George, Levi, and William Colbert served as prominent military, political, and economic leaders in the Chickasaw Nation prior to Removal. Their father, James Logan Colbert (ca. 1721–83), emigrated from Scotland and became a successful trader among the Chickasaw. Fluent in Chickasaw, he served as an interpreter at the Augusta (1763) and Mobile Indian conferences (1765 and 1771) and fought with the British and their southern Indian allies during the American Revolution. His first marriage to a Chickasaw woman resulted in a daughter and a son, William (Chooshemataha). His second Chickasaw wife gave birth to four sons, George (Tootemastubbe), Joseph, Levi (Itawamba Mingo), and Samuel. He and his third wife, a mixed-blood Chickasaw, had a son and daughter, James and Susan.
William and George Colbert began their military service during the Revolutionary War as members of their father’s loyal British raiders. In 1791 William, George, and another Chickasaw chief, Piomingo, led Chickasaw forces under Gen. Arthur St. Clair against the Ohio Indians and gained the attention of Pres. George Washington. In honor of their service, Washington sent silver peace medals and military uniforms to the three Chickasaw chiefs in June 1792. George and Piomingo met with Washington in July 1794. William met with the president in August 1795 and asked for his assistance in the Chickasaw war against the Creek and for recognition as the Chickasaw war leader. Washington demurred on both requests but sought to assuage Colbert by giving him a commission as a major general for his service with St. Clair.
While George and Levi became principal speakers and chiefs, William Colbert continued to receive recognition as a political and military leader until his death on 30 May 1824. He garnered accolades for his exploits during the Creek War of 1813–14, especially at the Battle of the Holy Ground on 23 December 1813. In March 1814 William, George, Levi, and James led 230 Chickasaw into Florida, captured a number of hostile Creek, and returned with them to Fort Montgomery. William Colbert signed treaties at Chickasaw Bluffs (1801), at the Chickasaw Council House (1816), and at Chickasaw Old Town (1818). Throughout his postrevolutionary career, his first wife, Jessie Moniac, a mixed-blood Creek, was a constant companion and accompanied him on the war trail. Described as “honest, brave & respected” and “full of animation & never dulled—possessed of wit & pleasantry,” he was often impetuous, eager for a fight, and overindulgent in his consumption of alcohol. At his death in Chickasaw County, his family included his second wife, Ishtanaha, and five adult children.
George Colbert emerged as a leader among the Chickasaw through his martial exploits against the Creek and earned the rank of colonel. In October 1798 he traveled to Philadelphia with Wolf’s Friend and others to meet with Pres. John Adams. One observer described George as “tall, slender and handsome with straight black hair,” while another declared him “naturally the smartest man of the Colberts.” Although he lacked formal education and “talked very common English,” his shrewd negotiating skills and business acumen earned him leadership roles. At the Chickasaw Bluffs treaty conference in October 1801, Chinubbee, identified in the treaty as king of the Chickasaw, deferred to Colbert as the nation’s chief speaker. When the Chickasaw agreed to open the Natchez Trace between Nashville and Natchez in 1801, he used his influence to route the new federal wagon road across the Tennessee River, where he and his brother, Levi, operated Colbert’s Ferry until 1819. His ferry business, plantations near present-day Booneville and Tupelo, and stock raising made him wealthy, influencing his opposition to intruders and demands for land cessions.
George participated in several treaty conferences and signed the treaties at the Chickasaw Council House (1816) and at Old Town (1818). The 1816 treaty reserved a large tract of land north of the Tennessee River for “Col. George Colbert and heirs” and smaller tracts for “Major Levi Colbert” and others. The treaties provided cash payments of $150 or $100 to the Chickasaw signatories, but William, George, Levi, and James Colbert and Tishomingo also received $1,000 each. When the Chickasaw relinquished their remaining claims in Tennessee and Kentucky in 1818, the Colberts received additional cash payments and guarantees regarding their land reservations. George also signed the subsequent treaties at Franklin, Tennessee (1830), at Pontotoc Creek (1832), and in Washington, D.C. (1834), that shaped and finalized Chickasaw Removal.
George Colbert, his brothers, and their extended bicultural families became wealthy merchant-planters and slave owners with large livestock holdings and fields of cotton and corn. He married two daughters of Cherokee chief Doublehead: one died before 1818, though the second, Saleachy, moved with George to Indian Territory in 1837. He married his third wife, Tuskeahookto, in 1834. After Removal, George Colbert used his slaves to establish farming operations near Fort Towson, Indian Territory, where he died on 7 November 1839.
Levi Colbert served as principal speaker for the Chickasaw Nation during the turbulent years leading up to Removal. Thomas McKenney, commissioner of Indian affairs, described Levi as being “to the Chickasaws, what the Soul is to the body. They move at his bidding.” He placed his mark on the treaties of 1805, 1816, 1818, 1830, and 1832. In 1812 he lived and operated a stand at Buzzard Roost on the Natchez Trace, about nine miles southwest of Colbert’s Ferry, and by 1817 he had moved to the west bank of the Tombigbee opposite Cotton Gin Port, where he built a gristmill and farmed and raised stock. Levi and George supported the development of schools, including Charity Hall (started by Rev. Robert Bell in 1820) and Monroe Mission (started by Rev. Thomas C. Stuart in 1822), and enrolled their children.
Although generally self-serving, the Colberts, especially Levi, promoted Chickasaw economic interests and resisted Removal. He rejected an 1826 request to exchange the Chickasaw homeland for lands in the West and refused a similar proposal during McKenney’s visit in 1827, though Levi agreed to visit the West. He led an exploring party into present-day Oklahoma in 1828 and reported that the “vacant country” was not acceptable. After agreeing to the 31 August 1830 Treaty of Franklin, which provided for Removal based on finding acceptable lands in the West, Levi led a second western expedition in October 1830. His party explored eastern and southeastern Oklahoma and crossed the Red River into Mexican territory. Colbert informed Pres. Andrew Jackson that if the United States purchased the lands along the Sabine River, the Chickasaw would remove.
With their sovereignty and economy threatened by the extension of Mississippi law and the withholding of annuity payments, the Chickasaw agreed to Removal under the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek. Although illness prevented his active participation, Levi placed his mark on the 20 October 1832 treaty that provided for the Chickasaw lands to be surveyed and sold and the proceeds to be paid to the Chickasaw Nation. In October 1833 he led a third Chickasaw party to the West, holding a conference with Choctaw delegates at Fort Towson, where he offered to purchase lands for a new Chickasaw homeland. After failing to reach agreement with the Choctaw, federal officials agreed to consider amending the 1832 treaty. Unable to travel, Levi appointed his brother, George, as the principal negotiator for the Chickasaw delegation that signed the Treaty of Washington on 24 May 1834. It provided permanent reservations for the Colberts and other full-bloods and mixed-bloods and created a tribal commission to monitor and approve Chickasaw land sales. Levi Colbert died on 2 June 1834, before Chickasaw Removal began in 1837.
- James R. Atkinson, Splendid Land, Splendid People: The Chickasaw Indians to Removal (2004), Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 2004)
- Arrell M. Gibson, The Chickasaws (1971)
- Charles J. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties (1904–41)
- Don Martini, Who Was Who among the Southern Indians: A Genealogical Notebook, 1698–1907 (1997)