A leader of the Choctaw in the crucial period of the 1820s and 1830s, Greenwood LeFlore was born in 1800 to Nancy Cravat, a Choctaw woman, and Louis LeFleur, a Canadian fur trader. The kinship connections of his mother’s clan and his father’s dealings with the fur trade made LeFlore well positioned to straddle the native and European worlds that were merging as settlers moved ever westward. Indeed, the parents took steps to ensure that he obtained the skills and connections necessary to prepare him to lead his people during a challenging time.
When LeFlore was twelve, his family sent him to live with Maj. John Donly and his family in Nashville, Tennessee. Little is known of LeFlore’s stay there, but he probably acquired a basic education and witnessed firsthand the inner workings of slavery and the cotton economy. Much to the Donlys’ dismay, his efforts to cultivate connections led him to elope with their daughter, Rosa, back to his home in the Choctaw nation in 1817.
LeFlore returned to a nation in turmoil and entered politics with a handful of allies who shared his reformist leanings. In 1825 he and another young man, David Folsom, challenged the three national chiefs whose tendency to cede land to settle personal debts had caused increasing alarm among the people. In 1826 Folsom unseated Chief Mushulatubbee in the eastern towns, and in the western towns where LeFlore lived, people agitated for the removal of his uncle, Robert Cole. Acclaimed by the public, LeFlore pledged never to “turn his coat” on his people.
LeFlore won widespread backing by supporting mission schools where children learned to read, write, and speak English as well as a host of trades that would give them opportunities in the changing economy. At the same time, he made his fortune with thirty-two slaves who worked a 250-acre cotton plantation in the Yazoo River Valley. LeFlore appeared to be the consummate southern planter, but he also adhered closely to Choctaw traditions of generosity and obligation. His wealth, for example, underwrote his support for a network of leaders who governed the western towns and enabled him to host anyone who might come to visit or ask his advice. As one observer wrote, his home “must be free to all who visit them, and as they wish to elevate their people, their tables must be well supplyed.”
In addition to ministering to the needs of his people, LeFlore had to rebuff the federal government’s constant clamor for more land. He wrote to the Office of Indian Affairs that the government’s endless demands pressured his people so that they could find neither the time nor the energy to accommodate the cultural and political expansion of Anglo-America. His plea for a few years of “rest,” however, ended with Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828. Jackson’s victory signaled that the Native Americans’ tenure in Mississippi would be tolerated no longer, and in 1830 the federal government enacted the Indian Removal Act to hasten that departure.
The act dashed LeFlore’s hopes for a strong and independent Choctaw nation, and he predicted in a speech to the national council that “bad white men will soon come among us, and settle on our vacant land, and cheat us out of our property.” Accordingly, in September 1829, LeFlore called a public meeting where he announced his despair and counseled his audience to accept Removal because armed resistance offered no hope. The national council responded by electing LeFlore as the nation’s sole chief and authorizing him to negotiate the nation’s Removal to the West.
In September 1830 nearly six thousand Choctaw convened on a small patch of land between the two forks of Dancing Rabbit Creek to hear the federal government’s proposal for Removal. In the early going a number of men and women spoke out against Removal; feeling that their will had been made clear, the people then packed up and returned to their homes. Two days later the federal commissioners called together a handful of leaders including LeFlore and concluded the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, in which the Choctaw agreed to leave Mississippi.
Nearly fifteen thousand of the approximately eighteen thousand Choctaw moved to Indian Territory over the next three years, but LeFlore was not among them. He remained behind after receiving death threats for his role in the Removal treaty. He expanded his plantation holdings, served briefly in the Mississippi legislature, and became a leading cotton planter. His plantation home, Malmaison, was one of the finest in the state, and he modeled it after in the French style favored by his hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. When Mississippi seceded from the United States, LeFlore cast his lot with the Union despite his ownership of slaves, and when he died in August 1865 his body was wrapped in an American flag and interred on his plantation grounds. Malmaison burned to the ground in 1942.
- James Taylor Carson, Journal of Mississippi History (2003)
- James Taylor Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (1999)
- Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (1970)
- Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918 (1995)