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The Choctaw Were First To Walk The Trail of Tears

Bishinik, August 1986, page 6

The following is condensed from an article by Virginia Allen that appeared in The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Spring, 1970.

The Choctaw Indians were the first tribe to arrive in Indian Territory. The Choctaw "Trail of Tears" from Mississippi to Indian Territory began in 1831, with the main removals continuing through 1834.

The trip of 550 miles passed through unsettled country of dense forests, swamps, thick cane brakes, and swollen rivers.

The suffering, caused by the mistakes and inefficiency of the War Department combined with one of the region's worse blizzards in history, was Indescribable.

Wagons were in short supply and many roads became impassable except by foot.

Inadequate clothing and supplies caused great suffering and sickness. Choctaw Agent William S. Colquhoun at Vicksburg, Mississippi, reported that a party arrived there after marching nearly naked and barefooted through the sleet and snow for twenty four hours.

Colquhoun also stated that an error had thrown together three groups of Choctaws, a total of 2300, which were intended to travel separately. Transportation problems became critical as did the weather.

Of the Indians' plight, Colquhoun said: "Their situation is distressing and must get worse, they are often very naked and few moccasins are seen amongst them."

A party of 2,500 Choctaws traveling by steamboat were disembarked at Arkansas Post and kept in open camps throughout the worst of the blizzard.

Many had to remain for weeks awaiting horses which were being driven overland from Louisiana.

Respiratory diseases and other illnesses which resulted from exposure and shortage of food took a heavy toll of the emigrants.

Provisions and preparations for the continuing migration in 1832 were improved, but a cholera epidemic brought new tragedy to the Indians.

The disease which had been gradually creeping westward from India since 1816 reached New Orleans in January, 1832.

Along the rivers, steamboats left their dead at every landing.

Fear of the cholera had a demoralizing effect and alarmed both the Indians and their agents.

Cholera broke out on a boatload of Choctaws nearing Memphis, a transfer station on the Mississippi River, and sickness and death became constant companions.

Many panic stricken women and children refused to board another steamboat.

They were ferried across the river and continued the journey by land.

Incessant rains had made many roads through the swamp impassable, and some of the emigrants traveled thirty miles, knee to waist deep in water. All of the emigrants experienced great suffering and illness due to exposure and cold.

The Reverend Cyrus Byington, who was a missionary among the Choctaws before removal and who traveled with them, estimated that at the time of removal there were 40,000 Choctaws, of whom 6,000 died during migration.

The losses incurred because of the appalling circumstances encountered during the removal permanently decreased the population of the tribe.

The health of the Indians in their new home was affected for some time by the rigors of the trip. 




As told by her Great Grandson Edmond J. Gardner

(In which a very vivid description is given about the experience of the Choctaw's during the period just before, during, and just after the Trail of Tears.)

Granny Leflore claimed to be a full blood Choctaw, but the color of her skin showed a slight mixture of white blood. Nothing is known of her parents or any of her kindred.

She married Tom Leflore when she was about twenty years of age (in 1775) and lived with him until his death about the year 1859.

She was of the common type of Choctaw women, very devoted to her home, her church, and to her people, their customs and habits of life.

She had but little education, but was bright, industrious, and lived thru the greatest trial of her people; the Choctaws.

She was my great paternal grand Mother and I was born less than a mile of her house. My father was born on the same farm that I was, and he went over the same road to Granny's house that I did.

My father sat at her feet many times and listened to her tell of the old days back in Mississippi, heard her tell of the trip when about six hundred Choctaw, of all ages and kind, came west over the trail of tears, in the year 1832, to their new country, now Oklahoma.

And when I got old enough I too went to granny’s house and heard these same stories.

They were as interesting as fairy tales, but when this very old woman would relate some sad occurrence of those times, some times she became bitter with rage and at other times she could not hold back the tears, and her voice would become weak and trimbly.

It made me sad too, but somehow I loved to hear them.

Granny Leflore had passed over her hundredth birthday before I had my first birthday, and it is but faintly I remember her.

Her Husband had died many years before I was born.

He was about one-half Choctaw and one-half French, and was a man of much prominence among his people, was their Chief and they loved him.

He headed a company of 600 of them on their trip west, and settled near where Millerton, Oklahoma now stands.

His people built him a big house out of big logs in the year 1834, and he lived there till his death. After his death his widow, Granny Leflore lived there till her death.

When I first remember going To Granny Leflore's house, she lived in this big log house, with a great wide hallway and very wide porches, and I sat on the tomfuller block just off the edge of the floor and listened to her talk.

Her widowed daughter and grandson lived with her, and just a little way off was a Negro cabin, and there lived Uncle Billy and Aunt Margaret, two very old Negros, who had been slaves to Granny Leflore.

The two old Negros loved Granny Leflore, and when they were freed just after the civil war they begged to stay with her and wait on her, so they were given the little cabin for their home and Granny Leflore fed and clothed them for their work and they lived there till they died.

Granny Leflore was old fashioned; she wore old-fashioned clothes, knitted all their socks and stockings, smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and grunted a lot when she talked.

She grunted long or short to suit the sadness or seriousness of the story told her.

It was fun to us children to hear her grunt, and we made up stories to tell her, to see who could bring out the longest grunt.

She was so feeble she could hardly get about so she spent most of her time in a big high rocking chair, either before the fire or out on the front porch, and we teased granny a little too much, sometimes, and when she got mad she was a cat, but we could easily stay out of her reach.

Granny liked her meals prepared in the good old-fashioned way, and often she called her grandson in the early morning, telling him to get up and go kill some fresh meat for breakfast.

The young man would get up, take his gun and go out a mile or so from the house, and in an hour come back with a wild turkey, some squirrels or a deer for breakfast.

In the meantime, Granny would call her widowed daughter to get up and go out to the corncrib and get eight ears of corn and shell it, beat it up in the tomfuller block and make bread out of it for breakfast.

They had a steel mill for grinding corn on a post in the back yard, it made good meal, but Granny liked bread made from meal beat in the tomfuller block the best, and she always had her way in things like that.

When the breakfast was ready, with a big dish of wild meats, a big pone of home meal. bread, some good coffee, and a few other good things.

And after taking some good long puffs from the long stemmed clay pipe while sitting in the big rocking chair, Granny Leflore enjoyed herself best.

It wouldn't do to insist on her doing anything, for she was boss of that place and would do as she pleased, so we had to wait till she got through talking, then we could ask questions.

So in the following I will relate some of the things that Granny Leflore saw with her own eyes.

When a young girl Granny Leflore was called Sookie, and she played up and down the banks of the Tombigby river in Mississippi, with only a few days at school to interrupt her play.

When young Tom Leflore first came to see her, he was riding straddle of a horse.

It was a funny sight to see a man sitting straddle of an animal; no one in that settlement had ever seen anything like it before.

Several of the neighbors came up to see the strange animal, and young Tom Leflore tried his best to get some of them to get on the horse but they were all afraid.

After a while late in the evening Sookie got on the horse and rode about the place a few minutes, her mother looked every minute to see this strange animal eat her up alive, but nothing like that happened.

Young Tom Leflore had told her that the horse was perfectly gentle and wouldn't hurt her, and she had already learned to have confidence and trust in him, even to getting on this strange animal.

Young Tom also told her of another strange animal he called a cow.

He said it was about the size of the horse but it had two long horns on its head and it looked different, but people didn't ride them.

The Choctaws had no cows or, horses in those days. Young Tom gave Sookie a fan for a present to remember him till he would come again.

The choctaws used fans made out of turkey wings but this fan was different, made of paper and so pretty to look at, and Sookie loved it with all her heart and she carefully laid the fan away in a big wooden box she used to keep her things in. 

Several times, a day she went to see if it was still there and to show it to others.

She would not use it, she was afraid she would break it, and she was going to keep it as long as she lived.

Just a day or so before Granny Leflore died she had her daughter go and get this fan and bring it to her, and then she placed it in the daughters hand told her to take care of it and keep it as long as she lived.

Her daughter who we called Aunt Sarah lived to be ninety-three years of age, and when she knew she must die, she gave the fan to the woman that nursed her, and told her the history of the fan.

I saw the fan in 1915, at that time it was in fairly good repair, but had many patches on it.

Sometimes a very small thing is a big thing in our lives, so was this fifty cent fan in the life of Granny Leflore, she kept it ninety six years and delivered it to her daughter who kept it twenty five years, making it one hundred and twenty one years old when I last saw it.

Sookie married Tom Leflore about the year 1795 and they settled near Tom's father, Michael Leflore, a Frenchman, who came among the Choctaws about the year 1770.

They lived near the Tombigby River and became very prosperous as traders, merchants, farmers and stockmen, and a leader in the affairs of the Choctaw people.

For a time these people were contented and happy and they made considerable progress in the ways of the white man and had many friend among them.

But as the eastern states settled up, and that settlement pressed westward, and more land was needed for the new settlers, the Choctaws were in the way.

Soon agitation began for their removal to a western country, but the Choctaws did not want to move.

They wanted to stay on the lands the Great Spirit had given them, a land where their forefather’s bones lay in the ground.

They pleaded with the white man to remain and was promised by the United States government agents that if they would be peaceable, would learn agriculture, send their children to school, and be christianized they could remain.

With this hopeful promise they were bought up and their progress was very rapid.

Schools and Churches, Large farms were established among them with considerable success were opened up and good houses built, and some became very wealthy owning many slaves and much livestock.

But the cry for more land could not be satisfied and many things were done to the Choctaws for no cause except to make them dissatisfied to and make them move.

The Choctaw tried every way to satisfy his enemies but without success, so in 1820 they by treaty traded part of their land in Mississippi, for land in the west, now Oklahoma.

They did not move west under that treaty because after investigation they learned that other Indians claimed the lands and they could not have peace while others were claiming the land.

Then the United States Government established Forts in the new country and the white settlers in that country was ordered off and the Indians of other tribes driven further west.

After this had been done the agitation for removal became worse and the Choctaw could not have any peace at all, so they signed another treaty in 1830 ceding all their lands in Mississippi to the United States Government and agreed to move west in two years.

The Choctaw are a peaceful people and they were very much disturbed and their troubles were born by their leaders in political affairs, and Tom Leflore at that time was doing all he could to satisfy the agitator for removal and to calm his own people and bring about peace, but nothing could be done, so as a last resort he advised his people to go west where they could have peace and govern themselves as they liked.

This procedure was accepted by the leaders as the only course, but many of the others rebelled and threaten to go to war rather than go west.

At this time Tom Leflore was the father of seven children, had been Chief of the Choctaw people, and was a recognized leader among them.

And Sookie his wife, was not only mother of seven, but had become Granny Leflore.

She had more than the burdens of her household to bare, she was a choctaw, her heart was broken because of her people, and the thoughts of them being driven away from their old home lands, like so many cattle, grieved her.

After the treaty of 1830 was signed and its requirements proclaimed, the people went into mourning.

Some were bitter against their leaders and accused them of selling out.

Tom Leflore was a true friend to the Choctaw people and did the best he could under the conditions, but he had to beg many reports and slanderous remarks.

The people came to the Leflore home in great numbers for consolation and advise, they were told nothing could be done, but make their arrangement to go west.

Mrs. Leflore had many friend's and they came from far and near to unburden their sorrows for her sympathy and advice, she also told them nothing could be done but go west.

Some of the people resigned to their fate and began making preparations for removing, but others held on and had to be almost forced to go.

Saloons were well established at many points in the old Choctaw country and the men drank to drunkenness and murdered each other.

And there were many other things detrimental to their peace and happiness to further hasten their departure.

All this thing was a burden and grievance to the good missionary that had labored among them, and to many others who worked tirelessly for the best interest of the people.

The missionary had worked faithfully for the church and school, they had good membership in the church, and were successful in the school, and they were in deep sympathy with the people.

The common white people who had lived as neighbors to the Choctaws were in full sympathy with them, but the land grafter and the politician was working for their own interest, and had no sympathy for the people.

Tom Leflore and his wife had more than their share of the burdens to bear, because they could hear and see the peoples troubles and was helpless to do anything for them.

As time went on some of the wealthy ones went west to establish their homes in small companies with reasonable comfort in their journey but the rank and file of the people lingered as long as their oppressors would let them.

Tom Leflore had accumulated considerable property and had more than a half bushel of gold, and he could have assembled a few of his kindred and friends and traveled in good comfort, but he chose to go with a large company composed of every age and kind of people that he might be a help to the man that could not help himself.

Notices went out notifying all the people to assemble at a mission station named Goshen in full preparation to leave on the first day of August 1832.

Tom Leflore was the acknowledged head of that great company of about six hundred people.

Several days before the appointed time the people began to come in and set up some form of shelter to stay in while the others gathered, and as the day drew nearer the number that came in increased, and soon the whole place was covered with people.

They came in every form, wagons, and horseback carts, sleds, pole drags, and afoot.

It was known that only a few of the most needed things could be carried, so just a handful of things for each family was brought, and nothing that had weight.

The government furnished several wagons and several more was furnished by private individuals, but the number was too small to provide convenience for any one able to walk, for the wagons were needed to carry the things necessary for the journeys and to be used in the new country.

So everybody that was physically able had to walk.

Very young children, very old people, the sick and the afflicted rode the wagons and horses.

A great herd of cattle was held by pens and herdsmen to be slaughtered for meat, and these cattle were driven in the rear of the company to be killed along the journey to provide meat.

In addition to the cattle, men with guns scouted the country along the route and killed much wild game, and secured other food.

The men who had charge of the company did what they could to make things comfortable for the people but there was much suffering at best.

At the beginning, of the journey the weather was warm and pretty and the people fresh, the suffering was not so bad, but as time wore on, the weather got bad and cold, the roads torn to pieces from so many wagons, and the people worn out with so much walking, the suffering was most pitiful and intense.

Babies were borne on the roadside and in an hour the mother was back into the procession, if the mother or babe died they were buried on the roadside where they died and the others urged on.

Progress was necessarily slow for something was happening that interrupted their going, and many of the wagons were drawn by oxen.

Sometimes they were stopped a week or more on account of swollen streams and bad crossings.

The people as a whole stood up under the strain remarkably well, and there was a shadow of cheerfulness among them most of the time.

This company was formed of kindred’s, friends, and members of the same church or community, they nearly all knew each other, this helped to break the worry and grind of the journey.

But the greatest help was the Christian fellowship that prevailed and the teaching of the missionary that the Great Spirit would in some way "provide'' for his people.

The Leflore Company was called a Christian company because they held evening and morning religious services and they never traveled on Sundays.

Seasons of songs and prayers gave them encouragements, and the Sundays gave them rest.

A great many of the company was very poor, had very little clothing and no shoes on their feet, and at one time we were detained for more than two weeks by a swollen stream and during the time it got awfully cold and the ground was covered with sleet and snow and many had no shelter to protect them from the inclemency of the weather, and to make things worse they ran out of food, and had to beg a little corn and lived on that.

"We were nearly four months on the road," said Granny Leflore, "and was literally worn out when we got to the line of the new country."

At one time a part of our company got cut off by a swollen stream and we stayed there about two weeks, we could not go on and leave them because we had all the rations.

About seventy of our company died, principally old people, very young children and people that were in bad health to start with.

It was a very sad thing to see our kindred, friends, or loved ones buried and left on the roadside, but we had it to do to keep up with the company.

There were about one hundred wagons in the company, ten of these were government wagons loaded with rations for the trip, and all the other wagons were filled high with household goods and a few other things.

A few sick people, some very young children and some very old people road on the wagons, and the rest of the company walked.

There was about a hundred loose horses along with the company, some of' these were packed with all kinds of plunder, some was rode by the leading men who went up and down the line of wagons to assist those needing their help, some was rode by men who went far out along on side of the road hunting for wild game to be used for foods, and some was rode by the cripple, the invalid, the very old, and the very young.

Many of the company came unprepared for such a journey, some had no shoes, others shoes wore out before they had gone far, it being warm when they started they did not have sufficient clothes when the winter came on.

The big company was formed by smaller companies of two to four wagons.

Each family came and their near kin usually formed themselves into small companies putting all their effects into one or more wagons and joined the big company out traveled as a unit to themselves.

The Leflore’s had four wagons the Gardner’s two wagons, the Garlands three wagons, the Garvin’s two wagons, the Jones' two wagons, and so on with the rest.

The six government wagons that had the rations, lead the way, and the other four government wagons followed behind with the live cattle that were brought along for beef.

Tom Leflore was chief at the company and he rode on horseback all the way, and went up and down the line to give help to the people.

"Nearly all the roads were new, said Granny Leflore, and we had to take time to throw a temporary bridge across many of the streams before the many wagons could cross.

We crossed the Mississippi at Vicksburg and that was about the only ferry we crossed.

We had to ford the streams and if they were up a little we had to wait till they went down before we could cross.

The government wagons ahead would select each nights stopping place where there was water, and the others came on as they could, some was way into the night getting there, having been delayed by bad roads or burying the dead.

About half of the wagons were fairly good, but others mere makeshifts and often breaking down, some was made from sawing a large tree to make the wheels and when then they got worn a little they wobbled and flopped about when they traveled.

Much of the country after leaving the Mississippi river was a wilderness with just a few country stores and two or three small towns along that long road, so it was hard to get anything even if you had the money and many of our company was very poor.

There was about two in our company that knew a little about medicine to relieve the sick and the accidentally hurt, and they had but little medicine.

A good many of the Choctaws believed in their medicine man, but this superstitious belief did not help, nay, only it gave the believer some peace of mind.

When we got to the border line of the new country the land had been taken by them that proceeded us, several companies like ours, some smaller, some larger, had reached the new country and some was on the road, so we moved on several miles into the new country before we stopped to look out a place to build our future home.

After we reached the new country the big company soon broke up, each family unit going in a different direction to look out a place to build.

We thought our troubles were over when we reached the new country, but we were mistaken in this, for the cold weather and rain had set in and we had nothing but a few tents, a few open sheds, and few open log houses to protect us from the rain and cold.

We had but just a few tools to work with and it was a long ways to where we could get anything at all, and what they had was soon sold out, so we had to just help one another and do the best we could.

Those that had tools helped those that had none first to build some form of shelter and then the others helped them.

The new country was covered with heavy timber and tall grass, except the prairies, and the river bottomlands stood in water in the most part, because the timber and underbrush was so thick it could not dry out.

There was but one public road in the whole country and that was the Fort Towson-Little Rock military road cut thru in 1824.

We found a good spring on this road on the edge of a small prairie and stopped there and lived in a tent thru the winter and built a small log house in 1833 and lived in that till 1834 when the choctaw people built us a big log house, "the biggest and the best in the country".

The people built this house for Tom Leflore because they loved and honored him for his kindness and friendship.

The house still stands today and is shown above.

Tom Leflore lived in this big house until his death about 1859, and Granny Leflore lived in it till her death in about the year 1890.

In November 1931 the ruins of this house was still standing, and had been occupied up a year or so ago.

This house stands about a half mile northeast of Millerton, Oklahoma.

The writer was born on the farm that joins Millerton on the north.

Some of our company settled east of us, said Granny Leflore, some north, some south, and some went on still further west.

After we had stopped and stretched our tent several wagons passed along the road in front of our tent and we stood and watched them pass. It was real pitiful to see them trudge along the road.

Some of the women had many little things they wanted to bring along, but they couldn't find any room in the wagons, so they put them in a large pack basket, with a leather strap that went over their forehead and the basket resting on their backs, and they carried them all the way from Mississippi in this way.

Some of the men wore the white mans clothes and shoes; some wore buckskin breeches and a blanket and moccasins on their feet.

Nearly all had long hair cropped square at the point of their shoulders and the white mans kind of hat.

The women were dressed nearly all alike, they wore long cotton dresses that touched the ground, a large shawl over their shoulders and head, some wore large red handkerchiefs over their heads. Some had shoes and some wore moccasins on their feet.

A good many both men and women were barefooted, and nearly all the young boys and girls were barefooted.

The Choctaws had a good many cattle in Mississippi; these were all put together into a great herd and driven thru a few weeks after we came.

Some sold their stuff off pretty well, but a great many just went off and left what they couldn't carry along with them.

The white people flooded our old country even before we left everything of value left was taken by them.

Alfred Wright our missionary had agreed to come west with us and establish schools and churches in the new country, but he had to go back east to supervise the printing of some new books to be used on the new field. 

He promised to come as soon as he could and did arrive some time after we did.

A site for his station already been selected, the under brush cleared away and some benches made, and the people was anxiously waiting his coming.

He was detained at Little Rock for a while on account of his health, but came on as soon as he was able to travel.

He came to the site we had selected and organized a church on the 9th day of December 1832 and named the place Wheelock.

He was a godly man and a good physician and people needed him, very bad.

Other missionaries also came, but it seemed the people had their minds centered on Alfred Wright.

We had so much work to do and so little to do it with, and it was cold and bad, that it took quiet a while to get everybody settled with some kind of shelter.

It was soon spring of the year so we had to plant our corn in the woods and clear the ground and fence it afterwards, in order to get anything planted at all.

So the year 1833 was a very busy year, clearing land, building houses, fencing, and working our crops.

We raised some corn and other stuff and with what the government gave us we got along pretty well, and when winter came on we was much better prepare.

We were worn out from the trip and had been exposed in the bad weather till a good many of our people took sick or had been sick and many died.

When the fall rains of 1833 began and extended far into the spring of 1834, and the scent from decaying timbers, it seemed we were all going to die, for nearly everybody got sick.

Rev. Alfred Wright being a sickly man did all he could for the people, but he had no medicine and could not get any only from the east and it would take too long.

In one month he attended three hundred and thirty eight and did what he could but many of them died.

Only two trading post's had been established at this time, one near Fort Towson and the other near Eagletown.

We could get out very few things at any price, and what we did get was high.

The government paid out net proceed and annuity money at Eagletown and at Fort Towson, and we got a few rations at these places, but no medicines.

The sickness let up in the spring of 1834 and the people took on new hopes.

During the summer and fall of 1834 there was several good houses built, mostly along the Fort Towson-Little Rock military road.

This road crossed the line at, Ultimathule in Arkansas Territory and followed the high lands southwest to the Wheelock crossing on Little River, then southwest out of the bottoms then turned almost due west and followed the high ridge lands bordering Little River for about 7 miles then left the ridge land and went west thru timber land for about two miles, then thru prairie most of the way to Fort Towson.

The Choctaws didn't all come as we did, some came by boat up the Arkansas River, and others came up the Red River, those of the leaders and wealthy class came in private conveyances in small companies.

The most noted of the wealthy Choctaws was Robert Jones and Joel Kemp, both owned many slaves.

Robert Jones went further west and settled a place that became know as Rose Hill and died there.

Joel Kemp settled about 10 miles west of our place and opened up a large farm of a thousand acres, and another farm nearly as large on Red diver.

He also built a water mill on Clear Creek to supply meal for his many negro slaves and ground corn for the public in the year 1834, and continued to own and operate the water mill until the year 1844 when he moved further west, selling his water mill to Oklabi another choctaw.

Several mission stations was established in the year 1834 and church and schoolwork advanced rapidly with but little opposition, and in the 1842 several boarding schools were built. 

The people soon became settled down and began to attend their little farms and see after their stock, which fed themselves on the open range.

The people held their councils, elected their chiefs, and enacted their laws and had their officers and in the most part was very well satisfied.

During the years 1842-50 the religious activities was at its best, and in the year 1846 a stone church at Wheelock was built, erected to mark the march of education and religion in the west.

The cost of building this church was paid partly by the mission board and partly by the people, some gave money, and others gave labor, and the stones was taken out the ground south of the church site.

A good stone mason was employed to over see the work, and others was also employed, but as much of the work as could be was done by our own people.

The people got along good and prospered until the outbreak of the civil war, when we were all torn to pieces again.

After being forced into the war our people joined the south.

Tom Leflore died just before the war broke out in 1859, being about 84 years of age at the time of his death.

He had been very prosperous and had several farms opened up and much livestock on the range.

After his death his interest was taken care of by his sons and son-in-laws. His wife Granny Leflore as she was called lived 31 years after the death of her husband.

She might have lived a few years longer if she had been let alone.

After she had passed her one-hundredth year she was not able to do much work, only such work as knitting and mending clothes, she spent most of her time sitting in a big-armed chair. 

When she was a hundred and fifteen she owned much cattle and horses and it was generally believed she had lots of money.

So one night she was awaken by someone trying to get in at the window she was alone with her daughter and some small great grand children, her grandson the only man of the place was away. 

But in order to scare the burglar away she called her grandson saying, "come quick a burglar is in the house.

The burglar withdrew and ran away, but the excitement was too much for Granny Leflore, she took sick and died about a week 1ater.

Granny Leflore could have told many things of interest to the people of this day, but she had to pass away like the rest of the people before her, and was buried in the family cemetery a short distance east of her home, and the little house, common in those days, was built over her grave.


 Alma Mason

Rt. 5 Box 450

McAlester, Ok. 74501

Phone: 918 423 2610

Fax: 918 423 4300

Another account...

Trail of Tears from Mississippi: Walked by our Choctaw ancestors

By Len Green

After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, George Gaines was named by Secretary of War Lewis Coss as general supervisor for the removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi to what is now southern Oklahoma.

Gaines determined that the best, method of handling the removal was to move about one-third of the Choctaws per year in each of the years 1831, 1832 and 1833.

Gaines set removal of the first one-third of the Choctaws to begin on November 1, 1831. 

The Choctaws moving from Ahi Apet Okla and northern Okla Falaya were to be gathered at Memphis, Tenn., and those from Okla Hannali and southern Okla Falaya were to be gathered at Vicksburg, Miss.

Across the river from Memphis and Vicksburg, Capt. Jacob Brown, removal agent west of the Mississippi, had been ordered to secure wagons, oxen, horses and supplies to take the Choctaws west.

Secretary Coss had named George Gibson as removal agent east of the great river, and Gibson had acted as the "peacemaker" standing between general agent George Gaines and Francis Armstrong, who were long standing enemies.

Gibson convinced Gaines to serve only in a general supervisory capacity while Gibson would supervise the gathering of the Choctaws at Memphis and Armstrong would be in charge of getting the southern Choctaws to Vicksburg.

The Choctaws were allowed the first two weeks of October to gather their crops, assemble their personal property and sell their houses and chattels, so that they could be at the two ferry points on Nov. 1, 1831.

Because of the urging of the state of Mississippi, the Choctaws were ordered to leave all of their livestock in Mississippi and promised that they would be furnished new livestock when they reached the "Choctaw Nation in the West."

In the meantime, the newly created Bureau of Indian Affairs, not to be left out of the act, came up with a new wrinkle.

The BIA said it would offer special incentives to any Choctaw willing to walk to the new land.

Each Indian who decided to walk would be paid $10 in gold, given a new rifle and three-month supply of powder and ammunition, be fed along the way and be furnished with a qualified guide to lead them to the new land.

Approximately 300 of the Choctaws decided that the BIA plan was the way to go.

There was "one fly in the ointment" though.

The "guide" hired by Capt. Brown, whose name is (probably fortunately) lost to history, was not the expert on the west he represented himself to be to Capt. Brown.

Beginning in mid-October, Gibson and Armstrong began sending Army wagons through the three Mississippi districts, gathering up the Indian families who would travel west in the first year of the migration.

Thus, during the final week of October, encampments of Choctaws began to spring up all around the outskirts of Memphis and Vicksburg, with the population of these encampments growing daily.

And, along with the Choctaws came something else...RAIN!

These heavy rains came and stayed, flooding the Mississippi, St. Francis, White, Arkansas and Big Fork (Ouachita) Rivers, turning the river valleys into quagmires.

A quick conference between George Gaines and his principal removal agents revealed that the floods would make the roads impassable so that there was no way the Choctaws could be taken west from the Mississippi by wagon as originally planned.

This left only one alternative - to make the removal by steamboat.

With the government having already cancelled its order for such boats, the Choctaws had to wait while new boats were rounded up.

Finally, Gaines and his crew were able to round up five steamboats, the Walter Scott, the Brandywine, the Reindeer, the Talma and the Cleopatra, the latter three being smaller steamers with less passenger capacity.

And, while the boats gathered, the Choctaws had to wait outside Memphis and Vicksburg.

They soon ate up all of the available rations, as Gaines had anticipated a Nov. 1 start and had not furnished any additional food for contingencies.

Already uneasy with "all those injuns" camped just outside of town, residents of Vicksburg and Memphis soon found themselves facing food shortages and battling profiteers for the available foodstuffs.

To make matters worse, as the steamers began to gather, one of the two larger boats, the Brandywine, caught fire while moored at Memphis and was so badly damaged that it could not be used in the operation.

This left the Reindeer and Walter Scott available at Memphis and the Talma and Cleopatra available at Vicksburg.

The 300 Choctaws who had "taken the bait" on the offer to walk were ferried across the Mississippi on the Reindeer, and there turned over to the guides who would lead them to the new land.

George Gaines and his agents determined that the Choctaws at Memphis would be taken by steamboat up the Arkansas River to Little Rock or Fort Smith, and from there by wagon on into their new territory.

And, the Choctaws waiting at Vicksburg would be taken down the Mississippi to the Red River, up the Red to Big Fork (Ouachita) and up that river to Ecore a' Fabre (which by this time was also beginning to be known as John Camden's Post and would later become Camden, Ark.) and hauled by wagon from there to Fort Towson.

There were approximately 2,000 Choctaws at Memphis. Sometime in mid November they were crammed aboard the Walter Scott and Reindeer and dispatched up the Arkansas River toward their new homeland.

But, at Arkansas Post, which was only about 60 miles up the Arkansas from the Mississippi, the Army halted the steam-boats, said they needed them to transport a new detachment to Fort Smith, and unloaded all of the Choctaws.

Following the floods, a blizzard was setting in with strong, cold northerly winds, snow and sleet dancing across the landscape.

Most of the Choctaws were scantily clad, with some of the children naked.

And, all the small military detachment at Arkansas Post could offer were 60 small army tents to help shelter the more than 2,000 Choctaws from the freezing storm.

Rations were in very short supply, as Arkansas Post had not expected to find itself playing host to 2,000 cold and hungry Choctaws, so strict rationing had to be imposed. And, despite this fact, within a few days most of the rations were gone.

By the time help arrived, both the Choctaw and the soldier were receiving a ration of one handful of boiled or parched corn, one turnip and two cups of heated water per day.

To make matters worse, the temperature remained below the freezing mark for six days, and the Arkansas River become so clogged with ice that the Reindeer and Walter Scott were iced in at Fort Smith and could not make it back down river to Arkansas Post.

After eight days, 40 government wagons were sent to Arkansas Post from Little Rock to begin relaying the Choctaws on to Fort Smith, fortunately bringing food and blankets to the starving soldiers, many of whom had already frozen to death or died of pneumonia.

When the first wagons reached Little Rock, a famous term that would eventually burn itself into history was born.

In an interview with an Arkansas Gazette reporter, one of the Choctaw Chiefs (thought to be either Thomas Harkins or Nitikechi) was quoted as saying that the removal to that point had been a "trail of tears and death."

The "trail of tears" quotation was picked up by the eastern press and widely quoted.

It soon become a term analogous with the removal of any Indian tribe and was later burned into the American language by the brutal removal of the Cherokees in 1838.

In the meantime, steaming from Vicksburg, the Talma and Cleopatra, with some 3,000 Choctaws aboard moved up the Red to the Big Fork and up that river as for as Monroe, La.

They were halted at Monroe with the tale of what had happened to the 300 Choctaws who had decided to "hoof it" to the new land.

Led off by the path by their incompetent guide and then caught in the blizzard, the walking party had become lost in the Lake Providence swamps.

A rescue party from Monroe Was dispatched to locate what remained of the lost Indians and bring them the 60 remaining miles into Monroe.

But, at Monroe, the Talma developed engine problems and was forced to off-load all of the Choctaws and their supplies there, from where they would be ferried in groups on up the Big Fork to Ecore a' Fabre by the Cleopatra.

However, while waiting at Monroe for the Cleopatra to take them on up river, the Choctaws did not fare as badly as had their fellow Indians who had been kicked off the steamers at Arkansas Post.

The residents of Monroe had good supplies of corn, dried beans, pumpkins and onions on hand, sharing them freely, and there were woods enough to provide some shelter from the storm.

On its final trip from Monroe to Ecore a' Fabre, the Cleopatra took the remainder of the 300 Indians who had decided to walk along with the lost group of Choctaws in the removal.

But, the Choctaws who had traveled the southern route had not missed the privations and troubles that harassed the entire 1831 removal party. Their troubles were just beginning.

Either through a breakdown in communications or ill-advised and lazy removal agents, very few preparations had been made to care for the Choctaws after their arrival at Ecore a' Fabre.

Not expecting 3,000 Choctaws, the removal agents had not purchased enough rations, and there were only a dozen Army wagons available to escort the Choctaws the remaining 150 miles plus to the boundaries of their new territory.

This meant that only the tiniest children and the most elderly, ill or infirm among the Choctaws could be transported by wagon.

Any Choctaw who was able to stand and place one foot in front of the other was forced to walk.

Despite their assurances of cooperation to George Gaines, the Arkansas farmers along the route, realizing how short supplies for the Choctaws were, demanded $2 per bushel for their corn and tripled or quadrupled the price of any meat or animals they had to sell.

To make matters even worse, the white man's diseases, particularly dysentery, diphtheria and typhoid raged among the Choctaws as they dragged themselves slowly westward toward their promised land.

Progress was extremely slow as halts to bury their dead or tend their illnesses come often.

The leaders of the escort party did not know the routes they were to follow and constantly held up the party as they studied maps or consulted residents of the area.

As a result of the sickness, deaths and pauses caused by the escort, it took almost three months for the Choctaws to drag themselves the 150 miles from Ecore a' Fabre to the new land.

Upon reaching Mountain Fork River, one group of Choctaws halted and established a "town", which they would come to call Eagle (later to become old Eagletown).

Others moved southward and settled in the area around the burned site of the old Miller County, Ark., courthouse.

Still others traveled on westward to settle near Fort Towson, and still others went on a few miles southwestward to "Horse Prairie", a site settled by the Rev. Alexander Tolley and the 400 Choctaws who had voluntarily left Mississippi in 1830.

Thus by April 1, 1832, all of the Choctaws who had remained alive through the first removal were located in their new homeland, as those who traveled the northern route settled principally not far from Fort Smith, calling their main town "skullyville" ("skully" is a Choctaw word for money and the "ville" is English meaning village or town).

Counting the party that had come in advance, by April 1 of 1832, of approximately 6,000 Choctaws who had started out from Mississippi in the fall of 1831, only slightly more than 4,000 remained alive.

Military records from Little Rock indicate that in April of 1832, some 536 Indians received rations at Skullyville and 3,749 rations were issued at Fort Towson, Eagle, Miller Courthouse, and Horse Prairie.

This means that at the end of the first migration, 4,285 Choctaws were alive and had survived, including the approximately 400 "sooners."

In brief, more than 2,000 had died along the way and there were two more years of removal to go.

From the near disaster of the 1831 removal, one might think George Gaines and his removal agents should have learned something, and have been able to improve conditions on subsequent removals.

But, improper planning, white man's diseases and mother nature were again to turn the 1832 removal into a debacle of death and disaster for the Choctaws.

Despite the fact that the smoothest part of the 1831 operation had been the removal from Vicksburg up the Red and Big Fork to Ecore a' Fabre, the 1832 plan did not include the use of this route at all.

Also, no use was to be made of Memphis, which necessitated transporting the Choctaws from Ahi Apet Okla and northern Okla Falaya over much longer distances as all were to be gathered at Vicksburg.

From Vicksburg, they were to be transported to Arkansas Post by steamboat, from there to Little Rock by wagon, and divided there with Okla Falayans and Okla Hannalians taking the Military Trace from Little Rock to Fort Towson and the Ahi Apet Oklans taking the Little Rock-Fort Smith road.

Gaines also decreed that on these journeys, wagon transportation was to be furnished only for the ill or infirm. The remainder of the Choctaws were to march.

As in 1831, the gathering began in mid October.

But, while the Choctaws were being gathered and herded toward Vicksburg, an epidemic of cholera broke out in Vicksburg, with several hundred dying, from the dreaded disease and the remainder of the population of that city fleeing in an effort to escape.

It was only natural, of course, that the fleeing citizens of Vicksburg spread the cholera epidemic, infecting everyone they encountered including the Choctaws who were enroute to Vicksburg.

The cholera hit the Choctaws harder than it did the whites, as they had no natural immunity to the disease.

There is no record of how many Choctaws died from this plague on their way to or at Vicksburg.

Because of the highly contagious nature of cholera, when any person, Choctaw or white, died from the disease, their bodies were heaped in piles, covered with brush, doused with kerosene or whale oil and burned.

When the Choctaws reached Vicksburg, they found the city deserted, and faced famine even before starting their trip.

Frightened farmers, who had food supplies stored, hid from both white and Indian alike and refused to sell any of their food stocks.

Even the steamboats waiting to take the Indians to Arkansas Post, the Walter Scott and the repaired Brandywine, had been deserted by their crews fleeing from the cholera threat.

George Gibson had his agents offload some of the supplies from the two steamboats and, by setting up a strict rationing program, managed to keep the Choctaws alive until boat crews could be rounded up to move them west.

If the 1832 removal had a white hero, it had to be Francis W. Armstrong, who was so hated by George Gaines, the chief removal agent, but was liked and trusted by Gibson.

Armstrong, upon hearing of the cholera in Vicksburg, diverted the more than 1,000 Choctaws he had gathered, marching them to Memphis instead of trying to take them to Vicksburg.

He commandeered the snagboat, Archimedes.

It was not equipped for passengers. But Armstrong had the dredges and snag removing equipment pulled off the Archimedes and ordered his more than 1,000 Choctaws aboard.

The little steamer was so crowded that there was only room either above or below decks for the Indian to sit.

There was absolutely no way they could lie down or sleep.

However, despite the crowding, the Archimedes made it to Arkansas Post with a minimum amount of sickness and death.

And, wonder of wonders, the wagons and supplies for the trip to Little Rock were waiting at Arkansas Post to take this 1,000 Choctaws on to Little Rock.

In the meantime, back in Vicksburg, Gaines and Gibson had gathered up enough steamboat crew members to man one of the two steamers.

And since the Brandywine was the larger of the two, Gaines and Gibson crammed more than 2,000 Choctaws aboard and started for Arkansas Post.

However, the rains started again, and by the time the Brandywine reached Arkansas Post, the lowlands around that post were so badly flooded that the steamboat could not unload its massed cargo of human flesh.

After considerable bickering, it was decided that the Brandywine would proceed on up the White River, also in flood stage, and would unload the Choctaws at Rock Row, a point of high ground some 70 miles east of Little Rock.

At Rock Row, the Choctaws were unloaded.

There were, of course, no wagons and no rations, save what were aboard the Brandywine, available in Rock Row.

The Choctaws were told they would have to walk to Little Rock, getting by on what rations they could carry on their persons.

Of the 70 miles between Rock Row and Little Rock, a bit more than 30 miles was covered with floodwaters, backwaters and swamps, forcing the Choctaws to wade almost half of the distance.

At points the water was more than three feet deep, many of the Choctaws were still suffering and dying from the cholera and on top of that, another outbreak of dysentery had struck.

As in the march to Vicksburg, no records were kept of the Choctaws who died along the route, but four days after wading away from Rock Row, the remainder of the 2,000 Choctaws struggled into Little Rock where they were fed and given medicine and fresh clothing.

At Little Rock, those who had survived "the long wade" joined the 1,000 who had been brought from Memphis by Francis W. Armstrong.

Despite his meritorious action, George Gaines still despised Francis W. Armstrong, and took this chance to "get rid" of him by persuading Secretary of War Coss to appoint Armstrong as the first United States Agent to the Choctaws.

At Little Rock, the Choctaws divided, with about 2,000 choosing to travel by the Military Trace to Fort Towson, and the remaining 1,000 or so deciding to travel to Skullyville by way of Fort Smith.

At least one phase of Gaines' plan worked. Rations had been cached along the two roads, so that the Choctaws had ample rations to sustain them on the final leg of the 1832 journey.

Before Dec. 30, 1832, all of the Choctaws still living at the end of the trail had reached their new Choctaw Nation in the West, and their new agent and friend, Francis W. Armstrong, had set up his headquarters in Skullyville.

The last federally supervised removal of the Choctaws from Mississippi came in the fall of 1833, and again George Gaines chose to follow the plan he had set up for the 1832 removal.

The Choctaws were gathered at Vicksburg, transported by steamboat from there to Arkansas Post, by wagon from there to Little Rock and then on to the Choctaw Nation in the manner of the previous year.

Only about 1,000 Choctaws showed up for removal.

No outstanding misfortunes occurred, other than that one of the steamboats split a boiler and another experienced a broken shaft.

However, there were other boats available and no floods, so the 1833 migration went more smoothly than its two predecessors.

In his final report on the removal, George Gaines wrote Lewis Cass, "In the three years of removal, we have transported more than 6,000 Choctaws from Mississippi to the new Choctaw Nation in the West."

Actually, the figure was from 1500 to 2000 more than Gaines had estimated in his report to Cass.

By Jan. 1, 1834, there were from 7,500 to 8,000 Choctaws residing in the new western lands.

The new Okla Falaya was bounded on the north by the ridgeline of the Mazzern (now Ouachita) Mountains, on the south by Red River, on the east by Arkansas and on the west by the Kiamichi River.

The district's chief, Greenwood LeFlore, had chosen to give up his Choctaw citizenship and remain in Mississippi.

His cousin, Thomas LeFlore, was designated as Chief of Okla Falaya, assisted by another cousin, Thomas Harkins.

The new Okla Hannali was bounded on the east by the Kiamichi River, on the west by a line north from Island Bayou to the Canadian River, on the south by Red River and on the north by a line extending due west from the Okla Falaya northern border.

Okla Hannali district chief was Nitikechi, a nephew of Pushmataha.

The new Ahi Apet Okla, which sometimes was called Okla Tannip, was bordered on the south by Okla Falaya and Okla Hannali, on the north by the Canadian River, on the East by Arkansas and on the west by the line extending northward from the source of Island Bayou.

The last of the "great three" district Chiefs, Moshulatubbee, was again the district's leader.

The "Trail of Tears" had ended.

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