History of Alabama and incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the earliest period

The Choctaw Nation

It is scarcely necessary to remind the reader that the Chickasaws were living in the upper part of Mississippi when De Soto invaded it, and that they fought him with great courage. Now, as to the Choctaws, according to tradition, came with them into this country, and were a portion of the same family; it is reasonable to suppose that the Pafallayas, the brave allies of Tuscaloosa, were the Choctaws— especially when taken in connection with the collateral evidence in our possession.

Period unknown: The tradition of the migration of the Chickasaws and Choctaws from the Mexican empire has been preserved by the former alone: while the latter, with few exceptions, have lost it. On the road leading from St. Stephens, in Alabama, to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, was, some years ago, a large mound, embracing at the base about two acres, and rising about forty feet high in a conical form, and enclosed by a ditch encompassing twenty acres. On the top of it was a deep hole, ten feet in circumstances, out of which the ignorant portion of the Choctaws believed that their ancestors once sprung as thick as bees, peopling the whole of that part of the country. They had great regard for this artificial elevation, and called it Nannawyah, the signification of which is nanna, hill, and wyah, mother. When hunting near this mound they were accustomed to throw into the hole the leg of a deer, thus feeding their mother. One day, in 1810, Mr. George S. Gaines, the United States Choctaw Factor in going to the Agency, rode up on this mound, which lay near the road. Presently a good many warriors passed by, and, after he had satisfied his curiosity, he rode on and over took them. The Chief, who was no less a personage than the celebrated Pushmatahaw, with a smile full of meaning and mischief, said: “Well, Mr. ‘Gainis,’ I suppose you have been to pay our mother a visit; and what did she say?” “Your mother,” said the Factor, “observed that her children were poor, had become too numerous to inhabit the country they were then occupying, and desired very much that they would sell their lands to the United States, and move west of the Mississippi, to better and more extensive hunting grounds.” 1 The old Chief laughed immoderately, vociferating, “Holauba! holauba! feenah. (It’s a lie, it’s a lie, it’s a real lie.) Our good mother never could have made such remarks.” On the journey he conversed much with Mr. Gaines upon the Indian traditions, and said that the true account was that his ancestors came from the west. 2
In 1771, the population of the Choctaw nation was considerable. Two thousand three hundred warriors were upon the superintendent’s books at Mobile, while two thousand more were scattered over the country, engaged in hunting. At that period Capt. Roman passed through seventy of their towns. 3 The eastern district of the nation was known as Oy-pat-oo-coo-la, or the small nation. The western was called Oo-coo-la, Falaya, Oo-coola, Hanete and Chickasaha.

These people were more slender in their forms than other tribes. The men were raw-boned and astonishingly active. None could excel them in the ball play, or run as fast upon level ground. 4 Both sexes were well made, and the features of the females were lively and agreeable. They had the habit of inscribing their faces and bodies with a blue indelible ink, which appears to have been the practice of all the tribes to which it has been our province to allude. The Choctaws formed the heads of the infants into different shapes by compression, but it was chiefly applied to the forehead, and hence they were called by traders “flat heads.” The infant was placed in a cradle, with his feet elevated twelve inches above a horizontal position, while his head was bent back and rested in a hole made for the purpose. A small bag of sand was fixed upon the forehead, and as the little fellow could not move, the shape required was soon attained, for at that age the skull is capable of receiving any impression. 5

The dress of the male Choctaw was similar to that of the Creeks, and was influenced in its style by his wealth or poverty. But they all wore the buck-she-ah-ma, flap, made of woolen cloth or buckskin. The female had usually only a petticoat reaching from the waist to the knees, while some of the richer classes wore a covering also upon the neck and shoulder, and little bells fastened to a buckskin garter, which clasped the leg just below the knee. They wore ornaments in their ears, noses and around the fingers, like the Creeks. 1759: They were not cleanly in their persons like the Creeks, who were eternally engaged in bathing; but, strange to relate of Indians, very few of the Choctaws could swim, a fact recorded by all early travellers among them. As they seldom bathed, the smoke of their lightwood fires made their bodies assume a soot color. 6

1780: Peculiarly fond of the taste of horse flesh, they preferred it to beef, even if the animal had died a natural death; and it was not uncommon for them to devour snakes when hard pressed for food. 7 Yet, notwithstanding, they were, upon the whole, very agreeable Indians, being invariably cheerful, witty and cunning. The men, too, unlike the proud Chiefs of other nations, helped the women to work, and did not consider it a degradation to hire themselves for that purpose to their constant friends, the French, and afterwards to the English. 8

No Indians, moreover, excelled them in hospitality, which they exhibited particularly in their hunting camps, where all travelers and visitors were received and entertained with a hearty welcome. In regard to their habits in the chase, it may here be observed, that they excelled in killing bears, wildcats and panthers, pursuing them through the immense cane swamps with which their country abounded; but that the Creeks and Chickasaws were superior to them in overcoming the fleet deer. While hunting, the liver of the game was divided into as many pieces as there were campfires, and was carried around by a boy, who threw a piece into each fire, intended, it would seem, as a kind of sacrifice.

The Choctaws were superior orators. They spoke with good sense, and used the most beautiful metaphors. They had the power of changing the same words into different significations, and even their common speech was full of these changes. Their orations were concise, strong and full of fire. 9 Excessive debauchery, and a constant practice of begging, constituted their most glaring faults; and it was amusing to witness the many ingenious devices and shifts to which they resorted to obtain presents.

Timid in war against an enemy abroad, they fought like desperate veterans when attacked at home. On account of their repugnance to invading the country of an enemy, in which they were unlike the Creeks and Chickasaws, they were often taunted by these latter nations with cowardice. Frequently, exasperated by these aspersions, they would boldly challenge the calumniators to mortal combat upon an open field. But the latter, feigning to believe that true Indian courage consisted in slyness and stratagem, rarely accepted the banter. However, in 1765, an opportunity offered in all the streets of Mobile, where Hoopa, at the head of forty Choctaws, fell upon three hundred Creeks, and routed and drove them across the river, into the marsh. Hooma alone killed fifteen of them, and was then dispatched himself, by a retreating Creek. They were pursued no further, because the Choctaws could not swim.

They did not torture a prisoner, in a protracted manner, like other tribes. He was brought home, dispatched with a bullet or hatchet, and cut up, and the parts burned. The scalp was suspended from the hothouse, around which the women danced until they were tired. They were more to be relied upon as allies than most other American Indians. The Creeks were their greatest enemies. In August 1765, a war began between them, and raged severely for six years. 10 Artful in deceiving an enemy, they attached the paws or trotters of panthers, bears and buffaloes to their own feet and hands, and wound about the woods, imitating the circlings of those animals. Sometimes a large bush was carried by the front warrior, concealing himself and those behind him, while the one in the extreme rear defaced all the tracks with grass. Most excellent trackers themselves, they well understood how to deceive the enemy, which they, also, effected by astonishing powers in imitating every fowl and quadruped. Their leader could never directly assume the command, but had, rather, to conduct his operations by persuasion. 11

Gambling was a common vice, and even boys engaged in it by shooting at marks for a wager. In addition to the great ball play, which was conducted like that of the Creeks, already described, they had an exciting game called Chunke, or, by some of the traders, “running hard labor.” An alley was made, two hundred feet long, with a hard clay surface, which was kept swept clean. Two men entered upon it to play. They stood six yards from the upper end, each with a pole twelve feet long, smooth, and tapering at the end, each with the points flat. One of them took a stone in the shape of a grindstone, which was two spans round, and two inches thick on the edges. He gave it a powerful hurl down the alley, when both set off after it, and running a few yards, the one who did not roll, cast his pole, which anointed with bear’s oil, with a true aim at the stone in its flight. The other player, to defeat his object, immediately darted his pole, aiming to hit the pole of his antagonist. If the first one hit the stone he counted one, and if the other, by the dexterity of his cast, hit his pole and knocked it from its proper direction, he also counted one. If both of the players missed, the throw was renewed. Eleven was the game, and the winner had the privilege of casting the stone.

In this manner the greater part of the day was passed, at half speed; the players and bystanders staking their ornaments, wearing apparel, skins, pipes and arms upon the result. Sometimes, after a fellow had lost all, he went home, borrowed a gun, and shot himself. The women, also, had a game with sticks and balls, something like the game of battledoor. 12

The funeral ceremonies of the Choctaws were singular, and, indeed, horrible, but like those of nearly all the aborigines at the time of the invasion of De Soto. As soon as the breath departed from the body of a Choctaw, a high scaffold was erected, thirty-six feet from the dwelling where the deceased died. It consisted of four forks set in the ground, across which poles were laid, and then a floor made of boards or cypress bark. It was stockaded with poles, to prevent the admission of beasts of prey. The posts of the scaffold were painted with a mixture of vermillion and bear’s oil, if the deceased was an Indian of note. The body, enveloped in a large bearskin, was hauled up on the scaffold by ropes or vines, and laid out at length. The relations assembled, and wept and howled with mournful voices, asking strange questions of the corpse, according to the sex to which it belonged.

“Why did you leave us?”
“Did your wife not serve you well?”
“Were you not contented with your children?”
“Did you not have corn enough? ”
“Did not your land produce? ”
“Were you afraid of your enemies?”

To increase the solemnity and importance of a noted Indian, persons were hired to cry, the males having their heads hung with black moss, and the females suffering their hair to flow loosely to the winds. These women came at all hours, for several weeks, to mourn around the scaffold; and, on account of the horrid stench, frequently fainted and had to be borne away. When the body had thus lain for three or four months, the Bone-Picker made his appearance. In 1772 there were five of these hideous undertakers in the Choctaw nation, who traveled about in search of scaffolds and the horrible work which will be described. The Bone-Picker apprised the relatives of the deceased that the time had arrived when dissection should take place. Upon the day which he had appointed, the relatives, friends, and others hired to assist in the mourning, surrounded the scaffold. The Bone-Picker mounted upon it, with horrid grimaces and groans, took off the skin, and commenced his disgusting work. He had very long and hard nails growing on the thumb, fore and middle fingers of each hand. He tore off the flesh with his nails, and tied it up in a bundle. He cleaned the bones, and also tied up the scrapings. Leaving the latter on a scaffold, he descended with the bones upon his head. All this time the assembly moaned and howled most artfully. They then painted the head with vermilion, which, together with the bones was placed in a nice box with a loose lid. If the bones were those of a Chief, the coffin also was painted red. Next, fire was applied to the scaffold, around which the assembly danced and frightfully whooped until it was consumed by the flames. Then a long procession was formed and the bones were carried, amid weeping and moaning to the bone-house, of which every town of importance had several. Theses houses were made by four pitch pine posts being placed in the ground, upon the top of the scaffold floor. On this a steep roof was erected, like that of some modern houses, with the gables left open. There the box was deposited with other boxes containing bones. In the meantime a great feast had been prepared, and sometimes three horses were cooked up, if the deceased was wealthy. But the infernal Bone-Picker still was master of ceremonies, and having only wiped his filthy, bloody hands with grass, served out the food to the whole assembly. 13

When the bone-house was full of chests, a general interment took place. The people assembled, bore off the chests in procession to a plain, with weeping, howling and ejaculations of Allelujah! Allelujah! The chests containing the bones were arranged upon the ground in order, forming a pyramid. Then they covered all with earth, which raised a conical mound. Then returning home, the day was concluded with a feast. 14

The Choctaws entertained a great veneration for their medicine men or doctors, who practiced upon them constant frauds. Their fees were exorbitant, and required to be satisfied in advance. When a doctor had attended a patient a long time, and the latter had nothing more to give as payment, he usually assembled the relations in private, informed them that he had done all in his power, and had exhausted his skill in endeavoring to restore their friend; that he would surely die, and it was best to terminate his sufferings. Reposing the blindest confidence in this inhuman declaration, two of them then jumped upon the poor fellow and strangled him. In 1782, one of these doctors thus began to consult with the relations upon the case of a poor fellow. While they were out of the house, he suspected their intentions, and making an unnatural effort, crawled to the woods which fortunately were near the house. It was night, and he succeeded in getting beyond their reach. The doctor persuaded them that he was certainly dead, and they erected a scaffold as though he were upon it and wept around it. Fortunately, laying his hands upon an opossum, the poor fellow eat of it from time to time, and gained strength, now that he had escaped the clutches of the doctor, who had nearly smoked and bled him into another world. At length, after much suffering, compassion of Colonel McGillivray, who had him restored to health by proper attention. Again going back to his nation, at the expiration of three months, he arrived at the house from which he had escaped, at the very time that the people were celebrating his funeral by burning the scaffold and dancing around it. His sudden appearance filled them with horror and dismay. Some fled to the woods, others fell upon the ground. Alarmed himself, he retreated to the house of a neighbor, who instantly fell on his face, saying, “Why have you left the land of spirits if you were happy there! Why do you return among us? Is it to assist in the last feast which your family and your friends make for you? Go, return to the land of the dead for fear of renewing the sorrow which they have felt at your loss!”

Shunned by all his people, the poor Choctaw went back to the Creek nation, married a Tuskegee woman, and lived in that town the balance of his life. Before his door lay the four French cannon of old Fort Toulouse. When the Choctaws had become satisfied that he did not die, and was really alive, they killed the doctor who had deceived them. They often entreated the fellow to return home, but he preferred to remain among a people who would not strangle him when he was sick. 15

The Choctaws had no other religion than that which attached to their funeral rites. The French, to whom they were warmly attached, sought in vain to convert them to Christianity. At Chickasaha, they erected a chapel and gave the control of it to a Jesuit missionary. When the English took possession of this country, the Choctaws of that place would, for the amusement of their new friends, enter the old chapel, and go through the Catholic ceremonies, mimicking the priest with surprising powers. In 1771, Capt. Roman saw the lightwood cross still standing, but the chapel had been destroyed.Citations:

  1. It was the policy of all the Indian Agents to encourage the emigration of the Indians further west and they never let an opportunity slip of alluding to it.[]
  2. Conversations with Mr. George S. Gaines. See, also, Barnard Roman’s Florida, pp. 71-90.[]
  3. Roman, pp. 70-90.[]
  4. Adair.[]
  5. Adair, pp. 8-9.[]
  6. Bossu’s Travels, p. 298.[]
  7. Milfort, p. 290; Adair, p. 133.[]
  8. Roman, pp. 71-90.[]
  9. Adair, p. 11.[]
  10. Roman, pp. 70-91.[]
  11. Adair, p. 309–Bossu, p. 297.[]
  12. Roman, pp. 70-91. Adair, p. 402. Bossu, p. 306.[]
  13. Adair, pp. 138-188. Roman, pp. 71-90. Milfort, pp. 293-298.[]
  14. Bartram, pp. 514-515.[]
  15. Milfort, pp. 298-304.[]

Pickett, Albert James. A transcription from the manuscript History of Alabama, Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, From the Earliest Period. Charleston: Walker and James. 1851.

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