Philip Mullins

Chapter 6 – The Removal of the Choctaw

1763-1808 
 
 Summary: The US government obtained the land that is now Pike County, Mississippi, from the Choctaw Indian Nation. The government used trade and coercion to obtain grants of land from the Choctaw. The Choctaw were forced to leave Mississippi after 1830.
Early contacts between the Choctaw and the Europeans
The success of the cotton crop in South Carolina created the necessary conditions for the Great Migration of settlers looking for suitable cotton land. To the west lay broad areas of such land. But good land is rarely unoccupied. In order for our ancestors to be able to move westward and occupy this good land, it was first necessary to displace its original owners.

In the southern part of North America just east of the Mississippi River lived several nations of Indians whose life style did not differ a great deal from that of the immigrant Europeans. The Choctaw, in particular, lived in towns. They were a commercially aggressive but peaceful agricultural people who raised and sold large surpluses of grain. They also managed large herds of cattle. They sold their surplus cattle and corn to the incoming whites. Long before their contact with DeSoto in 1540 they had settled widely in what are now the states of Mississippi and Alabama. They had once lived further east in Alabama but had been pushed west by the Creek and the Alabama Indians. In Mississippi they established a decentralized and, apparently, democratic government. In their treaties with the French, Spanish and British governments, the Choctaw as well as the Cherokee , Chickasaw and Creeks were recognized as independent nations having legal title to the land that they occupied.

The Europeans and these so-called Civilized Indians lived on and used the land in much the same manner. However the European immigrants had no deep attachment to whatever region they lived in. They were liable to pull up stakes and move to regions further west at the first opportunity. Indeed land speculation was a major driving force of the American economy. This inevitably led to trouble with the original inhabitants because it would become necessary once again to beg, borrow or steal more land. We have already seen how South Carolina whites fought numerous times with the Cherokee over land rights in that state.

In an effort to win the allegiance of the Indians from the French and the Spanish, and also to prevent further disturbances between the Indians and the settlers, in 1763 the British government prohibited new settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1765 the British made a treaty with the Choctaw Nation that defined its borders. This treaty also forbade encroachment by British settlers on Choctaw land. Less than ten years after the signing of this treaty the increasing tension between the British and the merchants and traders of New England, Virginia and South Carolina erupted into the Revolutionary War. The revolt eventually brought all of the British colonies south of Quebec into open conflict with the Crown. In the civil war that followed the British and their allies were unable to completely destroy the rebel forces. In 1783 the British faced a growing anti-war movement at home and a resurgence of French imperial ambitions in Europe. The British government decided to give up their half-hearted efforts for a military solution in the Americas. They withdrew their troops and left the rebels to form a new government, the United States of America.

With the return of peace the Americans began to think again about opening the lands between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi River to white settlement. The new federal government felt the need to strengthen the nation’s defense by establishing a strong population of citizens on the frontiers of what had been British North America. The land claimed by the Crown and inherited by the Americans was bounded on the south by Spanish Florida at the 31st parallel and on the west by the Mississippi River. The southern portion of this area was named the Southwest Territory by Congress. This territory included what are now the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Most of the unorganized portion of this territory belonged by treaty to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Choctaw Nations. Each of these people were organized into national governments not much different from that of the United States. Each nation had treaties with various European superpowers which recognized them as owners of the lands inside their respective domains.
American policy toward the Choctaw Nation
The US government and the settlers suspected that these Indian nations were militarily powerful enough to resist an invasion by American troops. Furthermore the European nations to which the Indians were allied seemed willing to come to their aid in the event of open warfare with the Americans. Accordingly in 1785, just two years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the US government signed a treaty with the Choctaw to establish friendly relations with them. Shortly afterward the Spanish too negotiated treaties of friendship with the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek and the Cherokee nations. In the treaty with the Choctaw the Spanish acquired land near the mouth of the Yazoo River upon which to build a fort. This fort was meant to control the Natchez District whose English-speaking settlers had remained neutral during the War.

Spanish troops had occupied the Natchez District in 1781 two years after their seizure of British West Florida. The Spanish Governor and his troops were isolated from reinforcements and were in constant disagreement with the English-speaking planters of Natchez. Consequently the Spanish relinquished their claim in 1795. American troops moved into Natchez immediately after the Spanish had left. This was in 1798. In April of that year the tiny Mississippi Territory was created with its capital at Natchez. The French or Spanish still controlled all the land west of the Mississippi River, the Spanish or British controlled all the land south of the present Mississippi-Louisiana state line and the Choctaw and the Chickasaw controlled the rest of the state. The newly organized Mississippi Territory was completely surrounded by alien territory.

The willingness of the Indian nations to sign treaties with the Spanish, who were enemies of the US, reminded the American government that the Indians were not dependable allies. For their part the Indians knew that of all the European groups they had to deal with, the Americans were by far the most threatening. The Indians reacted to the Americans in several different ways. For example, as soon as it became apparent that the Americans had won their war for independence in 1793, the Alabama and the Chousatta Indians left Alabama. They had strong ties with the French and knew that they would be welcomed by the French in Louisiana. They broke into small bands and traveled south to the Gulf Coast and then moved along the coastal plain to avoid their ancient enemies, the Choctaw. They established villages in several places in south-central Louisiana, always staying ahead of the advancing whites. In the 1830s they lost their land in Louisiana to whites and many of them moved west to the Republic of Texas. Eventually they were given reserves in Texas and Louisiana. During the same period the Kickapoo, originally from the Great Lakes region, fled to Mexico where they were welcomed by the Mexican government. They continue to live in Mexico just south of the US border and make their living as migrant farm workers. The Choctaw of Mississippi were very aware of what was happening to other native peoples, most of whom they thought inferior. However they choose to remain friendly to the Americans.
Tensions over land rights
After the success of the Revolution the British prohibition against moving west of the Appalachian mountains was disregarded and more and more whites encroached on Indian land. The resulting hostility was increased by the sale of whiskey to the Indians as part of the hide trade. Despite this the Choctaw people seemed to have believed that they and the Americans could live harmoniously together. However the citizens of the US, and in particular those in the frontier areas, were almost universally hostile to and afraid of the Indians. They made little distinction between the Choctaw and other, more hostile Indians. The Choctaw, on their part, accused the whites of sealing their land and property, of killing any Indian who refused to move and of breaking every white law and treaty in effect. The Choctaw appealed to the territorial governor to keep his citizens in line but nothing effective was ever done. Indeed the governor had no intention of doing anything that would slow the immigration of white settlers to Mississippi.
Jefferson’s policy of removal
When the Revolution of 1800 brought Thomas Jefferson to the presidency, both the Indians and the whites looked to the federal government for support. Jefferson finally decided to solve the Indian problem by Americanizing the native people into free-holding farmers. He recognized that this process would take a long time so he proposed a significant and far-reaching innovation in American-Indian relations. Jefferson proposed that all the Indians living east of the Mississippi River in tribal groups be removed to west of the river. Jefferson justified this policy partly for humanitarian reasons. He realized that if the Indians were to maintain themselves as a distinct culture, they would have to be separated from the whites. Perhaps more importantly Jefferson believed that the federal government must acquire all of the lands bordering the east side of the Mississippi River so that the USA could present “as strong a frontier on our western as we have on our eastern border.”

Jefferson’s removal policy took more definite shape when the USA acquired Louisiana from the French in 1803. Despite the fact that the Louisiana Purchase ended the threat of hostile forces on the Mississippi River, its acquisition made the removal a practicality and hence an inevitability. It provided a large and unoccupied tract of land north and west of the settled portion of Louisiana which seemed an excellent locale upon which to exile the Indians. The idea of removal was not emphasized in treaty negotiations before the War of 1812. Instead after 1800 the government’s policy was to obtain land in the frontier areas without completely alienating the Indians. It wanted to obtain title in the land legally, without excessive fraud, and in manageable quantities. For the next few years, until sufficient whites could be brought in to take care of the needs of defending the frontier, the Indians had to be pacified and if possible made allies against the French, English and Spanish. At the same time it would be necessary to take whatever steps were possible to strengthen US military forces on the frontier.
Land Cessions
In December 1801 President Jefferson sent a commission to negotiate a second treaty with the Choctaw. To appease the US government the Choctaw ceded 2,600,000 acres of land in a strip running along the Mississippi River from south of the Yazoo River to the border with French Louisiana and the West Florida Parishes. This cession included the region around Natchez where there was already considerable white settlement. This area had already been declared the Mississippi Territory in 1798. The land ceded by this treaty included the western portion of Amite County but did not include what is now Pike County. The government asked for this original cession of land because it wanted to build outposts to control traffic on the Mississippi River. The US government felt that a Napoleonic invasion of Louisiana was immanent. Fort Adams was quickly built just north of the border with Spanish West Florida.

Also on the basis of this second treaty with the Choctaw, the US army improved the Natchez Trace into a wagon road. The Natchez Trace followed the height of land and ran diagonally from the northeastern corner of the present State of Mississippi to Natchez. The Natchez Trace ran through the heart of the Choctaw nation. This same treaty gave the US the right to lay out and construct a wagon road through the southern part of the Choctaw nation. This road was to facilitate travel from US-held land in Alabama to the Mississippi Territory. This second road, the Three-Chopped Way, was marked from central Alabama to Natchez. It ran almost directly east to west along the northern border of what is now Lincoln County, Mississippi. The road originated at the Macon to New Orleans federal road just north of Mobile. It was this road that settlers traveling overland from Georgia into Mississippi would have used.

The 2,600,000 acres ceded by the Choctaw in 1801 did little to satisfy the land hunger of the white settlers. The land the Choctaw had ceded was surrounded on the north and east by the Choctaw Nation. Settlers from the eastern states had to travel nearly 200 miles through Indian territory to reach the newly opened land. In addition except for the English population of the Natchez District, the nearest whites were the French or Spanish-speaking residents of southern Louisiana with whom the US was more or less at war. Nevertheless many settlers did come and they gave the southwestern corner of the present State of Mississippi a relatively dense population by 1805.

Six months after ceding the land along the Mississippi River the Choctaw signed yet another treaty with the US to finalize the border between the US and the Choctaw Nation. The border was to be identical with that of the British treaty of 1765. When the survey was completed in 1803 the US took possession of a small area of Choctaw land in northern Mississippi. In April of 1803 the US ratified the purchase of Louisiana and the state of Georgia agreed to relinquish its claim to the land west of its present border. In 1805 an office of the US Surveyor-General was set up at the territorial capital at Washington, Mississippi. Settlers began to trickle in from the eastern states and in less than a year the government once again approached the Choctaw for another treaty. The Choctaw at first absolutely refused to discuss the cession of more land. However this time the commissioners tried a new, and for the commercially astute Choctaw farmers, a more dangerous approach.

Since its first dealings with the Choctaw in 1785 the US government had encouraged the growth of trade with the Indians. A treaty had been signed in Hopewell, South Carolina, in 1785 stipulating that the US would build three trading posts in the Choctaw Nation. The US granted these posts as a concession to the British supply firm of Panton, Leslie and Company of Pensacola, Florida. As part of Jefferson’s policy to legally extinguish the Indians title to the land, the Choctaw were encouraged to buy on credit. Thus when the commissioners approached the Choctaw for a new treaty in 1803, they had in hand a number of overdue bills for goods that had already been received and for which the trading firm was demanding immediate payment. Faced with these bills the Choctaw chiefs ceded 850,000 acres of land lying north of Mobile to the US government. The land was to be sold and the proceeds used to pay the debt. Although this land was easily accessible to settlers from South Carolina and Georgia, this third secession did not satisfy the demand for more land. The government began building additional trading houses in the Choctaw Nation to encourage more and larger debts among the Indians.

By 1805, less than two year later, the firm of Panton, Leslie and Company was able to claim debts of $46,000 against the Choctaw. When the Choctaw could not pay the bill, the US sent agents to negotiate a settlement similar to the one two years earlier. The Choctaw were furious and at first refused to even discuss the cession of more land. The talks dragged on, marked by bitter arguments, until finally in great disgust the Choctaw agreed to cede 4,000,000 acres of good land in return for $50,500 in cash. $48,000 was to be paid directly to Panton, Leslie and Company. The land thus obtained consisted of a strip thirty miles wide and extending from north of Mobile westward to the Mississippi Territory. By this treaty the US obtained more land than the previous three treaties combined.

Although it was the purpose of President Jefferson to bankrupt the Indians out of their land, he disapproved of the 1805 treaty because he felt that the small sum offered for such an enormous amount of good land was unfair. He refused to sign the treaty. However two years later the US and Spain were on the verge of war over Florida and the President needed the full support of the settlers in the Southwest. He knew how to get their support. He sent the treaty to the Senate where it was ratified in January 1808.

When the treaty of 1805 was finally ratified, a large block of formerly Choctaw land extending from the Choctaw Nation’s eastern border in the present state of Alabama to its western border on the Mississippi had been opened to white settlement. Much of this land was suitable for cotton. Furthermore, the land was already serviced by two roads, the Natchez Trace and the Three-Chopped Way. The Three-Chopped Way, named after its trail markings, ran just north of and roughly parallel to the lands just acquired from the Choctaw in the Treaty of Mount Dexter in 1805. This road provided relatively easy overland access from Georgia.

The land that was later organized into Pike County was included in the land ceded in 1805. This then finishes the story of how Pike County was acquired from the Choctaw Nation for the benefit of the USA and our ancestors. However the struggle of the US government to completely remove the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians from east of the Mississippi River continued for another twenty years. It is a sordid tale made even more disgraceful by the fact that the predominately-Christian Choctaw never offered violent opposition to the whites as did the Native Americans to the east and the west. They continued to plead for peace and brotherhood even as they were herded onto steamers to be transported across the Mississippi River into exile in Oklahoma. Even that land was eventually taken from them despite the promises that the Indian Territory would be their “as long as the rains fall and the grasses grow.” For the Choctaw of Mississippi, the success of cotton had meant their undoing.