave contained 550 Choctaw and was much more harsh. Due to cost overruns encountered in the first removal, the second wave was required to walk most of the way, was provided with fewer rations and was hit by a cholera outbreak while en route. Having heard about the travails of the first two removal efforts, only about 800 Choctaw showed up for the third and final trek. This final wave went relatively smoothly and concluded the removal effort even though almost 6000 Choctaw remained in Mississippi to take advantage of the promise of land.
So many of those who remained were cheated out of their land by corrupt officials of the state and local governments that in 1842 the Federal government was once again forced to intercede. This time in a slightly less unfriendly way. Choctaw who had been lost their land were reimbursed, but only if they relocated to their new land in Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. As a result of this fresh round of removal only 3000 Choctaw remained in Mississippi.