Choctaw Plantation King: Robert M. Jones (1808-1873)
Something about the part-Choctaw, part-white boy caught the eye of someone in the white missionaries party in early-19th-century Mississippi. The man, his identity lost to history, sponsored young Robert M. Jones through the local Christian mission school, then to a collegiate-type academy in Kentucky.
Upon completing his education at that school, a trustee and two teachers gave Jones a letter of reference describing their opinion of him. This excerpt provides a window into a future replete with adventure, accomplishment, heartbreak, and triumph: “(Jones is) a young man of sterling worth, strictly honest and just…a high and dignified sense of honor…in whom the utmost confidence may be placed, as to integrity and ability on his part to discharge faithfully any duty he would undertake.”
One of the letter’s three signers included Richard Johnson, who six years later won election as Vice President of the United States.
Jones, around 22 years old, wasted no time in living up to Johnson’s esteem for him. Rather than squandering the sizable sum of $1,800 in accrued Native annuities provided him by his guardian, he invested the money in merchandise. Soon, the Choctaws departed on the original Trail of Tears. Operating against steep odds as the members of the five great Indian republics would so often do in their lives, the strapping mixed-blood carved a lasting legacy as a roughhewn trail boss riding through a marathon tableau of cruelty and horror.
He led a commutation party of Choctaws who eschewed army escort and provisions and trekked through winter swamps, rivers, and forests for 40 days on their own, from Vicksburg to Indian Territory. While doing so, Jones drove a herd of 400-500 of his tribesmen’s horses. Not surprisingly, half the animals perished amidst the bracing elements, since the U.S. Government provided Jones a mere pittance to supply them.
One night a storm tumbled an enormous tree onto Jones’s bedded-down band. Historian Grant Foreman recounted how the “Christian Indians,” no doubt including Jones, deputized armed light horse lawmen from the tribe to ward off white whiskey peddlers on the journey. Only “with difficulty” could these vigorous protectors, packing weapons, accomplish their mission, so determined were the liquor traffickers’ efforts.
Arriving in Indian Territory, Jones parlayed his intelligence and entrepreneurial flair with the respect earned through his stalwart service on the removal to establish himself as a leading frontier merchant. He opened several stores, including at Doaksville, Lukfata, and Skullyville. He would eventually own 28 of them. He grew a cattle herd that spread through the woods and bottom lands of Red River Valley.
He developed tangled forests and swamps into one of the greatest plantation empires west of the Mississippi River. Between 200 and 300 slaves worked farms spreading as large as 10,000 acres each and stretching along the river from present day Bryan County to the Arkansas line, and in Louisiana. He built cotton gins and purchased two steamboats that churned up and down the navigable Red and Mississippi, loaded with slave-produced bounty from a former wilderness.
Treatment of Slaves
Though no modern would advocate a return to slavery, at that point in American history, the practice was supported or at least tolerated by the great sweep of the American public. Presidential luminaries including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant had or would practice it. Extant accounts, meanwhile, indicate Jones as a humane master also concerned for the souls of his servants.
Whenever missionaries came to his Rose Hill home plantation, he endeavored to gather the slaves for preaching and worship. For example, famed Presbyterian missionary Cyrus Kingsbury (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 3)—known for his own kindness to African American slaves—made frequent references in his journals to such services, including this one from January 13, 1853: “Evening, returned to Capt. Jones. Had a meeting with his own family and colored people.”
His main home, Rose Hill, shined with aristocratic Southern beauty, though this mixed-blood man of the house had risen from backwoods tribal obscurity. First floor rooms boasted their own singular wood construction—one maple, another walnut, yet another mahogany. Stone fireplaces ranged across the mansion. One staircase swept upward in colonial grace and another lay hidden.
Indeed, no greater entrepreneur, businessman, civic leader, and Christian advocate has yet risen off the pages of Oklahoma history than Choctaw pioneer Robert M. Jones. Few have ever lived through and helped guide more of that history. By the outbreak of war in 1861, over 700 giant bales of cotton issued forth from Jones land and he possessed a fortune estimated at $1 million---over $100 million in 2020s dollars.
Jones, like so many of his fellow Natives, belonged to the agrarian culture, geography, worldview, and religion of the South. He helped lead the Choctaws and the other great Indigenous republics into the Confederacy. They elected him to the largely-honorary post of President of the United Nations of Indian Territory. The Choctaws sent him to Richmond, Virginia as their delegate to the Confederate Congress, one of many testaments to the equal civil stature the Confederacy accorded Native Americans.
Jones engineered some of his greatest feats in the post-war ruin of Reconstruction that befell the mostly pro-Confederate Indian Territory tribes. His fortune plundered by the destruction and victorious federals, he multiplied 4,500 bales of cotton shrewdly hidden during the war in New Orleans into a resurgent estate. Before, during, and after the miserable 1865 Fort Smith Council, where the tribes of Indian Territory suffered losses to the federals at the “negotiating” table in some ways greater than during the war, he championed the rights of the Choctaws and other tribes. As the federal allotment strategy (splitting tribal lands into individual parcels administered by the United States, not the tribes) grew clear, he conducted a dogged quest to secure the millions of dollars in annuities promised to those tribes by the U.S. government in partial payment for their forced removal but never delivered. He historically succeeded in both undertakings.
As remarkable as the deeds of Jones, so cursed seemed the history of Rose Hill and the remainder of his estate following his death. The plantation doctor who married Jones’s widow ascended to mastery of Jones’s holdings, but died in a shootout with the latter’s son Robert Jones Jr., who himself died in a subsequent shooting.
Dissension and lack of capable heirs triggered the gradual decline of Jones’s estate. Common lore among whites, Natives, blacks, and mixed-bloods alike claimed the mostly-uninhabited Rose Hill as haunted. In 1912, a fire destroyed it and all of Jones’s papers and correspondence.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring preview video HERE.