Saturday, October 30, 2010

Choctaw and Chickasaw Origins

I think that it's important for us to realize that the various Indian tribes of North America each had very complex cultures. They had histories and traditions which had been handed down for many years. Each tribe spoke a separate language so that they needed interpreters to translate for them.  Some tribes had lived in their domains for centuries, they had holy places that they honored, and they believed the spirits of their ancestors still dwelled nearby.

There were conflicts between tribes, but over the years the Indians developed traditions for dealing with each other: traditions for handling disputes and traditions for maintaining the peace. These systems worked for the Indians, and maintained a balance between the literally hundreds of tribes native to the North American continent.

The white men's coming totally disrupted the Indians' world. Many tragedies were caused by the contact between cultures, some of which we know about and most of which we don’t. What we do know comes mostly from the writings of white men, who had no understanding or respect for the people they were writing about. The Indians themselves had only an oral history, much of which is considered legend and much of which has been forgotten.

There's a benefit, I believe, in hearing the story of the Indians. For society, learning to appreciate the beauty and the humanity of these people who were pushed aside to satisfy the greed of so called civilized men, can hopefully provide society with better goals for the future. For Native Americans, learning about our ancestors can give us pride and inspiration.
I started the history of the Removal with the story of the Seminoles. They were actually the last to complete their removal, but their struggles began so early, and went on for so long, it just seemed right to begin with them.

The next tribe I want to talk about is the Choctaws. The Choctaws and my tribe, the Chickasaws, are closely related; their languages are almost the same, and their histories have been interconnected since their beginnings. 

Probably most well known legend among the two tribes concerns their origins:

The Choctaws and the Chickasaws began as one tribe. This tribe's original home was far to the west, beyond the Mississippi River. They were content there until a powerful enemy came and made war on them. After many years of war the tribal council met to deliberate on the matter.

The wise men of the council discussed their dilemma and they sought guidance from Ubabaneli the creator. Finally it was decided that the tribe would never have peace unless they moved far away. 

Ubabaneli gave them the Kohta Falaya, or "long pole" to guide them on their journey. Each evening they were to drive the Kohta Falaya straight into the ground, and the next morning they were to travel in the direction it leaned. Ubabaneli told the people that when the Kohta Falaya remained straight, they would know they had reached their new home.

Ubabaneli also gave the tribe a large white dog to protect them on their journey. As they travelled, the dog would scout the trail ahead warning them of enemies. When anyone became sick or was injured the white dog would come and lick the afflicted person and make him well.

The tribe travelled in two groups each led by a chief. The two chiefs were named Chikasa and Chahta and they were brothers. Each morning the groups would travel separately in the direction indicated by the Kohta Falaya, and each evening they would gather together again. After the people had travelled for many months they arrived at a great river they called Misha Sipokoni, which means "beyond all age."

At first the people thought they had come to the end of their journey, but the next morning the pole still leaned eastward, so they set about building rafts, and soon they were crossing the river. When the rafts reached the middle of the river, the one carrying the big white dog capsized, and although the people were rescued, the dog was swept downstream. They never saw him again.

After resting on the other side of the Misha Sipokoni the brothers continued their journey towards the east. One morning when they came to see the Kohta Falaya, it was swaying back and forth. This had never happened before. When the swaying stopped the two chiefs examined the pole but they could not agree on its position.  Chief Chahta thought it stood straight, but Chief Chikasa believed that the pole still leaned to the east.

When no agreement could be reached, Chief Chikasa pulled the Kohta Falaya from the ground and led his people on. Chief Chahta and his followers remained where they were. They called the place Nanih Waya, or "leaning mountain."

Chief Chikasa continued to follow the Kohta Falaya until it stood straight again about 100 miles to the north. He and his people stopped there and built a town which became known as Oklah Sepokny or "Old Town."  

From that time on those who remained with Chief Chahta were called Chahtas, or Choctaws, those who followed Chief Chikasa were called Chikasas, or Chickasaws. Nanih Waya is located in Winston County, Mississippi, and remains to this day the Choctaws' holiest place. The Chickasaws' Oklah Sepokny or "Old Town" is now included in an urban development.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Removal, The Seminoles

               Painting by George Catlin, 1838

It was March 27, 1814. The Tennessee militia, 5000 strong plus several hundred Indian allies, attacked a settlement of 1000 Creek Indians at a point along the Tallapoosa River called Horseshoe Bend. With no mercy the militiamen killed over 800 Creek Indians, the greatest slaughter of Native Americans in history. Among the littered bodies was a mother who lay across her child to protect him.

The name of the commander of the Tennessee Militia responsible for this slaughter was Andrew Jackson, who, as President of the United States would later drive the Seminoles from their homelands. The child's name was Osceola, destined to lead the Seminoles in their struggle against removal.

The nucleus of the Seminole tribe was the Oconee, who lived in the southern Georgia area prior to 1700. The group was first referred to as Seminole, which means 'runaway' in Creek, in the mid 1700's after they had migrating to Spanish Florida to avoid the encroachment of their lands by British settlers. They were joined there by the remnants of the Yamassee tribe which was almost wiped out in 1715 by the British colonists. During the next hundred years the Seminoles were also joined by escaped negro slaves, and by groups of Creek Indians also fleeing the settlers. Among the latter was Osceola's mother, who with her son and about 1000 other Creeks sought refuge among the Seminoles in 1814.

Over the years Georgia plantation owners made repeated raids into Seminole villages in Spanish Florida in search of "runaway slaves," kidnapping anyone of negro descent. The Seminoles in turn made raids on Georgia settlements.

In 1818, after an exchange of attacks across the Florida border by US government forces and Seminoles, Andrew Jackson, now a general, was given permission by President Madison to invade Florida. He went in with 4000 troops, advancing to Pensacola, destroying Seminole villages as he went. This became known as the First Seminole War.

Unhappily, Florida was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1819, and the treaty was ratified in 1821, bringing the Seminoles under US jurisdiction. Almost immediately settlers began pouring into Florida and demanding that the Seminoles be evicted from the choice farm land where they lived. In 1823, the Seminoles were forced to move into a swampy area east of Tampa Bay that was almost uninhabitable. Soon they were starving.

By 1828 when Andrew Jackson was elected president, settlers were clamoring for more land. Many Indians had already moved to the "Indian Territory" west of Arkansas. and in 1830 the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress, making it official government policy to remove the Indian tribes from their native lands east of the Mississippi River, and giving the President authority to force them to go.

The Seminoles, barely surviving in the swamps of Florida, and still subjected to raids by the greedy Georgians looking for cheap slaves, signed a treaty in 1832, promising to exchange their land in Florida for land in Indian Territory if the land was found to be suitable by the tribe. 

Later in 1832 the Seminoles sent a party west to look at their new home. When the exploring party arrived, they discovered that the land they were being offered was located between the Creeks and the Osages who were at war. The next year another exploring party was sent. The situation in Indian Territory had become more stable and the Seminoles were satisfied with their location, but they were not authorized to make a decision for the tribe. Nevertheless, they were pressured into signing another treaty in which they agreed to accept the land chosen for them.

When the exploring party returned, the tribal leaders were incensed over being tricked. The black members of the tribe, who were very influential, objected to the original treaty which incorporated the Seminoles into the Creek tribe. They feared that the Creeks would demand they be turned over as slaves.  

The treaty allowed three years for the removal to take place. Since the Seminole leaders had never approved the treaty, they made no effort to comply. In 1835 when the time for removal had expired, the government agent, Wiley Thompson, read a letter from President Jackson to Seminole leaders, informing them that if they refused to migrate willingly, they would be removed by force.
During the years since the removal treaty had been signed, a new leader had arisen among the Seminoles, Osceola. Not only had Osceola witnessed the Creek massacre at Horseshoe Bend as a child, he had lost his negro wife in a slave raid as an adult, and he had been thrown into chains by the Seminole agent for speaking out. Osceola continued to speak out, and by 1835 most of the Seminoles supported him.
For Osceola, agent Thompson's threat to remove the Seminoles by force was the last straw. Osceola killed Thompson himself, along with several employees of the agency. Charley Emathla, a Seminole chief who had signed the removal treaty was also killed. On the same day another band of Seminoles attacked a company of government troops on their way to enforce the removal. Out of 110 soldiers, there were only 3 survivors. Thus began the second Seminole War.

The war had the overwhelming support of the Seminole people and their chiefs. Osceola sent a letter to General Clinch, in charge of US troops:

 You have guns, and so have we - you have men, and so have we - your men will fight, and so will ours, until the last drop of Seminole blood has moistened the dust of this hunting ground.

When the first group of 1100 US troops was sent to Florida to quell the rebellion, Osceola's warriors pinned them down for 10 days, forcing them to kill their horses for food. The Indians then asked for a truce, saying they were tired of fighting. General Gaines, commander of the army troops, thinking that the Indians had given up, sent the volunteer portion of his forces home.

Two chiefs, with about 400 of their followers, asked to be transported west. The rest of the Seminoles moved their families into the swamps and prepared to fight.

The Seminoles held out against the US Army for the next seven years. Their villages were burned; their crops were destroyed and their livestock was sold. Small groups of warriors would emerge to attack army units, only to melt back into the forest. When the soldiers waded into the swamps to follow the Indians, they were rarely able to make contact.

Over the years the Seminoles learned to survive in the marshes. They killed small game and fished. They crushed the native coontie root to make flour for bread, and they boiled the palmetto palms for cabbage, and ate the palmetto fruit. But the Indians suffered from constantly hiding and being on the run. 

One army officer described the conditioin of a group of Seminoles who came in to meet with General Macomb in the spring of 1839: 

"The men were destitute of clothing other than a buckskin shirt; and the women and children were almost in a state of nudity. Those who had covering were wropped up in old forage bags, picked up in the vicinity of abandoned posts; they were truly objects of commisseration."

One by one the Seminole chiefs surrendered with their people and were shipped out to join their brethren in Indian Territory, some in chains. The Indians, most of whom were already ill, were given inadequate care and supplies. They arrived in Indian Territory without clothing to shield them from the cold climate. About 20% of the migrating Indians died in route.   

General Jesup who was being criticized in the popular press for his failure to round up the Seminoles, became totally unscrupulous in his dealings with them. He allowed slave traders to select slaves from among the Seminole negroes who had surrendered, which was expressly prohibited by a treaty he had personally negotiated. He also hired Creek warriors to go on slave raids, promising freedom to negroes who would help him search for the Seminoles hiding in the swamps, and selling the rest into slavery. 

Jesup captured Seminoles who came in to parley under a flag of truce. He captured the principal Seminole Chief Mikanopi in this way and finally Osceola. This failure to abide by the time honored rules of war was even criticized in the white press.

In the fall of 1837, John Ross, chief of the Cherokees, who were having troubles of their own over the government's removal policy, offered to go to Florida to help pursuade the Seminole leaders to end their futile struggle. He and a group of Cherokee leaders followed Seminole representatives deep into the swamp for a meeting. As a result a large band of Seminoles who were assembled in hopes of a settlement were captured and made prisoners by General Jesup.

Incensed over being used as a tool for Jesup's treachery, John Ross appealed unsuccessfully to the Secretary of War for the Indians to be released.

A group of Army Generals, disgusted by the prolonged struggle, met with General Jesup to pursuade him to give up his struggle for this Florida swampland, and as a result, Jesup wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, asking for an end to the fighting: 

In regard to the Seminoles, we have committed the error of attempting to remove them when their land is not required for agricultural purposes; when they were not in the way of white inhabitants...As a soldier, it is my duty, I am aware, not to comment upon the policy of the Government, but to carry it out in accordance with my instructions... My decided opinion is, that unless immediate emigration be abandoned, the war will continue for years to come. 

The Secretary replied that he was powerless to suspend operations. 

Meanwhile, Osceola, who had inspired and led the Seminoles in their struggle, lay dying in prison. George Catlin, the famous artist, came to Ft. Moultrie to make a portrait of this valiant warrior. Osceola's wives brought him his ceremonial garb and he carefully painted his face with war paint and sat for the artist. He posed for four days, and then on the fifth day, January 30, 1838, unable to lift himself from the floor, Osceola died.    

After the death of Osceola, the US Army carried on the Seminole war for another three years. More chiefs gave up their struggle to continue their miserable existence in the Florida swamps. Those who surrendered were forced to leave without possessions. Their livestock, and their ponies had been sold. Their fields and homes had been burned. Many died as they were being transported as captives and deposited at Ft. Gibson in Indian Territory. The survivors stayed near the fort, dependant on the meager rations provided by the Army, and unable to move to their assigned lands because those areas had already been settled by Creeks. Several hundred Seminoles never surrendered, and the descendants of these proud people still live in the Florida Everglades.

The Seminoles lost about 40% of their population in the war and in the removal, but the survivors persisted in their struggle for sovereignty. Finally in 1856 the Seminoles were assigned their own domain in Indian Territory and were allowed to form their own government, independant from the Creek Nation.  

Friday, October 22, 2010

Loose Ends #5

As it turned out, five out of my last six posts have been about Chickasaw history and culture. The reason for this is that you need to understand the history of the Chickasaws to understand the history of our family. Smith Paul came to live with the Chickasaws in 1820, so by the time he accompanied them on their removal to Indian Territory in 1837 he would have been intimately familiar with Chickasaw culture. In 1844, he married my great great grandmother, Ela Teecha, a full blood Chickasaw woman, so at that point our family became an Indian family. Chickasaw history became our history and Chickasaw tradition became our tradition.

My first two posts described the Chickasaw wars with the French during the early 1700's. This is such a remarkable story that I just couldn't cram it into one post. The ability of the Chickasaws, who have always been a small tribe, to master the weapons and methods of fortification modern at the time and to prevail against a French army of superior numbers still amazes me. There have been many, including Bienville himself, who have attempted to make excuses for the French defeat, but you just have to give credit to the Chickasaws, not just for their bravery but for their organization, planning, and intelligence. They proved themselves superior in every way to the French, twice.  

After these two articles about Chickasaw history I decided to begin the story of Jim's maternal heritage even though I don't know many details about the Rosser family before the time of the Civil War. "Grandpa," as my mother knew him, fled his native Georgia after the War and brought his family west to Indian Territory. He really belongs to the next generation after Smith Paul, but he was so important in Jim's life I didn't want to wait too long before introducing him.

After beginning "Grandpa's" story, I went back to the story of Smith Paul. Smith didn't chronicle his experiences during the many years he spent with the Chickasaws in their homeland, but I think we can assume that he would have become thoroughly familiar with their culture and traditions, and he would have understood the tremendous changes they were going through. To get an idea about how great these changes were you have to know where the Chickasaws had come from.

In 1820, A Time of Change for the Chickasaws I described the close knit, matriarchal society of the Chickasaws prior to their contact with the white man, a society that was rich with legends and traditions, a society that was being disrupted in 1820, when Smith Paul came to live with them.

I believe that Chickasaw clan tradition explains much of our family history, and would probably explain more if we could only talk with our ancestors. The close relation between my great grandfather with his uncle Ja-paw-nee, and between my grandfather's older brother Joe and his uncle Tecumseh fits the Chickasaw tradition of the maternal uncle taking responsibility for educating young boys. Likewise the murder of my great grandfather Sam Paul by his own son Joe goes along with the Chickasaw tradition of holding family members responsible for executing warriors who became a threat to tribal interests.

In Chickasaw Legends I tried to explain how deeply spiritual the Chickasaws were, how they believed that supernatural forces affected every aspect of their lives, and how some of these beliefs have survived into recent times.

Smith Paul was living with the Chickasaws just when their ancient beliefs were being threatened. Imagine how helpless they must have felt: their healers unable to cure the white men's diseases, their shamans unable to stop the wave of white settlers that threatened their borders. As a final blow they were being forced to move away from their ancient homeland, where all their traditions, all their mythology and legends were rooted. Grant Foreman, in his book Removal explains it this way: "More than white people they cherished a passionate attachment for the earth that held the bones of their ancestors and relatives. Few white people either understood or respected this sentiment. The trees that shaded their homes and firesides, the cooling spring that ministered to every family, friendly watercourses, familiar trails and prospects, busk grounds, and council houses were their property and their friends; these simple possessions filled their lives; their loss was cataclysmic."  

In Chickasaw Life and Culture I dealt for the first time with the issue that split our family and led to the death of my great grandfather Sam Paul: the schism between the mixed blood and full blood factions within the tribe. Through the years the full bloods had withdrawn into the background, allowing the prosperous mixed bloods to take over tribal government, but when communal ownership of land, the last remnant of their ancient tribal customs became threatened, the full bloods rose up and reclaimed tribal leadership.

What comes next? The "Trail of Tears," or the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes to Indian Territory, now the present state of Oklahoma. This is the most significant event in the history of the Five Civilized Tribes and I've been worrying about how to deal with it, how to give it the emphasis that it deserves. What I have decided is to cover the removal of all the tribes instead of just the Chickasaws. It is really one story, a story of greed and cruelty, a story of suffering and death, a story of the end of a way of life.

Each tribe fought removal in its own way, but the tribes' struggles were all interconnected. The Chickasaw removal was actually the last of the large migrations, but while they learned from the struggles of their brothers, and used the same skills that had enabled them in the past to negotiate better conditions for themselves than the other tribes, in the end the Chickasaw migration was just as tragic as the rest.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chickasaw Culture and Beliefs, Continued

I want to explain a little more about the Chickasaw beliefs and concepts that Smith Paul would have learned during the time he lived with them in Mississippi. I've already explained the Chickasaw clan system and the changes in society brought about by dependence on manufactured goods and the move from villages to farms. My last post was about the Chickasaws' belief in a spirit world exemplified by the legend of the owl.

In addition to the spirits of the animals, there were other creatures who lived in the forest but were not as easy to see. Perhaps the most important of these were the "Little People." The Little People would sometimes help those in trouble or play tricks on those who offended them. They  interacted most often with children. Sometimes a child would be chosen to live among the little people for a while. During this time the child would be given special powers of healing. When the child grew up, he or she would become a healer or herbal doctor. Healers could not teach or impart their skills to others because their magic came from the Little People. To my knowledge there are no Chickasaw healers alive today. The last one I'm aware of died 20 or 30 years ago.

Clan or family loyalty was at the foundation of Chickasaw society. One tradition which illustrates this is the "Green Corn Festival." This tradition may not have been widely practiced at the time Smith Paul came to live with the Chickasaws, but he would surely have known of it. The Green Corn Festival was an annual meeting of each clan or village. Since clans were basically extended families you could think of the Green Corn Festival as a kind of family reunion. There was feasting, dancing and games. The chief or patriarch of the family would speak, or rather his "speaker" would speak for him (chiefs communicated with their tribes through their speakers), generally encouraging his people to be more generous and hospitable. Those who had done good during the year were praised and those who had transgressed were shamed. After the festival all wrongs were forgiven and each person was allowed to start the year afresh.
These ideas of the community as a family, and family responsibility for its members was something ingrained in Chickasaw thinking. As a logical extension of this concept, the family was responsible for educating children. A child's aunts and uncles were traditionally responsible for the child's early education - aunts for the girls and uncles for the boys - and as the children grew older, the tribes' elders took part. In the same way a family was responsible for its members' actions. For instance, if a person guilty of a crime didn't appear for his punishment, a family member took his place. If a person was guilty of acts harmful to the tribe it was up to his family to punish him.

The Chickasaws' customs and concepts were developed over the centuries and they were well suited to a people living in small groups depending on each other for survival. The spirits that fortified them in hard times and punished them if they did wrong supported them emotionally. Their custom of organizing society into family groups strengthened their loyalty to their village or clan. The harshest punishment for the Chickasaws was ostracism. According to one source it was a "punishment more to be dreaded by all Indians than a hundred deaths."

Another Chickasaw concept that was ideally suited to a society of small clan units was the belief that property should be held in common, and excess shared. The Indians just took this idea for granted, so early in the history of Indian-white interactions, Indians would sometimes go into a shop and pick up things without paying for them, considering them excess. It was also a customary sign of respect when meeting with someone of a different tribe to offer gifts, and to continue exchanging gifts if each party wanted to maintain peace. Some white traders and government officials ignored this custom in their early dealings with the Indians and suffered the consequences.

To the Indians a person's value consisted of what he could contribute to the tribe, not what he possessed, so they weren't concerned with amassing wealth or conversely in running up debt. Thomas Jefferson used this concept to the government's advantage, by building a network of government run trading posts and encouraging the Indians to go into debt. This way the government could force the Indians to cede their land to the government in order to pay off the debt.

That's where the mixed blood and intermarried white portion of the Chickasaw tribe differed from the full bloods. According to Chickasaw custom, the land in their domain belonged to the tribe. An individual could use as much as he needed, but upon his death, ownership reverted to the tribe. This concept was firmly held by the full blood portion of the tribe, but many of the mixed bloods and intermarried whites aspired to amass wealth just like the white settlers. In fact, according to Smith Paul's daughter Sippia (short for Mississippi), "My father was interested in farming, it was always his desire to (go) into the farming business on a large scale." This must have been part of the reason why Smith Paul married into the tribe, and also why he came west with them.  

Smith Paul had been west as far as California with wagon trains twice before the Chickasaw Removal in 1837. He knew then, contrary to the prevalent belief at the time, that the vast area between the Mississippi River and California was not a wasteland. He had travelled through the land where the government planned to send the Chickasaws, and he knew that it contained fertile valleys that could become productive farm land. When the Chickasaws finally decided to accept removal, Smith Paul went home to South Carolina for one last time and said goodbye to his family. While most  Chickasaws were despondent at being forced to leave their homelands in Mississippi, where the spirits of their ancestors rested, Smith Paul went eagerly, full of hope for the future.

This dichotomy between the fullblood Chickasaws and the mixed blood and white intermarried citizens continued. It's not that the mixed blood Chickasaws didn't understand their fullblood brothers. They sympathized with them and they fought to protect them from being cheated by white traders and by the U. S. government, but throughout the years they became wealthier, while the fullbloods became poorer. A clash was inevitable.

Smith Paul's son Sam, my great grandfather, tried in vain to persuade his fullblood brothers to accept the concept of individual ownership of land. He said, "I do not believe we will ever prosper until there is a change in our government - a complete change (including) changing the tenure of our land from a system of community to one of severality." The fullbloods were adament in preserving their ancient system however, and eventually the conflict led to violence, and to Sam Paul's death. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chickasaw Legends

The ancient Chickasaws lived in a world filled with spirits: spirits in the animals they hunted, spirits of forces of nature such as the sun and the wind, the spirits of those who had passed on, and spirits of unseen creatures which inhabited the forest. The Chickasaws believed that these spirits interacted with them in their daily lives, and they took great care not to offend them.

Each clan or village had a medicine man or shaman who not only could predict the future, he was held partially responsible for what happened. So when their was a drought, shortage of game, or loss in battle, the medicine man was held accountable. There were also healers who administered medicinal herbs and healing ceremonies to tribal members afflicted with illness. Animals each had their own special characteristics. The fox, for instance, had been cursed for his devious ways, while the wolf was considered sacred. The raccoon was admired for his ferocity. Dogs were valued because it was believed they could see spirits invisible to men.

Many of these old beliefs were still prevalent when Smith Paul came to live with the Chickasaws, and some have survived into the present times, both as legends handed down from one generation to another, but also as active beliefs and practices.

When my mother attended Bloomfield, a school for Chickasaw and Choctaw girls, a tribal medicine man came and ministered to one of the girls who was gravely ill. I recently met a lady at a Chickasaw gathering whose grandmother was a Chickasaw herbal doctor. She said that people would come for miles around to consult with her grandmother about their illnesses.

Some spiritual forces were good and some ill. In My mother's files I found an article about a legend that there were some humans who could change themselves into animal form. During Indian Territory days it was thought that some of the Indian Light Horsemen (Indian police) had this ability. My great grandfather was one of the Chickasaw Light Horsemen.

According to the article, evil witches often used the form of an owl to spread mischief. They would fly into a tree near their neighbors' houses to spy on them, and some could even steal years from their neighbors' lives, especially the ill or elderly, to add to their own lives. There was also a belief that if an owl hooted outside your house that someone was going to die.

My cousin told me a story about an incident that happened when she was a small child. She was riding in the car with her parents and was sucking on a lolly pop when the car hit a bump and lurched, causing the stick to be driven through the back of her throat. The next day she developed a high fever and her parents took her to the doctor. The doctor examined her throat and told them that she had developed an abscess. He gave her medication and was going to keep her in the hospital that night, but my cousin was so upset the doctor decided to send her home, saying that he had done all he could anyway. The doctor warned her parents though that if her fever didn't break during the night she might not survive. Late that night they heard an owl hooting outside. My cousin said that her father, who was 3/4 Chickasaw, became upset and went outside with his shotgun. He fired at the tree where he heard the owl and scared it away, but later the owl returned and hooted again. That night my cousin's fever broke and the next morning she was much better. Everyone relaxed and thanked God that my cousin had survived, but later that day they got word that my grandfather had died.

Monday, October 11, 2010

1820, A Time of Change for the Chickasaws

The last post was about my mother's maternal grandfather, J. T. Rosser, who fought in the Civil War. What I'd like to do now is to go back about 40 years and pick up again the story of Smith Paul, Jim's paternal great grandfather, to give you a picture of the world he stepped into when he joined the Chickasaws in 1820.

At that time the Chickasaws were still living in their homeland in northern Mississippi, although it was considerably smaller due to treaties that ceded large tracts of land to the states of Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. 

The Chickasaws had changed a lot during the almost one hundred years since the French Chickasaw Wars. The mixed blood portion of the tribe lived much like their white neighbors. Many were quite wealthy, owning large plantations. Although most of the Chickasaws weren't wealthy, their world had also changed. They now depended on manufactured goods and the money needed to buy them. The fur trade was much less lucrative, and those who still depended on hunting had to travel as far as the Arkansas and Red River valleys to find game. Most Chickasaws now relied on farming to earn their living, the same as the white settlers, and many sold supplies and services to travelers on the Natchez Trace, the main road between white settlements and the ports of Mobile and New Orleans. 

This change from a hunting to a farming economy caused significant changes to the Chickasaws' way of life. The village was less important as the center of the community. Pleasant Porter, Chief of the Creek tribe at the time of the Removal lamented the changes that had taken place:
AIn those days they always raised enough to eat, and that was all we wanted. We had little farms, and we raised patches of corn and potatoes, and poultry and pigs, horses and cattle, and a little of everything, and the country was prosperous. In fact in my early life I don=t know that I ever knew of an Indian family that were paupers. There is plenty of them now: there was none then. They were all prosperous and happy and contented in their way, and what more could they want? I say I don=t know of an Indian family in my early life that were paupers. In those days the ones that would be paupers if they lived now stayed with their kin folks and they made them work. Now, back of that the custom of the Creeks was that everybody had to work or live on the town, and the town had taskmasters who took care of him and saw that he worked. There was not a skulker or one who shirked amongst us then; quite different from what it is now. We had a kind of an Arcadian government then. If anyone was sick or unable to work, the neighbors came in and planted his crop, and they took care of it - saw that the fences were all rightBand the women took care of the garden, and wood was got for him, and so on. In fact, everything was done under the care of the peopleBthey did everything and looked after the welfare of everything. The Creek had that much knowledge, that they cared for each other in that way; and while they used to live in towns in Alabama, out here in this peaceful country they had scattered out just like white men, and each one had gone to his farm,...@

Chickasaw society had always been based on family groups or clans. Our clan was the Im-mo-suck-cha, or fish clan. According to historian John Swanton the Im-mo-suck-cha clan were wealthy, and their men were held in high esteem as warriors. Chickasaw society was matriarchal so the clan was determined by the mother. Villages consisted predominantly of one clan. It was forbidden to marry within the same clan, and when a man married, he moved to his wife's village. The responsibility for teaching children rested on maternal aunts for girls, and uncles for boys. Roles for men and women were clearly defined. The men hunted and fought, while the women managed the crops and the household.
Moving away from towns changed all of this. The community was broken up, and with it the support it provided. The men, with no wars to fight and no game to hunt, were left idle. Slowly the men learned to take over the farm work, but it was a difficult change for them, because tilling the fields was traditionally women's work. Many turned to alcohol, which was easy to get from white merchants, even though  it was outlawed by the tribal council.
The traditional Chickasaw government was family or clan based. Villages were led by chiefs who inherited their positions. Sometimes there were also war chiefs who obtained their status by their bravery in battle. Clans varied in their character, some being considered warlike and others peaceful, and there was a rich tradition of legends associated with each clan. The Chickasaws had a central government or "Council" of chiefs, which was called into session periodically by the principal chief, called Minko or King. The last Chickasaw King, Ish-te-ho-to-pa, and the last War Chief, Tishomingo, both lived to come west to Indian territory in 1837 with the tribe

The Chickasaw system of government evolved with changing times. The Chickasaws had a written code of laws by 1929 and a police force. The laws were simple forbidding stealing, murder and drunkenness. There were no jails and no need for them. Even after the Chickasaws moved west to Indian territory those found guilty of a crime were honor bound to report for their punishment even for the death penalty. My grandmother used to be able to point out the location of the "whipping tree," where whippings were given for stealing or drunkenness. According to tradition, if the guilty party failed to report for punishment, a member of his family would suffer the punishment in his stead.

Smith Paul must have grown to love and respect his noble hosts as he watched them confront the challenges they faced.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010



As I mentioned in a previous post, Earliest Memories, my mother Jim was named after her grandfather, James T. Rosser. Grandpa grew up in Cedartown, Georgia, before the Civil War. His parents owned a plantation there and slaves. Grandpa had a "play boy" named Nat, a slave his age who was his companion growing up. Jim didn't say so but I wonder if he was also a whipping boy. She was told that they were as close as brothers.

When "Grandpa" went off to fight in the Civil War, Nat went with him but ran away when the fighting started. He returned home saying that his young "master" had been killed. The family told this as a joke, as if Nat was a coward. It occurred to me that he might have had conflicting loyalties, or simply decided it wasn't his fight.

After the war Nat went to Texas with an uncle of Grandpa's, and apparently visited his old playmate as a free man, and an old friend, so maybe they were as close as brothers.

Grandpa had been educated at a military school, and Jim said that he always held himself erect, "like he had a poker up his back bone," because of his military training. He enlisted on May 6, 1862, for "3 years or the War." It was about a year after Secession.

Shortly after his enlistmant Grandpa became ill - possibly with malaria? - and was taken to an island off the coast according to the story Jim was told. There he was nursed back to health by a woman who ran a kind of hospital there. Grandpa always credited her for saving his life. The records are incomplete so we don't know if Grandpa returned to his original unit, but he wasn't there on the only other muster available, September and October, 1862.

About a year later, presumably after he had recovered his health, Grandpa returned to duty, but only for six months. Then he resigned. It was about the same time that General William Tecumseh Sherman's army moved into Georgia. As Sherman made his way through Georgia, he did go through the Rosser plantation. I doubt if Grandpa was there though. It would have been too dangerous. I rather think he went to Mobile, Alabama, to join his fiancee, Emily Bass. He and Emily were married in Mobile, and then returned to Georgia after the War.

Grandpa's family was treated leniently by Sherman's army. As the story goes, Sherman was destroying the crops and most of the buildings, so Grandpa's mother decided to try and save some of the family's wealth by hiding silverware and jewelry in her bed. When an officer came to the house - I don't know if it was Sherman or not - Grandpa's mother was in bed "sick." Fortunately the officer accepted her story. She saved the silver and she saved her home. 

I think the story is pretty remarkable because the Rosser slaves apparently supported the ruse. I'd like to think they were loyal because the Rossers had been good to them, but maybe they were just afraid of retaliation.

Grandpa was always addressed as "Captain Rosser" after the War, but according to his military records he was only a sergeant. He was proud of his service with the Confederacy. Jim said that Grandpa's uniform hung in the closet "until the moths ate it up." 

When Jim was little, probably five or six, one of Grandpa's cousins visited him - I think it was a Whitehead -  wearing a Confederate uniform. Jim said that Mamma told her she could sit with them if she was quiet, so she sat with her Grandpa while he laughed and talked with his cousin.

It was Grandpa's opinion that the Civil War could have been avoided. "It was started by some Hot Heads," he said. Grandpa also had a lot of respect for Abraham Lincoln. He thought that if Lincoln had lived, the Reconstruction period would have easier for the South.

After the War the Rosser family's fortune was gone. According to the story Mamma told, when the slaves came to Grandpa's mother asking for help she told them, "I'm as poor as you are." Actually that wasn't true. The Rossers still had their land, and they recovered. Grandpa and Emily intended to stick it out in Georgia, but something happened which changed everything.  

One day Grandpa met one of the family's former slaves on the road to town, and they started talking about the upcoming elections. For a while after the war the freed slaves were allowed to vote, at least until the southern whites regained control and figured out a way to disenfranchise them again. Anyway Grandpa was talking to the man about the upcoming election, when up came a "carpetbagger," the term used by southerners for northern opportunists who came south after the War to take advantage of the unstable conditions.

The carpetbagger told Grandpa he shouldn’t be telling the black man how to vote. An argument ensued, and then a fight. Grandpa knocked the carpetbagger down, and he didn't get up. Grandpa knew he was in trouble. He didn't stop to find out if the man was alive, he just ran home. Grandpa knew that he would go to jail, and with the hostile reconstruction government in power, he might hang.

That night he and Emily packed what they could fit into a wagon, hitched up the oxen, and took off. I don’t know what happened to the carpetbagger, and I don't know whether the authorities organized a search, but Grandpa and his little family escaped. They headed west toward Texas. Grandpa's brother Ed had settled there.

They made the journey in stages, travelling a hundred miles or so at a time. Grandpa would farm for a while, save some money, and then they would move on. They never made it to Texas though. They ended up settling in Indian Territory in 1888. Their journey had taken over 20 years.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The French Chickasaw War of 1736

After the first French Chickasaw War, (see last post) Jean Baptiste Le Moyne d=Bienville, the governor of Louisianna, became obsessed with annihilating the Chickasaws, and for almost 30 years he did everything in his power to accomplish that goal. I saw a statue of him in New Orleans. They should replace it with a statue of a Chickasaw warrior. The same goes for Andrew Jackson, but I digress.

Down through history the rights of indigenous peoples have been disregarded, and the Native Americans were no exception. Even now, most history books portray history from the point of view of the settlers, making homes for themselves in a savage wilderness, and protecting themselves from wild animals and Indians. It's easy to excuse or to even justify the cruelty with which the Indians were treated when you look at history in this way, but when these Native Americans are your ancestors, your family, you start to see things in a different light.

The colonial powers, the Spanish, the French and British considered North America as a prize to be divided up among themselves. The Indian tribes were just one of the obstacles in their way. The Indians were manipulated with bribes and lies to become allies of one side or the other, or if they were obstinate they were subjugated either by military force or by educating and "civilizing" them. No consideration was given for their rights as individual human beings, not to mention  the fact that they were the rightful owners of the continent.

One of the things I admire about the Chickasaws is that throughout their history they never allowed themselves to be intimidated. They learned to communicate and to negotiate without being cheated; they learned to use the white man's technology to defend themselves and to improve their lives, they learned to use diplomacy to deal with their neighbors and to play the Europeans off against each other, and when these methods failed, the Chickasaws were tough enough to defend themselves.

They proved that to the Spanish in 1541 and to the French and British in 1720. The French, who just barely survived their war with the Chickasaws, said of them, "These people breathe nothing but war … are unquestionably the bravest of the continent." The assessment by the British, who were fortunate to be allies of the Chickasaws, was that the Chickasaw Nation was strategically located to "command all the water Passages between New Orleans and Canada, and from that River to the backs of our Colonies," and the Chickasaws themselves were "expert Horsemen (having perhaps the finest breed of Horses in N. America); by much the best Hunters; and without Exception … the best Warriors."

With the typical European attitude however, the British proceeded to use the Chickasaws to insinuate their influence among other tribes in the region, and to further their ultimate goal of taking the region for themselves. The Chickasaws cooperated because they still enjoyed the British trade and didn't feel threatened by the British colonists. They even managed to turn some of the Choctaw and Natchez in the area to the British side. The situation came to a head in 1729 when Natchez warriors attacked two French settlements, killing 250 Frenchmen and taking 300 women and children hostage. The French retaliated by practically annihilating the Natchez tribe. The survivors sought refuge among the Chickasaws. The French blamed the whole affair on the Chickasaw influence, and when the Chickasaws refused to hand over the Natchez refugees, they murdered three Chickasaw agents.

This started a series of raids by the Chickasaws on French shipping along the Mississippi, and retaliation by the French and their Choctaw allies against Chickasaw towns. The French also paid bounties to warriors from northern tribes for hostages from Chickasaw villages.

Bienville, who had been away in France for three years, returned in 1732 and decided that this situation was unacceptable. He decided to mass his forces, not Indians this time, but French regulars whom he would lead personally, to defeat the Chickasaws once and for all. 

Bienville's spies assessed the Chickasaw strength, and mapped their villages. He built a fort on the northern boundary of the Choctaw Nation, Fort Tombeckbe, from which to base his campaign. He assembled 600 French soldiers, and 600 Choctaws of unquestioned loyalty, and he ordered the commander of French troops in Illinois, Major Pierre D'Artaguette, to meet him at his new fort in March 1736.

Meanwhile the Chickasaws were not idle. They enclosed their households in pallisades; built forts around their towns, surrounding them with shoulder deep trenches, and built their arsenal of British made weapons. 

On March 25, 1736, on the way to meet Bienville, D'Artaguette made the mistake of trying to plunder a Chickasaw village for supplies. The warriors in the Chickasaw village pinned down D'Artaguette's men until reinforcements arrived. Then they massacred the French. All but 20 were killed or captured. D'Artaguette and a priest were burned alive by the furious Chickasaws. Then it was the Chickasaws who did the plundering, retrieving 450 pounds of powder, 12000 bullets and 11 horses from the French baggage train.

Two months later Bienville was ready for his main attack. He chose the village of Akia, the site which I visited with my mother in 1960. Bienville marched his forces forward, flags flying, drums beating, and guns blazing at 3 oclock in the afternoon, May 26, 1736. Bienville's forces broke through the Chickasaws' outer defenses, but as they poured into the village they were caught in a crossfire between the fortified households. When the first French units were cut to pieces, Bienville sent in reinforcements, but they met with the same fate. It was only three hours before Bienville withdrew in defeat. 

Informed by the French minister to the colonies that the King was anxious to restore "The honor of France" and that 700 additional troops were being sent to insure "the destruction of the Chickasaw Indians" Bienville began again to plan for an attack on the Chickasaws. It took him three years to prepare for his second campaign. This time he would supplement his forces with cannons and bombs to help destroy the Chickasaw fortifications. In Autumn of 1739 Bienville proceeded up the Mississippi River with 3600 troops. Additional troops were sent from Canada.

The Chickasaws were aided by the weather during this second conflict with Bienville. Heavy rain caused the French baggage train to bog down along the 100 mile route from the Mississippi River to the principal Chickasaw settlements, and the Chickasaws delayed it further by launching attacks along the way. Finally Bienville sent out a detachment of 600 Canadian troops, augmented by Choctaw and Iroquois mercenaries, to attack a Chickasaw town. After a two day siege and numerous casualties, the Canadians withdrew and sent the Chickasaws a message requesting a peace parlay. The French met with a Chickasaw delegation in February, 1736, and agreed to cease hostilities and exchange prisoners.

After his second failure to defeat the Chickasaws, Bienville was replaced as governor of Louisiana by the Marquis de Vaudreuil. The Chickasaws continued to harass the French by attacking their settlements and shipping, and by creating dissension among the Choctaws. While there is no definite proof of it, it has been said that Vaudreuil tried again and failed to annihilate the Chickasaws in 1752.

At any rate the Chickasaws held their own against the French until the conclusion of the French and Indian war in 1763. Although they were not invited to the negotiations in Paris, they Chickasaws were largely responsible for the French giving up their claims to the territory from Canada to Mobile.

Some day, if there's any justice, maybe a statue of a Chickasaw warrior will be placed in New Orleans, to recognize that it was the Chickasaws Indians who were responsible for dominance of the British over the French in North America.