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The Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory

Painting of stikck ball players
George Catlin observed Choctaw stick ball players ina game now known as La Crosse (named by Jesuit priestes) in the 1830s, which he painted and is depcicted here (Smithsonian).

The Choctaw Nation was the first of the "five civilized tribes" to face removal into Indian Territory.

Like the Caddos west of the Mississippi River, the Choctaws originated from the Hopewell, then the Mississippian cultures in the distant past. These cultures centralized around large cities. Upon decentralization prior to the 15th century, the Choctaws remained an organized tribe but centered their culture around their ancestral burial mounds in their homelands on the eastern side of the Mississippi River in today's Mississippi, and into Alabama. Their main mound was "Nanih Waiya" which, according to their origination story, was the mound that gave birth to their culture. This may also be part of the Chickasaw origination story — the tribes were once together, but separated for some unknown reason.

The Choctaws lived as an agricultural, settled people along the Mississippi River. They conducted both warfare and trade with their Muskogean linguistic kin, which included the Chickasaws and the Creeks. Like all of the settled tribes, they were matrilineal and relied on women for food distribution, manufactures, and building their homes.

Siding with the Europeans

While the Choctaws did not like the Spanish, they enjoyed better trading relationships with the French. As a river people, they took part in the southern fur trade and journeyed into Natchez and New Orleans. Like the Shawnees, they found themselves amid turmoil when the European powers went to war with each other; after the French lost their foothold in the New World in 1763, the Choctaws traded with the English. The Proclamation Line of 1763 was also supposed to protect the native tribes from further colonial intrusion, which didn't always work. This is one reason why they sided with the English and against the colonists during the Revolutionary War.

Although the Choctaws fought American incursion until the 19th century, they also adapted to the culture of the United States. American missionaries built churches and schools, and a large number of Choctaws converted to Presbyterianism. Their dress and familial structures changed as well. Some Choctaw women and men married white people, and began to adopt other American practices, such as the southern slave system. With the forced labor of African-American people, Choctaw plantations prospered in their fertile native soil. Anglo Americans began to covet the land and the Choctaw plantations. Instead of waging war, Anglos sought governmental interference. They urged the state of Mississippi to initiate removal treaties, and the federal government complied by providing land to the Choctaws in Arkansas Territory in 1820 in exchange for a Choctaw village's removal under the Treaty of Doak's Stand.

On the move

A few hundred Choctaws and African Americans enslaved by them left for Arkansas Territory, though traditionalists in the Choctaw tribe fought the treaty from the state governments to Washington, D.C. In 1830, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek put an end to the Choctaws' wish to stay in their homelands. They were forced to endure the first of many "trail of tears" into Indian Territory, which was carved from Arkansas Territory in 1824.

When the Choctaws and the people they enslaved first arrived in Arkansas Territory in 1820, they entered at Ultima Thule along the division line between Arkansas and Indian Territory. Some stayed nearby at Eagletown, while others moved a bit further west to Doaksville next to Fort Towson, where a trading post centered the tribe. Along with the Presbyterians, the Choctaws also established several academies for the education of their children after the remainder of the tribe came to Indian Territory after the 1830. Another group of Choctaws went to Mexican Texas instead to apply for Mexican land grants, as did other displaced people like the Shawnees and Delawares. Just like the Shawnees and Delawares, they became farmers on their land grants but, after Texas statehood, were coerced to sell their lands and left Texas for Indian Territory.

A New Culture

The Trail of Tears was brutal for the Choctaws and the African Americans; over a thousand died along the trail from disease and exposure. With them came the Chickasaws, who had refused to sign any removal treaties with the U.S. until they sold their lands in their original homelands to the highest bidder. When the last of the Chickasaws came to Indian Territory in 1857, the western half of the Choctaw Nation was fashioned into the Chickasaw Nation.

Those who survived the arduous journey rebuilt their culture, writing a constitution, passing laws, and establishing a law enforcement agency for the nation that would mete out swift punishments; the Choctaws used the death penalty against several transgressions, including against people who escaped bondage. This allowed the men and women who had been planters east of the Mississippi to reestablish plantations along the Red River Valley and to acquire even more African American people to do so. The largest plantation was owned by Robert Jones in today's Choctaw County.

The majority of Choctaws were not slave-owners but small-time farmers. They were also cattle ranchers, tradesmen, and teachers. They leased their land to Texans, but saw a number of incursions into the nation from non-natives. The Choctaws also feared Comanche and Kiowa raids, who viewed the Choctaws as invaders into their territory . The sparsely-inhabited region also attracted criminal elements, who hid from state authorities in the mountains of the Choctaw lands. However, gradually, their nation prospered; so much, in fact, that in the 1850s, the Choctaws sent aid to Irish people during the potato famine.

Civil War and After

The planters and slavers held the majority of power in the Choctaw nation, so when the Civil War broke out, the Choctaw Nation sided with the Confederacy. The Choctaws and Texans fought off attempts at a Union invasion of Texas in Indian Territory and in Arkansas; over 600 Choctaw men fought in the Camden Campaign of 1864. However, not all Choctaws wanted to participate in the war. Many families fled into Kansas as disorder and criminality descended onto the nation — outlaw gangs like the Quantrills burned farms, stole cattle, murdered African Americans, and raped women.

After the war, the U.S. government considered the Choctaws traitors. Like the Cherokees and Chickasaws, their nation and constitution were dissolved and a new treaty between the Choctaws and the U.S. was signed. One of the main stipulations from the 1866 treaty was that the freed people would receive land and education from the Choctaws; however, being Southerners, the Choctaws segregated their schooling and establish "industrial" schools for black students, and reserved the classical training to their own kind.

The Choctaw Nation regained its strength during and after Reconstruction; much of their growth in wealth was due to their cattle ranching and the arrival of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad in 1870-1871. Large deposits of coal were discovered in the Choctaw Nation, too, but although the coal was in their land, they did not benefit from it. White men, with ties to the MKT railroad, owned the mines instead and imported a large number of immigrant miners from Italy, Germany, Poland, England, and Mexico.


In 1869, the western half of Indian Territory became open to land lotteries and to the reservations set aside for the Caddos, Kiowas, Comanches, and Wichitas, among many other tribes. To keep control over their own lands, Choctaw nationals had to make a Faustian bargain. They either had to renounce their Choctaw heritage to become "free people of color" or be enrolled in official tribal census. By enrolling as Choctaws, they were officially enumerated in the census as Choctaws. The Dawes Act of 1887, as applied in 1893, made being considered an "Indian" a deliberate act; it took control of tribal membership away from the tribes themselves, under the assumption that if natives were treated as individuals rather than as a community, they would stop their dependence on the U.S. government. The act divided the Choctaw lands into individual allotments, but at 160 acres maximum, these allotments were not considered sufficient to build a successful farm. Plus, a large portion of the Choctaw Nation consisted of mountainous terrain, which was unsuitable to agriculture. Except for the ranchers, the allotments did not benefit the Choctaws.

In 1890, the Organic Act divided Indian Territory in two. Kiliahote, who was known as the Reverend Allen Wright to non-Choctaw people and served as governor for the Choctaw Nation, suggested the name for the western half: Oklahoma, a Choctaw word combination for "red people" (okla - the people; homma - red). The eastern half of the territory was still "Indian Territory" but the inhabitants were hoping it would become a separate state of Sequoyah. The Enabling Act of 1907, however, forced both territories to write a constitution and enter as one state, and the name Oklahoma was used for the whole of Indian Territory.

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship status to all native Americans, no doubt due to their participation in the Great War (1917-1919). The Choctaws, for example, enlisted in large numbers, where many served as "code talkers" during the war — this program expanded greatly during WWII.

The Great Depression hit the Choctaws hard; under the New Deal, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 gave the Choctaws more say over their nation and the annuity payments that the U.S. government had been paying them since their removal. The Choctaws shuttered their academies to form public schools, and opened their tribe to different monetary schemes, which included gambling.

Today, the Choctaws have prospered in both wealth and population growth. The Choctaw Nation is an integral asset to the state of Oklahoma in cultural, economic, and political contributions. To the people who live in the Red River Valley, southeastern Oklahoma is, invariably, Choctaw.

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