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The French-Chickasaw War of 1736

By Richard Green

July 2003 Times

Part One of a Two-Part Series

May 26, 1736. From the three villages in the southern part of their nation, the Chickasaws looked west across the prairie to where the French forces had bivouacked. They were not much further than a musket shot away. Poised though the army was, there was no consensus among the Indians that the French would attack these three villages.

There were no Natchez in these villages, and according to the captured French war plans, the French intended to first attack the Natchez whose village was just adjacent to the Chickasaw villages two or three miles to the north. Ever since the Natchez and French had traded massacres in 1729 and 1730, respectively, they had been deadly enemies. The French army had nearly wiped out the Natchez; most of the Natchez survivors fled north to the Chickasaws who provided asylum.

Subsequently, as a condition to beginning any serious talks with the Chickasaw, the French insisted that the tribe first hand over these refugee Natchez for punishment. What the French may have failed to realize was that the Chickasaw and Natchez had a long-standing alliance. That would explain why so many of the surviving Natchez fled not to the Choctaws, who were much closer, but to the Chickasaws. Perhaps the French also didn’t understand that the Chickasaw’s tradition of hospitality, in and of itself, would preclude the Chickasaws from complying with the French demand.

The French commander, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne d’Bienville, should have known better. Bienville was serving his third term as the governor of France’s vast colony, Louisiana, and in that capacity had been dealing with the Chickasaw on and off since 1704. Actually, the Chickasaws had been the bane of Bienville’s existence for most of his long military and diplomatic career in Louisiana. Through guile, resourcefulness and intellect, Bienville had been trying to develop Louisiana into a viable French colony without adequate resources. To achieve this goal, he needed to foil the English, the leading colonial competitor in the Southeast. This depended on the ability to forge a strong alliance with the Choctaws and Chickasaws to stop the English from making further inroads into the interior. He needed to lure the Chickasaws away from the English traders. Or at least the tribe had to be pacified. Bienville had the advantage of being much closer to the tribes than the English. But France could never even approximate the quality or quantity of the English trade goods. So during the first third of the 18th century, the French relations with the Chickasaws alternated between promises (mostly unfulfilled) and threats.

As he looked across at the Chickasaw villages, Bienville almost surely knew that the Natchez were not in these three villages. The papers containing his war plans against the Natchez and Chickasaw had been found on the body of Pierre D’Artaguette, the commander of the French army at Ogoula Tchetoka (A-gool-a chee-toka), following the battle two months before at that Chickasaw village. The plans, based on various intelligence sources, probably would have indicated the Natchez’s correct location. Or if not, the Choctaw guides certainly knew the Natchez’s location. So the Chickasaws must have been wondering why the French were massing there; they were still a few miles southwest of the Natchez’s village on the northeast part of the larger prairie.

Possibly, Bienville had gotten word that the northern French and Indian army had been defeated and that his original battle plans may have been intercepted. That would have necessitated a change of plans. Or the sighting of hundreds of Choctaws, off in the distance, could also be an important factor. Warriors from these three Chickasaw villages probably had been slave raiding the northern and eastern Choctaw villages intermittently since before 1700. (They were the closest villages to the Choctaw Nation.) Many of these Choctaws had their own scores to settle with the Chickasaw raiders, as much or more than the French wanted to avenge their national pride by annihilating the Natchez.

Inside their heavily fortified villages, the Chickasaw warriors, seeing no cannons, were probably confident that the French army could not dislodge them. Their fortifications combined Chickasaw and English design and experience and should be impervious to any attack except one bolstered by powerful and accurate cannon fire. Furthermore, the Chickasaws, under the war chief Mingo Ouma, had routed the French-led army that attacked Ogoula Tchetoka. Of the 145 French and 326 Indians (Iroquois, Arkansas, Illinois, and Miami), more than half were killed and many were captured. The leader, Pierre D’Artaguette (Dart-ah-get), and most of his officers, were either killed during the battle or (even worse for them) captured and burned at the stake. This included a Jesuit missionary, Father Senat, who was said to have been calmly, yet resolutely singing a hymn as he died in the flames. As a war chief, Mingo Ouma already was well known and respected. He would continue as the tribe’s great war chief throughout much of the 18th century.

The Chickasaws waited for the French and their uneasy allies, the Choctaws, to make their move. Among the Chickasaws may have been Imayatabe, a chief of one of the villages, most famously known as Ackia. (Chickasaw speakers today have various spellings for it. Pauline Brown spells it Hikeah, which means to stand. Joanne Ellis thinks it may have been Hikki’ya, meaning to stand back or be left standing. One French official spelled it Ahahikeia. Since there is no spelling consensus, Ackia will be used here.) Imayatabe had made repeated attempts through the thirties to forge an alliance with the French. They gave him the last name, Leborgne, meaning the “one-eyed man.” The French also called him the “Great Chief of the Chickasaws.” Traditionally, the great chief was always a peace chief. And, because Imayatabe was allying with the French, historians have presumed he was a peace chief. But as a peace chief, he would not be so much pro-French as he would be anti-English because the English promoted continuous slave raiding, which kept the tribe more or less at war. Or it could be that Imayatabe Leborgne hoped that the tribe would benefit from the trade of both nations. And since the balance always seemed to be tipping the English way, he supported the French.

Although peace chiefs were forbidden from spilling blood and were obligated to support peace treaties, it is doubtful at this precarious moment in Chickasaw history that Imayatabe was playing the pipes of peace. But he probably was responsible for sending out two peace emissaries to Bienville.

The scouts had returned with no word of the French army under the Illinois territory commander, D’Artaguette. It was evident to Bienville that his army would have to strike the Chickasaws alone. In the inexplicable absence of D’Artaguette’s army, there would be no pincer attack, (D’Artaguette from the north, Bienville from the south) which Bienville believed would trap the Chickasaws inside where they would be destroyed. Now, the complexion and risks of an attack would be markedly different.

Only a few months before in a letter to his superior in France, Bienville wrote that in view of the formidable Chickasaw fortifications and superior numbers (to the French), any attack against them without more equipment, supplies and soldiers, would fail, if not end in disaster. Since the King agreed with Bienville (or the other way around) that the key to Louisiana’s success was the destruction of the Chickasaws, Bienville was given a few more troops (not the four companies he requested) to supplement his army. The cannons he wanted to soften up the Chickasaw fortifications and wreak havoc among the warriors had not arrived.

Bienville’s army was an amazing amalgam of French and Swiss soldiers and various groups of other. There was a company of boatmen, 45 black slaves commanded by a free black man, various Indians (probably mercenaries) and a company of volunteers from New Orleans. In this latter group were said to be merchants along for an excursion. It could be that to get his numbers up, Bienville had deliberately exaggerated the ease with which the campaign would be conducted. One writer said Bienville’s campaign was regarded by many in New Orleans as a sort of picnic outing.

Looking across the prairie, the reality was somewhat different, despite what Bienville might have told the citizens and what the Choctaws had told him. As it was, he was facing three Chickasaw villages that formed a triangle on the prairie that was three miles square. The villages, Apeony, Chukafalaya and Ackia, were situated on a prairie. It was separated from a larger contingent of Chickasaws living in perhaps seven villages on a larger prairie divided by a forest between two and three miles in length. The Natchez lived in two villages also on the large prairie. Bienville’s intelligence indicated that each of the Chickasaw villages had a palisaded fort and several fortified houses outside the walls. These fortifications were protected by rows of thick stakes embedded in the ground and the walls of the fortified cabins were terraced with earthen embankments to make the structures fire resistant. The cabins, as Bienville called them, contained loopholes for the muskets and were situated so that an advancing enemy would inevitably be caught in a crossfire.

The Choctaw great chief told Bienville he wanted to attack Chukafalaya first. Warriors from Chukafalaya, he said, had caused the Choctaws more trouble than any other village, and it was there that his son and uncle had been killed in battle. To manipulate the French to that end, the Choctaw guides had led the army not to the Natchez village, as they had agreed to do. But by taking a round about route, they wound up on the small prairie across from Chukafalaya, Ackia and Apeony. Then, in another maneuver to get their way, some Choctaws had killed and scalped two Chickasaw peace emissaries. Their scalps were presented to an abashed Bienville. The scalps didn’t fluster him so much as the Choctaws did by aggressively trying to seize control of the situation.

Still, Bienville resisted. The King had ordered him to attack the Natchez. Another formal talk was held with the Choctaw, during which Bienville learned that a majority of his own officers favored an immediate attack from where they were. Furthermore, the Choctaws threatened to pull out if they didn’t get the provisions they said they needed without delay. They said they knew the three villages contained much more food and supplies than the Natchez camp. They also assured him that the Chickasaw villages would not offer much resistance. As Bienville was about to learn, it was an easy claim for the Choctaws to make. The Choctaw promised Bienville that they would join him in an attack on the Natchez as soon as they had destroyed these slave-raiding Chickasaws.

Bienville looked through his telescope. He saw an English flag flying above one of the villages. He couldn’t see behind the palisades, but he was sure that some Englishmen must be inside discussing the impending French attack. He told his officers not to attack that village. In 1736, France and England were not at war, and Bienville apparently thought it would be unethical or illegal to attack the English while the two nations were at peace, however briefly and cynically arranged. Although he didn’t say so, the village was probably Chukafalaya; otherwise, he would have no reason not to comply with the Choctaws who had their sites on it. He told his troops they would be attacking the village called Ackia. Though Bienville didn’t mention it in his journal, in all probability the Chickasaws inside the palisaded fort had begun to sing a war song.

This might have reminded some of the Choctaws about a sorry event that occurred in 1734. Diron D’Artaguette, brother of the late Pierre and commander of the Mobile fort, led a large force of Choctaws (perhaps a thousand) on an unauthorized expedition against an unamed Chickasaw village. Prior to the attack, the warriors inside had begun to sing. This apparently so unnerved the Choctaws that despite their vast numerical superiority, they were not able to take the village and retreated in confusion. And now as Bienville, however reluctantly, was giving the order to attack, the 600 Choctaw sequestered themselves in the rear...as their clients, in a sense, the French, marched forward, drums beating and flags flying.

End of Part 1


*Bienville is the only known recorder of events associated with the Battle of Ackia. Other soldiers in his army are thought to have written accounts but if so they have not been located. All sources listed are available at the Chickasaw Nation Library in Ada

Last Updated: 08/19/2014