Bishinik, October 1987, page 2
The Choctaw Nation before the Trail of Tears
By George Kimbrough
This is the first in a series of stories concerning the development of Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation, beginning with the early days of the Choctaw in Alabama and Mississippi; the coming of the white man and the resulting “Trail of Tears”, and the evolution of The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma as it is known today. This series is reprinted with the kind permission of The Paris News.
The are many legends surrounding the early history of the Choctaw Indians, but written history first places the Choctaws in what is now Mississippi and Alabama.
One legend has it that the Choctaws’ ancestors came from a hole or cave under a large, sacred earthen mound the Choctaws call “Nanih Waya”, located in what is now Winston County, Mississippi. Other legends say the Choctaws came from the west, guided by a sacred pole, to the Nanih Waya. The pole, legend provides, was stuck in the earth each night at the end of the day’s journey, only to be found the next morning leaning in an easterly direction. By following the slant of the sacred pole, the Choctaws eventually found themselves at the Nanih Waya. There the pole remained in an upright position when left overnight, thus indicating that the chosen spot had been found.
Yet another legend provides that the Choctaws’ ancestors came from the sea, presumably the Gulf of Mexico.
The Nanih Waya, as described in the book The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, by Angie Debo, was the most imposing structure in Choctaw Country. Even though sacred traditions were closely associated with the Nanih Waya, it was apparently designed as an outpost against the Chickasaws. The mound was about 40 feet high, with a base covering more than one acre.
The Choctaws, later described by government agents as being “Humble, friendly, tranquil, pacific,” were agrarians. They wove baskets and using natural dyes, colored their works. They made rafts with which they crossed the rivers, log rafts held together with vines from the trees, and farmed plots of land for a portion of their food.
Corn, boiled with turkey or other pieces of fat meat, was said to be a favorite dish as was “sagamite,” a dish apparently resembling hominy.
Those children born to Choctaw parents were often named after animals, with their name sometimes changed later in life. And,according to Debo, the Choctaw was reluctant to pronounce his own name and the wife was forbidden to speak the name of her husband. The husbands were, when necessary, only referred to as the father of their children.
The Choctaws, history provides, had their first contact with the white civilization in the mid-16th century. According to a new book just published by The Choctaw Nation, “The Social History of the Choctaw Nation, 1865-1907”, Hernando deSoto was the first European to come in contact with the Choctaws. And, the book explains, the Spanish expedition found no riches, friction developed between the groups and the Spanish expeditionary party soon left the land of the Choctaws.
It was not until 150 years later that white men appeared, that being the French in the early 18th century. Then, after the French lost Louisiana in 1762, only the English and Spanish remained as neighbors of the Choctaws. The English, according to the new Choctaw book, were eliminated in 1783 at the close of the American Revolution. With the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 and Florida in 1819. the Choctaws were faced with only one outside political power – that of the United States.
During the years that followed, the whites continued to move into the area, often marrying Choctaw women and introducing European customs to the families. As outlined in the book, “. . . the part played by the Choctaw mixed-bloods in this process was not deliberate; for they came to identify their own interests with those of the whole (Choctaw) Nation. Actually, most of them were unconscious agents of white encroachment – men who had sincerely decided that the adoption of European ways by the Choctaws offered the best hope for the salvation of the Indians.”
Thus, the movement was underway. It would not be long before Indians of the Southeast, including the Choctaws, would be displaced and the infamous “Trail of Tears” would become reality as they made their way to what was then called the Indian Territory.
Bishinik November 1987
The Choctaw Nation before removal to Oklahoma
This is the second in a series previously published in The Paris News and reprinted with the kind permission of that paper.
By George Kimbrough
As the white population of the southeastern United States continued to grow in the early 1800s, so did its problems. With an eye toward securing the fertile lands held by those Indians referred to as “The Five Civilized Tribes,” efforts began to remove the Indians to a new land — that of the Territory of Oklahoma.
The largest of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Choctaws numbered about 25,000 at the beginning of the 19th Century. They were closely related to their neighbors to the north, the Chickasaws, by blood ties and by language. The Chickasaws, however, were much fewer in number.
As the European influence grew, towns began to spring up, roads were created, and conflicts between – and within the races became more pronounced. Fuel was added to the fire of discord with the introduction of whiskey, produced in large quantities by the frontier settlers.
Since the Louisiana Purchase, there had been four “treaties” made with the Choctaws by which they had been induced to give up a part of their territory or to move territorial borders, each of which brought discontent and did little to solve the problem. By the time Andrew Jackson became a candidate for President of the United States in 1828, the removal of the Indians had become a national issue. Jackson was a staunch supporter of Indian removal and shortly after his election, the Indian Removal Bill was passed in Congress on May 28, 1830. That bill, according to the book “Indian Removal”, did not itself authorize the enforced removal of the Indians, and did not in terms appear to menace them; but it announced a federal policy favorable to Indian removal, and placed in the hands of President Jackson the means to initiate steps to secure exchanges of lands…”
The governments, both state and federal, were forced to deal with many factions within the three districts of the Choctaw Nation, each having its own chief. To help sway opinion and to promote removal, many tribal leaders were offered gifts, including the promise of land and money.
The first treaty to be made under the provisions of the Indian Removal Bill was The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, a treaty in which the Choctaws ceded the lands owned by them east of the Mississippi River and agreed to relocate to the Territory of Oklahoma within a three-year period.
After the treaty was ratified in February, 1831, the President proclaimed a grant conveying the new lands to the Indians. Their new home was to be located in an area “beginning near Fort Smith where the Arkansas boundary crosses the Arkansas boundary River, running thence to the source of the Canadian (River) fork, if in the limits of the United States, or to those limits; thence due south to the Red River to the west boundary to the Territory of Arkansas, thence, north along that line, to the beginning.” With much turmoil and dissention within the tribes, plans were made for the removal.
Soon after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was ratified, an expedition was sent to explore the,new lands In preparation for the masses that would follow. Among those on that expedition were David and Robert Folsom, who reported in December, 1830, of their findings: ” . . . Good land enough on the Little River to hold several thousand families. The second stream we come (sic) to was Clear Creek, and a beautiful stream indeed, the water good, plenty of timber, and no better mill seats in the world. . . The fourth stream we came to was the Kiamissa (Kiamichi); this stream will afford fine navigation for boats … The game is plenty on this stream, such as bear, deer, and turkeys, and on the west side of Kiamissa 15 or 20 miles there is buffaloe (sic) in great numbers.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the government would assist the Choctaws in their relocation by, providing food, which was sometimes scarce, and transportation, which often included walking, as they made the long journey to their new lands.
The stage was set. The mass migration of an estimated 60,000 Indians, including the Choctaws, was about to begin.
To be continued in the December 1987 issue of BISHINIK.
Bishinik December 1987
The nightmare of “The Trail of Tears”
This is third in a series about the Choctaw Nation, reprinted with kind permission of the Paris News.
By George Kimbrough
It was to become known as “The Trail of Tears.”
The relocation of thousands of Indians -including the Choctaws – from the Southeastern U.S. was a nightmare for the federal government and for the Indians. The Indians were giving up their homeland with its familiar streams and forests for a new home, known to them only as “The West.” And the government had the responsibility of seeing that the task of removal was completed and that the Indians reached their new home, with meager provisions available along the way.
Mass confusion reigned among the Choctaws. Many had planted no crops since it was not certain they would be there at harvest. Whiskey peddlers traveled the country preying on the Indians and their plight. Dissention within the tribal leadership continued to be a problem since some favored relocation and others did not.
The movement of the Choctaws began, some in groups led by government officials and others who elected to make the long trip to the Territory of Oklahoma on their own. Over the three years allocated for the removal process, there were many who died on the way. There was the ever-present danger of the weather, with resulting flooded streams and sub-freezing temperatures; there was the terrain of the land, including swamps measuring 30 miles across; and there was the big killer, cholera.
Robert M. Jones, one of those in charge of a group of about 100 Choctaws, wrote during the journey “The weather for the last three weeks has been so excessively cold, that traveling of all kinds has been rendered nearly impractical. The Mississippi River, though not completely frozen over at this place (Memphis) has been and is still so obstructed with ice, that no flatboats, and but very few steam boats are able to make their way through it.”
Steamboats carried many travelers a part of the way, with one boat “Reindeer,” probably hauling more Choctaws and their possessions than any of the others during the three year period.
Some, history says, brought their ox carts and others rode wagons provided by the government. Others elected to ride their ponies and still others walked. Some had only the clothing they wore and a government-issued blanket. Others brought limited household goods.
Many who became ill were left to join later groups along the trails-if they survived-and a number of children were born during the journey.
Food, or rations, were generally issued every other day by the government and storage bins had been located at various points along the route to replenish supplies. Sometimes, history says, supplies ran low and the food that remained was hardly edible.
Since the town of Washington, Ark. (now known as Old Washington State Park near Hope, Ark.) was on a major trail leading into Oklahoma Territory from,the east, it saw many of the Choctaws pass through enroute to Fort Towson and other points in what was then known as the Indian Territory.
No history of Southeastern Oklahoma is complete without mention of Fort Towson, which today is operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society and which has undergone limited restoration. The fort was authorized in January, 1824, since the U.S. Army had been forced into the role of peacekeeper on the frontier. Suggested by Gen. Winfield Scott, a site for the new fort was selected by Col. Matthew Arbuckle near the confluence of the Red and Kiamichi Rivers. The fort was abandoned In 1829, only to be re-activated following the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which provided for the Choctaw removal. The fort, which carried the name Camp Phoenix for only a year, became an important post as more than 12,000 Choctaws moved into the region. In later years, its importance to the area became less and less and, for the second time, Fort Towson was abandoned in 1854. Now, Fort Towson consists of a restored sutler’s store and remnants of its native stone buildings. A small cemetery, located under a grove of trees, also stands as a reminder of days past.
Not far away is yet another cemetery which holds an important place in the history of Oklahoma, the Fort Towson (City) Cemetery, sometimes called the Doaksville Cemetery. It serves as the final resting place for many survivors of The Trail of Tears, including Col. Joel H. Nail, Choctaw leader who brought a group from Mississippi, and Col. David Folsom, recognized by the Choctaws as a medicine man and later named by a government agent as the official physician for one of the groups of Choctaws enroute to their new home in the West. For his services as physician, Folsom was paid $2 per day.
The two graves, separated by only a few feet, face the east from which the sun rises-and the direction from whence the Choctaw leaders came just over 150 years ago.