The Union County Heritage Museum’s annual Ingomar Mounds event is an experience that helps puts things in perspective. It’s the site of a “platform” mound, now about 28 feet high, that was built by the “Indians” about 300 BC, during the prehistoric time archaeologists call the Woodland Period.
Roger Rakestraw was there displaying part of his collection of arrowheads, axes and other stone tools. Among the items he showed me was the tooth of a mastodon, a massive elephant-like creature, which became extinct around 10,000 years ago. The tooth was about the size of a fist, and was found near the site of the Furniture Mart in Tupelo. A part of a warm-blooded mammal 100 centuries old. A man-made earthen mound 23 centuries old.
As I talked with Mr. Rakestraw, a contest was underway several yards away, in which the contestants threw spears at a target using an atlatl, a spear-throwing device said to have been used by Homo sapiens 30,000 years ago — that’s 300 centuries.
These vagrant reflections about Indian culture in Mississippi and how it’s connected to Mississippians in the 21st century made my mind wander to a much more recent Mississippi event involving (to be politically correct) Native Americans. Two centuries and six years ago, in 1811, an Indian chief traveled from Indiana to Mississippi trying to make a treaty with a Mississippi chief. They didn’t make a deal, and that failure may have had great impact on how things are here today.
The visitor from Indiana was Tecumseh, a chief of the Shawnee tribe, who was then about 43 years old. He was a remarkable human being: an eloquent orator in English and many Indian dialects, a natural leader and brave warrior, an energetic and intrepid traveler. The government of the United States had been established for only 22 years and had devoted a great deal of its limited resources to trying to kill Tecumseh. The government considered him an extremely dangerous man.
He believed it was terribly wrong that the American government had taken a few hundred thousand square miles of territory from the Indians and encouraged white people to settle on it. Some modern historians have argued that the Indians had no concept of title or ownership of property, but Chief Tecumseh did not hold that view. Tecumseh and his allies killed many white settlers, and the American Army slaughtered a great many more Indians.
Tecumseh sided with the British in their persistent efforts to regain their American colonies, but those efforts brought him no satisfaction. He met at least twice and argued his case with William Henry Harrison, the American military commander and, 30 years later, the ninth President of the United States. He had no success trying to reason with Harrison or other government leaders.
Tecumseh exhausted his patience. He decided to form an alliance with other tribes occupying an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. By any measure, his scheme has to be considered grandiose. There were no telephones, no mail service and only a few roads – dirt roads, no pavement, not even gravel.
But Tecumseh was not deterred. Some of the other Indian leaders traveled to meet with Tecumseh in Indiana, but, for the most part, he went to see them. From 1807 to 1811 Tecumseh apparently traveled almost continually, by horseback, canoe and afoot. He was reported to have visited Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi to recruit allies to his plan. He wanted to establish a confederacy of many tribes and expel white settlers from the Indian territories.
William Henry Harrison, although Tecumseh’s mortal enemy, wrote: that, “[Tecumseh was] one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things. If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would perhaps be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory that of Mexico or Peru. No difficulties deter him. His activity and industry supply the want of letters. For four years he has been in constant motion. You see him today on the shores of Lake Erie or Michigan, or on the banks of the Mississippi, and wherever he goes he makes an impression favorable to his purpose.”
Tecumseh’s trip to Mississippi in 1811 was to meet with Pushmataha, the great chief of the Choctaw Indians. It was his most important recruiting trip, because Pushmataha was an extraordinarily powerful chief. Like Tecumseh, Pushmataha was noted for his skills as an orator. He was born in 1764 near what is now Macon, Mississippi, in Noxubee County.
Pushmataha first demonstrated his skills as a warrior at age 13, when his Choctaw tribe fought a war with the Creek Indians of Alabama. By age 26 he was principle chief of the Choctaw Nation, and his reputation as a military leader was well established. After the two clashed sharply in a treaty negotiation, he and Andrew Jackson became friends. The Choctaw chief was a trained officer in the U.S. Army.
Pushmataha rejected Tecumseh’s attempt to recruit the Choctaws in an alliance to fight the U.S. government. He told the Shawnee chief in unequivocal words, “These white Americans… give us fair exchange, their cloth, their guns, their tools, implements, and other things which the Choctaws need but do not make….so in marked contrast with the experience of the Shawnee, it will be seen that the whites and Indians in this section are living on friendly and mutually beneficial terms.”
Tecumseh thus failed to accomplish his plan to join the various Indian tribes in an alliance to fight the white Americans. He returned to Indiana, and joined the British in their fight against the Americans in the War of 1812. He was killed by American troops in a battle on October 5, 1813.
Pushmataha was made a brigadier general in the U.S. Army and fought under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson. It is unclear whether or not Pushmataha was present at the Battle of New Orleans, but he was honored for the rest of his life as a Jackson ally. Pushmataha traveled to Washington in 1824 for negotiations with President James Monroe. He got sick while in Washington, probably from a respiratory infection, and was visited at his hotel by Andrew Jackson, then representing Tennessee in the U. S. Senate.
His condition worsened. Among his last words were a request to Jackson: “When I am gone let the big guns be fired over me.” Pushmataha died on Christmas Eve and was buried with full military honors. He is interred in the Congressional Cemetery in the southeastern part of the District of Columbia, on the west bank of the Anacostia River.
Pressure to remove the Choctaw Indians from Mississippi so it could be occupied by white settlers increased after Pushmataha’s death.
On September 27, 1830, Choctaw Chief Greenwood LeFlore, one of Pushmataha’s grandsons, signed the Treat of Dancing Rabbit Creek at a site near Macon, Mississippi. By that treaty most of the Choctaw tribe was removed from Mississippi and resettled in Oklahoma.
However, some Choctaws, including Greenwood LeFlore, were allowed to remain in Mississippi and become U.S. citizens. Chief LeFlore was given 1,000 acres in Carroll County, Mississippi, 200 black slaves, and an annual income. He became a member of the Mississippi Legislature.
LeFlore hired architects to build a mansion, called Malmaison, and furnished it with the finest furniture, rugs, china, and crystal imported from Europe. It was considered one of the most elegant homes in Mississippi. Greenwood LeFlore lived in Malmaison until he died in 1865. He was buried on his Carroll County land. However, his body was later dug up by angry members of the Choctaw Nation. It was re-buried, reportedly face-down, in an unknown location.
Malmaison was occupied by LeFlore’s descendents until it was destroyed by fire in 1942.
History is nothing if not perverse.