Friday, December 4, 2020

North Mississippi—Land of the Chickasaw

Over the next few weeks, I want to give you the legend of how the Chickasaw and the Choctaw came to be in the area which would become the States of Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, with most members of these two tribes being in our state.  For this legend, we have to go back many years before the arrival of Hernando DeSoto and his Spanish troops in 1540.

Back in my teaching days, at one point I taught Mississippi History to ninth graders.  This is when I would pass along the legend of two brothers, Chicsa and Chacta, and their people who had to leave the area to the far west of the “Great River,” later known as the Mississippi River, on a long and arduous trek because of the hostility of the northern Plain Indians.

After the two groups, led by the brothers, crossed the “Great River” it was determined that Chicsa and his band would go ahead of the other brother’s group and locate a place to settle.  Due to a heavy snow, which covered their trail, the two bands were separated.  This accidental separation of the siblings’ men would cause the two bands to be forever separated.

The separation was a peaceful one, but at the same time a lamentable one.  Over the years of separation a fierce enmity developed between the two groups.  This may have been exacerbated by the intrusion of European rivalry between the groups.  The Chickasaw cast their lot with the English and the Choctaw cast their lot with the French in the lower Mississippi Valley many years after their move to this area.

The legend has an interesting manner in which the Chickasaw made their way to where they put down their roots.  The group led by Chicsa were guided by an oracle pole in their journey east.  At the end of each day’s trek, the tribal priests drove the pole into the ground.  The next morning, whichever way the gods made the pole lean, would be the direction they would travel that day.

The oracle pole led the group ever eastward and first to a settlement in Tennessee near the present-day Tennessee River.  Later the pole leaned southward to the black prairie land at the headwaters of the present-day Tombigbee River.  This became the end of their long arduous trek from the northern Plains of the American West.

At this place they built their first permanent settlement.  They constructed a cluster of towns in what became know as the Chickasaw Old Fields.  It was a few miles east of the Yoknapatawpha headwaters, on the other side of the Pontotoc Ridge, near the present-day City of Tupelo.

The tribe would cultivate the land and raise corn, squash, beans and other crops to supplement the wild berries, nuts and fruit they gathered from the forest.  The black prairie land was very fertile and abundant.  One interesting thing they would do is to periodically clear and burn the land for defensive purposes.  This would encourage the deer population to grow and graze upon the cleared land.

It was reported by early white settlers and land speculators, who would come into the area many years later, the result of this practice was a light forest canopy with park-like glades of open meadows on which the deer would roam almost like domesticated livestock.

From time to time the Old Fields’ villages would be moved, but this area would become a permanent base from which parties of Chickasaw braves would depart to hunt and make war.  The area would remain their home until the 1830s.

Historian Don H. Doyle in his 2001 book, “Faulkner’s County:  The Historical roots of Yoknapatawpha,” states, “The Chickasaw were a small but formidable tribe feared by neighbors on all sides.  Through at times banks of Chickasaw ranged from the edge of the Great Plains to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, their main hunting grounds extended north to the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi Rives and only a few miles south of their towns to the land of the Choctaws.”

Doyle goes on to state, “Their domain had been secured by a bloody tradition of war waged against neighboring tribes and intruding European forces.  The Chickasaw warrior, his face dressed in red war paint, head shaved on the sides, a crest of black hair slicked with bear grease and decorated with eagle feathers, armed with bow, arrow, and tomahawk, was a fearsome presence in this part of the world long before and after the arrival of Europeans.”

Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.

In addition to his weekly blog in HottyToddy.com, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of Americaseries book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.

The blog is based on columns he has written for the local newspaper and will cover more the 400 columns previously published.