Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Chickasaw Nation in the White Man’s World

Courtesy of Google Images.

In the next hundred years, after their successful battles against the French in 1736 in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the Chickasaw Nation was slowly brought into the white man’s world, step by step.  Many changes occurred in the Chickasaw way of life.  Their entire culture underwent a tremendous change.  Marked changes in their economy and population, along with changes in their dress, food, and drink occurred during this one hundred year period before their removal to new tribal lands to the west of the Mississippi River in the late 1830s.

One of the main factors in this change in their way of life came about by the formation of various trails extending across the Southeast.  It established a legacy of commerce, connecting the Lower Mississippi Valley with other parts of the new United States of American.  The major artery connected the Indian lands with Charleston, South Carolina.  There was now major trade, first with the English, and later with the Americans.

Historian Don Doyle states in his book on the roots of Faulkner’s county, Yoknapatawpha, “The Chickasaws quickly learned the white man’s game of trade, how goods were assigned a particular value, how credit and debt could be kept in account for long periods, and how debts could be canceled by more exchange.  The lessons were learned first with deerskins and guns, slaves and horses, calico dresses and liquor, and finally in land and money.  The Indians were drawn in steps into the white world of the marketplace, but all the time they saw the whites joining their world.”

At first the British established trade with the Chickasaw for diplomatic purposes.  They needed an alliance with the Indians to unseat the French from the territory.  Later they would be more motivated for commercial profit when the French were no longer a threat.  The wants of each party helped to generate successful trade relations.

There was high demand for deer skins in Europe.  These skins were used for gloves, book bindings, and other luxury articles.  The Chickasaw had an abundance of game in their lands and there was an enormous quantity of animal pelts and deer skins loaded on pack horses for an overland export on the Chickasaw Trail to Charleston and then on to Europe.  A flourishing exchange in goods emerged between the British and the Chickasaw.

This trade between the two concerns helped the Chickasaw to adapt in the white man’s ways.  The trade stimulated the Indians to be more productive.  Guns and knives could be now used in wars, but also in their traditional skills of hunting and skinning.  A strategy to increase the Chickasaw’s consumer appetite and to encourage them to want more became a British goal.  The trade between the whites and the Indians, caused a gradual change on the Indian’s subsistent economy toward one of dependency on trade with the white world.

As time moved forward the traditional source of food and clothing for the Indian began to dwindle.  The unlimited demand from the whites began to require more effort on the Chickasaw.  Also this caused longer treks into other tribes territory and more conflict among tribes.  At the same time the imports to the tribal lands started to lose its power.  Pots, knives, axes guns and other durable manufactured goods did not need to be replaced often.

This caused a shift from utilitarian goods toward more luxury items by the Chickasaw.  Clothing, jewelry, blankets, and other items gained more favor among the Chickasaw men and women.  Even the breechcloth usually made from animal skins, were now produced in England of cotton cloth.

The Indian way of dress began to look more European.  Indian women began to dress in imported calico dresses and they became laden with multiple necklaces and bracelets of silver.  Indian men also began to wear military uniforms, silver metals, swords, and other regalia.

Historian Doyle reports, “As the Indian trade evolved, by the late eighteenth century it was liquor, rather than clothing and ornaments, that became a major ingredient of exchange.  Before European contact, liquor was unknown to the Indians, who drank nothing more intoxicating than an occasional fermented ceremonial drink.”

Doyle goes on to state, “The liquor trade fir perfectly into the strategy whites had been pursuing all along in their trade with the Indians, for liquor was the ideal item of trade to supply a want created by white traders.  It was, of course, intoxicating, temporary in effect, habituating, readily consumed, and easily replenished.  Experts now believe that the Indian’s vulnerability to alcohol had to do more with psychological demoralization than any racially distinctive physiological weakness.  Whatever the cause, alcohol arrived with devastating impact during a time of disturbing change in the Indian’s world.”

One other exchange between the white man and the Chickasaw, which was not in goods, became the most destructive import into the Indian nation of the Lower Mississippi Valley—-it was germs.  Whites transmitted deadly diseases such as smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and other highly contagious diseases into a population that had never been touched and thus never had gradually built up immunities to these diseases.  Estimates of eighty to ninety percent of Native Americans were decimated following contact with Europeans.

Next week I’ll pass along a little historical information on the final insult by the white man to the Chickasaw Nation—their removal from their ancestral home here in North Mississippi.

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, 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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