How Were The Choctaw Treated By The Military And Government – What the Irish did for the Choctaw tribe – and for – A family of Irish officials treated their “red brothers” humanely, but Scots-Irish President Andrew Jackson oversaw the tribe’s ruthless eviction from their lands
Circa 1833: Choctaw Indian camp on the Mississippi River. Original artwork: Painting by Karl Bodmer. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
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How Were The Choctaw Treated By The Military And Government
On that spring day, as Major William Armstrong surveyed those gathered at the little lumber agency where he lived, he must have experienced mixed emotions. First, the meeting was called to raise money “for the relief of the starving poor of Ireland,” the birthplace of his own father.
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Second, although there were many missionaries and traders in the crowd, much of the $170 ordered at the end of the day came from the chiefs of the Choctaw Nation who were also present.
Major Armstrong had known these Choctaw men for many years, having served as the United States government’s chief agent in the area since 1832. He had traveled with them through the “Trail of Tears,” where perhaps as many as four thousand Choctaw men, women, and children perished when they were driven from their ancestral homelands and forced to cross the Mississippi River.
The major’s wife, Nancy, and his older brother, Frank, had wanted to help the Choctaws, but both died in a trail of tears. And when the 52-year-old Armstrong himself surrendered in the summer of 1847, less than three months after the Skullyville meeting of the “Irish White Brothers,” Colonel David Folsom, leader of the Choctaw nation, remembered him as “our father and our friend.”
Oral histories collected in the nineteenth century contain tantalizing hints that ancestors of the Choctaw nation hunted mammoths more than 12,000 years ago. Nanih Waiya, an ancient grass-covered earthen mound considered sacred by the Choctaw, was located in the heart of their ancestral lands in the Mississippi region.
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In the eighteenth century they traded with the French, the British, and the Spanish, but after the Treaty of Hopewell (1786) they became close allies of the United States itself.
When Britain went to war against the United States in 1812, many Choctaw warriors served in Andrew Jackson’s American army, particularly during the crushing defeat he inflicted on Britain’s former allies, the Creek Indians, as well as in the successful Operation Two Hundred Rescue. Tennessee Riflemen from a British ambush.
David Folsom was among the 50 or 60 young Choctaw warriors still in Jackson’s army when he routed the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
However, Choctaw appreciation for Jackson was small when he became president of the United States fourteen years later. In the 1830s, “Old Hickory” Jackson was responsible for transplanting numerous American Indian tribes, including the Choctaws, across the western frontier and settling their ancestral lands.
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Jackson, whose parents were both born in Co Antrim, Ireland, had barely been elected to the White House when, in June 1830, he persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, legitimizing his ruthless policy of removal.
1814: William Weatherford, also known as Chief Red Eagle, surrendered to future US President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) after the Creek Indians were defeated at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. Many Choctaws fought with Jackson. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Much of Jackson’s focus was on the fertile lands east of the Mississippi River that belonged to the Five Nations, including the Choctaw, known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” by Anglo-European colonists and settlers of the period. The state of Mississippi was admitted to the Union in 1817.
Twelve years later, Mississippi passed resolutions declaring Choctaw lands “state property” and “terminating” Choctaw sovereignty, making Choctaw communities subject to state law and open to possible militia attack.
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In September 1830, the Choctaw minkos (chiefs) signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the last of seven such land treaties, ceding nearly 11 million acres of their ancestral homeland to the United States in present-day Alabama and Mississippi. In return, the Choctaw were to receive 15 million acres of wilderness across the Mississippi in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), land that had already been ceded ten years earlier.
By Christmas 1831, an estimated seven thousand Choctaws had set off for Indian Territory, where the United States had promised to keep them.
In his widely published “Farewell Letter to the American People” (1832), Minko George W. Harkins explained that “we Choctaws chose to suffer and be free rather than live under the degrading influence of laws where our voice was not heard when they were made.
In December 1831, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed a “great number” of Choctaw men, women, and children stumble out of the woods near Memphis, Tennessee, on their way to the Mississippi. He also tracked down an American agent who, using bank notes, was able to escort a steamboat captain to a group “sixty leagues further” downriver in the Arkansas.
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De Tocqueville watched as the Choctaw “advanced mournfully” toward the steamer. The horses were shot first; several were frightened and plunged into the river, from where they were “pulled out only with difficulty”. Then came men and women with children either on their backs or wrapped in blankets. And finally the elderly, including a desperately thin, half-naked woman who de Tocqueville knew was 110 years old, staggered in.
“To leave the country at this age to seek happiness in a foreign land, what misery!” thought de Tocqueville. The Frenchman also knew that the promise that the Choctaw would be left alone on the far side of the Mississippi was a joke; he felt it would be ten years at most before the insatiable white man came looking for land.
“In the whole scene,” De Tocqueville continued, “there was a feeling of ruin and destruction, something that betrayed a final and irrevocable departure; can’t watch without heart ache. The Indians were calm, but gloomy and silent.
“There was one who could speak English, and from whom I asked why the Chaktas [sic] were leaving their country. ‘To be free,’ he replied. ‘I never got any other reason from him. . . . It is a singular fate which took us to Memphis to see the expulsion of one of America’s most famous and ancient peoples, one might say disintegration.”
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De Tocqueville was right to feel so grim. The Choctaw’s first migration proved utterly devastating, coinciding with one of the coldest winters ever recorded. Endless blizzards, flash floods, plague-ridden swamps and frozen rivers, along with cholera epidemics and malnutrition, kill thousands of hapless migrants. When they finally reached Little Rock, the Arkansas Gazette quoted a Choctaw minko as describing the trek as “a trail of tears and death.” After a 600-mile journey, the survivors later settled in the state of Oklahoma under the name Choctaw, meaning “red people.”
Numbers tend to vary wildly, but it is estimated that between 1830 and 1834, about 12,500 Choctaws set out on the Trail of Tears, with between 1,500 and 4,000 dying along the way. Another 6,000 Choctaws chose to remain in Mississippi, where they experienced significant harassment from the influx of Anglo-European settlers in the 1830s and 40s.
Many continued to start the Trail of Tears, with a thousand Choctaw migrants making the journey in 1846 alone, while many simply succumbed to the alternate reality gifted by whiskey addiction.
When reading about the Trail of Tears – or indeed the Great Irish Famine – one is generally inclined to think that the scoundrels who allowed these grim events to happen must have been the most vicious blackguards that ever lived.
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I assumed that those who organized the forced relocation of the Choctaw were the kind of yobbos you see in cowboy movies who squeal with delight when they set fire to their tipis. However, history is rarely that simple. Contemporary correspondence suggests that Frank and William Armstrong—the two major government figures of the Trail of Tears era—were absolutely horrified by what happened to the Choctaw during that brutal winter.
Like Andrew Jackson, the Armstrong brothers were of Scots-Irish descent. Their father, Colonel James Armstrong, was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in 1736, and is said to have been the son of the Rev. Gustavus Armstrong. He was known as “Trooper” Armstrong from his time with the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, a British Army regiment based largely in Ulster. A contemporary later recalled “his magnificent figure and great physical strength, as well as skill and enterprise.”
Trooper Armstrong is believed to have served in the Seven Years’ War, where the Inniskillings fought with distinction at the Battle of Minden and Wetter in 1759.
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