By M. Scott Morris
Before Lee County was called Lee County, it was home to the Chickasaw people.
“You can’t walk into Tupelo and you can’t pull into any store in Tupelo and not be at a Chickasaw site,” said C. Brady Davis, historic site manager for The Chickasaw Preserve. “It was so densely populated.”
Through the twin forces of erosion and development, much of the evidence of past inhabitants has been lost. Their descendants were forced onto the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, the modern-day home of the Chickasaw Nation.
But Northeast Mississippi remains a homeland for the Chickasaw people. The Chickasaw Preserve in Lee County is for them.
According to written records from the 1700s, the site was known as Chissa’Talla’. That means “Stands in a post oak grove” or “You have gotten tall,” depending on the interpretation.
“That exact meaning has been lost to history because of the differences in pronunciation and spelling,” said Davis, adding that he leans toward the first meaning because Chickasaws tended not to give places abstract names.
Whatever it’s called, the preserve is a rare place that’s been largely untouched.
“What I love about this job the most is when Chickasaw people come to visit and they make that spiritual connection,” Davis said. “The look on their faces is the most gratifying thing about what I do.”
Judging by the type of points found at the site, Chissa’Talla’ has been home to people for at least 7,000 to 10,000 years. The earliest recorded Chickasaw occupation was 1685. Researchers are confident Chickasaws lived in the region before then, even if the record isn’t explicit.
One of the most important years, as far as the preserve is concerned, was 1963. That’s when John Ray Beasley and his wife, Lottye Betts Beasley, bought the property.
“We had no idea the Chickasaws had been out here,” John Ray, 82, said. “We just wanted to live out in the country. We both grew up in the country.”
“We wanted the kids to be free to run around,” Lottye Betts, 80, said.
They bought 75 acres at first, and added on later. John Ray walked the land with his son and daughter, and it soon became apparent they had a special place. They discovered beads, points, pottery shards, gun barrels, pipes and more.
“We were advised about the Chickasaws. We learned all we could about them,” Lottye Betts said. “I taught Mississippi history. At that time, there was one line about Indians in the textbook. Can you believe it? One line?
“Once I learned about Chickasaws living around here, I could talk all day about them, instead of that one line. That’s our history, too. That’s Tupelo history.”
The Beasleys built on the property, disturbing some native sites. John Ray has a collection of items he’d picked up off the ground. Some are in glass display cabinets, others are in cigar boxes.
For the most part, they left the land alone and made quiet use of it.
“It’s peaceful,” John Ray said. “It’s the best medicine you can have.”
“He told me he would come out here and sit and figure out how to pay all the bills,” said Jessica Crawford, southeast regional director for The Archaeological Conservancy.
“That’s true,” John Ray said.
Crawford joined the Chissa’Talla’ story in the early 2000s. The conservancy preserves land that might be of archeological value.
“The best way to preserve an archeological site and control what happens to it is to own it,” she said.
She knew all about the twin forces of erosion and development, so she didn’t expect to find anything in Lee County worth saving. The Beasleys’ place was a surprise.
“It tickled me to find it. I could not have found a better site,” Crawford said. “They knew what they had. They were extremely protective of the site, especially in the days when metal detectors, grave robbers and looting were rampant. John Ray and Lottye Betts protected this site.”
The couple had no intention of selling, but that first meeting with Crawford softened their stance. They appreciated her passion.
“The part that really, really pleased us was the fact Jessica could guarantee this would be protected,” Lottye Betts said.
The Beasleys agreed to donate five acres and sell 30 more for $500,000. That was a sobering number for Crawford. The conservancy usually aimed for $200,000 or less.
Her first thought was to apply for grants, then she decided to travel to Ada, Okla., to visit with Gov. Bill Anoatubby and other Chickasaw Nation leaders.
“I was hoping the Nation would help us fund the survey of the land,” Crawford said. “The governor said, ‘When we moved out to Oklahoma, we had to focus on the living. We couldn’t focus on the dead. It wasn’t time to look back. Now, we can look back.’”
The Chickasaw Nation provided the full $500,000.
Legal issues get tricky when sovereign Indian nations buy land. Does it become tribal property? Or is it still subject to the laws of the United States?
The conservancy sidestepped those questions by buying the site in 2005 and leasing it to the Chickasaw Nation for 99 years.
John Ray remembered when the governor and others first visited Chissa’Talla’ on a cold day. They stood on a ridgeline. The leaves were off the trees, providing clear views over an area that would’ve been swampland when the historic Chickasaws lived there.
“Someone with him asked, ‘Do you feel it?’” John Ray said. “He said, ‘Yes, I feel it.’”
The Chickasaw Nation hired Davis and Joseph Smith, preservation and maintenance specialist, to look after the site. They’ve lined trails with wood chips, developed interpretive panels and installed benches and picnic tables.
Several existing structures will be torn down, and a modest interpretive center is planned.
Part of the deal the Chickasaw Nation made with The Archaeological Conservancy was to allow research as long as it was noninvasive.
“They’ve had ground-penetrating radar out here,” Davis said.
Quite a bit of history has been gathered about the site. The Chickasaws lived in spread out villages, and each village had its own wooden fort. Chissa’Talla’ was under continuous Choctaw assault during the French and Indian War, and the village was abandoned around 1735.
They went to a central site, possibly the Chickasaw Village on the Natchez Trace Parkway, to combine their defenses. After the war, people moved back to the area, where they eventually took up subsistence farming and raised livestock.
“The new American government was trying to get Indian groups to stop living in a village atmosphere,” Davis said.
Today, native plants like Price’s potato bean and blackberry bushes grow wild. Cedar trees are everywhere. Davis and Smith are considering planting Chickasaw plum trees on the property.
“There used to be plum trees out there,” John Ray said.
For now, the preserve isn’t open to the general public. An eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire is meant to dissuade grave robbers.
Davis said he can give tours to school and historical preservation groups in Tupelo. Research teams will be allowed occasional access, so long as their methods respect the nature of the place.
But the overriding mission is to welcome Chickasaws who consider Northeast Mississippi their homeland.
“We can bring them out here where many of their ancestors lived and died,” Davis said. “This is a spiritual place, where they can come look and reconnect with their homeland in a quiet environment. It affects people differently, but a lot of them make that spiritual connection. You can see it on their faces.”