- The time: the Winter of 1540-1541.
- The man: Don Hernando de Soto, Knight Commander of the Order of St. James of Compostela, Governor of Island of Cuba, Adelantado of Florida, Child of the Sun, Spanish Adventurer.
- The cause: God, glory, and gold.
- The place: Pontotoc Ridge, in what was to become the State of Mississippi some 276 years later.
- The host: The very warlike and much dreaded, Chickasaw (Chicasa) people.
- The problem: Pigs and women.
Here, Sotos expedition winters among the Chickasaw. Soto steals their homes and food. Unfortunately, Sotos pigs prove so popular with the cold and hungry Chickasaw that some midnight acquisition is attempted. Even more unfortunate, Soto has two of the would be Chickasaw hog thieves shot with crossbow bolts; a third is sent back to his Chief, but without his hands. Soto also demands of the Chickasaw two hundred women for use as carriers, or tamenes. According to the chroniclers of the expedition, the Spanish sought the young and least ugly women . . . for servants and for their foul uses and lewdness. (1)
What Soto received was a fiery attack. His camp was burned. He lost 11 Spaniards, 57 horses, over 400 pigs, and most of the weapons and clothes. A week later Soto was attacked again, but this time he was prepared. Sotos mounted lancers slaughtered many Chickasaw and drove them from the field of battle. Sotos wounded force then headed northwest and finally arrived at the Mississippi River. After much needed rest and boat building, the expedition finally crossed the Mississippi River into present day Arkansas. (2)
During the early 1700s, the Chickasaw entered into an alliance with the Cherokee and, together, they drove the Shawnee from the Tennessee and Cumberland River basins in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Shawnee had an inclination to settle on the lower Cumberland River. They were forced northward beyond the Ohio River. Afterward, if the Chickasaw found the Shawnee upon Chickasaw land, the Shawnee would be eliminated. (3), (4)
Of course, there were the French. In 1716, they built Fort Rosalie 250 miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi. Fort Rosalie was built beside the villages of the Natchez Indians. The French allied with the Choctaw. The Natchez were old friends with the Chickasaw, and the Chickasaw liked the British better than they did the French. The French set the Choctaw against the Chickasaw, and, in time, the Chickasaw encouraged the Natchez to attack the French. On 28 November 1729, the Natchez massacred the people of Fort Rosalie. Soon after, a French-Choctaw force retaliated and destroyed the Natchez people. Many Natchez were killed; some were enslaved and sent to the West Indies. Those Natchez that could, fled and joined the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw; some later joined the Cherokee. The Natchez Nation was extinguished, but Natchez bloodlines no doubt still exist within their host neighbors.
In 1733, Frenchman Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, decided to move against the Chickasaw. He ordered Pierre dArtaguiette, Commandant of Illinois, to move southward with his French troops, while Bienville himself moved northward from the Gulf to join the Choctaw, so all of them could attack the Chickasaw. DArtaguiette, however, arrived two days ahead of Bienville. On 24 March, the Chickasaw massacred this French force at Pontotoc Ridge. On 26 March, the Chickasaw met and defeated Bienvilles force. Beinville retreated to Mobile. In 1739, Bienville and the Chickasaw reached an accord where the French could move unmolested upon the Mississippi River, and the Chickasaw would control all their land.
This French defeat was more significant than it first appears. The French influence in the Mississippi area greatly diminished. Because of the good relationship between the Chickasaw and British, the influence of the British increased. The Chickasaw are known to have been in the English interest from the beginning . . . (5)
About 1765 the Chickasaws, who had begun to build villages along Big Bear Creek, moved into the country and made a settlement in the great bend of the Tennessee south of Huntsville of today. The Cherokee resented the intrusion and promptly went to war with their former allies; but this brave people of whom it has been said that war was their very way of life could not stand before the imperious Chickasaw who had never known a defeat. In a decisive battle of 1769 the newcomers won a victory, but at such a dear price that they decided to abandon their settlement but not their claim to the country. The Cherokees never relinquished their claim. So eloquently did each nation plead the validity of its rights to this area in the numerous meetings with the United States commissioners that the government recognized the tribal claim of each to the land on both sides of the Tennessee east of Bear Creek.(6),
Same battle, different source:
These continued successes of the Cherokee made them quarrelsome, arrogant and incautious. They took offence at the Chickasaws, with whom they had confeierated in the expulsion of the Shawnees, and in prosecution of a hostile invasion of their country, had advanced as far as the Chickasaw Old Fields. The inoffensive but brave owners of the country, there met the invaders with great spirit. A terrible conflict ensued. The Cherokees were defeated, and withdrew by the way of the Cumberland river and the Cany [Caney] Fork, to their own villages. This signal overthrow of the flower of the Cherokee nation, took place about 1769-the period when the first white settlement was being formed on Watauga, and, doubtless, contributed much to the pacific demeanour manifested for some years by the neighbouring Indians to that infant, feeble and secluded community. The favourable moment was lost, when the young Hercules might have been strangled in his cradle, by a slight exertion of the usual vigilance and enterprise of the Indian sachem and warrior. A germ of the Anglo-American family was permitted to take root and to grow for a time, unmolested by Cherokee opposition, and unrestrained by savage wariness and caution.(7)
(Also see our map of Giles County Tennessee, Madison County Mississippi Territory, 1805-1817. This map shows Big Bear Creek, Chickasaw Old Fields, and the later Doublehead Reserve. Doublehead was Cherokee.)
There is a legend of a fierce battle that occurred in 1790 in that dark and bloody ground, Western Kentucke. A large, successful Chickasaw hunting party was attacked by a member tribe of the Illini Confederacy, the warlike Kaskaskias. It seems the Kaskaskias had determined to plunder the Chickasaw camp. The attack failed, and the defeated Kaskaskias fled across the Ohio River. While the whole of the story is best told elsewhere, it does demonstrate two points. First, the claims of tribes overlapped; and, second, war was required to hold those claims. (8)
While the Chickasaw might have held their own against their enemies -- the Spanish, French, Shawnee, Cherokee, Choctaw and Kaskaskias -- it was their friends, the Anglo-Americans, who proved to be their undoing. It is often written that the Chickasaw never shed a drop of an Americans blood -- the truth of that will be left for the reader to determine -- but the relationship of the Chickasaw and the Anglo-American was generally excellent.
It was the Anglo-American settler who pressured and pushed to obtain all the Indian land in Tennessee. That push started before Tennessee became a state in 1796 and continued until 1836, when the Cherokee signed the infamous Treaty of Removal. The United States government treated the various Indian Nations as separate sovereign nations. In 1806, the United States Congress allowed Tennessee to open for settlement certain lands where Indian claims had been extinguished. Tennessee then created the first of her Surveyors Districts: the District would subdivide the land for distribution to the settlers. County erection soon followed legal settlement. A portion of the land opened in 1806 was from the Chickasaw Cession of 1805. More Chickasaw land was ceded later. At first, the U. S. government protected Chickasaw claims, but, by 1820, the government took little action to keep white settlers off Chickasaw land.
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