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End of the Trail: The Trail of Tears for the Choctaws

Neon sign
The aptly named motel at Broken Bow, where the military road , aka US 70, makes a sharp left turn to continue westward. This road was blazed for an by the Choctaws who entered this region by 1820.

The Trail of Tears for the Choctaws ended at a little place called Ultima Thule, and the beginning of their new home was Eagletown.

When readers of American history hear terms like "Indian removal" or "Trail of Tears," it's the tragic saga of the Cherokees' that may immediately spring to mind. But actually, the Choctaws — a large tribe from Mississippi —were the first people to be confronted with the policies of forced removal. The Trail of Tears for the Choctaws ended at a little place called Ultima Thule, and the beginning of their new home was Eagletown.

Mississippi Home

Indian removal for the Choctaws actually began in 1805, in a treaty between envoys of Thomas Jefferson and the Mingoes, Chiefs, and warriors of the Choctaw Nation (Mingoes were the major spiritual and tribal leaders). In this treaty, the Choctaw nation ceded lands in southern Mississippi, their ancestral homelands, to the United States in exchange for annuities. This occurred, of course, just two years after the Louisiana Purchase. This land cession did not include the sliver of coastal lands claimed by Spanish Florida, but did curtail the Choctaws' territory heavily. Their nation had shrunk to include only northern Mississippi.

A few decades later, American planters coveted the Choctaw lands in northern Mississippi, too. Planters along the eastern coast of the U.S. had depleted their own lands, but also wanted to expand their plantations to increase cotton production, the South's main cash crop. By this time, the Choctaws had been assimilating quite well into Anglo American, antebellum culture. Many had intermarried with whites and had established their own plantations, which included enslaved people. Several Choctaws actually made a good living by participating in the slave trade. They also sent their children to schools sponsored by missionaries to learn the ways of the whites.

This assimilation did not suffice, however. In 1820, the Indian agent in charge of the southern region, Andrew Jackson (the future president) signed the Treaty of Doak's Stand with several Choctaw leaders — the Medal Mingoes, such as Mushulatubbee, and chiefs such as General Humming Bird and Choctawistonocka — that exchanged their ancestral lands for territory between the Arkansas and Red Rivers. In addition to the land, the men who left for the new country would also receive "a blanket, kettle, rifle gun, bullet moulds and nippers, and ammunition sufficient for hunting and defense, for one year. Said warrior shall also be supplied with corn to support him and his family, for the same period, and whilst traveling to the country above ceded to the Choctaw nation." (Art. 5, Treaty of Doak's Stand, 1820).

The Creation of Indian Territory

After the Louisiana Territory was subdivided into the state of Louisiana and the Missouri Territory in 1814, American settlers began to pour into the southern portion of the Missouri Territory. By 1819, that area became the Arkansas Territory, stretching from the Mississippi River in the east to the 100th Meridian in the west, and from the 36th parallel southward. Then, in 1824, Congress authorized the creation of Indian Territory in the western portion of Arkansas Territory in preparation for the plethora of Indian Removal treaties that the U.S. and the Indian nations east of the southern Mississippi River were signing.

With the signing of the Doak's Stand Treaty, the Choctaws were thus the first southeastern Indian nation to venture into Arkansas, then Indian Territory. Their last "white" destination was Ultima Thule, which means "A distant and unknown region... the extreme limit of travel and discovery." Then, upon entering their new homelands, these early settlers established a post called Osi Tamaha, or Eagletown, in today's McCurtain County. The area had been settled previously by Anglo Americans, but they had been forced out by federal soldiers after the establishment of Indian Territory; they suddenly found themselves being removed as well.

"Not a Free Country"

Early Anglo American settlers were not the only people who resided in southeastern Indian Territory after it was formed. The territory acted as a kind of "bufferzone" between Spanish Texas and the United States, and many Native people had been pushed informally into the region by the U.S. government; it was, quintessentially, a borderland. The Caddos, whose original homelands included southeastern Indian Territory, discovered that after the creation of the territory, they were essentially strangers in their own land. The Shawnees, a tribe from the Ohio River Valley who had become homeless after their defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, had moved to the Red River Valley to set up homes, but learned they were unwelcome there as well.

To protect the incoming Choctaws from hostile Anglos, Caddos, and Shawnees, Cantonment Towson was built in 1824. Angry Anglo American settlers attacked the garrison and even threatened the life of its commander. Though the troops were instrumental in building military and postal roads in the new territory, the constant danger and attempts at arson made the post close within five years.

By this time, an Anglo trader named Josiah Doak — at whose trading post the 1820 treaty was signed — set up a new store just west of the fort. Doak had assisted the Choctaws in getting adequate provisions for their journey westward, and negotiated with American traders along the removal trail for fair prices. Doak was considered a trustworthy ally, and many Choctaws set up their own homes and businesses next to his trading post. This new trading post became the town of Doaksville.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, which was bolstered by the federal Indian Removal Act that same year, forced all of the remaining Choctaws out of Mississippi and onto their very own "trail of tears." Eagletown became the first stop in this new land; Fort Towson the protector; and Doaksville the first permanent settlement. But one thing was sorely lacking: a school for the children of the incoming Choctaws.

Choctaw Learning

"Americanization" of Indians included building boarding schools to teach native children the "ways of the white man." Inside these schools, young boys received religious education, manual labor training, and basic English literacy. The boarding schools were often located quite far from the homelands of the tribes, in order to encourage immersion and discourage traditions. For example, from 1825 to 1848, the Johnson Indian Academy ran on the grounds of a plantation in Kentucky owned by Richard Johnson, hundreds of miles away from the Choctaws' national boundaries. Within the school, the children were given Christian names (such as "John" or "Charles") and speaking in their native Choctaw was a punishable offense. Cherokee and Chicksaw children from and also attended Johnson Academy; this is how the southeastern nations received the moniker, "the civilized tribes."

When the Choctaw Nation moved into Indian Territory, the missionaries followed... and established, along with the Choctaws and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, boarding schools within the new nation. But there was a big change. Now, Choctaw children could be educated in their home territory and could retain their familial connections. In addition, new policies introduced by Israel Folsom included girls' education, too. However, speaking Choctaw was forbidden, as was practicing their indigenous religion. A reader of Red River Historian pointed out that her grandmother, who attended the Wheelock Academy, had a clothespin clamped to her mouth when she was caught speaking Choctaw.

A Rebirth

In 1832, the Choctaw Nation and the Presbytery Mission founded the Wheelock Academy between Eagletown and Doaksville. Eventually, the small wooden building became a large educational complex that included dormitories, classrooms, a dining hall, a laboratory, and an art studio. With the building of Armstrong Academy west of Doaksville in 1845, the schools became gender segregated: Wheelock was reserved for girls, and Armstrong for boys. Adults could also take classes there, which ranged from the standard religious education to academic subjects in anatomy, algebra, and Greek classics as well as practical education in farming, gardening, food preservation, arts, and crafts. In 1847, the first stone church in Indian Territory was built at Wheelock, and stands to this day.

Not all Choctaws benefited from these educational facilities, however. Poorer Choctaw families could not afford to send their children to schools, and the enslaved people owned by Choctaw planters could not attend at all. White children received permission to attend.

When the Choctaw Nation faced removal from their homelands, they set out to inhabit a new, unfamiliar territory, and were able to make it work. These earliest of firsts — Eagletown, Wheelock Academy, Fort Towson, and Doaksville — still exist as physical reminders for a displaced but resilient people, and I encourage you to explore these sites to recognize and enjoy their history.

White two story wooden buildings
Wheelock Academy was the first school in Indian Territory.
A marker at Wheelock Academy, with my son checking out a puddle.

In 1819, Arkansas Territory separated from Missouri Territory, and by 1824, the western portion of Arkansas Territory was desginated to become the "Indian Territory" for the "civilized tribes" -- those who attended English missions (1826 map, Barry Lawrence Ruderman).

School dormitory
Armstrong Academy for Choctaw boys, built in 1845, was at one point the nation's capitol building. The building burned at the turn of the century (Durant Democrat).

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