A county tract book, an 1880’s Indian school attendance roster, a photo with maybe a couple of Choctaws mixed in…. Do we not have more history of the people who lived on the lands we now call Hancock County, the lands that they once owned, not for just a little while, but for hundreds, maybe thousands of years?
Perhaps we have almost succeeded in consciously erasing the images from our collective conscience.
So little has been written about the Choctaws of Hancock County that I am prompted to begin gathering information to restructure what we know. In thinking about this, I am struck by the awareness that a great deal has been known and written about our prehistoric sites, but very little about the historic Choctaw. The science world knows of the Claiborne and Cedarland sites. We have had recent investigations of the mound near the Bay St. Louis bluff; a midden has been studied nearby. A large oak grove sat atop a cache of artifacts near Bayou Caddy, but is now destroyed. But these are all about prehistoric peoples.
How very little we know about those who lived – for a while – side by side with the first settlers of the Bay and Waveland, Pearlington and Gainesville.
The single most important person in the sad narrative of Indian removal was Andrew Jackson. Though known as the president of the common man, Jackson did not include Native Americans in that number. A complicated person of much merit and many faults, he had enough sympathy to rescue a Creek orphan child, later adopted by the general, off a battle field, but it must be considered that he was the commander who had led the slaughter of the child’s parents.
Even before he became president, Jackson was an impatient commissioner appointed to obtain land cessions from the Choctaws. For a concise description of the dynamics after his election in 1828, the following quote is offered from Charles Hudson’s The Southeastern Indians:
“…Jackson appointed John Eaton, who shared his views on the Indians, to the post of secretary of war. Jackson’s bill requiring the Southeastern Indians to emigrate touched off one of the most bitter debates of the period. Proponents of the bill assured opponents that force would not be used….In the end the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 28 in favor and 19 against. Debate was also held in the House, where the vote was 102 in favor and 97 against. Jackson signed the bill into law on June 30, 1830. It was now official. The southeastern Indians had to move.
“The Choctaws, with an estimated population of 23,400, were the first of the Southeastern Indians to be removed….Choctaws became apprehensive and refused to leave Mississippi….In 1830 [Mississippi] abolished the Choctaw government and passed other measures designed to frighten the Choctaws into leaving.
“In 1830, Jackson’s men bribed a minority of Choctaw leaders into signing the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.”
A good starting point is to review the treaties that involved the Choctaw generally, as well as in what eventually became Hancock County. Treaties by which the Choctaws ceded land were signed at Mount Dexter in 1805, Doak’s Stand in 1820, and Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830.
It is not clear which treaty, if any, governed the Choctaws of Hancock County. Although there is some attribution to Mount Dexter, this is contradicted by other evidence.
The WPA report states that South Mississippi was acquired from the Choctaws through the treaty of Mount Dexter, 1805 (Mississippi – A guide to the Magnolia State, New York, Viking Press 1938 p.63). The legendary chief Pushmataha was a signer to the 1805 treaty.
It appears, however, that the section of Mississippi which includes Hancock County was not included in Mount Dexter Treaty, which ceded all the lands in the southern part of the territory between the Pearl and Pascagoula rivers but not that portion lying south of the 31st parallel. From the standpoint of a practical view of history, the Hancock County section was taken from Spain by the United States in 1810 as a result of the West Florida Revolt. It was added to Mississippi Territory in 1812. This transaction was not ratified, however, until several years later, when the Adams-Onis treated was ratified in 1819.
History records in several ways that the United States government had already been acting as though the transfer had been concluded. It is also historically accurate, however, that the secretary of state of the United States, John Quincy Adams, concurred with the representative of the Catholic Majesty of Spain that the transfer was formalized on February 22, 1819.
To understand the realities of the passage of Mississippi Territory below the 31st parallel, one must accept a state of mind that in today’s parlance would be said to have been already a done deal in 1810. Adams and Onis may have been signifying an acceptance of this concept when they included only a mention of West Florida, without even detailing a land description, whereas almost the whole document relates in great detail to land masses west of the Mississippi River.
Back to Mount Dexter
One map shows the area south of the 31st parallel as “Coast Addition – 1812.” If at that time it came under the terms of the Mount Dexter Treaty, this may account for the fact that many deeds in Hancock County were entered into by Indians as vendors. Unlike the other and more coercive treaties, Mount Dexter did not require the Indians to leave.
THE TREATY OF DANCING RABBIT CREEK – 1830
Because there can be doubt as to whether previous Choctaw treaties included Hancock County, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek takes on significance even though it purported to cover an area of central Mississippi.
Article 1 of Dancing Rabbit clearly states, “…[A]ll other treaties heretofore existing and inconsistent with the provisions of this are hereby declared null and void.” Article 3 says, “…[T]he Choctaw nation of Indians consent, and hereby cede to the United States the entire country they own and possess East of the Mississippi river….”
Essentially, if any area was left out previously, it certainly was included in this treaty. Dancing Rabbit is also significant because it was perhaps the most exploitative.
As said by Cushman, in History of the Indians “…[I]n September, 1830, the climax of the white man’s greediness as far as the Choctaws were involved, was reached, by forcing that people to cede the last acre of land they possessed east of the Mississippi River.”
The treaty did not pass easily. It was not agreed to until the insertion of Article 14, promising 640 acres – one square mile – to any Choctaw family head who desired to remain in the state. Each child over ten was to receive 320 acres, and those under ten, 160 acres.
But when the time came to file claims, the federal agent grossly mismanaged his office; he was often not available and often drunk when he was available. He allowed only 69 claims, mostly to mixed-bloods of white men’s union with Choctaw wives. One case in point was that of a half-breed chief named Greenwood Leflore. He was one of the negotiators because he spoke both languages. Like him, other half-breeds were more likely to be conciliatory. He got 1,000 acres.
Leflore profited immensely. His estate in central Mississippi unabashedly was named Malmaison.
Choctaw lands were divided up and sold in large chunks to settlers who came from many states and several countries, but mostly from the Carolinas and Georgia. The wealthy ones, like the Russes and the Poitevents, came early on. Others were MacArthurs, Whites, Parkers and Prays. Some came with their gold and slaves. At $1.25 per acre, they could buy 80 acres for a minimum purchase of $100. Many bought larger parcels. For those who did not have $100, Jackson even expressed a desire to reduce that requirement.
Still, thousands of Choctaws remained, but they could not secure land. They took to the land that white men did not want; they attempted to live in areas like Devil’s Swamp and along Bayou LaCroix.
Devil’s Swamp is just northeast of the intersection of I-10 and Hwy. 604, not far from present-day Stennis; it a dense swamp reported in other postings as the place where the Koch sons hid in order to escape being conscripted during the Civil War.
Even now, the Bayou LaCroix area, like Devil’s Swamp, is a wilderness. A low, uninviting natural drainage, the stream eventually winds toward the Jourdan River, far above the lands inhabited by most of the settlers.
In all, it is estimated that 5,000 Indians remained in Mississippi; 20,000 Choctaws were removed. The departure spanned several years in the 1830s. Many died on the Choctaw’s own “Trail of Tears,” a term usually applied to the Cherokee experience, but nonetheless descriptive of the Choctaw ordeal.
Not all Americans chose to look the other way. One who did not but chose instead to fight on principle was J.F.H. Claiborne, soon to become a settler in Hancock County. Claiborne had already won national recognition by becoming the youngest member of Congress in 1835. In that capacity, he had urged the passage of a bill creating the Chickasaw school fund. He was not reelected in 1837, but was sufficiently respected to be appointed president of the Board of Choctaw Commissioners in 1842. The purpose of this body was to adjudicate claims by which the Choctaws may be entitled under the terms of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Greedy speculators had purchased many of these claims, and a bitter fight ensued. Claiborne exposed the schemes, calling the attempts to get rich on the part of the speculators frauds. Influential people were behind the claims, and they employed S.S. Prentiss on a contingency basis with an astronomical fee of $100,000.
Claiborne had written a pamphlet detailing the schemes and placed copies on the desks of all members of Congress. Prentiss then challenged Claiborne’s competency, subsequently inviting Claiborne to a duel. One man named Forrester issued another challenge of honor, but Claiborne had the good sense to decline both. Nonetheless, there were threats on his life. Finally, he succeeded in having the commission adopt a plan recommended by him, allowing the Choctaws the value of their claims and paying them annual interest on the funds after their removal West.
In the process, both Claiborne and Prentiss were said to be “wrecked in fortune” (Memoirs of Mississippi). In short, “few public affairs in Mississippi have occasioned more bitterness.”
Choctaw Land Titles in Hancock County Courthouse
Records in the Hancock County archives reveal that at least fourteen Choctaw certificates were issued for land in our area of study. These were small parcels, usually amounting to about 40 acres, but a few for as much as one hundred or more acres. While the certificates are numbered and the land is described in still current township and range designations, little can be gleaned as to why or when they were issued. What is evident is that the listings were entered into the tract books when the parcels were assigned to white settlers. The assignments were dated between 1848 and 1854, most being 1851 and 1852. By and large, the assignees included people known to the area, such as Asa Russ, John Russ, and Robert Montgomery. Other assignees were Mariah Herron (Herrin), John H. Myers, Elijah Spence, Josephine Cuevas, Cornelia Williams, Samuel Hays, James Taylor, and Mary Lampkin. It is curious, perhaps, that a number of these are women. (Tract Books 1 and 2, Hancock County Courthouse)
Even though the records contain a column for “purchase money,” they do not indicate any payment for the assignments except in the case of the Asa Russ purchase. This was for certificate number 588, dated April 1, 1852. The grantee had been Hus Ke Ah Hock Tuk, and the price was 50 cents per acre, totaling $79.84 for the 159.69 acres.
A very interesting aspect of the above purchase is that this land was situated just north of the 16th section on which the Russ Place was located (later called Sea Song Plantation and now Buccaneer Park). A second listing, in Tract Book 2, apparently for the same parcel, gives a date of October 27, 1854. On the same page is listed Section 16, but with no entries as to ownership, perhaps because it could only be leased, not sold. It would seem that Asa Russ was adding to the property that he had already acquired, or was soon to acquire, by lease.
Several of the other assignments were for land in what are now Clermont Harbor and the western extreme of Waveland. Others were for parcels in the Pearl River area, above Napoleon, and in the northern part of the county.
An open question is why the Choctaw grantees assigned away the rights to their lands. Besides the indication that only Asa paid anything, Simon Favre, in his will, mentions land “given” to him by the Indians. Some possible answers may be found in a study done by Angie Debo. She indicates that in 1845, a delegation including chief Nitakechi was sent from their new home in the west, back in Mississippi, “to induce the remaining Choctaws to join their brethren in the West….The Choctaws were mainly an agricultural people. A few had been slave owners in Mississippi. Some of the leaders who had received special land grants under the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek sold these farms and purchased slaves with the proceeds.… A large number of Eastern Choctaws finally consented to emigrate, and the most important removals since 1833 took place during 1845-1847. It was reported that 3,824 joined their western kinsman at that time, and in the Fifties a few hundred more followed them to the new home.” (Choctaw Republic, by Angie Debo)
As noted above, a number of Choctaws remained, but lived in misery. Poor and starving, their plight in neighboring St. Tammany Parish is amply described in a book called Chahta Ima. Located just across the Pearl River from Hancock County, their story was told by the New Orleans poet-priest Adrien Rouquette, who ran the blockades across Lake Pontchartrain to bring food and medicine to some of the dying remnants of the once proud nation.
There is little hard evidence of mid-nineteenth century interaction between the Choctaws and the settlers of the lower Pearl River area. In all the letters of the Koch Family and those of the Andrew Jackson, Jr. family there is scarcely a mention of local Indians, although Koch did describe local Indians in his diary of 1831-36. The virtual absence suggests that the Choctaws were no longer populous in the area and had little
effect upon the lives of the settlers.
Few if any of the early census listings include Indians. Some are included, apparently for the first time, in 1870. (There is no extant 1860 census.) Ten families are identified in the 1870 as Indian; their names were Cparkutabat, Yarba, Taylor, Yakumintwand, Thomas, Yarber, Yarba, Bilbo, Favre, and Chafer. All are listed under Gainesville. Strangely, the 1880 census lists a few with similar names at Pearlington and Bay St. Louis, but none at Gainesville. With the exception of some stories handed down and some photos of Choctaws, there is indeed scant evidence that they ever existed in Hancock.
Some sources indicate that in the 1870s there were about 12 Indian families living in Devil’s Swamp and Bayou La Croix areas. They were attended by Father Henry Leduc and a small Catholic Church was built near the Choctaw graveyard.
According to a document that was apparently a report of Catholic missions in 1901, Bayou La Croix had a population of 156 whites, 47 Indians, and one Negro. But in 1903, a similar report gave the population as 159, with the notation, “….[T]he last Indian families have left my missions, so there are no more Indians now here around.” By 1904, the population had declined to 80, and no further break-down was given.
The cemetery is still used by Hancock residents, but the Church is now just a memory. Off to the side of the many traditional tombs and graves of non-Indians stands alone a simple but neat granite marker, reading “Choctaw Indian Burial Ground. Many members of the tribe buried behind this marker.”
Today, it is difficult to find a pure blooded Choctaw south of the reservation at Philadelphia, MS. There are many in Hancock County who have traceable amounts in their ancestry. Some are proud to discuss such lineage; others seem reluctant. It has been my personal experience that to hear one say that so-and-so is “on the roll” is to detect a bit of doubt, or envy, perhaps.
One who was proud was a man named Tub Favre. He lived in Bay St. Louis and happily took Marco and me to lunch one day. He was elderly, and had served in the army during WW II in intelligence. I think he had been one of the Choctaw code-talkers.
He asked Marco if he could intercede on behalf on the Choctaws at the reservation in connection with a road to be built. Marco had observed that Tub was honored among the elders at Philadelphia, and agreed to look into the matter. I was invited more as an observer, but did inquire whether his name could have been a diminutive of “tubbe,” a Choctaw suffix meaning chief or someone of high rank. He answered that it was not, that when he was born he was a big baby and his mother said, “What a big tub of lard!”
Unfortunately, Tub died not long afterward. We had hoped that he could have been the source of much information, but like so much with regard to Choctaw history, it is now lost.