They whipped DeSoto, repelled the French and survived the ‘Trail of Tears.’ The Chickasaw have not merely endured. They have prevailed.
In the year 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto’s quest for riches made it to Mississippi. The conquistador’s heavily armed expedition came in search of gold, bullied and intimidated Indians in Florida and Alabama, and wreaked havoc everywhere it went.
Finally, DeSoto arrived at the Tombigbee River on the eastern side of Mississippi. There his men saw unfamiliar Indians staring at them. The warriors were armed and alert and planted war banners on the banks, a clear warning.
An envoy sent to talk to these unfamiliar Indians was quickly executed, sending an unmistakable message. Soon, just to be plainer, a hail of arrows flew towards the Spaniards, who hustled to take cover.
This was the first encounter between the Spaniards and Chickasaws, a standoff that lasted three days before the Indians melted into the woods. Thus ensued the long tortuous relationship between the native Chickasaw and colonialist European explorers.
Soon, DeSoto and his men occupied a village abandoned by the Chickasaw and the two groups parlayed. But tensions rose during the winter when DeSoto’s men began consuming the Chickasaw stores of corn. Hungry Chickasaws tried to retrieve some,
were caught and DeSoto chopped off one man’s hands and sent him back to the tribe.
Finally, DeSoto was ready to move on and demanded horses and warriors to carry his supplies and women to provide sex to his soldiers. The Chickasaws pretended to consider the demand, then carried out a daring nighttime raid on the Spanish camp.
Warriors carried torches in clay pots to the scene and while the Spaniards slept, they struck. They unleashed a storm of flaming arrows into the thatched roofs of the huts, triggering fires and panic. Many men were wounded, DeSoto narrowly missed being killed, and the Spaniards lost horses and supplies they dearly needed.
Greatly weakened, the explorers soon moved on. DeSoto would later die, his body tossed by his men into the Mississippi River, but it is a safe bet that survivors of the expedition long remembered the Chickasaws and their effective hit-and-run tactics.
When DeSoto arrived, the Chickasaws were probably living around Columbus, according to Ole Miss anthropology professor Robbie Ethridge, author of “From Chicaza to Chickasaw.”
Afterwards, they moved to Tupelo. Their move proved strategic. They were some distance from European settlements and forts. And from that position they could harass French traffic on the Mississippi River in the Memphis area, dressing as bison and bears to ambush would-be hunters. They also had access to the Natchez Trace and, more importantly, the Upper Trade Path, which connected them to the Carolina traders and the eastern seaboard colonies.
By the time Europeans showed up again, the Chickasaw were an even more powerful and advanced tribe that covered parts of North Mississippi, Northwestern Alabama, Tennessee and present-day western Kentucky.
This time it was the French, as first Marquette and Joliet and later LaSalle ventured down the Mississippi River. But the British were the first to open steady trade relations, during the formation of the Carolina colony in 1670. The English were eager to trade guns, manufactured cloth, metal goods and other items for deerskins and captives. The captives were sold as slaves to Caribbean sugar plantations. The Chickasaw culture began to change swiftly as they reaped the benefits of this new source of trade.
“By the 1690s,” wrote historian Greg O’Brien, “Chickasaws, well-armed with English guns, raided their southern neighbors the Choctaws to seize captives and sell them to the English, capturing perhaps 2,000 or so Choctaws and killing around another 2,000. At the time, the Choctaws did not own guns, making them vulnerable to Chickasaw attacks, and this started a long era of intermittent Chickasaw-Choctaw warfare.”
For a long time, “the Chickasaw and the Choctaw hated each other and a lot of it came from the slave raid era,” said Ethridge.
Then the French on the Gulf Coast allied with the Choctaw, giving them guns to better fight the Chickasaws.
In 1720, the British had Chickasaws kill a French fur trader suspected of spying, outraging the French, and tension between the two nations and their Indian proxies escalated. In 1729 animosity toward the Chickasaw boiled over. Angered by the massacre of some of their soldiers by Natchez Indians, the French attacked and essentially wiped out the group. Two towns of Natchez survivors escaped and took refuge with the Chickasaw in 1731.
The French had had enough of this pesky tribe to the north that hindered their desire to push further northward. Emboldened by the ease with which they conquered the Natchez, they vowed to destroy the Chickasaw.
The French knew that if they controlled the big river and had no interference from the Chickasaw in North Mississippi, their influence would spread even farther inland and the growing British influence in the New World might be checked or even diminished.
Sometime in winter and spring, 1736, the colonial governor of Louisiana Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Sieure de Bienville put into motion a plan to squeeze the Chickasaw between two armies — one from the North and one from the South.
But Bienville’s army was delayed. As a result, Pierre D’Artaguette’s army from the north arrived much earlier and elected to attack alone, massing at the Chickasaw village of Ogoula Tchetoka in what is now Tupelo on March 25, 1736. About 130 French
soldiers were annihilated and some, including a French priest, were burned at the stake. The survivors, and about 400 Miami, Iriquois, Kaskaskia and Quapaw warriors retreated.
The Chickasaw also found Bienville’s battle plan on an officer’s body, a discovery that did not bode well for Bienville.
His 600 soldiers and 600 vengeful Choctaw aimed their attack at the small village of Ackia, near the site of present day Pierce Street Elementary on May 26, 1736.
The Chickasaw defenders were well armed and waiting in a well-constructed fort. More Chickasaw were ready to fire through loopholes from fortified houses just outside the fort. With drums rolling and flags flying, Bienville’s soldiers marched up the hill to the fort on open ground, only to face withering fire from the protected Chickasaw. Musket fire riddled Bienville’s men. Despite the French use of hand grenades and African slaves bearing mantelet shields in front of them, the attack collapsed and the French were forced to retreat.
Stung by his defeat, Bienville returned in 1739 and massed his men on the Chickasaw bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. This time, he brought cannon to destroy the forts.
He hadn’t counted on the winter rains in Mississippi, which turned the rural landscape into a muddy quagmire, bogging down the cannons. With supplies growing low and sickness spreading through his men, Bienville and the Chickasaws talked and another bloody battle was avoided.
The Battle of Ackia marked the beginning of the end for France’s plan to more closely link its northern territories to the southern colony of Louisiana. Eventually, they lost the weakened colony in the Seven Years’ War in 1756-1763. The battle may well have changed history,
marking the beginning of the end for French colonial ambitions in America. It gave the British an enormous advantage. As James Barnett put it in his ‘Mississippi’s Native Americans,’ the Chickasaws proved their worth as “England’s first line of defense against the French.”
“I really think The Battle of Ackia was the second most important battle in Mississippi history, second only to the Civil War Battle of Vicksburg,” said Tupelo attorney Brad Prewitt, an executive officer of the Chickasaw Nation.
Soon, the Revolutionary War would erupt and the British would lose as well. According to Ethridge, “the Chickasaw didn’t get heavily involved in the revolution, but after it are standing eye to eye with the Americans.” At first they got along with the powerful new nation forming around them.
It was at that moment that the South’s cotton economy started to emerge, and the slow, steady drumbeat for removal would soon begin. Thirty years later, as more and more white settlers poured into North Mississippi, the Chickasaws tried their best to be accommodating and to adapt to change.
They farmed, grew cotton, accumulated wealth, pursued a education for their children, dressed like white men, and changed tribal government to better deal with the emerging American and state governments. But the unceasing hunger for land to plant cotton placed enormous pressure on American public officials to get rid of the Indians. It was not long before America, with its superior military force, was pressing them to give up huge chunks of their land. A series of treaties from 1805 to 1832 turned over millions of acres of Chickasaw land.
The Treaty of Chickasaw Council House signed on September 20, 1816 had the tribe cede close to six million acres of present day Middle Tennessee, Northwest Alabama and East Mississippi.
Still, the tribe tried to get along.
It had supported General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, sending warriors to help defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans, making Jackson a popular military hero. But after the war, the flood of white immigrants increased, doubling the population from 1810 to 1820. The Chickasaw were quickly outnumbered.
The pressure became too much. The lucrative cotton markets triggered a land rush in the Deep South. People were desperate for land to plant “white gold,” the most valuable commodity in the world. In 1829, the newly formed state of Mississippi made tribal governments illegal, despite the tribes’ treaties with the U.S.
Jackson was elected President in 1828. He pushed the 1830 Indian Removal Act through Congress to the dismay of his old war allies, the Chickasaw. More negotiations led on Oct. 20, 1832 to a Chickasaw agreement to give up their land in Missisippi and move to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.
But the U.S was not through with the tribes. In the early 1900s the government began a longstanding effort to ‘civilize’ them by trying to unravel their tribal organizations. The tribes were to be disbanded and individual Indians would get allotments of land to live on. Children were often sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their native language and their tribal traditions were discouraged.
Eventually, after World War Two, the government reversed its policies. Today, thanks to the tribe’s aggressive “self-determination” philosophy, the Chickasaws are one of the more successful and progressive tribes in America. Their collection of 18 casinos, a chocolate factory, banks, a business that advises other tribes on how to manage gaming, a contract to run computer simulations of missile tests and other businesses have created a bonanza of jobs for its people and a huge economic boost to Oklahoma.
Despite their many travails, the Chickasaws never lost their love for their North Mississippi homeland. Last year the tribe’s governor, Bill Anoatubby, announced that the Chickasaws would build a Chickasaw Heritage Center in Tupelo to establish stronger connections with the area.
For the Chickasaw, it has been an extraordinary journey, one with many peaks and valleys. But if it has proven nothing else, it has proven that this is a tribe of survivors.
They have conquered displacement, poverty and discrimination and emerged as a proud tribe and a powerful economic force.
No wonder they describe themselves as “unconquered and unconquerable.”
And now, in a very real sense, they are back in Mississippi.
By Mrudnvi Bakshi. Photos Courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.
The Meek School faculty and students published “Unconquered and Unconquerable” online on August 19, 2016, to tell stories of the people and culture of the Chickasaw. The publication is the result of Bill Rose’s depth reporting class taught in the spring. Emily Bowen-Moore, Instructor of Media Design, designed the magazine.
“The reason we did this was because we discovered that many of them had no clue about the rich Indian history of Mississippi,” said Rose. “It was an eye-opening experience for the students. They found out a lot of stuff that Mississippians will be surprised about.”
Print copies are available October 2016.
For questions, email us at email@example.com.