Chickasaw-U.S. Relations

Once it assumed power over Mississippi in 1798, the United States wasted no time establishing its authority over Chickasaw lands. Congress created the Mississippi Territory north of the thirty-first parallel, and the Chickasaw agency was founded in 1801 on the Natchez Trace, which was made into a wagon trail. A trading store opened near Fort Adams in 1802 and by 1809 had become the leading seller of pelts among the fourteen existing federal stores. Spain’s continuing presence in West Florida (south of the thirty-first) and west of the Mississippi still gave the Indians some leverage in Spanish-US relations. Spain’s 1800 cession of Louisiana to France and France’s sale of it to the United States three years later, however, left the southeastern Indians little recourse against federal authorities’ increasingly aggressive policies.

The terms of the Treaty of Hopewell (1785–86) were intended “for the benefit and comfort” of the Indians and authorized the United States to manage their affairs “as it might think proper.” It is quite possible that none of the signatories properly grasped the implications of such conventional phrases. The federal government believed that persuasion—encouraging agriculture and trade through treaties— and policing of the boundaries of the Indians’ land would help them become “civilized” but probably overestimated the success of such policies among the Chickasaw. Immigrating frontiersmen and the territorial and later state governments increased the pressure on both the Indians and federal authorities, slowly dissolving the moral bases on which the US government had hoped to buttress its policies.

Of all the changes in Chickasaw fortunes and way of life up to the 1820s, the cession of their lands was the most dramatically symbolic. Treaties concluded in 1805, 1816, and 1818 ceded some twenty million acres to United States authority. The cessions covered lands north of the Tennessee border, in extreme western Kentucky, and in all but a fraction in northwestern Alabama, leaving the Chickasaw confined to northern Mississippi. Federal authorities negotiated with the Colbert family, who were prominent military, political, and economic leaders in the Chickasaw Nation, and then gave the chiefs gifts of cash and land. The chiefs’ debts to traders made them vulnerable: for example, in 1805 they ceded a vast tract in west-central Tennessee for twenty thousand dollars, twelve thousand of which went to pay debts. If other methods failed, government agents threatened to withhold the chiefs’ annuities.

Continuing loyalty to the federal government did the Chickasaw little good. Just as they had resisted Pontiac’s 1763 plans to support rebellion against British authority, they also resisted Tecumseh’s 1812–13 call to oppose the encroaching Americans. A total of 350 Chickasaw joined in Andrew Jackson’s crushing of the Red Stick Creek at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the destruction of Creek fortifications in northern Alabama in 1813–14, but Jackson nevertheless brushed aside Chickasaw claims to Creek lands. He cynically summed up the events of the preceding two decades: the United States could take Indians’ land by “touching their interests and feeding their greed.”

The War of 1812 all but destroyed the southeastern Indians’ military power. An idea broached back in 1803 by Thomas Jefferson rapidly gained support: Why not remove the now-helpless peoples to a reserved territory in the Louisiana Purchase west of the Mississippi? Alabama and Mississippi mounted a legal offensive against the Chickasaw and the other tribes and put heavy pressure on the federal government in favor of Removal. A series of laws from 1819 to 1830 abolished tribal government and put the Indians under ordinary state jurisdiction. The desperate Chickasaw council, under strong mixed-blood influence, responded in 1829 with a written code of laws protecting private property, creating a law enforcement agency staffed by one hundred mounted men, and banning whiskey sales. The federal government’s failure to enforce the Indian treaties, however, doomed efforts to prevent Removal, and Congress approved the policy in 1830. For the Chickasaw, a series of conferences and treaties settled their fate. Removal began on 1 June 1837, with the first contingent crossing the Mississippi on 4 July.

In 1822 about 4,000 Chickasaw remained. Fifteen years later, the official roll at Removal listed 4,914 Chickasaw and 1,156 black slaves they owned. About 200, temporarily joined at times by others, moved west of the Mississippi to hunt and fight (most notably against the Osage between 1802 and 1821). Some others dominated trade in the Lower Arkansas and Red River Valleys, while a few settled on the St. Francis. To the east, hunting dried up after 1819, discouraging appreciable eastward emigration from the traditional northern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama lands.

Probably the most striking development before Removal was the economic and political ascendance of the so-called mixed-bloods, which had been growing since the latter 1700s. After 1819 even more whites pressed on and around the Chickasaw, with many whites marrying Chickasaw and often taking advantage of the tribe’s traditional landholding practices to carve out plantations worked by African American slaves. Some of these families founded virtual dynasties—Colbert, Adair, Love, Harris, McIntosh, Jennings, Cheadle. In addition to agriculture, they raised livestock, traded, and operated gins and gristmills. They worked politically through traditional tribal institutions, exercising covert influence and acting as spokesmen and negotiators with white authorities.

The people identified as mixed-bloods owned most of the black slaves, who constituted an important element of Chickasaw society. Arrel Gibson notes that their labors in agriculture and construction enhanced Chickasaw property values, which helped them obtain better Removal terms than most of the other tribes. Moreover, English-speaking slaves became agents of Chickasaw acculturation.

Full-blood Chickasaw suffered more from the tide of change engulfing their traditional ways than did mixed-bloods. Federal improvement of the Natchez Trace and the building of feeder roads attracted even more whites to the region. As hunting declined, many Chickasaw drifted into subsistence farming, raising livestock, or simple manual labor. Villages declined or disappeared, replaced by dispersed log cabins. The old religion, ceremonies, and communal sports decayed. Cheating or underpaying by whites pushed many Indians toward hopeless poverty. Withdrawal, idleness, depression, and drunkenness became more common.

Most of the tribe understandably continued to regard missionaries as agents of white penetration and rule. Consequently, education—an invariable accompaniment of most missionaries’ activities—was widely ignored. Amid the uncertainties clouding the impending Removal, the missionaries withdrew and closed their schools until 1844. However, most post-Removal Chickasaw leaders had attended the early schools, and in 1849 the Chickasaw legislature decided to appropriate money for schools, with the first such institution, the Chickasaw Manual Labor Academy, opening in 1851.

Virtually the only positive note sounded during these years was the tribe’s unanimity in opposing Removal. Leaders (virtually all of them mixed-bloods) knew that Removal could not be stopped but astutely frustrated federal authorities enough to wring better terms from them than other tribes obtained. As one result, the Chickasaw became the last to leave.

The final stragglers arrived in the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) around 1850. In 1854 the final parcel of the millions of acres they had owned was sold. After centuries of life on the banks of the Great River and in the highlands of the Tombigbee, the Chickasaw could no longer call Mississippi their home.

By the 1890 census the Chickasaw numbered 6,400. The 2000 census showed 38,351 persons claiming Chickasaw ethnicity. Of these, 22,946 resided in Oklahoma, mainly in thirteen south-central counties, but only 211 remained in Mississippi.

Further Reading

  • David W. Baird, The Chickasaw People (1974)
  • Mary B. Davis, ed., Native Americans in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia (1994)
  • 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)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Chickasaw-U.S. Relations
  • Author
  • Keywords chickasaw-united states relations
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018