The Choctaw are of the Western Muskogean language stock, which is also the same stock as the Chickasaw. When first encountered by Europeans, the Choctaw were located in three geographic divisions in the area that is now Mississippi and western Alabama. The three divisions each had some distinguishing cultural practices, which may indicate they had separate origins and that the Choctaw came together as a single people only in more recent times. There are two widespread traditions within the Choctaw about their origins. One is that they came from the far west and were led eastward by a sacred pole that was placed in the ground each night; one morning, the pole did not lean but stayed straight upright near a mound they called Nanih Waiya (Leaning Hill), in what was to become Mississippi. The other tradition holds that the Choctaw emerged from the ancient Nanih Waiya mound. In both traditions, the Choctaw first settled near the mound they considered sacred. While the Choctaw have little presence in present-day Arkansas, they were an influence on the development of the state.
The different creation traditions suggest that the Choctaw were not one tribe at first. The people of the Northeastern district may have descended from the prehistoric inhabitants from near Moundville in western Alabama. The people on the Pearl River may have come from the far west. The people of the Southern district were called the Six Towns people and spoke a slightly different dialect from the other Choctaw during early contact with Europeans. The Choctaw had a system of town chiefs and a chief for each of the three districts. They met at a council to decide matters common to the whole tribe. They were the most agriculturally based of all the so-called Five Civilized Tribes. They would fight when provoked and were enlisted by the French in warfare against other tribes.
The first encounter with Europeans may have occurred in October 1540, when they met Hernando de Soto. This encounter led to a battle near what would became Mobile, Alabama. The battle occurred because the Spanish demanded treasures and the Choctaw refused to cooperate. The Spanish declared it a complete victory even though they barely escaped with their lives. The battle was disastrous for both sides. The Choctaw had no further encounters with Europeans for about a century and a half.
Traders from several European countries traveled to America in subsequent years, as did North American colonials, and they met the Choctaw. The Choctaw distrusted the newcomers, but they realized that trade with the Europeans brought them things they did not have. The French, who were interested in trade and in making alliances against other tribes and European adversaries, considered the Choctaw relative equals. Some of the French settled among the Choctaw and married Choctaw women. The English were more interested in establishing English colonies, but some of the British did establish trading posts among the Choctaw and marry Choctaw women.
The Choctaw were known to travel to the land on the western side of the Mississippi River in the early part of the eighteenth century. Other tribes recruited them to assist in battles, and at other times they hunted there. They had horses by this time, making travel easier. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, livestock had been introduced to the Choctaw, and they engaged increasingly in farming and in raising stock.
In 1803, a large tract of land was obtained from France in the Louisiana Purchase, and President Thomas Jefferson talked about moving all the Indians east of the Mississippi River to the new territory. In the War of 1812, the Choctaw joined the Americans to defeat the British. By 1818, Stephen Long reported that a considerable village of “Chacktaw” lived south of the Arkansas River, although there was no significant presence of Choctaw in what would become the state of Arkansas.
In 1820, the Choctaw signed a treaty, the Treaty of Doak’s Stand, which exchanged some Mississippi land for a large portion of Arkansas Territory. The U.S. government assigned a mixed-blood Choctaw, Edmond Folsom, to convince the Choctaw to move to the land spoken of in the treaty. The treaty was disputed by the citizens of Arkansas Territory because it included land where white settlers had already made their homes. This treaty was adjusted by 1825 to include a smaller portion of land and was more acceptable to the Arkansas white population. At this time, a survey was done of the adjusted western border between Arkansas Territory and Indian Territory. Some questions about the survey of the western border lasted into the twentieth century for one area.
In 1825, Arkansas territorial governor George Izard named William L. McClellan as Choctaw agent. McClellan first established the Choctaw agency at Fort Smith (Sebastian County). By 1827, he had established the Choctaw agency on the south side of the Arkansas River eighteen miles west of Fort Smith. In 1828, McClellan reported that not many Choctaw had emigrated. Only eight had reported to the agency, while forty to fifty were living on the Red River, and about 1,000 were living in small villages in Louisiana.
Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, and he sought to move the eastern tribal nations to west of the Mississippi River. White settlers were spreading across the United States and its territories, and Jackson’s plan was to facilitate the removal of the tribal nations to land opened by the Louisiana Purchase. The Choctaw signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, and it was ratified by Congress on February 24, 1831. Although the Choctaw had permanent homes, most lived on their farming production, and many had adopted the white style of dress. They were the first to be removed to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
The federal government had no experience in moving large numbers of individuals, but as soon as the treaty was ratified, it assigned two superintendents to the task—one to collect the Choctaw, arrange for agents to accompany each detachment, and take them to the western side of the Mississippi River; the other to handle arrangements on the western side of the river and provide subsistence for one year after arrival in Indian Territory. The removals under the treaty were to occur over three years. The plan was for the tribe to be removed across Arkansas each fall for the next three years.
The Choctaw were late leaving, and the worst blizzard in the history of the region complicated the removals the first year. A cholera epidemic complicated the next year’s removals. The final year, the migration went more smoothly. After the Choctaw reached Indian Territory, they began to build homes, and the more affluent developed plantations. Despite the hardship of having moved from their ancestral home, most of the Choctaw believed strongly in education for their children and had invited the missionaries into their homeland as early as 1818. They continued to believe in education, and schools were soon opened in their new territory. They reestablished their government. By 1848, they had begun publishing a newspaper.
When removals under the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek were complete, there were still Choctaw who had not removed. Official removal efforts continued up to the Civil War on a smaller scale. During the Civil War, the Choctaw wanted to remain neutral but soon decided to align with the Confederacy. They formed their own troops to support the Southern cause. Because of their adherence to the Confederacy, some concessions were made after a commission met to deal with Civil War activities of the tribes in Indian Territory.
The Choctaw had a large influence on the development of Arkansas in several ways. The population of Arkansas increased during the removal period, with people looking for paying jobs such as teamsters. The removal period brought money into the cash-poor Arkansas Territory, and the finances involved with removal illustrated the need for a court system. Almost every county in Arkansas had some land purchased with Choctaw Scrip. Choctaw Scrip sold to others opened 221,000 acres of land for settlement and development. The establishment of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas at Fort Smith was a result of the need for a better system of law enforcement in that area. Treaties with the Choctaw determined the western border of Arkansas below the Arkansas River.
Choctaw strive to retain their tribal identity in the twenty-first century, with three federally recognized tribal groups: the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians of Louisiana.
For additional information:
Debo, Angie. The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
DeRosier, Arthur H., Jr. The Removal of the Choctaw Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Kidwell, Clara Sue. Choctaw and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., and Parins, James W. The Encyclopedia of American Indian Removal. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2011.
Carolyn Yancey Kent