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Choctaw Removal

Since the Choctaw were the first of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek (Muskogee), Cherokee, and Seminole) to give up their southern homeland for a section of Indian Territory, the U.S. government planned to make their relocation as agreeable as possible. That way, other tribes would be less reluctant to sign removal treaties and move west. However, a combination of factors, including inclement weather, cholera, dysentery, transportation problems, whiskey peddlers, and government cutbacks, made their 500-mile march to the West fatal for some and mournful for others. From 1818, U.S. policymakers targeted the Choctaw for removal from the South. They were a large, peaceful tribe who were enthusiastic about educating their youth.

Beginning in 1818, during President James Monroe's administration, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun tried to induce the Choctaw to immigrate to the West. A proponent of education and fair dealings, Calhoun wanted the decision to be the Choctaw's and refused to employ the threat of force to secure their cooperation. However, in 1818 Choctaw chiefs refused to consider westward migration when Calhoun's commissioners first proposed it to them. White Mississippians badgered Calhoun to obtain for them the Choctaw's fertile cotton lands. In 1819, Calhoun appointed Andrew Jackson a commissioner, and the frontier general determined to bring the Choctaw to the negotiation table. After Jackson's opening address, Choctaw chief Pushmataha answered that his people were unwilling to move and that, furthermore, they knew the land in the West to be greatly inferior. Having failed to get a removal treaty signed, Jackson ridiculed Calhoun for his lenient Indian policy. He also accused the Choctaw's missionaries of interfering with his efforts to buy the Native group's remaining lands. Later, missionaries were barred from treaty grounds.

In 1820 at Doak's Stand, Jackson headed another treaty conference. This time he proposed that the Choctaw exchange one-third of their prime delta land (more than 5 million acres) for a larger tract of undeveloped land in western Arkansas and what was later eastern Indian Territory. Despite the Choctaw's distrust of the general, they reluctantly signed the Treaty of Doak's Stand (1820) to maintain friendly relations with the United States. While white Mississippians cheered Jackson's triumph in obtaining a huge land cession, Arkansans denounced the treaty because some whites were already settled on the lands in the territory that the treaty assigned to the Choctaw. In 1824, Pushmataha died of croup in Washington, D.C., during negotiations leading up to the Treaty of Washington City (1825), which moved the boundaries of the Choctaw's newly acquired Arkansas lands further to the west. Apuckshunnubbee, another great hereditary chief, died on this treaty mission, and the deaths stunned the Choctaw Nation. The only remaining traditional chief was Mushulatubbee.

In his first annual address to Congress (1829), President Andrew Jackson announced that he was going to get tough on the Choctaw and other southern Native Americans who refused to move west. Encouraged by Jackson's election, in late 1828 and early 1829, the state of Mississippi extended its civil and criminal laws over the Choctaw and the Chickasaw and outlawed tribal governments; it strengthened these laws in 1830. Indians were to expect no protection from the federal government, which wanted to break down their resistance to moving west. Jackson's treaty commissioners warned that the whites could summon thousands of soldiers to compel the Natives to submit to Mississippi's laws. Convinced of the inevitability of removal, Choctaw chief Greenwood LeFlore and his supporters began talks with the commissioners. These Choctaw were Christianized and materially better off than their countrymen. In the final removal treaty, they awarded themselves valuable tracts of lands that they selected themselves. Although the other district chiefs Mushulatubbee and Nitakechi (spelled variously) resented LeFlore's leadership in U.S. negotiations, they too realized that the United States could force their exodus.

On September 27, 1830, the three district chiefs signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830). The older chiefs may have signed because they feared losing their influence and a chance to profit from the proceedings. LeFlore had promised to deliver a removal treaty in exchange for a guarantee of sufficient land reserves to set himself up as a planter, for he had long intended to remain in Mississippi. With the treaty of 1830, the chiefs exchanged the remaining Choctaw lands in Mississippi with lands in Indian Territory. For the most part, it was an unfavorable treaty that left the Choctaw vulnerable to a forced, military-directed march. The articles in the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty included provisions for one blanket per family, which they were to receive at the end of the trail; removal within three years; and Article 14, which permitted Choctaw to remain in Mississippi on small, individually owned allotments. However, U.S. Indian agent William Ward failed to uphold this provision. He bullied most Choctaw into making the western trek and made it impossible for all but a sprinkling of Choctaw to obtain homesteads.

In each of the districts, the Choctaw people protested the treaty and tried to replace the treaty signers by voting in chiefs who would fight government efforts to force their relocation. LeFlore was reportedly obliged to "fly the country" until resistance turned passive. The U.S. government, which controlled the Choctaw's annuity funds and a standing army, refused to recognize any leaders other than the ones who signed the treaty. It also sent a company of cavalry into the Choctaw Nation to guard against a potential Choctaw uprising.

Even before the Senate ratified the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty, white squatters poured into the Choctaw's homeland and drove some unfortunate tribal members out of their homes. LeFlore played real estate agent, selling off individual Choctaw homes to whites, and then he organized a large, nonofficial removal party himself. While profiting from this role, LeFlore prevented whites from defrauding his clients of their lands, which was usually the case for Choctaw who negotiated with whites unaided by him or another literate Choctaw. LeFlore never moved to Indian Territory. Instead, he carved out a cotton plantation on the land he received for expediting the removal treaty and went on to serve as a Mississippi state senator.

In November, the Choctaw began to assemble near Greenwood LeFlore's home in preparation for removal. Their plan was to cross the Mississippi at Vicksburg and travel through Louisiana and southwestern Arkansas to Ecore Fabre, now Camden, Arkansas, and then west to the Choctaw Nation. Few, however, could be convinced to remove voluntarily. Government officials wrangled over the best routes and the logistics of removal, effectively delaying removal a year. Francis Armstrong, a close acquaintance of Andrew Jackson, became Choctaw removal agent east of the Mississippi, and Capt. Jacob Brown became agent west of the river. Finally, in the fall of 1831, the Choctaw became the first of the southeastern tribes to move west under government-directed relocation.

Traveling by wagons, horseback, and foot, some went overland to Memphis, but most went to Vicksburg. At Vicksburg some crossed the river and took the route small parties had traveled earlier. Others took steamboats up the river to Arkansas Post. Still others went downstream and then up the Red and Ouachita Rivers to Ecore Fabre. That year was one of the coldest on record, and many early emigrants lacked footwear and adequate clothing. Exposure weakened and killed many of the barely clad, poorly provisioned, and inadequately sheltered people on the march. The groups at Arkansas Post huddled in camps with nighttime temperatures near zero. Some traveled overland to Little Rock in extremely cold temperatures. Others took boats to Little Rock. From there, most crossed the Arkansas River and traveled down the Southwest Trail to Washington, Arkansas, and then turned west to the Choctaw Nation.

Despite the weather, those who went through central Arkansas fared better than those who went across southern Arkansas. Those who took steamboats to Ecore Fabre found no supplies awaiting them when they arrived. The group that had crossed the Mississippi at Vicksburg became bogged down in the swamps near Lake Providence, Louisiana, and had to be rescued, taken to Monroe, and then brought by boat to Ecore Fabre. Like those who had arrived there before them, they were hungry, and their conductor had to buy supplies on credit from local suppliers, who charged exorbitant prices. From Ecore Fabre, the parties traveled west to Washington and then to the Choctaw Nation.

In 1832, emigrating parties departed earlier in the year, but then cholera presented even a greater threat and made the Choctaw fearful of crowded steamboat passage. Again, parties were taken first to Vicksburg and Memphis. Those who left Vicksburg went up the Mississippi and White River to Rock Roe, Arkansas, from which point they traveled overland to Little Rock and then to Indian Territory. Those who went to Memphis were supposed to take boats to Little Rock, but the cholera epidemic had reached Memphis, and many Choctaw refused to board the boats because they feared the disease. Most chose to brave the Mississippi Swamp and the other rigors of overland travel, going by way of Mouth of Cache, now Clarendon, Arkansas, crossing the White River and joining those who had gone to Rock Roe. From there, all traveled across the Grand Prairie to Little Rock. In November 1832, a major outbreak of cholera occurred at Rock Roe, causing a large number of deaths. Most of the survivors did not reach their destination until January 1833.

Choctaw removal was physically more difficult than the removals of any of the other large tribes in the Southeast. Those who separated from large, government-conducted parties often got bogged down in swamps and cut off from necessary supplies. Emigrant parties suffered from dysentery as well as cholera because good water had become scarce along the emigration routes. To make matters worse, thieves stole emigrants' horses and livestock and peddled whiskey to desperate souls. Many of the difficulties were due to the government's lack of organization during the first year of Choctaw removal. It was the first removal of a large mass of population, and there was a good bit of trial and error in the process.

In 1836, there were still upwards of 6,000 to 7,000 Choctaw in Mississippi, and whites clamored for their forced relocation elsewhere. The Choctaw holdouts faced legal battles, intimidation, and sometimes violence. Congress passed an act in July of that year to allow for more government-organized Choctaw removal, fearful that the Choctaw might join Creek resistance. In all, nearly 15,000 Choctaw made the move to what would be called Indian Territory. Others remained on private tracts or church lands, and today their descendants constitute the federally recognized Mississippi Band of Choctaw.

Wendy St. Jean


Further Reading
Debo, Angie. The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967; Akers, Donna. Living in the Land of Death: The Choctaw Nation, 1830–1860. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004; DeRosier, Arthur. The Removal of the Choctaw Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970; Kidwell, Clara Sue. Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995; Stahl, Mary Lou. The Ones That Got Away, A Choctaw Trail of Tears. Angleton, TX: Biotech Publishing, 1996.
 

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