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W. P. A. History of Pontotoc County, Mississippi

Chapter V:   Indians


The Chickasaws were one of the major tribes of Indians found when America was discovered, and it was they who occupied the northern and  north-central part of Mississippi, in what is now Pontotoc County.  The Chickasaws were not as numerous as the Choctaws, but were more because of their bravery and valor.  They were attacked by the northern and southern Indians, and by the French, but none were able to drive them from their country.  While they maintained their savage independence the Chickasaws were friendly to the English but weakened by dividing and joining the French.

Customs and Characteristics

As a race the Chickasaws were tall and erect, and robust, but, as described by Rev. Bullen, those in the Pontotoc section were of smaller statue than the white man.  Their limbs were well shaped, features regular with open countenance, dignified and placid; the forehead and brow gave impression of heroism and bravery; their small black eyes were full of fire.  They had long coarse, lustrous black hair and reddish brown complexion.  The women were slender, graceful, and of delicate frame.  They had cheerful, friendly dispositions.

An early writer described the men in this manner:

"The men are very effeminate and dressy.  The head is, on a hot summer day, bound with a handkerchief; over it a thick binding of felled cloth, covered with brooches.  To the nose hang six bobs; one bunch of hair is tied on top of the head to which is fastened, in seven locks enclosed in silver and beads, the hair of a deer's tail coloured red; this hangs over the face and eyes.  The face is painted with streaks and spots of red and black .  The beard is pulled out ; the neck adorned with a dozen strings of beads of different sorts, besides a silk handkerchief.  The arms and wrists adorned with silver bands; the body and arms covered with a calico shirt.  The dress of the lower limbs is various.  The women have no ornament or covering on their head but that of nature, unless a little paint, and the hair clubbed behind with binding.  The men have a bunch of white feathers fastened to the back part of the neck, and if a person of note, a black feather.  And lest the dress of colouring should be decomposed, carries his glass in his pocket or hanging to his side." (1)

Bartram said:  "As a moral man, they certainly stand in no need of European civilization.  They are honest, liberal, and hospitable to strangers; considerate, loving and affectionate to their wives and relatives; fond of their children; industrious, frugal, temperate and persevering; charitable and forbearing.  I have been weeks and months among them in their towns, and never observed the least sign of an Indian beating his wife or even reproving in anger.  In this case the stand as examples of reproof to the most civilized nations, as not being defective  in justice, gratitude, and good understanding; they are industrious, frugal, careful, loving, and affectionate."

Lawson said," They will endure a great many misfortunes, losses and disappointments without showing themselves the least vexed and uneasy".

When the DeSoto expedition discovered the Indians, it found them living in houses, with outhouses for storing grain and provisions.  Elvas reported that the Indians kept their houses clean.  Adair, who first went as an English trader among the Chickasaws, confirms Elvas, and adds, "Every dwelling house had a small field close to it and as son as the spring of the year permitted, the women planted and cultivated a variety of large and small beans, squashes, peas, pumpkins, and Indian corn, or maize; the men did hunting and fishing."

Some interesting facts relative to the origins and customs of the Chickasaws are revealed by these excerpts from the journal of Reverend Joseph Bullen, first missionary to the Pontotoc Indians:  (2)

"May 25, 1799 - This day became acquainted with the history of the nation, as given  Colbert by his mother:  'We are only a family from a great rich nation towards the setting sun, as far as Indians could travel during two moons.  Our fathers dreamed that away towards the rising sun was a land of life.  That people know more than Indian and are above want; from them our children learn good things.  Our fathers then sat out, travel, come where we now live; here land of life.  Our great Father's white children know more than Indian.  Chickasaws no hurt any of them.  By and by we learn of them things make us glad.  They are without any kind of religious observances and without temple and priest, except that a few of their enchanters have images the use of which is little understood by the nation in general.  They have great faith in dreams and believe there is a father above, but pay him no kind of religious homage."

"May 20 - The Indians appear to be poor but kind; their best fare is coarse and consists of hominy, milk, damaged meat, and poor water."

"May 21 - Their houses are made of poles from three to five inches in diameter, and plastered with mortar; are 16 x 22 feet on the ground, floored with earth and covered with clapboards."

"July 6 - Christopher Oxbury's house is on an ancient mound.  The field, where was an encampment of about twelve acres is very rich.  Here is an eminence of about 1000 acres, which appears to have been an island, and these works a garrison to secure from invasion.  From these works it is apparent that they were a people more industrious than the present Indians.  This was considered by Richard Hyde, one of Blackbeard's men, who lived in this nation and died about six years ago, the finest place in the nation."

"May 23 - The Indians though strange to letters, have characters which they mark on trees, and like Oriental people they begin at the right hand and write or read to the left.  They also go to the off side to mount a horse; their women ride with their feet on the off side, and they are left-handed people.  They do not know their ages, and but little of distances.  Have no songs or poetry."

"27th - On consulting M'Gee (Indian Interpreter born in New York City), he told me that the white men, half breeds and slaves who all speak English, have great influence with the Indians.  He therefore advised that to effect the good proposed by our mission we begin with these, who, he says, as they learn will have good talks to the Indians, and so the knowledge and practice of these things will soon become national.  The counsel I think good, and shall endeavor to follow it." (3)

Regarding MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LIFE the Journal relates:

"May 29, When an Indian wishes a young or single woman to become his wife, he sends her a small present of clothes or trinkets, which if she accepts she becomes his wife, and from that time there devolves on her the duty of keeping fire, raising corn and other vegetables for the family, supporting the children.  The man's only business is hunting and war.  A man may have any number of wives.  Wives observe times of separation like the ancient Hebrew women, during which time they "lie out".  Marriage is only during the pleasure of both parties.  In case of separation, the children all belong to the mother." (4)

Chickasaw mothers bestowed great care upon their children.  They never allowed them to be placed upon their feet before the strength of their limbs would safely permit; they were never punished by their parents but, if guilty of any misdemeanor were sent to their uncle for punishment, who inflicted a severe rebuke or imposed upon them some penance or, what was more frequent, made appeals to their feelings of honor or shame.  The boys were committed to the instructions of the old and wise men of the village, who, at various intervals, instructed them in all necessary knowledge and desired qualifications to make them successful hunters and accomplished warriors.  They were instructed in the arts of swimming, running, jumping, wrestling, and using the bow and arrow; also receiving from those venerable tutors precepts of morality which should regulate their conduct when arriving at manhood.

Most profound respect was paid everywhere to the oldest person in every family, whether male or female.  Their decisions upon all disputed points were not only supreme and final, but were received with cheerful and implicit obedience.  No matter how distant their blood relations might be, all the members of a family addressed its head as father or mother as the case might be; and whenever they meant to speak of their natural father they said, "My real father," in contradistinction to that of father, as applied to the chief.

An interesting trait of character among the ancient Chickasaws was that among them there were no orphans, in the full sense of the word, as commonly used.  When the father and mother died they were adopted either by relations or other members of the nation, under well defined laws, according to which the adopted child became, in the view of the Chickasaws, as much a child of that family as those who were born to the father and mother thereof.

H. B. Cushman says:  "I have seen, time and again, in many families among the Chickasaws and Choctaws, from one to four adopted orphan children; they were adopted, not through mercenary motives, but in the true spirit of the word, actuated by the divine principle of justice and compassion for the fatherless, motherless and homeless; adopted to be protected, cared for and loved.  One might live a lifetime in a family of adopted orphans, and, unless told, would not even suspect but that all the children were not of the same parentage." (5)

SICK AND BURIAL CUSTOMS were thus described in Joseph Bullen's journal:

"may 29, 1799 - When a person dies a grave is dug in the house nine feet deep.  The body is washed and dressed in its best clothes  and then interred.  If a man of account, a pipe, tobacco, rifle-gun, ammunition, seed corn, etc., are buried with him.  Boards are laid six inches below the surface, then a covering of mortar levels the grave with the floor.  Then women are called to mourning and those skillful at lamentation, to wailing.  This continues twelve moons, two hours in a day.  When a person expires they shoot three guns, as they say to keep off evil spirits.

"They laid the corpse in his tomb in a sitting posture with the face toward the east, the head anointed with oil, his face painted red, and dressed in the finest apparel.  Relatives often slept over these tombs, for they must awaken the memory of their dead with their cries, and if they were killed by an enemy, this helped to irritate and set on fire such revengeful tempers to retaliate blood for blood.

"the sick were treated by so called witches, who are initiated as follows:  The preceptor takes the candidate for this dignity, in summer weather; shuts him in a hot house for four days to live on maber, a strong drink made of tobacco and water then sets him to air; gives him gruel; heats the house anew; shuts him in four days more.  He is then suffered to come out emaciated.  He must then for twelve moons abstain from women, meat, fat and strong drink, and is then a complete witch.  Can make storms or fair weather; can cause or cure disease, foretell future events and give good or ill success to any undertaking.  One method of healing in this nation is to take water, soak roots in it, blow in it a number of words by way of a charm, and wash the body of the sick with this preparation.  This is performed by the witches."

"July 13th - Visited Levi Kemp, who is sick.  Noticed their manner.  A number of Indian doctors (or witches) were together.  They conclude  he is witch-shot.  They therefore, after washing him, caused him to lie down on skins on his back.  They then, in their turn, suck and bite his skin, beginning at his forehead and extending on his face, neck, and trunk to the navel, professing that in this way they can suck out the witch ball.  On my coming in he soon retired with me to another apartment, where I informed him of the goodness, fullness and power of Christ, to which he listened."

July 14 - Mortality among children is great.  Deaths are frequent, and the value of mourning is all around us.  (6)

Adair says:  "That although there were many snakes and many of them poisonous, such as the rattlesnake, the Indians had no fear of them, because they compounded certain herbs which rendered the poison entirely innocuous."  He says that chewing and swallowing certain herbs , with which he was provided, and although he passed through paroxysms and rigors of pain, without an exception, the poison failed to take effect and the Indian was soon well.

INDIAN SPORTS  were an important factor in the lives of the Chickasaws who were given to amusements of various kinds, and especially enjoyed ball games.  Cushman states that the Chickasaws were great gamblers, from the earliest time betting on anything except the ball game - that being strictly forbidden, as bad luck would surely follow.  They were excessive drinkers, also fond of music and the dance, of which there were many kinds.

Rev. Joseph Bullen describes a ball game and dance  which he and his son attended, June 18, 1799:

"At Big Town they had a ball play.  They spent the last night in frolic.  On the ball ground they divide into parties.  The ladies who attend sing and dance.  The mysteries are conducted by one of those witches heretofore mentioned, for each party.  At each end of the play ground they erect two poles, five yards high, one yard asunder.  Four yards behind them they set up an image, the likeness of man, with a painted face, one yard high, one yard high, and decorated with a raven's skin and feathers.  The leader in the mysteries is in a manner naked, his head adorned with a pair of buffalo horns, his face and body painted of different hues.  To his left arm hangs the wing of a crow.  He is

Illustration:  Indian Ball Game

often falling down before the image, muttering and taking a strong physic, which these people believe has a great influence in the success of the game.  While the singing and dancing was performed by the ladies, a drum made of a cypress tree was beating, and the young beaus, about eighty in number, who were to play ball, beautified with vermillion, bear's oil, lamp-black and white clay; their heads with feathers, red binding, etc.; jewels in their noses and ears, dance a while and then utter hideous yell and run around a circle they have round the place of mysteries, which may not be passed unless by the performers.

"My son and I had well nigh spoiled the whole day by entering the holy ground, but being beckoned to, we went round.  As they pass this, they yell with all apparent zeal, then return and repeat the singing, yelling, running, etc.  These pious ceremonies being ended, the play begins.  The charms used by the witches had no effect or equal effect, for neither party prevailed.  The Chickasaw women appear to be meek, modest, and temperate.  The men are more virtuous than one would think, considering that they are brought up to no business but hunting, and to little or no restraint.  At evening we came away and lodged at Long Town".

"June 19 - Was invited to attend the eagle tail dance.  It is an annual festival.  They dance, sing and drum through the night and feast in the morning.  The chiefs attend and smoke, but do not dance.  There is a small land turtle here called a terrapin, the shells of which, filled with gravel, serves the young ladies who intermix in this dance, as ornaments to the legs, and adds to the melody a grating sound; though, in this instance, most of them were covered down to the feet with a calico petticoat."(7)

As hunters and trackers, they had no superiors.  Pickett says:  "Of all the Indians, the Chickasaws were the most expert in tracking.  They could follow their enemy on a long gallop over any kind of ground without mistaking, where, perhaps only a blade of grass bent down indicated the foot-print.  When they were hunting over the woods and came upon an indistinct trail recently made by the Indians, they knew at once to what tribe it belonged by the footprints, the hatchet-chops upon the trees, their camp fires, and other distinguishing marks.  They were also regarded as admirable hunters".

(1) Rev. Joseph Bullen's Journal, July 8, 1799.

(2) From the " American Missionary Magazine for 1800".

(3) Rev. Joseph Bullen's Journal, July 1799.

(4) Ibid.

(5) History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Indians, H. B. Cushman

(6) Rev. Joseph Bullen, the first missionary sent out by the American Missionary Society, in his Journal from March 26 to November 20, 1799.  On file at Yale University Library under the title "American Magazine for 1800".

(7) Rev. Joseph Bullen's Journal, June 1799.


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