Chickasaws and the American Revolution

This post is a part of our “Native American Revolutions” Series.

By Kathleen DuVal

British officials knew they would need Native allies in the American Revolution, and they assumed the Chickasaws would be first in line. The British and Chickasaws had fought side by side against the French and the Choctaws for most of the eighteenth century, and they had been important trading partners for just as long. By the time of the Revolution, British officials saw the Chickasaws as “generous friends . . . whom neither dangers could startle nor promises seduce from our interest.”[1] But the British assumed a lot of things that turned out not to be true.

The wars of the early eighteenth century had been hard on the Chickasaws. They had been wildly successful slave raiders in the early part of the century, inspiring a reputation among neighboring Indians as “the most military people of any about the great river” (the Mississippi).[2] After the market for Indian slaves declined following the Yamasee War, the Chickasaws continued to fight major wars against the French, Choctaws, Quapaws, Catawbas, Cherokees, Creeks, and Illinois peoples. The Chickasaws won or at least held their own in all of these wars, and they defeated the French in multiple engagements, but their victories came with high costs. At the start of the eighteenth century, the Chickasaw population of approximately five thousand had lived in small towns spread across their homeland, but warfare killed many and drove others to flee. The around 1,600 Chickasaws who remained in Chickasaw country by mid-century clustered together in one large fortified town.[3]

Beginning in the late 1750s, the Chickasaws chose a different path. The opportunity came when the French lost the Seven Years’ War. In defeat, France surrendered all of its land claims east of the Mississippi River to the British and gave New Orleans and its posts west of the Mississippi to Spain. With their primary European adversary gone, the Chickasaws seized the opportunity to start over, making peace with their Native enemies and establishing fruitful relations with the Spanish newcomers.

Good relations with the Choctaws and Spanish threatened the British perception of the Chickasaws as a staunch British ally. But Chickasaw leaders assured the British that peace in the region was good for everyone. As Chief Diplomat Payamataha put it in 1765, “it is well known I never deserted the British interest, and I never will.”[4] The Chickasaws were good enough diplomats that the British might never have truly recognized the deep change in their old ally if a Revolution had not broken out in North America.

British officials expected the Chickasaws to help put down the rebellion. According to British military plans, the Chickasaws were to guard the Mississippi River from attack by rebels on the Ohio River, while a “general confederacy” of Chickasaws, Choctaws, Quapaws, Cherokees, and Creeks was to be at the ready “to act as shall be judged best for His Majesty’s Service.”[5] When the Chickasaws did nothing to stop James Willing from leading a semi-official American expedition down the Mississippi to seize British western posts, British officials began to get the picture. British Deputy Superintendent Alexander Cameron puzzled that the Chickasaws “did not seem to approve of taking any active part in the war.”[6]

In staying out of the fighting, the Chickasaws went against not only the British but also Indians who wanted to seize the opportunity of the Revolution to strike a blow against aggressive British colonists. Repeatedly, delegations came from the Ohio Valley to recruit the Chickasaws in a Nativist effort against settlers, but the Chickasaws declined. Settlers had not yet reached their lands, and the threats other Indians described seemed to have little to do with them.

If the American side thought Chickasaw reluctance to fight for the British meant they might ally with them, they soon learned their mistake. In May 1779, Virginians proposed alliance with the Chickasaws and threatened violence against them if they refused. The Chickasaws gave them a history lesson. Referring to the new American-French alliance, they declared themselves “very much surprised that you would cry for assistance” from the French, who in the previous war “would roast you and even eat you.” The Chickasaws condemned the rebellion and insisted that, if the rebels were “desirous of being brothers with us you must bury the hatchet you lifted against our Great Father and take it up against the French.”[7]

When British forces finally opened a southern front in late 1778 and the Spanish invaded British territory from the west in 1779, the Chickasaws could no longer hide the fact that they would not fight for the British. In September 1779, British General John Campbell sent word that the Chickasaws and Choctaws were “to march where ordered.”[8] Instead, a Chickasaw delegation traveled to Spanish New Orleans to solidify their alliance with Spain. Fighting Britain’s battles was not in Chickasaw interest; cultivating peace and trade with multiple empires and Native nations was. When the Spanish successfully attacked British Mobile and Pensacola, the Chickasaws stayed home. Their only major military engagement in the war was driving off a force led by George Rogers Clark that tried to establish an American fort on Chickasaw land.

If all of the Indians whom British officials assumed to be their allies had fought on their side, the war might have turned out differently. However, the Chickasaws felt no more bound by British loyalty than certain British colonists did, and of course the Chickasaws had less reason to follow the orders of an empire not their own.

The American Revolution brought wartime shortages and diplomatic challenges, but in general the era was a time of peace for the Chickasaws. Those who had lived in the fortified town were able to leave the fort’s protection and spread back over Chickasaw country in smaller towns and farms. Chickasaw refugees returned home, returning the population to over three thousand and rising by 1790.[9] They could allow their horses and children to roam outside their towns without fearing they would be carried off in an enemy raid. Hunters ranged far, sharing hunting grounds with former enemies to the south and west. As Chickasaw leaders put it, “we increase and live in peace and plenty.”[10]

—–

Kathleen DuVal is Bowman and Gordon Gray Professor in the History Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (Random House, 2015) and The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) and the co-editor of Interpreting a Continent: Voices from Colonial America (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). She has published in the New York Times, Wall Street JournalWilliam and Mary Quarterly, and the Journal of the Early Republic.

Title image: Detail of a map by Thomas Kitchin of the Southern colonies shortly after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War and on the eve of Revolution.

Endnotes:

[1] Report of the Congress at Mobile, March 26, 1765, Mississippi Provincial Archives: English Dominion, ed. Dunbar Rowland (Nashville, 1911), 219.

[2] Thomas Nairne, Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals: The 1708 Expedition to the Mississippi River, ed. Alexander Moore (Jackson, 1988), 38, 47.

[3] Wendy Cegielski and Brad R. Lieb, “Hina’ Falaa, ‘The Long Path’: An analysis of Chickasaw Settlement Using GIS in Northeast Mississippi, 1650-1840,” Native South 4 (2011): 33-5, 40-2; Peter H. Wood, “Changing Population of the Colonial South: An Overview by Race and Region, 1685-1790,” in Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast, ed. Peter H. Wood, Gregory A. Waselkov, and M. Thomas Hatley, 2nd ed. (Lincoln, 2006), 93-5.

[4] Report of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Congress at Mobile, April 2, 1765, March 26, 1765, Mississippi Provincial Archives: English Dominion, 243-7.

[5] John Stuart to William Howe, March 18, 1777, frame 609, reel 7, Records of the British Colonial Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[6] Alexander Cameron to George Germain, Aug. 1780, frame 589, reel 8, Records of the British Colonial Office.

[7] Chickasaw Talk to the Rebels, May 22, 1779, frames 41-2, reel 65, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, M247, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.

[8] James Campbell to Charles Stuart, Sept. 9, 1779, Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester Papers, British National Archives, Kew, England.

[9] Cegielski and Lieb, “Hina’ Falaa,” 33-5, 42; Wood, “Changing Population of the Colonial South,” 95.

[10] Chickasaw Talk to the Rebels, May 22, 1779, frames 41-2, reel 65, Papers of the Continental Congress.

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