Hernando de Soto’s treasure-hunting expedition from mid-December 1540 to mid-June 1541 marked the first direct exposure to Europeans for the members of the Chickasaw tribe. After three months of the Spaniards’ demands and impositions, the Chickasaw suddenly attacked, inflicting heavy losses in terms of men, horses, and equipment. The weakened Spaniards at last moved on, but for two centuries thereafter they left the Chickasaw strictly alone. The tribe remained out of continuous contact with Europeans until the end of the seventeenth century. (La Salle briefly encountered two of them on his 1682 expedition down the Mississippi.)
In 1698 Thomas Welch and Anthony Dodsworth arrived with packhorses from Charles Town, South Carolina, and in short order the English built a thriving commerce. A year later, Iberville landed at Biloxi and founded the French colony of Louisiana and two Englishmen led a Chickasaw raid on an Acolapissa village near the mouth of the Pearl River, taking many captives. The French knew that they now faced a grave strategic threat to their North American empire (governed from Quebec) as a consequence of the English presence on the Mississippi near the mouth of the Ohio. The Chickasaw thus occupied an area both England and France deemed crucial to control of North America.
The English pack trains brought profound, traumatic change to Chickasaw culture and destiny. Into a Late Stone Age society the English introduced guns, ammunition, and horses; machine-woven cloth and Bengal silk; metal hoes, knives, hatchets, axes, and scissors; brass wire and kettles; beads, mirrors, vermillion pigment, and “Dutch pretties”; and alcohol. In return, the Chickasaw offered deer hides (leather, buckskins); bear and buffalo furs and robes; wolf, panther, and other pelts; honey, beeswax, tallow, salt, and hickory-nut oil; and captives for the Charles Town slave market. When needed, conch shells continued as currency, but the demand had increased tremendously.
Like the Choctaw and others, the Chickasaw began to crave the traders’ wares and soon considered them necessities. Without firearms, the Indians rightly concluded, their existence was at stake. Hence, the Chickasaw and others expanded their hunting range dramatically to get more deerskins for trade, leading to clashes with many tribes—Choctaw, Shawnee, Cherokee, Kickapoo, Illini, Mobile, Osage, Quapaw, and Creek—some of them French allies. Particularly after 1763, as white settlers moved west and plantation agriculture began appearing, increasing hunting ranges fueled economic rivalries, movement, conflict, pillage, and bloodshed among the tribes.
The heavy involvement by the Chickasaw in the slave trade intensified their warlike character, making them the most notorious Indian slavers of the Southeast. Enslavement of captives was an ancient Chickasaw practice. The tribe’s women, who did most of the farming, had often urged their men to get more captives. Now, with English traders providing a huge market for Indian slaves, Chickasaw slaving parties ranged along the Lower Mississippi into Illinois and up the Arkansas and Red Rivers. The English paid well in goods, guns, and horses and then sold the captives at Charles Town, whence they usually were shipped to the West Indies in exchange for blacks to work on the North American plantations. The Chickasaw slave trade not only filled English pockets but also stoked the tribe’s resistance to French traders and French-influenced tribes, particularly the Choctaw, and to Roman Catholic missionaries, thereby serving England’s strategic interests. The French retaliated, though less effectively, by offering bounties to the Choctaw for Chickasaw scalps and captives and inciting the Choctaw to attack the pack trains.
Knowing that they needed support from the major tribes to establish Louisiana, the French tried, with modest success at times, to promote peace between the Choctaw and Chickasaw. By the 1720s, however, it was obvious the Chickasaw would never expel the English traders, with whom the French could not compete at any level—quantity, quality, or price. If the French North American empire were to defeat the English challenge, not only was Choctaw support, wavering but still holding, essential, but the Chickasaw must be destroyed. France’s attempts to do so resulted in the Chickasaw Wars (1723–53), during which the tribe frustrated two hugely expensive French expeditions (1736, 1739–40). Though the Chickasaw remained unconquered, repeated French and Choctaw raids and crop burnings and devastating outbreaks of smallpox weakened the Chickasaw both in numbers and in cultural cohesion.
From the start, a smattering of English traders had lived with and married the Chickasaw. After the French and Indian War (1754–63) ended France’s North American empire, increasing numbers of English joined the Chickasaw, raised mixed-blood families, and became tribal leaders because of their and their descendants’ knowledge of English, writing, and business. The tribe also continued to adopt remnants of other tribes, most notably Natchez refugees after 1729. A small but persistent pro-French faction, hoping to avoid French and Choctaw depredations, unintentionally undermined tribal leaders’ authority. Moreover, warriors were evolving from subsistence hunters to frontier businessmen, eagerly searching for items to pay for English goods. Trading posts gradually displaced the old council houses.
With the French gone and the Spanish weakening, the Chickasaw, like all of the southeastern Indians, found less maneuvering room between rival white powers. For the Chickasaw, subjection to the authority of another government was unprecedented. A 1763 British royal decree reserved for the Indians the vast territory from the Appalachians to the Mississippi and from the Ohio south to the thirty-first parallel. The Chickasaw supported the British against Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) and maintained claims to land along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers against the Shawnee and Cherokee, but relative peace prevailed. A growing group of traders, peddlers, hunters, and frontier farmers, however, strained the tribe. Unscrupulous traders cheated and stole, smuggled liquor, and wreaked havoc in the villages; hunters poached on tribal lands; transient frontiersmen squatted or “bought” land (which was illegal). Chickasaw began to own black slaves, thus beginning the transformation of the Lower Mississippi Valley into an agricultural-export economy. Continuing white-Indian marriages spawned more mixed-blood families whose power in the tribe continued to grow.
During the American Revolution (1775–83), most Chickasaw villages preferred neutrality. The British courted the chiefs, who agreed in 1777 to guard the land routes and the Mississippi River from the Ohio past the Chickasaw Bluffs. The Americans completed Fort Jefferson at the mouth of the Ohio in 1780 as a base for operations down the Mississippi by George Rogers Clark. A force of Chickasaw led by James Colbert, son of James Logan Colbert, an immigrant Scottish trader who became patriarch of a family of mixed-bloods that dominated Chickasaw political life for generations, besieged the fort and forced its abandonment in June 1781.
Spain, seeking recovery of Florida from Great Britain, joined the Americans in 1779 and captured Pensacola, Mobile, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. British refugees from West Florida fled to the Chickasaw, the sole British ally in the region, further increasing the Anglo presence among the tribe. Reinforced by refugees, Chickasaw raiders, most notably Colbert’s Chickasaw Company, virtually closed the Mississippi to Spanish shipping. They also foiled Spanish attempts to capture Colbert at Chickasaw Bluffs and to use the northern Indians, especially the Kickapoo, against them. In 1782 Colbert captured the wife and children of Spain’s lieutenant governor of Illinois. Yet Spanish intrigues among the southeastern Indians continued long after the revolution. For a time, the Indians again played white governments against each other: Spain versus the new United States of America. Factions among the Chickasaw—pro-Spanish (formerly pro-French), pro-British (after 1783, pro–United States), vacillators, and many self-serving mixed-bloods—disputed the tribe’s future course. Three years of palavers and intrigues led to an agreement concluded by the pro-American (and largest) faction. The Treaty of Hopewell (signed by the Chickasaw on 3 January 1786) recognized US sovereignty.
Spain continued to seek control of the Lower Mississippi, principally by posing as the protector of the southeastern Indians but also by inciting the pro-Spanish Creek against the pro-American Chickasaw. In 1785 Spanish troops, supported by the pro-Spanish Chickasaw, built Fort San Fernando at Chickasaw Bluffs. Nevertheless, a majority of the Chickasaw finally supported fighting against the pro-Spanish Creek in 1793–95. (Some Chickasaw fought under Gen. Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers in 1794 to subdue Ohio’s Indians.) In the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795), the United States prevailed. Spain recognized American sovereignty east of the Mississippi down to the thirty-first parallel and abandoned Fort San Fernando, which became Fort Adams (1797).
- David W. Baird, The Chickasaw People (1974)
- Arrell Morgan Gibson, The Chickasaws (1971)
- Duane Hale and Arrell Morgan Gibson, The Chickasaw (1991)
- Norman J. Heard, Handbook of the American Frontier: Four Centuries of Indian-White Relationships, vol. 1, The Southeastern Woodlands (1987)
- Sharon Malinowski and Anna Sheets, eds., Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, vol. 1 (1988)
- Harvey Markowitz, ed., American Indians, vol. 1 (1995)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories (1998)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1992)
- Mary Ann Wells, Native Land: Mississippi, 1540–1798 (1994)