Choctaw Removal Was Really a “Trail of Tears”
Reprinted in Mar. 1995 Bishinik, p. 4
By Len Green
After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, George Gaines was named by Secretary of War Lewis Coss as general supervisor for the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi to what is now southern Oklahoma. Gaines determined that the best, method of handling the removal was to move about one-third of the Choctaws per year in each of the years 1831, 1832 and 1833. Gaines set removal of the first one-third of the Choctaws to begin on November 1, 1831.
The Choctaws moving from Ahi Apet Okla and northern Okla Falaya were to be gathered at Memphis, Tenn., and those from Okla Hannali and southern Okla Falaya were to be gathered at Vicksburg, Miss. Across the river from Memphis and Vicksburg, Capt. Jacob Brown, removal agent west of the Mississippi, had been ordered to secure wagons, oxen, horses and supplies to take the Choctaws west.
Secretary Coss had named George Gibson as removal agent east of the great river, and Gibson had acted as the “peacemaker” standing between general agent George Gaines and Francis Armstrong, who were long standing enemies. Gibson convinced Gaines to serve only in a general supervisory capacity while Gibson would supervise the gathering of the Choctaws at Memphis and Armstrong would be in charge of getting the southern Choctaws to Vicksburg.
The Choctaws were allowed the first two weeks of October to gather their crops, assemble their personal property and sell their houses and chattels, so that they could be at the two ferry points on Nov. 1, 1831. Because of the urging of the state of Mississippi, the Choctaws were ordered to leave all of their livestock in Mississippi and promised that they would be furnished new livestock when they reached the “Choctaw Nation in the West.”
In the meantime, the newly created Bureau of Indian Affairs, not to be left out of the act, came up with a new wrinkle. The BIA said it would offer special incentives to any Choctaw willing to walk to the new land. Each Indian who decided to walk would be paid $10 in gold, given a new rifle and three-month supply of powder and ammunition, be fed along the way and be furnished with a qualified guide to lead them to the new land. Approximately 300 of the Choctaws decided that the BIA plan was the way to go. There was “one fly in the ointment” though. The “guide” hired by Capt. Brown, whose name is (probably fortunately) lost to history, was not the expert on the west he represented himself to be to Capt. Brown.
Beginning in mid-October, Gibson and Armstrong began sending Army wagons through the three Mississippi districts, gathering up the Indian families who would travel west in the first year of the migration. Thus, during the final week of October, encampments of Choctaws began to spring up all around the outskirts of Memphis and Vicksburg, with the population of these encampments growing daily.
And, along with the Choctaws came something else. . RAIN! These heavy rains came and stayed, flooding the Mississippi, St. Francis, White, Arkansas and Big Fork (Ouachita) Rivers, turning the river valleys into quagmires.
A quick conference between George Gaines and his principal removal agents revealed that the floods would make the roads impassable so that there was no way the Choctaws could be taken west from the Mississippi by wagon as originally planned. This left only one alternative - to make the removal by steamboat. With the government having already cancelled its order for such boats, the Choctaws had to wait while new boats were rounded up. Finally, Gaines and his crew were able to round up five steamboats, the Walter Scott, the Brandywine, the Reindeer, the Talma and the Cleopatra, the latter three being smaller steamers with less passenger capacity. And, while the boats gathered, the Choctaws had to wait outside Memphis and Vicksburg. They soon ate up all of the available rations, as Gaines had anticipated a Nov. 1 start and had not furnished any additional food for contingencies.
Already uneasy with “all those injuns” camped just outside of town, residents of Vicksburg and Memphis soon found themselves facing food shortages and battling profiteers for the available foodstuffs. To make matters worse, as the steamers began to gather, one of the two larger boats, the Brandywine, caught fire while moored at Memphis and was so badly damaged that it could not be used in the operation. This left the Reindeer and Walter Scott available at Memphis and the Talma and Cleopatra available at Vicksburg.
The 300 Choctaws who had “taken the bait” on the offer to walk were ferried across the Mississippi on the Reindeer, and there turned over to the guides who would lead them to the new land. George Gaines and his agents determined that the Choctaws at Memphis would be taken by steamboat up the Arkansas River to Little Rock or Fort Smith, and from there by wagon on into their new territory. And, the Choctaws waiting at Vicksburg would be taken down the Mississippi to the Red River, up the Red to Big Fork (Ouachita) and up that river to Ecore a’ Fabre (which by this time was also beginning to be known as John Camden’s Post and would later become Camden, Ark.) and hauled by wagon from there to Fort Towson.
There were approximately 2,000 Choctaws at Memphis. Sometime in mid November they were crammed aboard the Walter Scott and Reindeer and dispatched up the Arkansas River toward their new homeland. But, at Arkansas Post, which was only about 60 miles up the Arkansas from the Mississippi, the Army halted the steam-boats, said they needed them to transport a new detachment to Fort Smith, and unloaded all of the Choctaws.
Following the floods, a blizzard was setting in with strong, cold northerly winds, snow and sleet dancing across the landscape. Most of the Choctaws were scantily clad, with some of the children naked. And, all the small military detachment at Arkansas Post could offer were 60 small army tents to help shelter the more than 2,000 Choctaws from the freezing storm. Rations were in very short supply, as Arkansas Post had not expected to find itself playing host to 2,000 cold and hungry Choctaws, so strict rationing had to be imposed. And, despite this fact, within a few days most of the rations were gone. By the time help arrived, both the Choctaw and the soldier were receiving a ration of one handful of boiled or parched corn, one turnip and two cups of heated water per day.
To make matters worse, the temperature remained below the freezing mark for six days, and the Arkansas River become so clogged with ice that the Reindeer and Walter Scott were iced in at Fort Smith and could not make it back down river to Arkansas Post. After eight days, 40 government wagons were sent to Arkansas Post from Little Rock to begin relaying the Choctaws on to Fort Smith, fortunately bringing food and blankets to the starving soldiers, many of whom had already frozen to death or died of pneumonia.
When the first wagons reached Little Rock, a famous term that would eventually burn itself into history was born. In an interview with an Arkansas Gazette reporter, one of the Choctaw Chiefs (thought to be either Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi) was quoted as saying that the removal to that point had been a “trail of tears and death.” The “trail of tears” quotation was picked up by the eastern press and widely quoted. It soon become a term analogous with the removal of any Indian tribe and was later burned into the American language by the brutal removal of the Cherokees in 1838.
In the meantime, steaming from Vicksburg, the Talma and Cleopatra, with some 3,000 Choctaws aboard moved up the Red to the Big Fork and up that river as for as Monroe, La. They were halted at Monroe with the tale of what had happened to the 300 Choctaws who had decided to “hoof it” to the new land. Led off by the path by their incompetent guide and then caught in the blizzard, the walking party had become lost in the Lake Providence swamps. A rescue party from Monroe Was dispatched to locate what remained of the lost Indians and bring them the 60 remaining miles into Monroe.
But, at Monroe, the Talma developed engine problems and was forced to off-load all of the Choctaws and their supplies there, from where they would be ferried in groups on up the Big Fork to Ecore a’ Fabre by the Cleopatra. However, while waiting at Monroe for the Cleopatra to take them on up river, the Choctaws did not fare as badly as had their fellow Indians who had been kicked off the steamers at Arkansas Post. The residents of Monroe had good supplies of corn, dried beans, pumpkins and onions on hand, sharing them freely, and there were woods enough to provide some shelter from the storm. On its final trip from Monroe to Ecore a’ Fabre, the Cleopatra took the remainder of the 300 Indians who had decided to walk along with the lost group of Choctaws in the removal.
But, the Choctaws who had traveled the southern route had not missed the privations and troubles that harassed the entire 1831 removal party. Their troubles were just beginning. Either through a breakdown in communications or ill-advised and lazy removal agents, very few preparations had been made to care for the Choctaws after their arrival at Ecore a’ Fabre. Not expecting 3,000 Choctaws, the removal agents had not purchased enough rations, and there were only a dozen Army wagons available to escort the Choctaws the remaining 150 miles plus to the boundaries of their new territory. This meant that only the tiniest children and the most elderly, ill or infirm among the Choctaws could be transported by wagon. Any Choctaw who was able to stand and place one foot in front of the other was forced to walk. Despite their assurances of cooperation to George Gaines, the Arkansas farmers along the route, realizing how short supplies for the Choctaws were, demanded $2 per bushel for their corn and tripled or quadrupled the price of any meat or animals they had to sell.
To make matters even worse, the white man’s diseases, particularly dysentery, diphtheria and typhoid raged among the Choctaws as they dragged themselves slowly westward toward their promised land. Progress was extremely slow as halts to bury their dead or tend their illnesses come often. The leaders of the escort party did not know the routes they were to follow and constantly held up the party as they studied maps or consulted residents of the area. As a result of the sickness, deaths and pauses caused by the escort, it took almost three months for the Choctaws to drag themselves the 150 miles from Ecore a’ Fabre to the new land.
Upon reaching Mountain Fork River, one group of Choctaws halted and established a “town”, which they would come to call Eagle (later to become old Eagletown). Others moved southward and settled in the area around the burned site of the old Miller County, Ark., courthouse. Still others traveled on westward to settle near Fort Towson, and still others went on a few miles southwestward to “Horse Prairie”, a site settled by the Rev. Alexander Tolley and the 400 Choctaws who had voluntarily left Mississippi in 1830.
Thus by April 1, 1832, all of the Choctaws who had remained alive through the first removal were located in their new homeland, as those who traveled the northern route settled principally not far from Fort Smith, calling their main town “skullyville” (“skully” is a Choctaw word for money and the “ville” is English meaning village or town). Counting the party that had come in advance, by April 1 of 1832, of approximately 6,000 Choctaws who had started out from Mississippi in the fall of 1831, only slightly more than 4,000 remained alive. Military records from Little Rock indicate that in April of 1832, some 536 Indians received rations at Skullyville and 3,749 rations were issued at Fort Towson, Eagle, Miller Courthouse and Horse Prairie. This means that at the end of the first migration, 4,285 Choctaws were alive and had survived, including the approximately 400 “sooners.” In brief, more than 2,000 had died along the way … and there were two more years of removal to go.
From the near disaster of the 1831 removal, one might think George Gaines and his removal agents should have learned something, and have been able to improve conditions on subsequent removals. But, improper planning, white man’s diseases and mother nature were again to turn the 1832 removal into a debacle of death and disaster for the Choctaws. Despite the fact that the smoothest part of the 1831 operation had been the removal from Vicksburg up the Red and Big Fork to Ecore a’ Fabre, the 1832 plan did not include the use of this route at all. Also, no use was to be made of Memphis, which necessitated transporting the Choctaws from Ahi Apet Okla and northern Okla Falaya over much longer distances as all were to be gathered at Vicksburg. From Vicksburg, they were to be transported to Arkansas Post by steamboat, from there to Little Rock by wagon, and divided there with Okla Falayans and Okla Hannalians taking the Military Trace from Little Rock to Fort Towson and the Ahi Apet Oklans taking the Little Rock-Fort Smith road.
Gaines also decreed that on these journeys, wagon transportation was to be furnished only for the ill or infirm. The remainder of the Choctaws were to march. As in 1831, the gathering began in mid October. But, while the Choctaws were being gathered and herded toward Vicksburg, an epidemic of cholera broke out in Vicksburg, with several hundred dying, from the dreaded disease and the remainder of the population of that city fleeing in an effort to escape. It was only natural, of course, that the fleeing citizens of Vicksburg spread the cholera epidemic, infecting everyone they encountered including the Choctaws who were enroute to Vicksburg. The cholera hit the Choctaws harder than it did the whites, as they had no natural immunity to the disease. There is no record of how many Choctaws died from this plague on their way to or at Vicksburg. Because of the highly contagious nature of cholera, when any person, Choctaw or white, died from the disease, their bodies were heaped in piles, covered with brush, doused with kerosene or whale oil and burned.
When the Choctaws reached Vicksburg, they found the city deserted, and faced famine even before starting their trip. Frightened farmers, who had food supplies stored, hid from both white and Indian alike and refused to sell any of their food stocks. Even the steamboats waiting to take the Indians to Arkansas Post, the Walter Scott and the repaired Brandywine, had been deserted by their crews fleeing from the cholera threat. George Gibson had his agents offload some of the supplies from the two steamboats and, by setting up a strict rationing program, managed to keep the Choctaws alive until boat crews could be rounded up to move them west.
If the 1832 removal had a white hero, it had to be Francis W. Armstrong, who was so hated by George Gaines, the chief removal agent, but was liked and trusted by Gibson. Armstrong, upon hearing of the cholera in Vicksburg, diverted the more than 1,000 Choctaws he had gathered, marching them to Memphis instead of trying to take them to Vicksburg. At Memphis, however, there was very little steamboat transportation available, but Armstrong was determined to remove his contingent of Choctaws and keep them away from the cholera. He commandeered the snagboat, Archimedes. It was not equipped for passengers. But Armstrong had the dredges and snag removing equipment pulled off the Archimedes and ordered his more than 1,000 Choctaws aboard. The little steamer was so crowded that there was only room either above or below decks for the Indian to sit. There was absolutely no way they could lie down or sleep. However, despite the crowding, the Archimedes made it to Arkansas Post with a minimum amount of sickness and death. And, wonder of wonders, the wagons and supplies for the trip to Little Rock were waiting at Arkansas Post to take this 1,000 Choctaws on to Little Rock.
In the meantime, back in Vicksburg, Gaines and Gibson had gathered up enough steamboat crew members to man one of the two steamers. And since the Brandywine was the larger of the two, Gaines and Gibson crammed more than 2,000 Choctaws aboard and started for Arkansas Post. However, the rains started again, and by the time the Brandywine reached Arkansas Post, the lowlands around that post were so badly flooded that the steamboat could not unload its massed cargo of human flesh. After considerable bickering, it was decided that the Brandywine would proceed on up the White River, also in flood stage, and would unload the Choctaws at Rock Row, a point of high ground some 70 miles east of Little Rock. At Rock Row, the Choctaws were unloaded. There were, of course, no wagons and no rations, save what were aboard the Brandywine, available in Rock Row. The Choctaws were told they would have to walk to Little Rock, getting by on what rations they could carry on their persons. Of the 70 miles between Rock Row and Little Rock, a bit more than 30 miles was covered with floodwaters, backwaters and swamps, forcing the Choctaws to wade almost half of the distance. At points the water was more than three feet deep, many of the Choctaws were still suffering and dying from the cholera and, on top of that, another outbreak of dysentery had struck. As in the march to Vicksburg, no records were kept of the Choctaws who died along the route, but four days after wading away from Rock Row, the remainder of the 2,000 Choctaws struggled into Little Rock where they were fed and given medicine and fresh clothing. At Little Rock, those who had survived “the long wade” joined the 1,000 who had been brought from Memphis by Francis W. Armstrong.
Despite his meritorious action, George Gaines still despised Francis W. Armstrong, and took this chance to “get rid” of him by persuading Secretary of War Coss to appoint Armstrong as the first United States Agent to the Choctaws. At Little Rock, the Choctaws divided, with about 2,000 choosing to travel by the Military Trace to Fort Towson, and the remaining 1,000 or so deciding to travel to Skullyville by way of Fort Smith. At least one phase of Gaines’ plan worked. Rations had been cached along the two roads, so that the Choctaws had ample rations to sustain them on the final leg of the 1832 journey.Before Dec. 30, 1832, all of the Choctaws still living at the end of the trail had reached their new Choctaw Nation in the West, and their new agent and friend, Francis W. Armstrong, had set up his headquarters in Skullyville.
The last federally supervised removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi came in the fall of 1833, and again George Gaines chose to follow the plan he had set up for the 1832 removal. The Choctaws were gathered at Vicksburg, transported by steamboat from there to Arkansas Post, by wagon from there to Little Rock and then on to the Choctaw Nation in the manner of the previous year. Only about 1,000 Choctaws showed up for removal. No outstanding misfortunes occurred, other than that one of the steamboats split a boiler and another experienced a broken shaft. However, there were other boats available and no floods, so the 1833 migration went more smoothly than its two predecessors.
In his final report on the removal, George Gaines wrote Lewis Cass, “in the three years of removal, we have transported more than 6,000 Choctaws from Mississippi to the new Choctaw Nation in the West.” Actually, the figure was from 1500 to 2000 more than Gaines had estimated in his report to Cass. By Jan. 1, 1834, there were from 7,500 to 8,000 Choctaws residing in the new western lands.
The new Okla Falaya was bounded on the north by the ridgeline of the Mazzern (now Ouachita) Mountains, on the south by Red River, on the east by Arkansas and on the west by the Kiamichi River. The district’s chief, Greenwood LeFlore, had chosen to give up his Choctaw citizenship and remain in Mississippi. His cousin, Thomas LeFlore, was designated as chief of Okla Falaya, assisted by another cousin, Thomas Harkins.
The new Okla Hannali was bounded on the east by the Kiamichi River, on the west by a line north from Island Bayou to the Canadian River, on the south by Red River and on the north by a line extending due west from the Okla Falaya northern border. Okla Hannali district chief was Nitikechi, a nephew of Pushmataha.
The new Ahi Apet Okla, which sometimes was called Okla Tannip, was bordered on the south by Okla Falaya and Okla Hannali, on the north by the Canadian River, on the East by Arkansas and on the west by the line extending northward from the source of Island Bayou. The last of the “great three” district chiefs, Moshulatubbee, was again the district’s leader.
The “trail of tears” had ended.