Sunday, August 16, 2015

Power Shopping

Anticipating an official inquiry into the mounting expenses of Chickasaw removal, which despite that nation's small size would eventually exceed one million dollars, federal agent A.M. Upshaw sought to deflect blame from himself and his contractors. In an 1838 letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Carey Harris, Upshaw argued that his cost overruns originated with the demands of the Chickasaws, whom the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832) authorized to pay for and supervise their own emigration. Chickasaw leaders wanted to assemble emigrants at Memphis and take them to Indian Territory by water, which obliged Upshaw both to hire steamboats and pay demurrage fees while they awaited their passengers. Then, after a steamboat accident killed 300 Creek emigrants and alarmed their Chickasaw counterparts, many of the latter decided to move by land, a slower and more expensive process.

Overland travel proved costly because, Upshaw noted, the Chickasaws brought a huge quantity of baggage. Many families brought at least one wagonload (half a ton or more), some took three or four fully loaded wagons, and one had eight of them. The first few emigrant parties also brought 7,000 horses and ponies, packed high with luggage, “and [Indians] can pack more on a horse than any other people I ever saw.” Individual heads of household spent up to $1,000 on merchandise before Removal. "In fact, sir” (Upshaw wrote) “I saw two women purchase seven hundred dollars' worth of goods in the course of two hours.” This was the modern equivalent of somewhere between $4,000 and $8,500 per hour.

This might sound like prudent, if frantic, preparation for an arduous journey, except that little of what the Chickasaws bought was food. They planned to draw government rations during their emigration, or hunt for their meals en route. According to another official, the Chickasaws had instead loaded their horses and wagons with “many heavy articles of comfort as well as convenience.” None of the Removal agents recorded Chickasaw men and women's precise purchases, but based on the goods they bought at their trading factory two decades earlier, and based on the records of an Alabama merchant who traded with Chickasaw customers in the late '30s, Your Humble Narrator suspects their Removal inventory included plaid and calico cloth, finished clothing, hardware, ammunition, furniture, and scarce consumables like coffee, sugar, and whiskey.

The money for this spree almost certainly came from the sale of the Chickasaws' land reserves, which federal commissioners and Chickasaw leaders had recently allotted to each adult member of the nation. Under the treaties of Pontotoc and Washington (1834), each man and woman received one square mile of land in the old Chickasaw nation; each head of household received three additional square-mile tracts, or four if he owned slaves; and bonus sections went to a dozen or so national leaders. The treaties authorized the emigrants to sell their reserves on the open market, at a minimum price of $800 per square mile. Despite price-fixing efforts by white land speculators, who formed semi-monopolistic land companies, many sellers cleared more than the minimum price for their land; some, generally biracial Chickasaws with large improvements, sold their reserves for several thousand dollars. The proceeds went to buy wagons, horses – though the Chickasaws already had large herds of them before Removal – the aforementioned “articles of comfort [and] convenience,” and, more opprobriously, African-American slaves, several hundred of whom accompanied the first emigrants westward.

In one sense, Removal presented the Chickasaws with a terrible loss: their homes and their familiar country, with all the memories and collective history embedded in its features.* In another sense, the Chickasaws did not so much lose their land as transmute it, under duress to be sure, into different forms: slave laborers, transport, a surplus of the manufactured goods on which they had come to rely, and, from the remaining portion of their old homeland that the U.S. government sold, funds to purchase a new homeland in the west and sustain the emigrants for their first few years there.

One final point: the Chickasaws' heavy pre-Removal investment in consumer goods, hardware, livestock, and slaves certainly helps explain their initial decision to settle among the Choctaws in southeastern Oklahoma rather than on their national reserve in the south-central part of that territory. The new Chickasaw national domain fronted the Texas borderlands and Comancheria, and the Indian inhabitants of both regions periodically plundered their neighbors' horses, cattle, and possessions, and captured (or offered refuge to) runaway slaves. Moving to that domain would put the Chickasaws' property, whose cost had been so high, at risk. In 1841, the U.S. Army established a post at Fort Washita to guard the Chickasaw-Texas frontier, and within a couple of years many of the Chickasaws were moving to their new homeland to establish farms and rebuild their old lives.


1 Aug. 1838, Upshaw to Harris, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, NARA Microfilm M-234, Reel 143: 692-94; J.A. Phillips to Harris, 4 May 1838, ibid, 143: 614; List of Goods Wanted for the Indian Trade for the Years 1816-17, Miscellaneous Accounts of the Chickasaw Bluffs Factory, Records of the Office of Indian Trade (National Archives Records Group 75, Washington, DC), Entry 39, Folder 5; John Allen to Thomas McKenney, 7 Feb. 1830, Letters Received, M-234, 136: 17-18; Account Book of William Otey, Folder 64, Wyche-Otey Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina; Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013), 39-44; Dan G. [last name illegible] to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 12 Dec. 1841, ibid, 144: 193-194; Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1838, 510-511; Arrell Gibson, The Chickasaws (Norman, OK, 1971).

* Not to mention the five hundred men and women who lost their lives to a smallpox outbreak in Arkansas as they moved to Indian Territory in 1838.

Above image of Tishomingo from

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