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Spartans of the Miss. Valley

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Last week I wrote about the arrival of the Chickasaw Indians into this area of north Mississippi. If you will recall, there were two groups of Indians
who made their way from the Northern Plains of the American Continent to the “Father of Great Waters” (later known as the Mississippi River) and then into the area that would become the states of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.

The leaders of these two groups were the brothers Chicsa and Chacta. As legend had it, the groups were split up after they crossed the Mississippi and would later become the Indians Nations of the Chickasaw and Choctaw.

Some historians speculate the “Old Trail,” an Indian path which ran from Pontotoc trough Toccopola to present day Oxford and on to a crossing of the Tallahatchie River near present day Coontown Landing on Sardis Lake and then to the Chickasaw Bluffs which is now present day Memphis, was the boundary between the two Indian Nations.

One early settler in this area described the “Old Trail” as “a path not more than three feet wide, taking a course through the forest as straight as an arrow. Not a twig nor bush obstructed the view as far as the eye could see.”

Others said the boundary between the Choctaw and the Chickasaw was the river to the south of the “Old Trail” which we now call the Yocona River. It is not known where the boundary was but it is known that the Chickasaw had conflicts in the years before Europeans came into the area with several neighboring tribes, with some several times their size, but they were never defeated.

Historian Don Doyle states, “For three centuries the Chickasaw, the ‘Spartans of the Mississippi Valley,’ handily routed every European and Indian power that challenged them.” The first whites encountered by the Chickasaws were the Spanish under the leadership of Hernando De Soto, who arrived in this area in December 1540.

It was a life changing and remarkable spectacle when these people, who had been living a stone-aged existence, deep in the interior of this continent, first gazed upon the Spaniards. Here they were confronted with pale skinned, bearded men, clattering through the forest, their metal armor making a loud noise as they rode on a beast they had never before seen. The horse was new to them and with the men were other beasts they had never seen. These men had brought with them hogs, cattle, and chickens as a food supply.

The Spaniards also brought with them weapons such as knives, swords, lances and muskets, which the Chickasaw had never come in contact with in their travels on this continent. This was an enormous change to the world of the Chickasaw. The first encounter would be brief and violent, but it would be more than a century of continued isolation before such an encounter would happen again.

The Chickasaw had ample supplies of corn that the invaders could use and they hope the Indians would be willing to provide this corn for them and their livestock to consume. De Soto decided to setup a winter camp at the village called Chicasa and he began to cultivate an alliance with their hosts. He treated the tribal chiefs to grand feasts and bestowed many gifts upon them.

Chickasaw chiefs, in turn, brought gifts of food and clothes to their visitors. Being hunters and gatherers, the Chickasaw had no domesticated animals and had never tasted anything like pork the Spanish roasted for these feasts. They developed a taste for their foods and the braves came back over and over again for more of the cooked pork.

This caused a clash of the two cultures. To the Indians, generosity with food and other materials goods was a signifier of power. Much of their food was regarded as a community resource and not the private property of individuals or families. To the Spanish, when the Indians took what they wanted, was seen as stealing.

As an object lesson, the Spaniards, when they caught three braves stealing hogs, they killed two of them and cut the hands off of the third brave. The maimed brave was sent back to his chief as evidence of how the white man punished theft.

The Chickasaw now distrusted these brutal visitors and when the winter season came to an end and as De Soto prepared to move farther west, he demanded two hundred braves to serve as porters. The Chickasaw saw this as an invitation to enslavement and what happened next will be the subject of my column next week.

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.


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