The short life of James L. McDonald, a Choctaw negotiator in the 1820s and early 1830s and the “first Indian lawyer,” illustrates the options Choctaws faced in the period leading to Removal.
McDonald was born in the Choctaw tribal homeland in Mississippi in 1801. Very little is known about his father, a European, and mother, a Choctaw trader and landowner. McDonald’s mother sought to educate her son to be a tribal leader, first enrolling him in a local Quaker-run mission school and later sending him to Baltimore, where he studied under Philip E. Thomas of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Thomas wrote to the Department of War about McDonald’s potential as a tool for Indian Removal, and Thomas McKenney, a Quaker and US government official, provided McDonald with lodging and employment at a dry goods store under the supervision of the Indian Office after his 1818 graduation. McKenney became so impressed with McDonald that he convinced secretary of war John C. Calhoun to obtain federal funds to further the youth’s education. While McDonald worked for the US government, he attended school during holidays and studied Greek, Latin, philosophy, business, surveying, and science.
When pressured by McKenney and Calhoun to earn a degree in law, science, or theology, McDonald expressed his desire to return to Choctaw territory, where he might farm and live near his mother. However, he also noted his fear that he would relapse into “savagism.” Beginning in 1821 McDonald studied law under Ohio Supreme Court justice John McLean, a close friend of Calhoun. McDonald gained admittance to the Ohio bar in 1823. Calhoun and McKenney subsequently attempted to convince McDonald to help the federal government persuade Choctaws to remove or assimilate. Instead, McDonald returned to Choctaw territory, where he became the first Choctaw lawyer and a strong opponent of Removal.
In 1824 the three principal chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, Pushmataha, Mushulatubbee, and Apukshunnubbee, organized the Choctaw Delegation to negotiate a treaty with the president. McDonald and his friend, David Folsom, served as the principal negotiators. When the treaty was completed in 1825, McDonald had used his education, knowledge of surveying, and relationships with Calhoun and McKenney to protect mission schools, obtain high annuity payments, and relinquish Choctaw debts while retaining land in Mississippi.
McDonald supported schools and acculturation, but he opposed assimilation into white society. His experiences during the negotiations and the harsh treatment he received from Calhoun convinced him that Removal was the only option for Choctaw survival, and he signed the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. He remained in Mississippi and fell in love with a white woman, who refused to marry him because he was an Indian. Apparently depressed and suffering from alcoholism, McDonald committed suicide in September 1831.
- John C. Calhoun, The Papers of John C. Calhoun, ed. W. Edwin Hemphill, vols. 4, 9 (1969, 1976)
- James Taylor Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (1999)
- Gary Coleman Cheek Jr., “Cultural Flexibility: Assimilation, Education, and the Evolution of Choctaw Identity in the Age of Transformation, 1800–1830” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State University, 2005)
- Frederick E. Hoxie, This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made (2013)
- Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918 (1995)