An Affinity For Trade

Despite their early encounters with Hernando DeSoto, whose ruthless exploitation of the Native Americans was unabashedly cruel, the Southeastern Indians greeted white men with peaceful cooperation. Later European arrivals found that their success in the Gulf wilderness depended largely upon peace with the native inhabitants, or at least peace with one of the larger tribes. 1 Because no large deposits of gold or other precious metals were found, the Spaniards relegated the region to outpost status and made no major effort to colonize beyond settlements at Pensacola and later Mobile and New Orleans, and thus they had relatively little contact with the Indians until late in the colonial period.

Even the French effort to control the Mississippi River at the turn the eighteenth century attracted no large population. Anchorages at Biloxi and later Mobile were followed by settlements at New Orleans, Natchez and some points between, but these small colonies did not amount to more than a few hundred settlers for quite a few years, especially after the 1720 John Law land debacle, a scheme to develop the Mississippi Valley on which Law’s Company of the Indies bilked investors and would be settlers. 2 This meant that the Indian population, estimated between 65,000 and 170,000 by informed sources, remained the dominant group in the area until the early years of the nineteenth century. 3

This Indian dominance of numbers modulated Choctaw relations, first with the Spanish and the French, briefly the English, and finally the Americans. As long as the Indians could muster superior forces in the field they could manipulate the Europeans living in their midst. The several sections of the Choctaw tribe for the most part co-existed easily with the Spanish at Pensacola and the French at Mobile. Natchez, and New Orleans. It was only due to Choctaw support that the French could decimate the disenchanted Natchez tribe, and only continued Choctaw fealty allowed the French their several sporadic, unsuccessful attacks on the Chickasaw. 4

England curried favor among the Chickasaw bands stretching across present day Tennessee, northern Mississippi and Alabama and erected a formidable tribal barrier to both the French and the Spanish presence. The Spanish directed their efforts toward the Muscogee or Creek Indians (and their cousins, the Seminoles) who controlled western Georgia and eastern Alabama. The rivalries created by the European powers continued until after the War of 1812 when the Americans emerged as the sole masters of the region.

Even after the political ascendancy of the United States, the size of the Southeastern tribes remained larger than the population in Mississippi Territory. The 1800 census reports only 8,860 people in the territorial counties of Adams, Pickering and Washington. Of these around 40 percent (3489) were slaves and 42 percent (3809) were women and children under the age of 16. There were only 1562 white men available (assuming that none were infirm or too old to fight) to defend against whatever fate befell the territory. Even if one adds the thousand or so extra men available from the slave ranks the resultant force would have fallen short of 3000; the Choctaw tribe alone was estimated to have from 4500 to 5000 warriors and was easily the dominant group west of the Alabama River. 5 Of course the white population received a boost after the acquisition of Louisiana in 1803, but Louisiana’s loyalty to the United States was widely suspect and not considered above reproach. Indeed, only help from the more populous states of Tennessee and Kentucky saved the Gulf region from the Creek uprising in 1813 and 1814 and the later British attacks along the Gulf Coast and at New Orleans. 6

Prior to England’s overwhelming 1763 victory against France in the French and Indian War, Indians of the Old Southwest were split in their allegiances. England enjoyed the support of both the Chickasaw and Cherokee nations, while France and Spain allied mainly with the Choctaw and Creek peoples. 7 One thing was certain, however, all of the tribes permitted white traders and other functionaries to settle within Indian country and intermarry with Indian women. 8 Even in times of a Choctaw civil war and European hostilities that pitted the major forces in colonial American and their Indian allies against one another, the white traders well-laden with merchandise were welcomed. 9

After 1763 there ensued a period in the Old Southwest when only Great Britain, by virtue of her victory over France and Spain, could offer trade goods to the Indians. 10 Although this hegemony only lasted around two decades, it ushered in a period of relative peace in the area. Had it not been for the American Revolution in 1775, the “pax Brittanica would probably have lasted much longer, but such was not the case and the various tribes sought to resume old alliances with past friends. The Creeks warmed quickly to the return of Spanish influence in the Floridas, while the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations vacillated between British and American fealty. The Choctaw nation, although leaning toward France and Spain, remained mostly neutral. 11

By the end of the American Revolution, Spain and the emerging United States had replaced British hegemony in the land of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the native leaders again had to contend with the conflicting presence of more than one white government. 12 This was rendered more complex by a continued British presence in the region through trading houses which offered quality goods to the tribes. 13 Indeed Spain recognized the futility of competing with British traders with their superior goods and allowed Panton, Leslie and Company to act as Indian commissaries operating out of Pensacola and Mobile until the early years of the 19th century. 14 There is little doubt that trade was the critical factor linking Native Americans to the whites in the region. Without the irresistible tools and trinkets of technology the Indians might have longer withstood the intrusion of white culture, but interaction with the white Europeans and the resulting cultural changes come as close as is possible to a historical inevitability.

Following the end of the American Revolution, the separate treaties Great Britain signed with the United States and Spain left both of the latter countries as counter claimants to the region bounded to the north by the Tennessee River, to the west by the Mississippi, to the east by Georgia, and to the south by West Florida. 15 Further complicating these claims was the existence of the four major southeastern tribes within the same area. Indeed, Spain had even claimed lands as far north as along the Ohio River, but eventually accepted, first the 32° 28′ line of latitude, then later the thirty-first parallel as its border with the United States. 16 In addition to this international border dispute the state of Georgia also claimed the region, leaving the indigenous tribes with a multiplicity of governments with which to co-exist. 17

The United States, as part of its efforts to consolidate the gains of the Revolution, mounted a major diplomatic initiative with the Southeastern tribes during the winter of 1785-86 at Hopewell in the Carolinas. Seeking not only to negotiate recognized boundary lines between the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, the commissioners also sought to build a strong allegiance between the United States and these tribes through the medium of trade. 18

With the passage of the United States into the constitutional period came a greater effort by the federal government to organize its relations with the civilized tribes, an effort which matured after the Treaty of San Lorenzo Real in 1795 removed the Spanish claim to most of the region. Congress authorized the creation of Mississippi Territory in 1798, and federal negotiations with Georgia over her western claims (which were not fully resolved until 1804) began to bear fruit., All these events left the American federal government as the major political force with which the southeastern Indians had to contend. Of course both Spain and England continued to exercise as much influence with the tribes as they could, and the bordering states of Georgia and Tennessee did likewise.

By the time Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans had achieved their “peaceful revolution of 1800,” the Mississippi River and the thirty-first parallel were the international boundaries and frontiers of the nation. Then called the Southwest, and eventually the Old Southwest, this region became a major focus of American problems and a testing ground for the new Jeffersonian government. Here crystallized the factors behind the Louisiana Purchase, the continuing squabble with Spain over river navigation rights, and the War of 1812. 19

Jefferson adhered to the earlier Federalist policies of commercial comity with the tribes of the Old Southwest and oversaw the extension of a federal system of Indian trading houses called factories. One of the largest of these factories was established in 1802 for the Choctaw tribe at St. Stephens on the Tombigbee River some forty or more miles above the thirty-first parallel. 20 Jefferson also expanded the number and authority of federal agents in Indian country and named New England Republican Silas Dinsmoor as Choctaw agent in 1802. 21 The major reason for the policy of peaceful

relations with the numerous tribes is plainly evident in placing the authority for Indian affairs with the Secretary of War. During Jefferson’s presidential tenure this office was filled by Henry Dearborn, although a separate Office of Indian Trade was established under him in 1806 with John Mason as Superintendent. 22

In utilizing trade as the main policy conduit with the southern Indians, Jefferson simply followed the path repeatedly taken by white administrators before him. The Spanish, French, and British agents in the Gulf region had all understood that trade was essential to friendly relations with the tribes, and Jefferson’s Indian trade policy was far from innovative, paralleling closely the Federalist Indian policy in previous years. Indeed, both the private and government type of trader were welcomed and esteemed by the tribes. The white traders continued to enjoy friendly acceptance among the Southern tribes and intermarried with women of the tribes just as they had from earliest contact.

Wells, Dr. Samuel James. Choctaw Mixed Bloods and the Advent of Removal. University of Southern Mississippi. 1987. © Dr. Samuel James Wells, 1987. Used by permission.

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  1. Robert S. Cotterill, The Southern Indians: The Story of the Five Civilized Tribes Before Removal, Civilization of the American Indian Series, number 38, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), 18-36; Angie Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, Civilization of the American Indian Series, number 6, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 27-33.[]
  2. Peter J. Hamilton, Colonial Mobile, Charles G. Summershell, ed., (University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1976), 99-105.[]
  3. Douglas H. Ubelaker, “The Sources and Methodology for Mooney’s Estimates of North American Indian Populations,” in The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, William M. Deneven, ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976), 260-63, 287; Hudson, Southeastern Indians, 5; John R. Swanton, Indians of the Southeastern United States, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 43, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911), 12.[]
  4. Debo, Choctaw Republic, 27; Cotterill, The Southern Indians, 18-25; Arrell M. Gibson, The Chickasaws (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 42-52; John R. Swanton, “An Early Account of the Choctaw Indians,” Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 5 (April-June, 1918), 2:55.[]
  5. Donald L. McMurray, “The Indian Policy of the Federal Government and the Economic Development of the Southwest, 1789-1801,” Tennessee Historical Magazine, 1 (March 1915), 1:22.[]
  6. 1800 census of Mississippi Territory, Schedule of the Whole Number of Persons within the Division Allotted to, Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), Z 239, box 12, folder 6; American State Papers, Indian Affairs, 2 vols, (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832-34), 1:49 (hereafter ASP IA, 1 or ASP IA, 2); Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, 6 vols., Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), 4:348-51.[]
  7. Wilbur R. Jacobs, The Appalachian Indian Frontier: The Edmond Atkin Report and Plan of 1755 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), 71-74; W. Stitt Robinson, The Southern Colonial Frontier, 1607-1763 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), 196.[]
  8. J. Lietch Wright, Jr., “British Designs on the Old Southwest: Foreign Intrigue on the Florida Frontier, 1783-1803,” Florida Historical Quarterly (hereafter FHQ), 44 (April 1966), 4:266-7.[]
  9. Debo, Choctaw Republic, 33, 37; Gibson, The Chickasaws, 67-70; J. Leitch Wright, Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 116; Patricia Kay Galloway, “Choctaw Factionalism and Civil War, 1746-1750,” in Carolyn Keller Reeves, ed., The Choctaw Before Removal (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985), 134-5.[]
  10. Clarence E. Carter, “The Beginnings of British West Florida,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review (hereafter MVHR), 4 (1917-18), 3:335-6.[]
  11. Cotterill, The Southern Indians, 34; John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-182i (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 208; Gibson, The Chickasaws, 77-8.[]
  12. Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Espana y Los Indios Cherokis y Chactas en la Segunda Mitad del Siglo XVIII (Sevilla: n.p., 1916), 82; Charles J. Kappler, ed. and comp, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, 4 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904-29), 2:8-16.[]
  13. Robert V. Haynes, The Natchez District and the American Revolution (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1976), 10, 26.[]
  14. Cotterill, The Southern Indians, 64; Hamilton, Colonial Mobile, 331-2; Gibson, The Chickasaws, 76; Eric Beerman, “Arturo O’Neill: First Governor of West Florida During the Second Spanish Period,” FHQ, 60 (July 1981), 1:35; Thomas D. Watson and Samuel Wilson, Jr., “A Lost Landmark Revisited: The Panton House of Pensacola,” Ibid., 43; Jack D. L. Holmes, “Spanish Treaties with West Florida Indians, 1784-1802,” FHQ, 48 (1969), 2:142.[]
  15. Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands, 206-7; Gibson, The Chickasaws, 73-5.[]
  16. Ibid.[]
  17. Abraham Bishop, Georgia Speculation Unveiled, Readex Microprint Corporation reprint of the 1797 edition, 1966), 1-5; Jane M. Berry, “The Indian Policy of Spain in the Southwest, 1783-1795,” MVHR, 3 (1916-17), 4:469.[]
  18. ASP IA, 1:49-57.[]
  19. Jefferson was more concerned about navigation of rivers leading to the Gulf than in territorial acquisition in the discussions with the French government. E. Wilson Lyon, The Man Who Sold Louisiana (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, Second printing, 1974), 119-20.[]
  20. Aloysius Plaisance, “The Choctaw Trading House — 1803-1822,” Alabama Historical Quarterly. 16 (Fall and Winter, 1954), 393-4; Secretary of War to Wilkinson, September 14, 1802, National Archives, Record Group 75, Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Letters Sent by the Secretary of War Relating to Indian Affairs, 1820-24,” Microfilm M-15.[]
  21. Clarence E. Carter, Territorial Papers of the United States, 26 vols., The Territory of Mississippi. vols. 5 & 6. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1937-38, 5:149; Secretary of War to Dinsmoor, Feb. 23, 1802, National Archives, Record Group 107, “Miscellaneous Letters Sent by the Secretary of War, 1800-1809,” Microfilm M-370.[]
  22. Laurence F. Schmeckebier, The Office of Indian Affairs: Its History, Activities and Organization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1927, 23.[]

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