Of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern United States in the early nineteenth century—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole—the Chickasaw were the smallest. Around 1700, when continuous contact with whites began, they are estimated to have numbered about 7,000 (2,000 warriors), compared with 17,500 neighboring Choctaw. Since 1670 both tribes had suffered large losses from warfare and especially foreign diseases, particularly smallpox. By 1775 their populations had declined to 2,300 Chickasaw and 13,400 Choctaw. Thereafter, with the fading of warfare and the rise of immunities to imported diseases, the populations rose steadily.
Chickasaw and Choctaw are two constituents of the Western Muskogean branch of the Muskogean language family. (As of 2015, about seventy-five people, most of them over the age of fifty-five, still spoke Chickasaw.) Hence, they are dialects with a common root. The tribes also share many cultural traits and a migration story, indicating that they separated fairly late in prehistoric times. Indeed, the English name Chickasaw was adopted from the Choctaw phrase chik’asha ashachi, meaning “they left as a tribe not a very great while ago.”
Both tribes tell of a migration from “the land of the Setting Sun.” According to legend, the Chickasaw wanderings from the West ended at the “Chickasaw Old Fields” near the Tennessee River in far northwestern Alabama. They subsequently relocated to new “Old Fields” in the highlands of the Tombigbee River, in Lee County, Mississippi, between Belden and Verona, just west of present Tupelo. They finally spread to the area bounded by the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers on the east and north, Okatibbee Creek (a tributary of the Tombigbee) on the south, and the Mississippi River. During relatively peaceful times they scattered in small villages, sometimes into northwestern Alabama and to at least two semipermanent settlements on the Savannah River in South Carolina and Georgia. Hunting parties ranged nearly to the Atlantic and to the Great Plains. Chickasaw raiders, much feared, struck north of the Ohio, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and west along the Red and Arkansas Rivers.
The Chickasaw generally lived in small towns containing up to two hundred households. The tribal domain was held in common ownership. Towns had common fields. Private use and even inheritance (through females) was permitted, but formal ownership was not. Towns could move but kept the same names, spreading apart during peacetime but clustering during war. A typical town contained a log-palisaded fort; grounds for councils, festivals, and sports; and religious and council buildings. In 1702 the French were told that eighteen such towns existed. The “capital,” boasting more than two hundred households, was Chickafalaya, called Log Town by the English and Old Pontotoc by early American settlers. Households customarily included a winter house (or hothouse) that was circular, twenty-five feet in diameter, and framed with pine logs and poles, with mud-plaster walls and a sunken earthen floor; one or two summer houses, which were rectangular and had two rooms, walls of loosely woven mats, and roofs of grass thatch and bark; a storage house for crops; and a hut for menstruating women.
Early European observers described Chickasaw men as physically impressive—tall and robust, with reddish-brown skin, jet-black hair, and large, dark eyes—and women as attractive. Warriors shaved the sides of their heads, leaving a tuft soaked in bear grease; old men and women wore their hair long. The Chickasaw kept their persons and dwellings exceptionally clean. Their endurance in hunting and war was legendary: they were said to chase fleeing enemies as far as three hundred miles. They exuded an air of superiority and independence. One early visitor, Bernard Romans, took a jaundiced view, however, calling the warriors haughty, cruel, “filthy in their discourse,” and “corrupt in their morals.”
The primary social unit was the household (or house group), consisting of matrilineally related women and their husbands, children, and unmarried brothers. A man was subject to the regulations of his wife’s household, which functioned, with its own name, as an autonomous part of a clan. Like the clan, the household was led by a hereditary chief from the female line (later chosen by a council of elder men). The number of clans varied between seven and fifteen (though six remained extant in 2002), with each composed of households and usually taking totemic animal names (e.g., panther, bird, deer) derived from a clan ancestor’s visionary dream. Clans were ranked and exercised ceremonial and other prerogatives. Men could marry only outside their birth clan; lineage was traced through females, who arranged or approved all marriages.
The clans were grouped into two moieties (groups), the Imosaktca and Intukwalipa. Men could not marry outside their moiety. Moieties had their own rituals and a “prophet” (priest-curer). The tribe separated secular from religious leadership. By the early nineteenth century, it had a hereditary principal chief (high minko), a member of the highest-ranking clan of the Imosaktca, the senior moiety. Anthropologists, however, are uncertain whether the tribe previously had a true principal chief. Clans and towns were essentially self-governing, with chiefs who had few coercive powers; important questions were resolved by calling a council comprised of the adult males. Clan or town chiefs with strong followings may have acted for the tribe in some diplomatic situations or called a tribal council of chiefs and elders to deliberate. Councils were more advisory than legislative; oratory and persuasion conferred authority.
Individuals enjoyed great personal freedom. Tribal laws were few, enforced by clan courts of elders. Especially strict rules dealt with homicide and adultery. In cases of murder, the victim’s clan was obligated to capture and kill the perpetrator. If he escaped, his brother or one of his clan members would be killed instead; if the victim were female, a female relative was killed. Most scholars agree that only women were punished for adultery. An adulterous woman’s husband could beat her and crop her hair, nose, and ears. When asked why men were not punished similarly, the Chickasaw responded that disfigured men were unfit to fight.
Like the far more numerous Iroquois in the Northeast, Chickasaw warriors were feared throughout the Southeast. James Adair (ca. 1709–ca. 1783), an English trader who lived among them and even led them in battle, called them “the readiest and quickest of all people in going to shed blood,” as “brave as ever trod the ground, and faithful under great danger even unto death.” They usually fought in bands of fifty or fewer from a single clan. The most common motive for offensive warfare was to avenge the death of kin. The appearance of Chickasaw dugouts, some capable of carrying more than sixty warriors, inspired undiluted dread along the Southeast’s waterways. Slain enemies were scalped and captured warriors burned alive, but captives might also be enslaved to help the women in the fields or, from the late seventeenth century, sold to English traders for muskets, munitions, and manufactured articles. The whole tribe was involved only in defensive warfare. The palisaded forts in towns were particularly formidable, as the French learned during the Chickasaw Wars (1723–53).
To go to war, a famed warrior, usually a chief, would persuade a group of followers. Dances, ceremonies, and a fast would precede the warriors’ departure, with further ceremonies after their return. Success required tactical knowledge, principally of surprise and ambush, and correct performance of rituals. By the eighteenth century, muskets were added to the traditional armory of bows and arrows, hatchets, spears, clubs, and stone knives. (Like most Indians, the Chickasaw found whites’ method of fighting in formation in the open all but incomprehensible.) After agreeing to make peace, an opponent’s delegation would be met in a town with ceremonies, dances, oratory, and the climactic smoking of a white calumet.
The Chickasaw subsisted on hunting, fishing, gathering, and to a lesser extent than the Choctaw agriculture. Hunting parties, sometimes with families, ranged as far as the High Plains. Hunting dwindled after 1805 because herds had declined as a consequence of the trade in furs and especially deer hides. Men subsequently turned gradually toward agriculture and raising stock. The traditional crops were corn, beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, melons, sunflowers, and tobacco, to which the eighteenth-century English added potatoes, watermelons, and “marshmallow” (perhaps okra or maypop). Berries, plums, grapes, persimmons, sassafras roots, nuts, onions, honey, and salt were gathered. Horses arrived around 1700 from English and Spanish sources. Herding and raising horses took root during the 1700s. The Chickasaw were perhaps the first southeastern Indians to use horses in warfare. The long-striding, durable Chickasaw horse began gaining fame.
Clothing was made from animal skins—especially deer but also other furs—and from cloth, which was woven from mulberry bark thread, buffalo hair, and hemp. Men wore breechclouts and deerskin shirts, while women wore hide skirts with belts or sashes. Winter brought out fur robes; hunters wore leggings and high deerskin boots. Both sexes wore moccasins only occasionally. Robes with feathers woven into them appeared on ceremonial occasions. The Chickasaw flattened the heads of both boys and girls at birth. Both wore bracelets and ear, nose, and finger rings, but tattooing and body painting were reserved for males.
Religion permeated Chickasaw culture. The correct performance of personal and public rituals was believed essential to the tribe’s well-being and survival. Each household, clan, and moiety originally had a priest and shaman (healer), though after 1700 they combined into a caste of holy men. These positions were hereditary and were held by men too old to fight or hunt. They maintained each town’s sacred fire, which provided coals for every dwelling. The holy men also healed, conducted rituals, and interpreted signs, dreams, and events.
The supreme being, Ababinili, the creator of life, fire, and light, was “a composite force consisting of the Four Beloved Things Above—Sun, Clouds, Clear Sky, and ‘He that Lives in the Clear Sky.’” Lesser gods and good and evil spirits abounded, with a personal spirit to guide and guard each individual. Witches did evil; good spirits would aid those who observed the rituals. Festivals or rituals involving fasting and purging, feasting, dancing, and games marked the new year (at the first new moon after the spring equinox), the beginning and end of the harvest, and other occasions. The dead were buried inside the home in a sitting position facing west, with the face painted red and with personal possessions. The good would go to heaven in the west, the evil to a wandering existence in the Land of the Witches or perhaps to a void in the west between heaven and the material world.
With no written language, the Chickasaw relied on oral tradition. Monogamy prevailed, but polygamy was permitted well into the nineteenth century. Children could be betrothed. Temporary and trial marriages were allowed, as were separation and divorce. A man could marry his deceased brother’s widow, and widows and widowers could remarry after prescribed mourning periods. Boys and girls were separated after age three. Mothers disciplined girls, while boys were disciplined by an “uncle,” probably the mother’s oldest brother or the eldest uncle of the mother’s clan. Children enjoyed great freedom, disciplined by admonition and shaming rather than corporal punishment. Marriage and burial rites were simple and primarily public. A warrior killed in battle was placed on a scaffold at the site or buried, with his bones later retrieved for burial in his home.
The Chickasaw remained largely unresponsive to Christian missionaries until the 1820s and often ignored them thereafter. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians made some headway, with the Presbyterians in particular encouraging education and founding the Charity Hall and Monroe schools. After 1824 the tribal council subsidized the Tokshis, Martya, and Caney Creek schools through the Presbyterians, but these schools closed by 1834 because of the impending Removal. Christianity grew apace after Removal, weakening the tribe’s ties to its past. Today, most Chickasaw are Baptist or Methodist.
- W. David Baird, The Chickasaw People (1974);
- Chickasaw Nation website, www.chickasaw.net
- 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)
- 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)