This maker of American History endures as one of the greatest of Oklahoma’s founding fathers and namesake of a county even though he died nearly two centuries ago and never lived in the present-day Sooner State.
Born in modern-day Mississippi in 1764, young Pushmataha’s valor in battle and his intellectual heft, sharp wit, and oratorical eloquence propelled him to early Choctaw tribal leadership. His exploits in combat against the Osages, Caddos, and others were legendary and gained him great esteem among older Choctaw leaders.
By the early 1800s, the powerful Choctaws were probably the most populous indigenous tribe on the North American continent. Around 22,000 of them spread through modern-day Mississippi and Alabama, from the middle of the Mississippi River Valley southward to the Gulf of Mexico. They excelled as farmers, hunters, and diplomats alike, and traded and conversed effectively with the European powers who frequented the Gulf ports of the area.
The Mississippi and Alabama homeland of the Choctaws prior to most of them removing to Arkansas and Indian Territories.
Like some other southeastern tribes such as the Cherokees, they increasingly adopted the practices and institutions of Western Christendom. They did so partly to forestall their removal from their ancestral homelands. The Choctaws crafted their own Constitution and organized their country into three regions, each governed by a chief.
As one of those chiefs, Pushmataha, exhibited a dogged loyalty both to his people and to the burgeoning America around him. He embraced the latter’s technology, agricultural innovations, educational system, and military discipline.
Legendary Shawnee chief Tecumseh, with whom Pushmataha squared off concerning whether the Choctaws and Chickasaws would side with the Americans or the British in the War of 1812.
Never did he evidence his unsurpassed intuition more dramatically, and historically, than during his memorable confrontation with the iconic Shawnee war chieftain Tecumseh. As the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain raged, the Shawnee leader aimed for nothing less than driving American civilization back into the Atlantic. He sought to do so through a confederation of Native tribes across half the continent, in collusion with the British. Tribes throughout the North had already joined Tecumseh’s juggernaut when he traveled in person to present-day Mississippi to meet his great counterpart among the Southern tribes.
Famed and feared, Tecumseh spoke with vision and eloquence to the combined hosts of Choctaws and Chickasaws at what historian Angie Debo called “one of the greatest Councils in their history”:
Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man…Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws…Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?
Though Tecumseh apparently brought both tribes to the brink of allying with him, Pushmataha heard the Shawnee titan out before speaking. When he did, his voice thundered with the power and consequence of history:
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.
He then trained his words directly on Tecumseh:
You are a monarch, an unyielding tyrant within your own domain…The Choctaws and Chickasaws have no monarchs. Their chieftains…are the people's servants…The majority has spoken on this question, and it has spoken against your contention…you have elected to fight with the British. The Americans have been our friends and we shall stand by them.
Now he warned Tecumseh that he had until the end of the day to be off Choctaw ground or Pushmataha and his men would come after him. U. S. Army General Sam Dale, the famous white Indian fighter, heard Pushmataha’s words to Tecumseh and declared him the greatest orator he had ever heard.
“When our fathers took the hand of (George) Washington,” Pushmataha said, “they told him the Choctaws could always be the friends of his nation, and Pushmataha cannot be false to their promises. I am now ready to fight against both the English and the Creeks.”
The 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, a pivotal battle in the War of 1812. Pushmataha, at 50 years of age, and his Choctaw warriors helped General Andrew Jackson and his American army, Cherokees, and Lower Creeks avenge the Upper Creek massacre of Fort Sims and destroy the Upper Creek military support of the British.
Choctaw and American Patriot
Fifty years old and more, Pushmataha led Choctaw warriors in helping America win two of the most famous battles of the War of 1812. The 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend avenged the Upper Creeks’ horrifying Fort Mims massacre of whites, blacks, and Lower Creeks, and ended their violent rebellion against the United States.
The 1815 Battle of New Orleans, at the end of the war, was the monumental American defeat of the cream of the British Army, the most powerful military force to that point in history. General Andrew Jackson commanded U.S. forces, including Choctaws under Pushmataha’s command and possibly the chief himself, at New Orleans, and he commanded them at Horseshoe Bend.
General Andrew Jackson leads the stunning United States victory over the cream of the British military at the 1815 Battle of the New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812. Choctaws under and possibly including Pushmataha, fought with the Americans.
For his role in these feats, and his overall deeds against the British and their Seminole and Creek allies, Pushmataha gained the lasting admiration of U.S. military leaders as “The Indian General.” He also won the permanent rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army.
Rising to principal chief, similar to a nation’s President, of the entire Choctaw nation following the war, Pushmataha gained increasing renown as a statesman and commercial visionary in both Native and American societies. Yet, he delighted in joining in the frolicsome games of Choctaw children whenever he was able to play with them. Though he knew no English himself, he saw to it that his own five children received the highest quality American education he could secure for them. At least one son attended a Christian missionary school.
Pushmataha in his uniform as Brigadier General of the United States Army. The American military and political hierarchy admiringly referred to him as “The Indian General.”
As shrewd and eloquent as he was rugged and brave, he proved to be the political match of American leaders such as Presidents Jackson and James Monroe, and Vice President John Calhoun. He sparred with all of them, as he had with Tecumseh and other Native American leaders, over matters of supreme importance to both the Choctaws and the United States.
Pushamataha had scouted and hunted the large portion of Arkansas Territory soon to become Indian Territory, the modern land of Oklahoma. He crafted the framework for most of his tribe’s eventual migration there from Mississippi and Alabama, in the Choctaws’ 1820 Treaty of Doak’s Stand with still-General Andrew Jackson and the U.S.
He knew that white squatters already populated the proposed new Choctaw territory. Also, that the southeastern lands his people were giving up were their core territory, rather than the peripheral, hunted-out areas previously sold. And, that these western lands possibly lacked the fertility of those from which his tribe was being, at that point, asked to leave.
Western Arkansas Territory, purple, was converted to Indian Territory (future Oklahoma) in 1824. The Central strip, red, was converted (also future Oklahoma) in 1828. Pushmataha negotiated for the Choctaws to settle the verdant, approximately southeast (lower right) quarter of this enormous country.
Against this tense backdrop, Jackson’s steely and immovable tack in the Doak’s Stand negotiations apparently brought the two legendary warriors and allies to a famous verbal confrontation, recorded in this eyewitness account:
Gen. Jackson put on all his dignity and thus addressed the chief: “I wish you to understand that I am Andrew Jackson, and, by the Eternal, you shall sign that treaty as I have prepared it.” The mighty Choctaw Chief was not disconcerted by this haughty address, and springing suddenly to his feet, and imitating the manner of his opponent, replied, “I know very well who you are, but I wish you to understand that I am Pushmataha, head chief of the Choctaws; and, by the Eternal, I will not sign that treaty.”
So, the Treaty of Doak’s Stand, which stipulated voluntary migration west by the Choctaws, was not signed until Jackson adjusted its provisions to require removal of the white squatters from the land to which the great tribe was moving. Jackson also included land for the Choctaws that had been promised to white settlers. In addition, with Pushmataha helming negotiations for the tribe, the treaty pledged food, seed, supplies, rifles, ammunition, and blacksmithing for all who migrated west, as well as tribal annuity payments and financing of Choctaw schools in both their new and old lands from the sale of the latter.
General Andrew Jackson, victorious American commander in the War of 1812, U.S. President 1829-1837.
In 1824, Pushmataha headed a Choctaw delegation to Washington, D.C., to protest renewed encroachment of whites onto the tribe’s new lands in the West. He met with President Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette, of France and Revolutionary War fame. Then he told Secretary of War Calhoun:
I came here when a young man to see my Father (Thomas) Jefferson. He told me if ever we got in trouble we must run and tell him. I am come. I can boast and say and tell the truth that none of my fathers or grandfathers, nor any Choctaw, ever drew his bow against the United States…They have always been friendly. We have held the hands of the United States so long, that our nails are long like birds’ claws, and there is no danger of their slipping out….My nation has given of their country until it is very small. We are in trouble.
Now grown old, Pushmataha carried his point, again. Not only did the U.S. Government force white squatters out of Choctaw lands, it established Cantonment (future Fort) Towson, a military outpost to insure they stayed out. These brave soldiers proved dogged enough in their task that they were actually attacked by some of the squatters.
Having accomplished yet another great feat, amidst the highest councils of American government, Pushmataha fell victim to a severe viral respiratory infection while still in Washington, D.C. Learning that he would never leave the capital of the nation of which he had strived so long and hard to assure his people a respected place in, without forfeiting their own precious legacy, he said it was a good place to die. He requested full American military honors, and that a “big gun” be fired over his grave.
The now-famous Andrew Jackson, soon to be elected President, visited him in friendship on his deathbed. These two mighty men of valor talked of old times and of the America both had done so much, together, to defend and build.
Pushmataha on his deathbed, 1824, Washington, D.C. Artist Thomas Loraine McKenney, 1846.
Like Moses and the Israelites, Choctaw Principal Chief Pushmataha never made it back to the far land where his people’s future lay, the indeed fertile land he had secured for them. He died on Christmas Eve, 1824. As requested, he was buried with full military honors from the U. S. Marine Corps in the Congressional Cemetery as a Brigadier General of the United States Army.
A procession stretching more than a mile followed his casket along Pennsylvania Avenue to the cemetery, where some of the greatest men in American history were buried. It was a remarkable event in that far-less-populous generation, particularly for a Native American from the distant southern frontier. Minute guns filled the capital with their booming volleys. And a big gun roared over the old chief’s grave.
He endures as one of the great captains of American history. Among Natives, he exhibited the warrior skills of Cherokee Chief Stand Watie, the fierce loyalty for his people of Creek Chief Opothleyahola, the eloquence of Nez Perce Chief Joseph, and the shrewd ability to balance the interests of his tribe with the reality of unfolding American history of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker.
Perhaps the most fitting valedictory for Pushmataha was delivered in his own final recorded words, never knowing he would one day be counted as a founding father of Oklahoma, helping prepare the way for a good and decent life for all of us who followed:
I am about to die, but you will return to our country. As you go along the paths, you will see the flowers, and hear the birds sing; but Pushmataha will see and hear them no more. When you reach home they will ask you, “Where is Pushmataha?” And you will say to them, “He is no more.” They will hear your words as they do the fall of the great oak in the stillness of the midnight woods.
Oklahoma native and Mississippi resident Katherine Roche Buchanan painted the magnificent portrait of Pushmataha at the top of this story. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians presented it to the state of Mississippi in 2001. It hangs in the Mississippi Hall of Fame, Old Capitol Museum, in Jackson. Courtesy Katherine Roche Buchanan. (www.katherinebuchananartist.com)