Heading east, the ancestral Chickasaw crossed Arkansas looking for a new homeland at some point in prehistory. Heading west beginning in 1836, the Chickasaw crossed Arkansas again as the tribe was removed to its new home in Indian Territory. Between these two events, the Chickasaw interacted periodically with tribes living in Arkansas, most notably the Quapaw, whom they warred against during much of the eighteenth century.
In all versions of the Chickasaw migration story, the people came from the west, usually from central Mexico. They were led by twin brothers Chatah and Chikasa, who followed a divinely inspired fabusa, or leaning pole. In these versions, the people necessarily must have passed through the land that became Arkansas to get to their new homelands east of the Mississippi River. After a dispute over their destination, Chikasa led his followers away, and they became the Chickasaw, while Chata’s followers emerged in history as the Choctaw.
The location of the new Chickasaw homeland was the hub of a great transportation network that enabled the tribe to range rapidly in all directions to carry out trade, diplomacy, and warfare. Although the tribe was small, the warriors had a reputation for fierceness and bravery. The Chickasaw and the Quapaw first appear in written history as enemies. The origin of the animosity is unknown, but in the early part of the eighteenth century, the Chickasaw obtained guns and ammunition in exchange for capturing Quapaw, among other tribes, to serve as slaves for the English. In addition, the Quapaw lived on land near the convergence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers and allied with the colonial French, who in time became the enemy of most Chickasaw.
The location of Chickasaw settlements proved strategic once the European colonial powers began their incursions. By the 1730s, the French policy was to exterminate the Chickasaw, but the tribe controlled river traffic in the lower Mississippi River Valley. In 1736, the French launched a two-pronged offensive designed to crush the Chickasaw. The French attack failed, and their soldiers and Indian allies—including several Arkansas warriors—were routed under Mingo Houma’s leadership at the village of Ogoula Tchetoka.
In retaliation against the French, some Chickasaw, pro-English Choctaw, and Abeca Indians canoed down the Mississippi and attacked the Quapaw at Arkansas Post in May 1749. The attacking force killed six French citizens and captured eight women and children. With the aid of British armaments, the Chickasaw survived French-sponsored raids and blockades from 1740 to 1763, though the population declined to a dangerously low level of about 1,500.
By the mid-eighteenth century, game was becoming scarce in the traditional hunting grounds of the Chickasaw, forcing them periodically to hunt west of the Mississippi River. Within two to three decades, they were hunting increasingly on the land of their enemies, the Quapaw, who allied with the Spanish after France ceded its colony in 1763.
In 1783, James Colbert, an anti-Spanish white man with Chickasaw wives and sons, led a small group of followers against the Spanish-garrisoned Fort Carlos III on the Arkansas River, capturing several Spanish soldiers and their families. The post’s commandant sent the Quapaw chief and many warriors and soldiers after Colbert to demand release of the prisoners. Colbert released some, and the confrontation ended.
Beginning in 1800, American settlers streamed in waves across the southeastern part of the continent—almost overwhelming the tribes with small populations. Simultaneously, U.S. policy to remove all Indians west of the Mississippi picked up steam in the initial decades of the nineteenth century. Also during this time, the full-blood chiefs of the Chickasaw were eclipsed by mixed-blood leadership, especially the Colbert family. Though the Colberts did not want to move, they saw that removal was inevitable and argued that they could deal most effectively with the Americans.
A Chickasaw removal treaty was signed in 1832, but the exodus did not begin until 1837, when the first 400 Chickasaw had assembled in Memphis, Tennessee. From there, a U.S. conductor led them to Little Rock (Pulaski County). Then, some traveled by steamboat and some went overland through Arkansas, heading west to Indian Territory.
In 1861, Albert Pike of Arkansas was named by the Confederate States of America to negotiate treaties with the former Southern tribes, including the Chickasaw in July 1861. Through most of the war, the Chickasaw and Choctaw soldiers patrolled the Arkansas–Canadian River defensive line. However, a contingent of Chickasaw-Choctaw troops defeated Union forces at the Engagement at Poison Spring near Camden (Ouachita County) on April 18, 1864.
The Chickasaw Nation was nearly abolished in 1907 when Oklahoma became a state. But generations of Chickasaw would not surrender their identity, and in 1971, Overton James was elected governor of a rejuvenated tribal government. The constitution was ratified in 1983. As of 2008, under the leadership of Governor Bill Anoatubby, the nation consists of three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) headquartered in Ada, Oklahoma. Almost 40,000 tribal citizens are registered. Many live within the traditional boundaries in what is today south-central Oklahoma, but like their Chickasaw ancestors, members are mobile, living in every state and many foreign countries.
For additional information:
Adair, James. History of American Indians. Edited by Kathryn Braund. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
Atkinson, James R. Splendid Land, Splendid People. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Dubuisson, Ann. “François Sarazin: Interpreter at Arkansas Post during the Chickasaw Wars.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 71 (Autumn 2012): 243–263.
Early, Ann M. “The Greatest Gathering: The Second French-Chickasaw War in the Mississippi Valley and the Potential for Archaeology.” In French Colonial Archaeology in the Southeast and Caribbean. Edited by Kenneth G. Kelly and Meredith Hardy. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.
Gibson, Arrell. The Chickasaws. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
Green, Richard. Chickasaw Lives, Volume One: Explorations in Tribal History. Ada, OK: Chickasaw Press, 2007.
Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Kling, Stephen L. Jr. James Colbert and the Chickasaw Legacy. St. Louis: THGC Publishing, 2022.
Nairne, Thomas. Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals. Edited by Alexander Moore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
Paige, Amanda L., Fuller L. Bumpers, and Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. Chickasaw Removal. Ada, OK: Chickasaw Press, 2010.
Wells, Mary Ann. Native Land. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
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