The Chickasaws, a small but courageous tribe with principal towns headed by local chiefs, were located in northern Mississippi and Alabama before European contact. These Muskogean-speaking Indians subsisted by a combination of hunting, gathering, gardening, fishing, and trading with neighboring tribes. An expansive people, the Chickasaws claimed an extensive hunting range that included all of West Tennessee and a portion of Middle Tennessee.
During the winter of 1540-41, Chickasaw warriors boldly resisted Hernando de Soto's effort to force them to assist him in his search for gold. When, by the close of the seventeenth century, European traders firmly established themselves among these Indians, mixed blood children of native women became important intercultural brokers for the tribe, setting the economic and social tone and serving as the principal spokespersons for the Chickasaws for over a century.
European traders engaged in the deerskin trade were the vanguard of troops and settlers. Competition among colonial powers for political and economic supremacy led to a long and bloody contest for control of the lower Mississippi Valley during which both the English and the French attempted to enlist the Chickasaws as allies.
The Chickasaws were not so immersed in the European wars of empire, however, as to neglect their own immediate interests. In 1715 and 1747, they combined forces with the Cherokees to expel the Shawnees from Middle Tennessee. And, in 1769, when the Cherokees challenged their eastward movement into Middle Tennessee, the Chickasaws soundly defeated their former allies.
Chickasaw-European contact accelerated rapidly after 1763, and the avenue to tribal leadership rapidly shifted from clan leaders known for their wisdom and/or bravery to mixed bloods like the Colbert family, the offspring of a Scottish father and his native wives, who were able to serve as intermediaries with Europeans. Out of deference to full bloods who made up three-fourths of the tribal population, mixed bloods preserved some components of the old order. Although full bloods sought to retain more of the traditional ways, the real power in Chickasaw politics increasingly resided with mixed bloods who emulated British planters and traders. While traditionalists viewed Europeans as disruptive forces, they too had become dependent on them and the mixed bloods for a variety of goods and services.
During the American Revolution, most Chickasaws sided with England. American inroads into tribal hunting grounds, especially the construction of Fort Jefferson and Fort Nashborough and the arrival of settlers along the Cumberland River, were viewed as acts of aggression.
British withdrawal from the lower Mississippi Valley after the war left the Chickasaws in a precarious position. Tribes in the Old Northwest threatened war. Surveyors from the Cumberland settlements were in the tribal hunting territory, and Virginians were demanding a land cession. Nevertheless, the competitive struggle between Spain and the United States for control of the lower Mississippi Valley after 1783 provided opportunities for the Chickasaws to secure favorable attention and treatment from both powers. In 1786 American officials formally recognized Chickasaw land claims in Tennessee and sent trade goods and weapons for distribution at the Lower Chickasaw Bluffs on the Mississippi River (present-day Memphis area) as part of their strategy to curb Spanish influence. Six years later, in 1792, William Blount secured a treaty of peace and friendship with the Chickasaws.
This treaty proved very costly to the tribe, however. The Spanish-supported Creeks retaliated by raiding Chickasaw villages and ambushing their hunters along trails leading to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The Chickasaws served as a barrier between the Cumberland settlements and hostile tribes. By the end of 1795, the Creeks finally sued for peace with the Chickasaws when, thanks in large measure to the Pinckney Treaty with Spain, the United States won the contest for the control of the lower Mississippi Valley.
As economic distress in the East drew attention to western lands, the United States established a trading house near Fort Pickering on the Lower Chickasaw Bluffs in 1802. American officials encouraged Chickasaws to buy goods on credit so as to establish individual debts that might later be paid off by the sale of tribal lands. Negotiations with mixed bloods who controlled tribal affairs paved the way for land cessions. In treaties negotiated in 1805, 1816, and 1818, General Andrew Jackson and other treaty commissioners used threats, economic coercion, and bribery to acquire nearly 20 million acres of land in Tennessee from the Chickasaws and open vital lines of communication through areas lying within the tribal domain.
Chickasaws continued to frequent the lower bluffs to trade for goods for more than ten years after the Jackson Purchase Treaty of 1818 extinguished all remaining tribal land claims in Tennessee. Their hunting grounds had been so drastically reduced that many men found it necessary to pursue small game traditionally left for children. Some hunters, in violation of the 1818 treaty, traveled as far north as present-day Weakley County in search of game to use in bartering with traders in Memphis.
Jackson's elevation to the presidency foreshadowed the removal of the Chickasaws to the West. Following passage of his administration's Indian Removal Bill in 1830, Jackson met with tribal leaders in Tennessee and secured a provisional removal agreement. The Chickasaws postponed their removal until 1837. In the meantime, they made a determined effort to regain control of the Lower Chickasaw Bluffs from Tennessee by claiming that the southern border of the state had been incorrectly surveyed. Continuing pressure from white settlers, speculators, and federal as well as state officials, however, finally forced tribal leaders to capitulate.
Chickasaw removal to the West, which began in the summer of 1837, brought great misery and suffering to the tribe, largely as a result of the poor planning of American officials and the callousness of the businessmen who provided them with food and supplies en route. By early 1838 most of the tribe had moved across the Mississippi River. Today, more than a century and a half later, a government elected by the Chickasaws helps provide for the general welfare of the tribe on their reservation in Oklahoma where, out of a total tribal enrollment of some 36,000, about 12,369 live. In 1990 only 82 people claiming Chickasaw ancestry lived in Tennessee. (1)
David Baird, The Chickasaw People (1974); Arrell M. Gibson, The Chickasaws (1971); Charles M. Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (1976); Ronald N. Satz, Tennessees Indian Peoples (1979) and American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (1975)