The Chickasaw War—sometimes called the Second Chickasaw War to distinguish it from much smaller conflicts in 1723–25 and 1752–53—consisted of raiding and two major expeditions by French forces and mainly Choctaw Indians against the Chickasaw in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. It was by far French Louisiana’s largest military enterprise.
The French believed almost from Louisiana’s founding in 1699 that they needed the loyalty of the Choctaw, the region’s largest tribe and the traditional foe of the Chickasaw. The French hoped to keep the Chickasaw friendly or at least away from the influence of English traders. By the 1720s, however, this dream was all but gone. In the early 1730s the new governor, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, faced a desperate situation. The English government was using Chickasaw-English relations to weaken France’s hold on the Mississippi Valley and thus threatening its entire North American empire.
By 1731 the Chickasaw were harboring several hundred Natchez Indians whom the French had tried to destroy after their 1729 uprising. The Chickasaw also occasionally attacked Louisiana’s communications with its Illinois outposts and thus with New France (Canada). Under heavy French pressure, a substantial minority of Chickasaw favored meeting the demands to surrender the Natchez refugees. At the same time, however, the Chickasaw made overtures to the Choctaw, who were increasingly unhappy with France’s inability to supply European goods. The English, who could provide sufficient supplies, eagerly promoted a Chickasaw-Choctaw reconciliation—a nightmare scenario for the French, who believed that it would doom Louisiana.
The Choctaw, tempted by English traders, were becoming unreliable. Moreover, Bienville’s predecessor, Étienne Boucher de Périer, had damaged Choctaw cohesion by creating too many chiefs and promising too many “presents.” A disgruntled minority, led by Red Shoe, openly flirted with the English. Bienville kept the principal chiefs loyal, authorizing a series of damaging raids on the Chickasaw from 1732 on. Losing warriors and divided over the question of what to do with the Natchez refugees, the Chickasaw still refused to sue outright for peace.
On 1 December 1734 France’s minister of marine, Jérôme Phélypeaux de Maurepas, conveyed Louis XV’s authorization to destroy the Chickasaw and to do it soon, because peace with England might not last much longer. Still, in the summer of 1735 Bienville hoped somehow to avoid a showdown. But when news arrived that the English planned to create several settlements near the Alabama Indians, thus threatening Fort Toulouse (near present Montgomery), and when the Chickasaw attacked a bateau sent from Illinois to fetch munitions, Bienville reluctantly concluded that he must destroy the Chickasaw or force them to leave the region; otherwise, he would lose the respect of the Choctaw. Maurepas reconfirmed the king’s consent in December and authorized Bienville’s proposed expedition.
A force from Illinois under Maj. Pierre Dartaguiette (D’Artaguette) Diron joined Bienville’s army from Mobile with plans to destroy Ackia, the major fortified-village complex of the Chickasaw. Dartaguiette, with some 140 French and 266 northern Indians, left Fort de Chartres (about forty miles below present St. Louis) on 22 February 1736 and reached the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff (part of then Prud’homme Bluffs), just north of present downtown Memphis, six days later. Dartaguiette left for Ackia on 5 March, having waited in vain for a body of French-led Indians, mainly from the Ohio Valley, who had been impeded by organizational problems. He reached the outskirts of Ackia on the 24 March. About four days earlier a dispatch from Bienville had informed him that the linkup would be postponed to late April. With supplies dwindling and his Indians advising action, Dartaguiette decided to attack Ogoula Tchetoka, a fortified village, to capture supplies. On 25 March, between four hundred and five hundred Chickasaw suddenly surrounded his attacking force. Surprised, most of Dartaguiette’s Indians fled, having expected an easy victory. On the retreat, thirty-six French, including Dartaguiette, and an unknown number of Indians died. Father Antoine Sénat and eighteen soldiers were captured; Sénat and sixteen of the men were burned alive. Having captured Bienville’s orders, the Chickasaw then moved south to confront him.
Plagued through 1735 into 1736 by delays of men and supplies from France and without the promised artillery, Bienville left Fort Condé (Mobile) on 1 April. He ascended the Tombigbee with six hundred men, including French and Swiss Regulars, militia, volunteers, and 140 black slaves led by free blacks. Drenched by relentless torrential rains, they rested at newly begun Fort Tombecbé (near Epes, Alabama, about thirty miles northeast of Meridian, Mississippi), where Choctaw chiefs, including Alibamon Mingo and a repentant Red Shoe, joined them. Further up the Tombigbee, they reached the Oktibbeha River, near present Amory, on 18 May and were joined by about six hundred Choctaw, substantially fewer than expected. On 24 May they reached the Ackia complex. Still unaware of Dartaguiette’s defeat, Bienville attacked two days later. The Battle of Ackia marked a Chickasaw triumph. Bienville’s retreat, covered by the Choctaw, reached Fort Tombecbé on 2 June and Mobile six days later. There, he learned of Dartaguiette’s fate.
Although the failed campaign cost more than a million livres, the French launched another one that sought not only the same goal but also to restore France’s honor and impress its uncertain Indian allies. The campaign turned into an endless chronicle of delays, administrative snarls and rivalries, and sheer bad luck, a cautionary tale of how an eighteenth-century European nation could fail when trying to wage war in a vast wilderness hundreds of miles from the sea.
Noüailles d’Aymé was appointed military commander to oversee Bienville but proved to be a mere figurehead. Once again, a force from Canada and Illinois met an expedition from the south, though this one ascended the Mississippi rather than the Tombigbee. To reduce the fortified Chickasaw villages, artillery would be shipped from France—not the requested light artillery, in short supply, but cannons and mortars weighing upward of one thousand pounds. Artillery meant building heavier boats, stockpiling heavier munitions, and finding oxen as well as horses and men to move everything over roads to be hacked through forests and swamps.
Preparations went forward in 1737–39, accompanied by some French-led Choctaw raiding. A fortified base was built in 1738 at the mouth of the St. Francis River near present Helena, Arkansas. After tardily learning that Ackia was about twice as far east of the Mississippi (about 120 miles) as they had previously thought, the French built Fort Assumption in 1739 as a forward base at Fourth Chickasaw Bluff a couple of miles south of the mouth of the Margot (present Wolf) River. Deciding he could not feed twelve hundred men for another year, Bienville declined the government’s suggestion to wait until 1740. He dispatched contingents north from 24 July to 12 September 1739. After immense labor in the face of foul weather, the expedition reached Fort Assumption via the Fort St. Francis base by 8 December. Maj. Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil (Bienville’s nephew) had arrived with 123 Canadians and 319 Indians gathered from Montreal, Detroit, Mackinac, and the Upper Mississippi.
But now the would-be attackers could not locate the vital Memphis-Pontotoc-Mobile Trail to Ackia. On 11 January 1740 scouts finally reported that it was only sixty miles away. Confronting winter cold and rain, rapidly shrinking supplies, rampant sickness, desertions, impatient and drunken northern Indians, and the absence of the promised Choctaw forces led by Red Shoe, and with oxen and horses dying or weakened from disease and lack of fodder, Bienville agonizingly concluded that his forces could not clear a sixty-mile road to the trail and thus would have to do without the precious artillery.
Capt. Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville, bearing secret orders to negotiate, left for Ackia on 6 February with 180 volunteers and 400 Indians, including late-arriving Choctaw. They reached the Ackia complex on 22 February. After two days of skirmishing, Céloron agreed to negotiate. Disgusted, the Choctaw left. The Chickasaw, weakened from years of attacks and anticipating that the main French force would surely arrive, promised to surrender the Natchez refugees, expel the English, and burn the forts. Bienville and a Council of War decided on 15 February to end the campaign and begin to leave Fort Assumption. After a long wait at the fort, Bienville, his forces there now shrunken to five hundred, met a Chickasaw delegation on 31 March and approved Céloron’s terms. He chose not to contest their latest explanation that most of the Natchez had fled but that the few still hiding would be found and surrendered. Angry, humiliated, and exhausted, Bienville and the army arrived back in New Orleans by late April. The cost of this second expedition probably exceeded the 1,000,000 livres of the first at a time when Louisiana’s entire budget was set at 330,000 livres.
From 1740 through 1742 heavy raids by resurgent Choctaw forces under French sponsorship burned villages and destroyed crops. The English temporarily curtailed their activities, impressed by the magnitude of the French expeditions despite their failure. Forcing an optimistic note, Bienville reported that the Chickasaw-English threat could now be contained. With his departure in 1743—discouraged, aging, and ailing—the Chickasaw War faded to something resembling an end.
- Samuel Dorris Dickinson, Arkansas Historical Quarterly (1984)
- Michael J. Forêt, Louisiana History (1990)
- Michael J. Forêt, Revue de Louisiane/Louisiana Review (1982)
- Arrel M. Gibson, The Chickasaws (1971)
- John Brice Harris, From Old Mobile to Fort Assumption (1959)
- Mary Ann Wells, Native Land: Mississippi, 1540–1798 (1994)
- Joe Wilkins, Proceedings of the Twelfth Meeting of the French Colonial History Society, Ste. Geneviève, May 1986 (1988)
- Patricia Dillon Woods, French-Indian Relations on the Southern Frontier (1980)