Beyond the Divide:Chickasaw-Choctaw Warfare

By Richard Green

Chickasaw Migration

The Chickasaws and Choctaws once were one people, according to the Chickasaw migration story. This understanding is common to the accounts of English trader James Adair in 1775 and the 20th century Chickasaw activist, Jess Humes.

There are other versions in between. They all involve people making a lengthy journey from the west, following a sacred leaning pole, and a complication that resolves when the people split into two groups.

In the Chickasaw versions, one group stays put at the behest of a leader named Chata. The other, much smaller group, follows his twin brother, Chikasa, as they continue heading east. Was this a simple yet profound difference of opinion on this one matter? A case of sibling rivalry? Or had the seeds for the split already been planted, possibly through differences among clans?

Before these highly spiritual people separated, a prophet may have foreseen the eventual warfare between them, and warned that it would be caused by a greedy and hateful alien race. Such a premonition would have added even more distress to the parting.

Whatever, that moment of separation marked the emergence of two distinct peoples. Before they split up, the migrants had a name we will never know. Afterward, they adopted the names of their respective leaders and became the Choctaws and Chickasaws.

When the division occurred is a mystery that will never be solved. But the point is that the break up was permanent.

Choctaw Viewers

As you might expect, Choctaws see their origin somewhat differently. Clara Sue Kidwell, a Choctaw and director of the University of Oklahoma Native American Studies Program, notes that Choctaw origin stories are of two sorts. She cites the work of ethnologist John Swanton who reviewed the early literature and interviewed Choctaws early in the 20th century.

In one type, the people are migrating from the west. But this migration story has at least two versions, Dr. Kidwell says. “In one, a quarrel between the brothers Chata and Chiksa led to the split between them and their respective followers. In another, they were separated during a storm.”

These versions seem to have originated in the 19th century. An 18th century migration account does not name the brothers. What could that mean? Dr. Greg O’Brien of the University of Southern Mississippi says that the names, Chikasa and Chata--linked as they were in the later versions—may have reflected a “regional pan-Indian identity in the early 19th century as a way to counter talk of Removal.”

In the other origin story mentioned by Dr. Kidwell, the people emerged from a 25-foot high earthen mound, Nanih Waiya, located in east central Mississippi. The words often are translated as “sloping or leaning hill,” or “mother mound.”

Another source says the words mean “place of creation.” And indeed it was in the Choctaw story, in which the tribe emerged from the mound. Like the Chickasaw story, the Choctaw story also has variations. In one, the people emerged from a cave near Nanih Waiya; in another, the Choctaws were the fourth tribe to materialize from the mound, following the Muscogees (Creeks), Cherokees and Chickasaws. Along those lines, an 18th century Creek chief, Malachi, referred to his people as the “elder brothers” of the Chickasaws, the younger brothers.

Another Choctaw origin story cited by Mississippi Choctaw archaeologist Ken Carleton, links the first two stories. A prophet leads the migration to Nanih Waiya, which was the people’s new home until they separated into two groups, one following Chata, the other Chikasa.

In a Choctaw chronology, Mississippi Choctaw tribal historian Bob Ferguson cites the belief that before contact with Europeans, the Choctaws were divided into four provinces, and that the Chickasaws “would have reasonably constituted a northern Choctaw district.” But in her book, Choctaw Genesis, Dr. Patricia Galloway treats the Chickasaws separately from the four “constituent groups” that she identified by geographic regions as coming together to form the Choctaw confederacy before the turn of the 18th century. According to recent archaeological evidence (not yet confirmed), the Chickasaws in1650 were living in distinct settlements in the Tupelo area at least 60 miles north of the Choctaws.

Chickasaw Genesis?

How much before 1650 is unknown because no European trade goods dated before then have been uncovered at the sites, and archaeologists have no reliable way to date Indian-made material in relatively small increments of time.

Moreover, no one has rendered a Chickasaw genesis comparable to Galloway’s Choctaw Genesis.

We do know from the de Soto chroniclers that the Spanish expedition encountered Chickasaws in 1540, though the location is unknown. Some Tupelo artifact collectors cite circumstantial evidence suggesting an area southwest of Tupelo, but still in Lee County; others, such as Galloway, write that the site is probably 60 miles south near Columbus, MS.

Wherever the Chickasaws were living, we know that well before 1700 they were adopting, and more particularly, enslaving members of other tribes. This was a traditional Southeastern Indian custom of exacting clan revenge and, if needed, bolstering populations. Although enslaving was a practice that predated European contact, English agents, in particular, provided trade incentives to accelerate and expand it.

At the dawn of the 18th century, the Chickasaws’ main target was the Choctaw. It isn’t known when the Chickasaws began raiding Choctaw settlements for slaves, but it probably corresponded to when the English began arming the Chickasaws, somewhere between 1680 and 1695. According to turn-of-the-18th-century French reports, the Chickasaws had captured 500 Choctaws and killed 1,800; the Chickasaws lost 800 persons themselves while raiding and being raided.

Given the Southeastern Indians’ style of quick-hitting raids rather than engaging in prolonged attacks or pitched battles, these numbers seem exaggerated, especially considering that they fit a pattern of exaggeration. For example, French soldier Henri de Tonti claimed to have seen Englishmen leading 400 Chickasaws on their way to attack Choctaws. Even less likely, the governor of French Louisiana, Bienville, reported in 1705 that the English led 3,000 Indians against Choctaw villages, which they found abandoned.

Embellishments notwithstanding, colonial records indicate that by 1700--the next time the tribes are linked after they went their separate ways--they were mortal enemies. They would continue to war against one another intermittently for another 60 years.

Chickasaw-Choctaw Links

Why did this warfare start, when the similarity of their languages and their oral histories suggest that they shared a common ancestry? English official Thomas Nairne described one possible way in a 1708 letter: “Upon some disgust, or other reason, 2 Leading men lead out [from the original village, A] Colonies of 30 or 40 fameiles Each and sattle [settle] 2 New Villages,” which Nairne labeled B and C. The residents of B and C respect the chiefs of the original village, A, “but as for authority they look on their own Village to be independent…and free to manage their affairs as best pleases themselves…If the removeall be but a small way, they continue one nation and manage their matters in concert, but if by some quarrel…they remove a great way they by degrees alter their Language and become another people.”

Could Nairne have been referring to the Chickasaw-Choctaw division?

Many, if not most, people assume that the migration separation occurred in the mists of time, long before 1700. But, the division could have happened more recently, perhaps only a century or two before the constituent groups--postulated by Pat Galloway and others--that formed the Choctaw people came together.

This could presume Chickasaw kinship ties with only a portion of the Choctaw. Greg O’Brien cites archaeological evidence that the Chickasaws and Chakchiumas were tied to the Imoklashas, the first ethnic division that supposedly settled the Choctaw homeland. The second major ethnic division identified by O’Brien were the Inhulahtas, thought to be descended from the residents of the Mississippian chiefdom of Moundville (near Tuscaloosa) and later allied with the French against the British and Chickasaws.

Scholars, such as Galloway, O’Brien and James T. Carson agree that the Chickasaws were more closely related to the Indians, identified as Imoklashas by O’Brien, that settled in the Nanih Waiya area (original Choctaw homeland) than the Inhulahtas or the Six Town Choctaws (a later arriving third ethnic group) from the south and east.

If it’s true that the Chickasaws and a group of Choctaws had common ancestors, this could explain an enduring mystery: How some Chickasaws and Choctaws could carry on good relations in certain villages in between the cycles of violence from 1700 to 1760.

Villages Abandoned or Destroyed?

Since at least the 1690s, the Chickasaws had been raiding Choctaw villages—with English supplied arms--primarily to capture Indians to trade to the English in exchange for more arms. The English needed slave labor in their Caribbean sugarcane fields and the Chickasaws needed arms to survive against their enemies. According to French documents, the Chickasaws were successful because the quality and quantity of English arms was far superior to what France could supply to their Indian allies.

Other factors aided the Chickasaws. Choctaw retaliation typically also came via small surprise raids. Southeastern Indians didn’t attack one another en masse, mainly because it was their practice to minimize war-related casualties. Finally, though the Choctaws were by far numerically superior, those with ancestral ties to the Chickasaws likely would not seek revenge on behalf of tribal members without ancestral ties to them. Kinship normally trumped tribal ties, according to both tribal members and anthropologists.

Moreover, the Choctaws, with French agitation and arms, presumably counter-attacked only the villages of Chickasaws who had been raiding their villages. But if French records were not grossly exaggerated, the Choctaws may have been persuaded by their French allies to escalate these counter-attacks considerably, not just to exact revenge, but to vanquish the Chickasaw raiders. In the winter of 1722-23, according to French records, Choctaw warriors destroyed three Chickasaw villages.

Though the French doubtless exaggerated battlefield reports, there is archaeological evidence that most of these Chickasaw villages located closest to the Choctaws, on ridges overlooking Chiwapa and Coonewah creeks in modern southwestern Lee Count, had been abandoned before 1725. The question is, were the villages burned to the ground before or after they were abandoned.

I believe it was the latter. To attack and destroy three well-fortified Chickasaw villages would require major full-scale attacks waged by Europeans but not Southeastern Indians. It is much more likely that the Chickasaws decided that the villages were just too vulnerable to attack and so they decided to relocate. Their vulnerability was not only geographic. Because the attackers presumably had no kinship ties to their targets they were perfectly free to dispatch as many of these Chickasaws as they could.

The kinship distinction still was observed into the 1730s. French Governor Bienville wanted to attack Chickasaw villages harboring the Natchez. But his Choctaw allies led the French army to three other Chickasaw villages, Ackia, Apeony and Chukafalaya and insisted that they be attacked first. Why? Because those Choctaws knew that the three villages housed some of the Chickasaws who had abandoned their Coonewah and Chiwapa ridge villages, and revenge was still on their minds.

By the 1740s, when the Chickasaws had consolidated into only one settlement area, Old Town, the kinship distinctions were harder--though not impossible--to recognize. Historians most often ascribe the Choctaw Civil War of the late 1740s to a pro-English and a pro-French faction fighting it out. But the influence of kin ties between the Chickasaw and some Choctaw, even after a half century of European contact, should not be minimized. With the murder of the English allied Choctaw chief Red Shoe, the pro-French Choctaws were firmly in control, and they were probably making little if any distinction in their Chickasaw targets during the long, lethal siege of the 1750s.

With the essential aid of arms from South Carolina and Georgia, the Chickasaws successfully defended their homeland until 1763, when France sold its colony, Louisiana, to Spain. The pro-French Choctaws had lost their ally, and the few post-1760 incursions against the Chickasaws were likely based on settling old and private scores.

Bibliography

  • Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).
  • Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
  • Mary Ann Wells, Native Land, (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994).
  • James Atkinson, Splendid Land, Splendid People, (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2004).
  • James T.Carson, Searching for the Bright Path, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).
  • Greg O’Brien, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750-1830, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
  • Alexander Moore, editor, Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals, (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1988).
  • John Swanton, “Social and Religious Beliefs of the Chickasaw Indians,” 44th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1928).
  • Clara Sue Kidwell, personal communication
  • Beverly Nelson, personal communication
  • Bob Ferguson, Choctaw Chronology, Mississippi Choctaw website.
  • Ken Carleton, untitled essay, Mississippi Choctaw website
  • Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians, (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1975).
  • James Adair, History of American Indians, (first published in London in 1775). Steve Cook, Julian Riley and Buddy Palmer, “Historic Chickasaw Village Locations,” 1980 unpublished paper, and individual personal communications from Cook and Riley.

Last Updated: 08/13/2014