ABOUT THIS STORY: This article is the third in a series produced under a partnership between the Daily Journal and the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area.
By Richard Babb
Special to the Journal
Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Well, here’s some poetry for you.
By the 1700s on the Western part of the globe, the British Empire was in full flower, chased by France and Spain, already entrenched in Mexico. Aside from directly engaging in war, the three countries were jostling each other in the New World, establishing colonies, trading with the locals, and laying claim to the vast abundance of Native American land. Indeed, the New World was the big exploitable prize for the time.
By the 1730s, settlements and forts of New France were established not only along the Gulf Coast, but extending from Eastern Canada down to the Great Lakes Region, parts of the Ohio River Valley and Missouri. While the English had considerable settlements along the Eastern Seaboard, the French seemed to be in a stronger position because of their Northern and Southern strongholds.
However, in between those two poles lay a vast amount of unconquered land, an unvarnished wilderness, rich in resources and home to a large population of Native Americans with a variety of unique cultures. To gain those resources, the French determined they must take total control of the Mississippi River and the major port at its mouth. With command, they would have an easy transportation advantage, allowing them to bring in colonizing settlers and material, but also an easy and generous trade route.
However, there was an impediment to that empirical aim: the indigenous people known as the Chickasaw who occupied what is now the northern section of Mississippi, and parts of Alabama and Tennessee. For some time, the English had been trading with the Chickasaw, supplying them with weaponry and other materiel. And, of course, this is standard practice when any empire, be it Roman, English, or U.S., wants to expand. They enlist local folks to fight on their behalf. And so, it was the Chickasaw (and the Natchez Indians to a lesser extent) who stood in the way of the French colonial aims.
It all came to a head with two battles between the French and the Chickasaw. The first, the Battle of Ogoula Tchetoka, at Chokkalissa or Old Town in northwest Tupelo, occurred on March 25, 1736. It was followed two months later May 26 with a heated battle at Ackia, around what is now Lee Acres Subdivision in Tupelo.
The French, aided by their Choctaw allies, a company of slaves, and 100 Swiss troops attacked the badly outnumbered Chickasaw. As battles go, it did not involve a large number of participants, but strategically the stakes could not have been higher, ultimate control of the Lower Mississippi Valley, with the intention of total destruction of the Chickasaw and Natchez Indians.
With intense fighting, including an early form of hand grenades rolled out by the French which the Chickasaw promptly threw back, the French were repulsed, and eventually failed to gain control of the Mississippi. Ultimately it was the English who prevailed in the New World, but only for a short-lived 40 years before the American Revolution in 1776.
Professional historians don’t particularly care for the “what if” questions regarding historical events, leaving that kind of speculation to the dilettantes, but for those who are historians by avocation, if not fetish, that kind speculation is what makes history fascinating.
So, what if the French had defeated the Chickasaw at Lee Acres? Their march to control the Mississippi River would have been largely unimpeded. They would have moved more settlers into the territory and, more than likely, would have consolidated their holdings by settling the land between the Gulf Coast and Canada.
And the logical consequence of that turn of events? None of us would be here now, or, if so, would likely be speaking French. There would have been no United States, at least not as we know it. The world would be a vastly different place. Indeed, with the importation of the vast resources into the country, would the French have even revolted in 1789?
And while most think Elvis was the biggest deal to come out of Tupelo, it can be reasonably argued that one of the most important events ever in the New World – if not world history – occurred here. It was for the time what is called a “Geo-Political” event, impacting two countries, England and France and numerous Native American tribes. Indeed, London newspapers reveled in the defeat of the French.
It is our collective disregard for history that this event is noted by only one historical marker.
The origins of the Chickasaw Nation are so deep they run back through prehistoric times into the mythic legends of oral tradition. Archeological evidence indicates indigenous peoples lived on the earth, where we Northeast Mississippians daily drive and plant our feet some 12,000 years ago. Absolute dates stretching back more than 16,000 years have been secured in caves and occupation sites elsewhere in the United States.
We know that Hernando DeSoto and his exploration party came in contact with the Chickasaw Nation in December 1540 probably somewhere along the Tombigbee River toward West Point and Starkville. The nation approached DeSoto warily, but allowed his party to winter with them until things turned sour, when Desoto cut off the hands of one of the Indians whom he accused of stealing a pig, and after DeSoto tried to impress 200 Chickasaws into slavery to assist his party.
Thereupon, the Chickasaw subsequently attacked DeSoto’s party and had they pressed their advantage would have destroyed them, but chose not to do so. That would have changed things in history, too.
We do know about the legend that the Chickasaw had migrated somewhere from the West but we are not entirely sure when.
But what we do know from oral and written history and archeological and anthropological evidence is that North Mississippi, this brooding landscape of forests and hills, was the homeland, the sacred space, the holy ground of the Chickasaw Nation for hundreds of years. And it was land they eventually lost, ironically, because their ally, the English, conquered North America.
The colonists then made revolution, states were established, including in 1817, the State of Mississippi, and after that, it was a fait accompli. There was much, too much, good land in North Mississippi, and the immigrating whites claimed that the vast majority of land was not being utilized by the Indians and much cotton could be produced.
All of us who live in North Mississippi reside on Chickasaw land, earth that was turned over by the Chickasaw Nation over a period of 25 to 30 years through treaty, square and unsquare deals, intrigue, encroachment, fraud, loitering, failed legal cases and homesteading, until 95 percent of the Chickasaw Nation removed itself to Oklahoma territory – known then as Indian territory – in 1837-38. And Oklahoma is where the Chickasaw have, in another touch of irony, become a singular American success story.
But according to Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, the Chickasaw people still hold a special place in their hearts for the ancient homeland. “For years, Chickasaws have traveled to the homeland to renew their connection with the history and culture of Chickasaw people. It is an emotional experience to walk in the footsteps of our grandparents and see the land our ancestors called home.”
If there is a cultural quality which best describes the Chickasaw Nation, it is their ability to not only endure, but thrive, in the face of daunting circumstances, preserving along the way their cultural identity. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the removal of the Chickasaw from their native soil 177 years ago.
The removal of Native Americans from lands they occupied for hundreds of years is not generally regarded as one of this country’s finer moments. Looking back, and given the prevailing attitudes, the amount of land, the moneyed interests, particularly from the East which had infiltrated the scene, the influx of third and fourth generation Americans, it was also sadly inevitable.
The Chickasaw and Choctaw had stood with Andrew Jackson, in the War of 1812, particularly in the Battle of New Orleans, helping defeat the British. They helped propel Jackson to hero status which, in turn, helped propel him to the White House.
And yet, and it must be said, that Jackson, when pressured by the States, capitulated to the cause of removing native people, helping press through the Indian Removal Act, a highly contentious piece of legislation which almost failed in Congress. Old Hickory is given ample and generous credit for pushing it through. It was the final nail, which forced out his former allies from their homes and homeland.
To be sure, it was a form of ethnic cleansing, although it should be pointed out that tribe members had the alternative of remaining in their homelands by taking an oath of allegiance and becoming an official United States citizen. And the land was also negotiated for a price, although other tribes didn’t fare so well such as the Cherokee and Seminole, forcibly removed and in some cases, murdered. But it was also a clash of two vastly different cultures, moneyed interests who saw land to be exploited, and indigenous peoples who had an entirely different world view and culture.
And while the cleansing becomes a matter of perhaps detached curiosity when studying, say, clearing out tribes in the Brazilian rain forest, it is another thing when your great, great, great grandmother rode to Pontotoc and bought 160 acres wrested from the Chickasaw in the final cession in 1832. It becomes real, and it went down something like this.
The Treaty of 1805 ceded Chickasaw land in Tennessee and North Alabama. The Treaty of 1816 ceded the remainder of land in Alabama. The Treaty of 1818 ceded all remaining land in Tennessee.
In 1830, the State of Mississippi pushed matters along by extending state law over tribes making it illegal for the tribes to practice tribal law. It also nullified Federal Treaties. In effect, the State of Mississippi claimed authority over the Chickasaw Nation emasculating its own system of government and leadership. And in the same year, Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act.
All this resulted in the Treaty of 1832, which was the final land cession treaty where the Chickasaw Nation lost all its holdings, almost the entire region of North Mississippi.
Thus, in a matter of some 30 years, the Chickasaw Nation was denuded of its lands in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Of course, it was legal – as legal matters go.
Despite these events, the Chickasaw Nation through the shrewdness of its leaders was able to negotiate better deals than other tribes and maintain some degree of control of its own removal. Nevertheless, the tribe was not given its own land, but for the sum of a half million dollars, landed on the Western half of Choctaw territory in Oklahoma, acting as a buffer against raiding Plains Indians.
Eventually, in 1855 the Treaty of Washington established the boundaries of the Chickasaw Nation. But the removal was still its own sad story with thousands in a forced migration to Oklahoma territory where privation and disease claimed many lives.
The aftermath of the Indian Removal Act proved disastrous for all tribes, but some had it worse than others. Some tribes maintained reservations in their native land. But of what was deemed the Five Civilized Nations (Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole) it was the Chickasaw who chose to remove themselves almost en masse to new land.
It was an uncompromising decision but also a testament to the strong cultural and historical identity of the tribe. And it was because of the tradition of strong leadership, which shrewdly negotiated better terms not only for the homeland, but also for the actual removal. In short, the entire tribe chose to move and collectively sustain its identity instead of being swallowed by the rapidly evolving individualistic culture of the New World.
Nearly 177 years after the removal, the Chickasaw Nation is still centered on the land to which it removed. Because of its tradition and leadership and identity, the nation has not only endured and survived, but is now thriving in a way which probably far exceeded anyone’s imagination at the time when they were forced to the paths and the roads on horseback, and foot and wagons.
The nation operates any number of diversified business interests. In fact, one recent study by Oklahoma City University indicated the Chickasaw Nation’s contribution to the Oklahoma economy now exceeds $2.4 billion. With more than 100 business enterprises in banking, tourism, energy, healthcare and technology, it has nearly 13,000 employees and has created several thousand more nontribal jobs. It operates industries that supply materiel to the United States military.
And yet despite the hard won and unparalleled success in Oklahoma, the homeland is not forgotten. Like a real home, it summons and beckons the strains of the heart. And that brings us back to North Mississippi and Tupelo, which was the then hub of the Chickasaw Nation. It is the reason that last October, Dr. Waymon Hinson and his son, Joshua, traveled from Oklahoma to Tupelo to tour the homeland with tribal archeologist, Dr. Brad Lieb. With degrees in theology and psychology, Dr. Hinson is not a member of the tribe but whose spouse is of Chickasaw lineage, giving him a unique outsider/insider’s view of this land and its collective historical meaning. “All of us are better people, more fully human, when we know our history.”
It is the reason tribal Governor Bill Anoatubby was recently in Tupelo to visit with local officials and citizens. And it is the reason he will be coming back.
They are 60,000 strong now in the Chickasaw Nation, mostly in Oklahoma, but scattered elsewhere across the globe, a modern diaspora. Sadly, there are few Chickasaw in Mississippi although there are many who proudly claim some heritage.
But they are beginning to return, the curious, the knowledgeable, the ones haunted by their and our history. Some come on tour buses here and there, others by automobile, a few by plane, an inexorable return to the land their forbearers were immeasurably pressed to leave some 177 years back.
They are pilgrims to a sacred place which their ancestors occupied for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, maybe even ten thousands, the same ancestors who now repose quietly in this hilly and sometimes lonesome terrain with all its gentle and ghostly elegies.
And they are welcomed back, welcomed home, these people of history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Babb is an attorney and prosecutor for the city of Tupelo. He served as district director for former U.S. Congressman Travis Childers. Babb was a founder and incorporator of the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance, and has written as a community columnist for the Daily Journal. He is a graduate of Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and the University of Mississippi School of Law. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Tony Choate, media relations director for the Chickasaw Nation, and Brady Davis, Homeland Affairs manager, for their assistance with this article.
• The Chickasaw Nation, visit www.chickasaw.net;
• Chickasaw heritage and culture, visit www.chickasaw.tv
• The Chickasaw Preserve in Tupelo, contact C. Brady Davis, Homeland Affairs manager, Department of Culture and Humanities, at (662) 620-0760 or Brady.Davis@chickasaw.net;
• The Chickasaw Inkana Foundation, visit www.inkana.org or contact Brad Prewitt at (662) 842-4176 or email@example.com;
• The Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, visit www.mississippihills.org or contact Project Coordinator Kent Bain, (662) 844-1276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.