Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Tuscaloosa: Stopover On The Trail Of Tears
by Robert Register 
Every act of Indian removal in Alabama
occurred while Tuscaloosa was
State Capital. 

" We pledge never to give... Alabama an opportunity to excuse herself to the world, by any concession on their part, to the schemes she has adopted to expel us from our lands. Her grasping rapacity and tyranny must stand, as a monument to future generations, of wanton violation of laws respected by civil and barbarous nations! " 

Memorial of a Deputation from
the Creek Nation of Indians,
February 3, 1830-
Senate Document 53, 21st Congress.
Washington, DC 

It is said that the Southern Indians called their forced migration to Oklahoma the Trail of Tears. On at least two occasions- once in December, 1834, and again in September, 1836, Tuscaloosa was a stopover for large groups of Creek Indians destined for "the Terminal on the Trail of Tears," Fort Gibson. Fort Gibson was an army post located twelve-hundred miles away on the Grand River in eastern Oklahoma.

It is entirely appropriate that Tuscaloosa would be forever touched by the sorrow of Indian removal. Tuscaloosa was Alabama's capital and the home of the governors and lawmakers who enacted the laws that stripped Native Americans of all their human rights and enacted the laws that protected the white men who profited from the Indian's misfortunes.

In the winter of 1834, more that 22,000 Indians were living on the Creek Indian reservation which covered 5,200,000 acres eat of Montgomery. Out of this large population, only 630 Creeks volunteered to travel to Oklahoma with John Page of the U.S. Army. These destitute people arrived in Tuscaloosa during December while the legislature was in session. The leader of this party of Creeks, Chief Eufaula [Chief Yoholo-Micco] requested to visit the capitol and address the Alabama legislature. His audience found the words deeply poignant.

“I come brothers to see the great house of Alabama, and the men that make the laws, and tell the in farewell in brotherly kindness before I go to the far west, where my people are now going. I did think at one time that the white man wanted to oppress my people and drive them from their homes by compelling them to obey the laws that they did not understand—but I have now become satisfied that they are not unfriendly towards us, but that they wish us well. In these lands of Alabama, which have been my forefather’s, where their bones lie buried, I see that the Indian ſires are going out—they must soon be extinguished. New fires are lighting in the west—and we will go there. I do now believe that our great father, the president, intends no harm to the red men—but wishes them well. He has promised us homes and hunting ground in the far west, where he tells us the red men shall be protected. We will go. We leave behind our good will to the people of Alabama, who build the great houses, and to the men who make the laws."

“This is all I have to say—l came to say farewell to the wise men who make the laws, and to wish them peace and happiness in the country which my forefathers owned and which I now leave to go to other homes in the west. I leave the graves of my fathers—but the Indian fires are going out—almost clean gone—and new fires are lighted there for us."

A few cold nights on the Columbus road west of Northport probably forced Chief Eufaula to reconsider his words about believing Alabamians wishing him well. Captain Page, the U.S. Army escort, soon learned why the Southern Indians, so noted for the silent dignity of their grief, would call their journey west, The Trail of Tears. He wrote from Columbus, Mississippi on January 6, 1835, that the cold weather was "so severe on the little children and old persons and some of them nearly naked that they would perish if they were not attended to. I have to stop the wagons to take the children out and warm them and put them back again six or seven times a day. I send ahead and have fires built for this purpose. I wrap them in tents and anything I can get hold of to keep them from freezing. Strict attention had to be paid to this or some must inevitably have perished. Five or six in each wagon constantly crying in consequence of suffering with cold. I am sometimes at a stand to know how to get along under existing circumstances. There was continued crying from morning to night with the children. I used to encourage them by saying that the weather would moderate in a few days, but it never happened during the whole trip."

Three months later, after miles of walking through severe snow storms, Chief Eufaula's group arrived at Ft. Gibson. Four hundred sixty-nine of the six hundred  in the original party survived this deplorably bad journey.

The next group of Creek Indians to use Tuscaloosa as a stopover on the trail to Ft. Gibson arrived in town on September 12, 1836. This group of 2,700 Indians under Chief Opothleyaholo had their march delayed by whites who filed suits against the chief and other Indians for fraudulent debts. By turning over their 1837 annual annuity of $31,900 to the whites and agreeing to "furnish from their tribe 600 to 1000 men for service against the Seminoles," Chief Opothaleyaholo paid his people's ransom and they were allowed to leave east Alabama.

The Sunday edition of the July 20, 1919 TUSCALOOSA NEWS contains an article by Thomas Clinton entitled, "Interesting Account of Emigration of the Creek Indians in 1836." This description of Chief Opothleyaholo's people's visit to Tuscaloosa was the first installment in a long series of articles by Clinton on Tuscaloosa's history (Clinton's son Matt continued this family tradition of historical articles in the NEWS through the 1970s). In his article Clinton includes Dr. Joshua Foster's version of the Indians' visit to Tuscaloosa:

"In their [the Creek Indians] emigration westward, some of them camped where the University observatory now stands...I had passed the grave of a chieftain's son in the northwest corner of the old Observatory field and seen its lonely sentinel, the pet dog of the little dead boy, as he kept his ceaseless vigil over the tomb of his master. My heart yearned in youthful sympathy for the young Indian.

...With other boys I visited their camp and bought from them a few trinkets. We had gone again to visit another camp across the river where we saw some boys and girls- fifty or more between the ages of two and twenty years, not clad in modern bathing suits, but all in their birthday suits or in undress uniform, all paddling like ducks in the creek. I had seen Opothleyaholo and his lithe and graceful daughters and heard the great chief talk in eloquent pathos of their bitter grief on leaving their hunting grounds and the graves of their fathers."

According to Thomas Maxwell, Sr., "Opothleyaholo while here never pretended to be satisfied with the removal of his people, but admitted he moved only because of imperative necessity. Before leaving Tuscaloosa he declared that he no longer felt that he was a chief and he tore off his wampum war belt, for which he had no further use." Two years later, in1838, Maxwell purchased Opothleyaholo's wampum belt.

Virginia [Tunstall] Clay lived in Tuscaloosa during Opothleyaholo's visit and she described what she witnessed in her book, A BELLE OF THE FIFTIES. Mrs. Clay encountered Opothleyaholo in the White House when the 80-year-old chief visited President James Buchanan in 1855. Mrs. Clay wrote:

"While I was still a child I had seen  five thousand Cherokees and Choctaws [Creeks], passing west to their new reservations beyond the Mississippi, had rested in Tuscaloosa, where they camped for several weeks. The occasion was a notable one. All the city turned out to see the Indian youths dash through the streets on their ponies. They were superb horsemen and their animals were as remarkable. Many of the latter, for a consideration, were left in the hands of the emulous white youth of the town. Along the river banks, too, carriages stood, crowded with sightseers watching the squaws as they tossed their young children into the stream that they might learn to swim. Very picturesque were the roomy vehicles of that day as they grouped along the leafy shore of the Black Warrior, their capacity tested to the fullest by the belles of the little city, arrayed in dainty muslins, and bonneted in the sweet fashions of the day.

During the encampment a red man was set upon by some quarrelsome rowdies and in the altercation was killed. Fearing the vengeance of the allied tribes about them, the miscreants disemboweled their victim and, filling the cavity with rocks, sank the body in the river. The Indians, missing their companion, and suspecting some evil had befallen him, appealed to Governor C.C. Clay, who immediately uttered a proclamation for the recovery of the body. In a few days the crime and its perpetrators were discovered and justice was meted out to them..."

A Tuscaloosa correspondent writing in the October 11, 1836 edition of the ARKANSAS GAZETTE, described the sadness that the Creek Indians represented to Tuscaloosa's citizens. "They all presented a squalid, forlorn, and miserable condition and seemed to be under the influence of deep melancholy and deep dejections. They are said to have left their homes with great reluctance, but they are becoming more reconciled to their destiny. Their condition excited much sympathy and commiseration in the heart's our our [Tuscaloosa's] citizens, and many a heartfelt regret was uttered at the necessity which compelled us to remove them to the far West." Obviously Tuscaloosa's citizens were helpless to do anything to stop removal.

All of the detachments of Alabama Creeks converged on Memphis in November, and by December, more than ten thousand suffering Native Americans from Alabama arrived at Ft. Gibson. On December 21, 1836, Marine Lieutenant J.T. Sprague, who had just arrived at Ft. Gibson with almost two thousand Creeks from Tallassee, Alabama, received this letter from his Indians:

"You have been with us many moons...You have heard the cries of our women and children...Our road has been a long one, and on it we have laid the bones of our men, women and children. When we left our homes the great General Jesup said to us that we could get to our country [Oklahoma] as we wanted to. We wanted to gather our crops, and wanted to go in peace and friendship, Did we? No! We were drove off like wolves...lost our crops...and our people's feet were bleeding with long marches. Tell General Jackson if the white man will let us we will live in peace and friendship..but tell him these agents [emigrating contractors] came not to treat us well, but make money and tell our people behind not to be drove off like dogs. We are men...we have women and children, and why should we come like wild horses?"

The fact that every act of Indian Removal occurred while Tuscaloosa was Alabama's capital links this city to this cataclysm. Can we ever comprehend the suffering and grief that Alabama's Indians felt as they camped on the hilltop where the Old University Observatory now stands? Can we walk or drive by that place where Joshua Foster saw the dog keep "his ceaseless vigil over the tomb of his master" and feel, as Foster did, our hearts yearn "in youthful sympathy for the young Indian?

An enormous mass of unpublished documents contain details of the catastrophe that occurred within the Creek Nation in 1836. The records of fraudulent land deals and actions of the Alabama Emigrating Company expose a small cadre of entrepreneurs who profited from human suffering. The removal of the Indian became one of the most lucrative industries in Alabama during 1836. It is a blight on the early days of Alabama statehood- a sad story of exploitation, suffering and greed. I wonder if we've learned to behave any differently in the one hundred and fifty-plus years since.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

by Robert Register
(this article was first published almost 22 years ago in Issue #33 of OLD TUSCALOOSA MAGAZINE in October of 1997)

In 1830, the Choctaw families in West Alabama had made amazing progress in adapting to the ways of the white man. The women were spinning and weaving homespun cloth from which they sewed their own clothing. The warriors were forbidden to go to Mobile or New Orleans during planting season and for the first time in their history, Choctaw men stayed at home and worked. All of this was about to change. On September 27, 1830, the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek stripped the Choctaw's entire ancient inheritance from them with the stroke of a pen. The Choctaw legacy of friendship with the white man was ignored. The fact that this tribe had never made war against the French, the Spanish, the English or the Americans was never considered. The “godfather,” Andrew Jackson, gave the Choctaw an offer they could not refuse. The Choctaw Nation, led by Demopolis businessman George Strother Gaines, packed their belongings and moved west. What force could be so powerful as to push the Choctaw out of their old hunting grounds in Alabama and Mississippi?

Andrew Jackson answered that question on May 28, 1830 when he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Not one word in this law mentions that an Indian could be removed from his land by force. But the Choctaw could read the handwriting on the wall. When John Eaton, Jackson's Secretary of War, arrived in Noxubee County just weșt of Aliceville in 1830, he let everybody know that it was illegal for the Choctaws to refuse to surrender their land in what is now Pickens, Sumter and Choctaw counties as well as millions of acres in Mississippi.

Robert Remini, in his prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson, writes: “This monumental piece of legislation spelled the doom of the American Indian. It was harsh, arrogant, racist-and inevitable. It was too late to acknowledge any rights for the Indians. They had long since been abrogated.”

Nothing could stop removal. Not even an 1832 Supreme Court could stop the Indians from losing their land. The first victims of this horrible legislation were here in West Alabama. In fact that starting place is less than one-hundred miles west of Tuscaloosa on the banks of Dancing Rabbit Creek near Mashulaville in Noxubee County, Mississippi. It is the starting place on the “Road to Disappearance." 

The two commissioners who made this treaty with the Choctaw Nation were at the nucleus of the cartel of Jackson cronies who controlled government offices in the Southeast during the 1830s. John Coffee, one of Jackson's earliest business partners and the General's cavalry commander 
during the Creek War of 1813, had the shortest trip
to make to the banks at Dancing Rabbit Creek.
He lived in Lauderdale County, Alabama near Florence.
The other commissioner, Jackson's Secretary of War, Major John
H. Eaton, accompanied Jackson on his summer vacation to the
Hermitage near Nashville and continued south with only one
instruction from Andrew Jackson, the man the Indians named
Sharp Knife: “Fail not to make a treaty.” Eaton and Coffee earned
the dubious distinction of being the first United States
commissioners to not arrive at a Choctaw treaty on horseback. They
came in horse-drawn carriages(This author found no
record of John McKee, Tuscaloosa County's first U.S. Congressman,
being among the the commissioners yet the Dictionary of American
Biography discloses that in 1830 he was one of the commissioners to
negotiate the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek).

Catering for this gathering of six-thousand Choctaws between the
two prongs of Dancing Rabbit Creek was provided by George
Strother Gaines, of Demopolis, Alabama. A former Choctaw agent,
Gaines was now a Marengo County merchant and in partnership
with Allen Glover, builder of Rosemount, a twenty-room mansion
near Forkland in Greene County. Gaines hauled flour and corn meal
on Indian ponies and penned beef cattle about a half-mile away for
daily butchering.

Politically, the Indians from what are now
Choctaw, Sumter and Pickens counties were weakened by divisions
in their tribal allegiances. Clear threats and harassment between
members of the “Pagan” party led by Mushulatubbee and Nitakechi
and the “Christian” party led by Greenwood Leflore and David
Folsom moved the tribe close to a state of anarchy. This emotional
instability was heightened after the Choctaw arrived at the treaty
ground and discovered that they would be forced to give up all of
their land and head west. George S. Gaines wrote that, this
proposition acted as a bomb thrown among the Choctaws."

Jackson's commissioners were between the devil and the deep blue
sea. Under no circumstances could they return to Washington, D.C.
and Old Hickory without a treaty. On the other hand, they were very
close to being mobbed by thousands of drunken warriors. The
distillers of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee valleys made sure that
the council grounds were well lubricated with “mountain dew."
Halbert states, “It must be recorded that a large portion of the white
people at Dancing Rabbit were not the best characters, being mainly
rowdies, gamblers and saloon keepers-in short, the bad element
characteristic of the American frontier. The law was very much
relaxed on this occasion, and all the demoralizing concomitant of
civilization were to be found at the fork of the two Rabbits,—
drinking saloons, gaming tables, and every other cunning
contrivance whereby to catch the loose cash of the white man and
the Indian." 

The commissioners banned missionaries from treaty negotiations
and forbade them to step foot on the treaty ground because “their
religious instructions would have a tendency to distract the Indian's
minds during the progress of the negotiations." Jugs of good
whiskey near the hand of each Choctaw councilman could not be
considered a distraction and were placed there only because some
Indians might desire to quench their thirst during the tiresome

The layout for the council ground was sort of like a semi-circle. The
commissioners and their white advisors sat on a large log that was
lying with its big end facing west . The Commissioners' secretary's
desk was on the south side of the log and the Commissioners sat
facing south. More than sixty Choctaw councilmen sat on the ground
facing north and formed the completed semicircle. On the ground in
the middle of the semicircle were seated seven of the oldest women
from the Choctaws who had assembled at the treaty ground. On
their left at the west end of the Commissioners log sat the old
squaw's interpreter, Middleton McKee. H.S. Halbert describes the
respect McKee had for his duty to these women: "McKee solemnly
promised these old women that he would faithfully interpret to them
everything that was said by the Commissioners in council, 'Holabi
likma, sakonla baqshlit has tabla chike,' (and if I tell a lie, you may
cut my neck off.'). Encircling the Commissioners and the Choctaw
councilmen were hundreds of Choctaw spectators, eager to see and
hear everything said and done in council. 

The secretary for the Commissioners read the treaty in English and
John Pitchlynn of Columbus, Mississippi, translated it into Choctaw
for the audience. Then the Commissioners requested that Killihota
step up to make a speech to the Indians on about a three foot high

stump that stood in front of the Commissioners. Killihota, a half-
breed chief and "front man” for the “Christian” party of Choctaws,
pitched the land deal that the Commissioners were offering in what
is now Oklahoma. He told the Indians that it was way better than
Alabama and Mississippi. There was more game and watermelons
grew twice as big in the West. Killihota told his Choctaw brethren
that children out west grew up bigger and stronger and guaranteed
them that if they “would leave this country and emigrate there, their
children would all grow up large, strong and healthy."

The seven old women seated around Killihota's stump didn't buy it.
According to Halbert: “One of these venerable matrons sprang
excitedly to her feet and made a threatening gesture toward 
Killihota with a butcher knife. "Killihota,' she said, 'I could cut you
open with this knife. You have two hearts,' meaning by this, one
heart for the white people and one for the Choctaws." She was
calling him an “Apple”: red on the outside and white on the inside.

After this episode all of the chiefs of the “Pagan” party were allowed
to speak. They were angry. Little Leader, a Choctaw councilman,
said, “Any chief who may sign a treaty selling our country is a traitor
and should suffer death. I go home to prepare my people to fight for
our homes and the graves of our fathers.”

Halbert beautifully describes the closing of this emotional
session: “At the conclusion of the interpretation of the last speech,
that of Shenatubbee, Killihota, taking a large knotty hickory stick in
his hands, and saying, 'Yakni kanchi lishkeh,' 'I am for selling the
country,' gave a heavy thud on the ground with it, thereby recording
his own vote in favor of a treaty. He then passed the stick to his
right-hand neighbor. This man, to show his opposition to a treaty,
passed the stick in silence to the next council man sitting on his
right-hand. The stick thus passed in silence from hand to hand
around the circle until it returned to the hand of Killihota, who alone
of all the councilmen, that day, had struck the ground with the stick,
thus voting for a treaty.

“When the action with the stick was completed, Mingo
Moshulitubbee, mindful of the immemorial Indian ceremony in
public assemblies, broke the silence by saying, 'hakechuma keho
shunks, ' 'let us all smoke tobacco.' The chief thereupon ordered that
his silver-mounted pipe hatchet be filled with tobacco and lighted,
then handed over to Kilihota, who, after taking a single whiff, passed
it to his right-hand neighbor. He, in like manner, after taking a
whiff, passed it to his right-hand neighbor. The pipe thus from hand
to hand passed around the circle, everyone, even including the
whites sitting on the log, taking a single whiff until the pipe returned
to Killihota, thus completing its circuit. During all these ceremonies,
the passing of the hickory stick and the smoking and passing of the
pipe, the council men remained seated in grave and decorous
silence. It was now about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. All now arose to
their feet and the council adjourned for the day.”

There was to be no negotiating on this treaty. From the opening talk
on Saturday, September 18, until the Indians signed on the dotted
line on Monday, September 27, the Commissioners used the same
threat: If you do not sign, the United States will withdraw all
protection from you and you will be at the complete mercy of the
white citizens of Alabama and Mississippi. 

To a Choctaw living here in 1830, that threat represented their
greatest horror and worst nightmare. So eventually they signed and
they walked from the Tombigbee to the Mississippi. Their
emigration was a confused mess.

Ironically, the Treaty and Dancing Rabbit Creek did not end John
Eaton's negotiations with the Choctaw Nation.
On April 7, 1831, Major Eaton resigned as Jackson's Secretary of
War. This was the climax of a scandal that split Jackson's cabinet
over how to handle the vulgarities of Eaton's wife, Peggy. “The dark
and sly insinuations” of this “vile tale” almost toppled our
government. Jackson's entire cabinet resigned and for the first time 
in more than forty years of orderly, constitutional government,
our republic experienced a catastrophe that came from within
itself. Eaton had already helped to destroy the Choctaw Nation,
and now he had certainly threatened our Republic, yet he was to
continue to play a role in the destruction of the Choctaws.

By October Eaton was back at work. He, along with Coffee, had
again been appointed commissioners by Jackson. Their job was to
tell the Choctaws to sell 4,500,000 acres of their Oklahoma land to
the Chickasaws. At this conference, which occurred as the Choctaws
marched out of Mississippi, one of the Indians reportedly asked
Eaton, “Will you not let us put our feet on our new land before you
ask for it?”

It may be unfair to saddle Eaton, Coffee and Jackson with the total
responsibility for Choctaw removal. Andrew Jackson could have
done nothing at all like all of the other men who preceded him in the
White House. And if he had done nothing, it can be argued that
there would be no present-day talk of the legal sovereignty of Indian
tribes in America because there would be no Indian tribes. Jackson
certainly rubbed the Yankee's noses in it every chance he got. In
1830 a group of Philadelphia Quakers came to the White House to
protest the inhumanity of forcing the Choctaws from their ancestral
homes. Jackson was incensed. "Is Philadelphia the ancestral home
and hunting ground of the Quakers?”
“Not exactly, but that's a different case.”
“Were you born in Philadelphia?”
“We were.” The Quaker said their parents and grandparents were
also natives, but conceded that most of their great-grandparents had
come from England. 
“Then,” Jackson said, “They left their ancestral homes and hunting
grounds and came to the West in search of new homes." 
“Well, yes. But it was a different case."
“Did your great-grandparents find Indians at Philadelphia?"
“Yes, but..."

“What became of those Indians?” 
"Oh, those Indians moved away; but it was a
different case."
“Why did they move away?”
“Because our forefathers bought their lands."
“What did your forefathers pay for their lands?”
“That was a different case." 
Old Hickory dismissed the delegation. “I
think you folks have taken up quite enough
of my time...I concede to everyone the
constitutional right to be as big a hypocrite
as he may please, but do deny your right to
take more of my time...”
The years 1830 to 1839, during and
immediately after Indian removal, produced
phenomenal population and economic
growth in Alabama. Cotton exports from the
Port of Mobile, where much of the cotton
produced from Choctaw land was shipped,
increased from 100,000 bales (each weighing
approximately 500 pounds) in 1830, to
300,000 in 1838. Between 1830 and 1839,
1,850,000 bales were shipped to Mobile
from the river valleys that drain this region.
Alabama's population nearly doubled,
ballooning from 309,527 in 1830, to nearly
600,000 in 1840.
Almost all Americans in 1830 believed that it
was a sin to not till the soil. The only good
Indian, they surmised, was an Indian who
walked behind a plow. Still, no matter how
civilized the Choctaws may have become,
most Americans were either gave no
recognition of progress, or they just didn't
care. Ignoring every moral and constitutional
implication, the American citizenry with the
willing help of the Congressmen from the
Southern frontier who bulldozed the Indian
Removal Bill through the House and Senate,
allowed their appetite for surveyed acreage
to conquer any “decent concern for

Regardless of Indian progress, American
civilization was not going to allow the
Choctaws or any other tribe to play
“catchup”. No time-outs in this ball game.
Repercussions of the Treaty of Dancing
Rabbit Creek live with us in the present day.
According to John H. Peterson, Jr., Professor
of Anthropology at Mississippi State
University in Starkville, the 150th
anniversary of the Treaty in 1980 made a few
Noxubee County politicos anxious. The local
committee planning to commemorate the
sesquicentennial of the Treaty of Dancing
Rabbit Creek weren't certain whether it
would be proper to invite the Mississippi
band of Choctaws from neighboring
Philadelphia to the festivities.