Choctaw Ranching

Bishinik, date unknown

Cattle ranching was tremendous industry in 1800’s in Choctaw Nation

Cattle raising was for some years a more important cash industry than farming because of the dearth of adequate transportation facilities and the abundance of free pasture on the public domain. The vast pastures, the profusion of prairie hay, and the mild climate which permitted a year-round range, all attracted the interest of non-citizen cattlemen.

It was estimated that 300,000 cattle were stolen from Indian Territory during the Civil War, and the Choctaws certainly lost their share of that total. In 1865 Isaac Coleman, the Choctaw-Chickasaw agent, reported that the white residents in the region were driving cattle out to Little Rock and Fort Smith. Since he was “entirely unable to check this illegal traffic,” he suggested that a “sufficient force be stationed at different points” within the Indian country to stop the thefts.

A law passed by Congress in March of 1865 made it a felony, punishable by three years in prison, a five thousand dollar fine, or both, to drive stock from the Indian country. During the early postwar years, Plains Indians, particularly Comanches, further troubled the Choctaws and Chickasaws by raids on their livestock. The Chickasaw Nation was naturally the most affected since their prairies lay between the Plains Indians and the Choctaws.

As in the case of misuse of their farm land, the exploitation of Choctaw range and pasture land by white non-citizens was made possible only by the connivance or the indifference of Choctaw citizens. Recognition of this fact resulted in the passage of a law by the Choctaw General Council in 1870 to prevent any citizen of the Nation from leasing the public domain for grazing purposes; the penalty was set at a fine of $150, of which half was to go to the informer. An act of 1880 prohibited non-citizens from engaging in the stock business within the limits of the Nation. However, ways and means were found to avoid the letter of the livestock laws. Evidence appears in a Choctaw law of 1882 that non-citizen drovers on their way through the Nation were tempted to linger with their herds on the lush Choctaw range. A tax of ten cents a head was therefore levied on transient cattle, horses, and mules, and two cents a head on sheep, hogs, and goats. An additional levy in the same amount was to be collected for every day longer than necessary for a herd to make a reasonable crossing of the national limits; exceptions were made for high water and “families moving through the nation with less than twenty head of stock.”

In 1885 Chief Edmond McCurtain stated in his annual message that there was danger of the country being overrun “by stock belonging to noncitizen cattlemen, but held … under the guise of Choctaw ownership.” He suggested passage of a law to prohibit Choctaw citizens from putting cattle under non-citizen herdsmen to be raised on shares. The Chief described the situation as a growing evil which could result in the destruction of the Choctaw ranges. The Council agreed with the chief and voted to make it illegal for a Choctaw citizen to hire a non-citizen as herdsman under any circumstances whatever. In spite of the veto of Chief Thompson McKinney, this unequivocal stand was modified in 1887 to allow the hiring of non-citizens to feed stock in a pen or pasture. A similar vacillation occurred when a law prohibiting the introduction of steer cattle into the Nation except in November and December was passed in 1888, only to be repealed the next year.

By 1890 it was customary, in defiance of the Choctaw laws, to wink at the holding of small herds of about ten cows by non-citizens, if the transgressors had permits to remain in the Nation and if they sold the yearlings so that the herds would not increase. A much more effective method by which non-citizen cattlemen utilized Choctaw pastures was through the establishment of citizenship rights in the Nation. Ebenezer Hotchkin, pioneer missionary, recalls that the improvements on his father’s place on the Red River were sold to a Texas cattleman in the 1890’s. Subsequently, the Texan sent one of his retainers into the Nation to marry a full-blood woman; the retainer thus became an intermarried Choctaw citizen. Now legalized, the retainer then moved onto the old Hotchkin place and used it as ranch headquarters for the large numbers of Texas cattle that were fattened for the market on the nearby public domain for his boss back in Texas. Of course, many intermarried citizens who were in the cattle business had matrimonial motives which were above reproach. J.J. McAlester, an intermarried Chickasaw whose primary interests were in coal claims and merchandising, raised cattle as a sideline; as late as 1901 his records show that he was specializing in shorthorn cattle.

Two interesting complaints against the introduction of foreign cattle, particularly from Texas, were that they brought in diseases such as blackleg and Spanish fever and that the large non-citizen herds absorbed – the process was called “drifting” – the small herds of citizens and permit-paying non-citizens. Many small owners thus lost their cattle, a serious matter which might mean financial ruin for many.

In 1900 large herds of cattle owned by non-citizens were still roaming the Choctaw domain, shielded by Choctaw citizens in violation of their own laws, When such a case was reported to the Indian Agent so that the herds might be removed by the United States government action, some Choctaw citizen inevitably claimed to be the owner. One important change in grazing came when the Department of the Interior took over the collection of tribal taxes during the transition period following the Atoka Agreement. After that, cattle owners wishing to graze cattle on unallotted lands had to get the permission of the Indian Agent, use authorized brands, and pay one dollar a head annually. If the cattle used allotted land, the fee was fifteen cents an acre, paid to the Choctaw titleholder.

The use of brands and other identifying marks had long been the practice on the Choctaw open range. The brands were usually the simple initials of the Choctaw owner, as in the case of Wilson Jones who used a WJ. Each county had an officer called a ranger, who took charge of all stray livestock If the owner of a lost animal could not be found after twelve months of advertising the age, brand, mark and color, the animal would be sold to the highest bidder.

One law designed to protect owners of livestock prohibited the skinning of dead animals on the open range. Another law required butchers to keep marks and brands of all cattle slaughtered, and a third required owners to file their brands monthly with the county clerk.