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The Chickasaws and their Nation

Map of Mississppi in 1820s
By the 1820s, the Chickasaws had been pushed south and east into only a portion of their original homelands, today's Mississippi, which they shared with the Choctaws. Their removal into Indian Territory was based on a treaty but also on selling their land as individuals, which assisted in the transfer of wealth to the new Chickasaw Nation in today's Oklahoma. Not everyon benefited from the sales, however; only those who had economically adopted chattel slavery and married into the white culture could wait for the market price (LOC).

Establishing the Chickasaw Nation along the Red River proved to be a long ordeal.

Linguistically as well as culturally, the Chickasaw Nation is sibling to the Choctaws. Both tribes, though separate, share a common origination story and speak the Muskogean language. In their history, the Chickasaws had a very developed social hierarchy, with a nobility class based on ancestry, and well-developed, matrilineal clan system.

Trading Tribe

Their homelands in northern Mississippi and Alabama, western Tennessee and into Kentucky paralleled the Mississippi River and the Natchez Trace, which solidified the Chickasaws as important traders and, upon European contact, as ferriers into Louisiana Territory. They defended their territory fiercely from any incursions, including against Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors in the mid-16th century. It was the Chickasaw tribe who defeated him after his troops tried to destroy one of their villages.

European Influences

The Chickasaws traded with the French, Iroquois, Spanish, and English in guns and furs, but found the most advantageous trade with the English. The tribe acclimated quite well to the English ways, too. They adopted English economic, religious, and social customs; many members of the tribe converted to Christianity, attended mission academies, and became individual land owners who grew cash crops that relied on African slave labor. Due to their trading relationships, the Chickasaws sided with the English during the American revolutionary war. Afterwards, George Washington himself sought peace with the Chickasaws, but trouble brewed between the Anglo Americans and the Indians in their native homelands.

To the Anglos, all natives were hostile. As the Red Stick Creeks took up the warpath against the Anglo intruders in 1811, Anglos directed their hostility towards the Choctaws and Chickasaws as well. Andrew Jackson, who was appointed the southeastern territory's Indian Agent in the 1820s, supported the removal of native people from their homelands, or threatened their destruction. He supported the schemes approved by the states of Mississippi and Alabama, which sought to privatize Chickasaw territory. By the 1830s, the Chickasaws had ceded a large amount of territory to the states of Mississippi and Alabama.

Removing to Indian Territory

A portion of the Chickasaw nation had adopted western-style capitalism and demanded top-dollar for their land. Several Chickasaw planters sold their concerns at private sales rather than to the U.S. government. The Chickasaws who were able to wait arrived in Indian Territory "in large, comfortable carriages" surrounded by the people they had enslaved. The yeoman farming Chickasaws did not fare as well. Hundreds died as they made their trek into Indian Territory after the Andrew Jackson federalized "states rights" with the federal Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Their new homeland was not just an empty place. The lands that comprise the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations were claimed by the Caddos, Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches, which is why the new migrants established their homes near federal forts that could offer them protection. They also had to contend with Texans, who set up shop in the lands north of the Red River shore to sell liquor, slaves, and cattle.

When the Chickasaws arrived in Indian Territory, they could not immediately establish their own nation, as their removal treaty of 1834 stipulated that they would find their own suitable lands and the Treaty of 1837 made them, for removal purposes, members of the Choctaw nation. Their first major town in Indian Territory was Boggy Depot, established between Fort Arbuckle (the first one, then the latter one) and Fort Washita. Very soon, this town became a thriving trading and transportation center. In 1855, the Chickasaws formally separated from the Choctaw Nation and established the Chickasaw Nation in south-central Indian Territory by buying the western half of the Choctaw Nation. They moved the seat of their government to Tishomingo after the survey left Boggy Depot inside the Choctaw Nation.

Setting up Anew

In their former homelands, missionaries had Christianized and educated Chickasaw youths in boarding schools and academies. The Chickasaws replicated this method of Americanization in their new nation in Indian Territory. In Chickasaw tradition, women headed the household. As the education of women was tantamount to success, the Chickasaw's premier academy, Bloomfield, educated girls.

Chickasaw families who had already been materially successful in Mississippi replicated their financial success in Indian Territory, too. For example, Benjamin Colbert, an Anglo-Chickasaw, had operated ferries along the Mississippi River. When he came to Indian Territory, he set up ferry crossing along the Red River. His most famous ferry crossing spanned the between today's Colbert (Bryan County, Oklahoma) and Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

The Chickasaw Nation did not have a large population; therefore, their government encouraged Texas settlers to lease land for farming or grazing. Not all Texans leased, however. Most squatted on the land illegally. Clashes between Chickasaws and Texan intruders led to violence, especially in the border region around the Red River. Pickens County, which upon statehood became Love County, was especially prone to these outbursts. Brown Springs near Thackerville developed a sordid reputation due to the discord between Chickasaws and Texans. The national government adopted laws that required non-Chickasaws to pay fees, and to be sponsored by a Chickasaw national, to lease land. Instead of doing this, many Anglo Texan men married* and had children with Chickasaw women, and a white-friendly federal court in 1897 used these marriages to force the Chickasaws to adopt Anglo families into their tribal rolls. This was later reversed by Chickasaw courts, however.

Civil War and After

The Chickasaws nearly unanimously sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, but this misplaced loyalty led to the dissolution of their nation after 1866. The federal government then obligated the Chickasaws in new treaties to distribute land to the freedmen in the nation and to educate them, but the Chickasaws refused to adopt freed people into their tribe.

Like the Choctaws, the Chickasaws were subjected to the stipulations of the Dawes Act of 1887 by 1893, which forced them to use "blood quantum" to determine who was, and wasn't, a Chickasaw and thereby "qualify" for individual land allotments according to the registrants through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (what's called the Dawes Rolls). Many Chickasaws prospered from their ranches, which sustained the famous Chisholm Trail (known then as the Abilene Cattle Trail) that cut through their territory, and later by the discovery of oil.

But the period after the Civil War coincided with the federalized Indian removals of the people west of the Mississippi River; in fact, this scheme was one of the strategies on both "sides" of the Civil War. Since Indian Territory was considered land ultimately subject to federal jurisdiction, the western portion of the Chickasaw Territory was taken from the Chickasaws to become reservations for the Plains Indian tribes, like the Kiowas and Comanches, as well as to roaming tribes who had ceded their homelands to the Anglos but had not received land in exchange, like the Caddos and Wichitas. This western portion then became part of "Oklahoma Territory" after the Dawes acts were passed.

Modern Nation Building

Railroads came to the Chickasaw country relatively late — only in the 1880s. But with the rail came a tourism boom. The Chickasaw Nation claims the beautiful Arbuckle Mountains and the surrounding waters, including the Blue River. A number of spa towns, like Sulphur and Bromide, erupted from the ground (pun intended) and trains brought visitors from throughout the states to visit these beautiful places.

In 1924, the Chickasaws became U.S. citizens, but this didn't help them much. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression hit the Chickasaws especially hard, as their new homelands were much more arid and much more easily to over-work than their lands back east. Many Chickasaws, displaced by the disasters of the 1930s, found themselves migrating to California. As it had done for other tribes, the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act helped the Chickasaws, somewhat. They regained much of their autonomy, which national leaders promptly used to abandon the academies altogether to rely on secular, segregated public schools.

Today, these schools are thankfully integrated, and much of their funding comes from wealth generated by Chickasaw casinos. While still mostly rural, the Chickasaw Nation is witnessing an astonishing economic boom with its central proximity to both Oklahoma City and Dallas.

*Because Chickasaw customs were not based on legal documents and the nation was large and sparsely populated, marriages were not often recorded. The white men took advantage of this by claiming marriages took place, by affidavit to the 1897 federal court to gain Chickasaw citizenship and therefore, land allotments via the Dawes Acts (1887 and 1893).

An 1866 map of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations (LOC).

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