Congressional Cemetery final resting place for two honored Choctaw chiefs
From the desk of Assistant Chief Gary Batton
The Tribal Council recently accompanied the Chief and me to Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to visit the final resting place of former Choctaw Chiefs Pushmataha and Peter Pitchlynn. This was an awesome experience to have our current tribal leaders walking through such rich history of the United States government, which includes our own tribesmen. Congressional Cemetery has about 55,000 graves other than our two chiefs, including 76 members of Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, generals and commandants, Supreme Court justices, vice presidents and administration cabinet officials. This historic cemetery pre-dates Arlington Cemetery by 70 years, and a visit here is worthy of a walking tour through the grounds.
Chief Pushmataha died in 1824 while in Washington seeking payment of debts owed by the government to the Choctaws. The United States government, under orders from the president, purchased a site for him at the Congressional Cemetery. His funeral procession, led by Senator Andrew Jackson, was reported to have been over one mile long. Pushmataha had requested that, “the big guns be fired over me,” so at the conclusion of the ceremony, cannons were fired in his honor. The military has continued that tradition, but it is now called a 21-gun salute.
Chief Peter Pitchlynn died in 1881, and was a prominent tribal member. He strove to keep the Choctaw Nation neutral during the Civil War. He had served as Chief from 1864 until 1866, and then moved to Washington, where he worked to press Choctaw claims for lands sold to the United States in 1830. Other Choctaws buried in Congressional Cemetery include Pitchlynn’s children, Sophia, Thomas, Samson and Lee, and a grandson, Emmett Kennedy.
Pitchlynn had a lifetime’s connection with the United States’ government – his father, John, had been George Washington’s interpreter for negotiations with the Choctaws. The Chief, Council and I were all excited to be able to see the tombstones of these two Chiefs. We were even able to talk to a descendant of Pitchlynn – R.D. Folsom was at the cemetery and visited with us about his ancestor. Our tribal history is fascinating and each new thing I learn helps me stay enthused about reading and researching more information about the Choctaw Nation heritage!
I am especially mindful in finding an understanding about these important Chiefs of our history and how their decisions (and the decisions of other tribal leaders of our past) have affected our tribe. This awareness makes me very appreciative of the importance of ALL decisions made by the Chief, Council and leaders of our tribe today. Their decisions will have a profound effect for generations to come.
Our Council and Chief have a tremendous responsibility and I take this opportunity to say “thank you” to all of them for being willing to serve our tribal members.