Story of Pushmataha, historic Choctaw Chief
by W.B. Morrison
The large portion of the territory of our Southern States from Florida to the Mississippi River was once occupied by the Muskogean family of Indian whose leading tribes were the Creek, Seminoles, Choctaws and Chickasaws. The Choctaws and Chickasaws, with language and customs very much alike, occupied the major part of what is now Western Alabama, all of Mississippi and Louisiana, and Western Tennessee. There was a tradition among these tribes that in the earliest times they lived far to the west of the Great River, and were ruled over by two brothers, Chatah and Chicksah. Being oppressed by enemies, they decided to seek a new home, and not knowing in which direction to turn, they erected a tall pole in their camp one evening and prayed to the Great Spirit that he would, during the night, incline the pole the way that they should go. The next morning they found the pole bent towards the east. So the brothers led their people eastward until nightfall, and again set up the pole with the same prayer. The next morning found the pole once more inclined to the cast. And so it went for many days. At last they came to the banks of the Great River, which they named Misha Sapokini, meaning “very old” or “beyond age.” As the pole still inclined to the east, they made rafts and crossed the river. Finally, at the banks of the Yazoo, the pole remained erect, and in commemoration of the great event, they here erected an earthen mound forty feet high, covering several acres of ground. As the mound was not exactly perpendicular, they named it Nanih Waiya, or “Stooping Mountain.” This became a sort of shrine for the Indians and the name was afterwards carried over to Oklahoma and applied to the first capitol of the Choctaws in their final home.
The two brothers, according to the tradition, afterwards quarreled and decided to separate. It was agreed that the pole be used again, and that Chicksah his partisans should go whither the pole directed. After prayer, it was found the next day that the pole pointed towards the north, so Chicksah and his followers went to what is now the northern part of Mississippi and Western Tennessee, leaving the remainder of the people with Chatah in the south country. The followers of Chicksah became the Chickasaws and those of Chatah, the Choctaws.
Both of these tribes have an interesting and honorable history. De Soto felt the prowess of the Choctaws at Old Mobile, and later the Chickasaws administered crushing defeats upon the French, as they attempted to press to the north. The Choctaws, however, became friendly to the French, and many of the latter intermarried with these Indians, so that today some of the most notable Choctaw names are evidently of French origin. These Indians, always possessing some of the rudiments of civilization, welcomed the friendly advances of the English at a later date, were eager for education, and early in the nineteenth century, when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent missionaries to the Cherokees, the Choctaws urged that they, too, should be considered worthy of a similar favor. The great Presbyterian missionary, Cyrus Kingsbury, came to them, and years later,the first “foreign missionary” of the Southern Presbyterian Church, Miss Augusta Bradford,was sent to this people.
The hero of the Choctaws, and without doubt one of the greatest of all American Indians, was A-pushma-ta-ha-hu-bi, commonly known as Pushmataha. His full name is said to mean “His arm and all the weapons in his hands are fatal to his foes.” He was born about the year 1764 in the present State of Mississippi. Little or nothing is known of his ancestry or of his early youth. His parents are supposed to have been killed by the Creeks, which accounted in part for Pushmataha’s hatred for that tribe. When questioned as to his ancestry he generally said, “I am a Choctaw.” In boastful mood, he once made this poetic statement: “Pushmataha has no ancestors; the sun was his father, the moon, his mother. A mighty storm swept the earth; midst the roar of thunder, the lightning split a mighty oak and Pushmataha stepped forth a full-fledged warrior.”
Pushmataha made his reputation among his own people as a bold hunter, and successful warrior, especially against the Osages. On more than one occasion he pursued these enemies far beyond the western banks of the Great River. He thus became familiar with the land of Oklahoma, where later his people were to come, and knowing its value, he did not, as some others, oppose the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi.
In personal appearance he was every inch a chief. He was of the purest of Indian blood, six feet, two inches tall and robust in proportion to his height, with form and features finely modeled. His deportment was calm and dignified. The Indians sometimes called him the “Panther’s Claw.” He was by nature a leader among men, and that not alone in his own tribe. No Indian of his day was so highly respected by white men as was Pushmataha. He possessed wonderful powers as an orator. General Sam Dale, the famous Indian fighter, who heard Pushmataha’s appeal against Tecumseh, declared him to be the greatest orator he ever heard. The Indian’s picturesque word for Pushmataha’s flow of language was the “waterfall.”
Pushmataha was ever and constantly a friend of the Americans, Some historians give him a credit equal to that of the renowned Andrew Jackson in saving our Southern States to the United States in the War of 1812. The wily Shawnee, Tecumseh, having already united the Indians of the upper Mississippi Valley, came south with the purpose of adding the Muskogean tribes to his confederacy. At a great meeting of the Choctaws and Chickasaws on the Tombigbee near the present site of Columbia, Mississippi, Tecumseh made an earnest and impassioned appeal, and had almost won the day, when Pushmataha arose and made his memorable reply, which was so eloquent and so convincing that only thirty warriors of these tribes joined Tecumseh. Therefore, when Jackson led his army against the Creeks in 1813, finally overwhelming them at the battle of Horseshoe Bend, Pushmataha and seven hundred of his warriors rendered efficient and valiant service. And when a year later at New Orleans, the Americans faced the British veterans who had won fame on the fields of Europe, Pushmataha, now a brigadier-general of the American army, led eight hundred brave Choctaws to share in Jackson’s triumph.
Pushmataha spent the remainder of his life working in the interest of his people. When the treaty of 1820 was negotiated, which provided for the sale of their lands in Mississippi and the eventual removal to Oklahoma, Pushmataha insisted that a large sum be set aside as a perpetual school fund for the education of Choctaw youth. His comment on this treaty was almost a prophecy: “We have acquired from the United States her best remaining territory west of the Mississippi, and this treaty provides a perpetual fund for the education of our children. I predict that in a few generations its benefits will enable the Choctaws to fight in the white man’s armies and to hold office in the white man’s government.” It may be stated, parenthetically, that for the past twenty years the Choctaw section of Oklahoma has been represented in Congress by a statesman of Indian blood.
In 1824, Pushmataha went to Washington on business for the Choctaws-the last service he ever rendered. In his address to the Secretary of War on this occasion he said, “I can boast and tell the truth that none of the Choctaws ever drew bow against the United States. We have held the hand of the United States so long that our nails are long like birds’ claws.” While in Washington he contracted pneumonia, and died December 24, 1824. General Jackson visited him in his last illness, and asked what he could do for him. Pushmataha replied, “When I die, let the big guns be fired over me.” He was given the funeral of a general in the United States army and his remains buried in the Congressional Cemetery at Washington, where his modest monument may be seen today.
The life and character of Pushmataha has been thus summed up: “A man with intuitive conception of honor and morals; a great general, brave and intrepid; a renowned orator; wise in counsel; a sane law-giver; a safe and sagacious leader; loyal in friendship and possessing a notable rugged honesty.” Surely any man, white,or red, might well be proud of such a tribute!