Pushmataha – Tribal Chief (Push-ma-ta-ha)
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This individual was a distinguished warrior of the Choctaw nation, and a fair specimen of the talents and propensities of the modern Indian. It will have been noticed, by those who have paid attention to Indian history, that the savage character is always seen in a modified aspect, among those of the tribes who reside in juxtaposition with the whites. We are not prepared to say that it is either elevated, or softened, by this relation; but it is certainly changed. The strong hereditary bias of the wild and untamed rover of the forest, remains in prominent development, while some of the arts, and many of the vices of the civilized man, are engrafted upon them. The Choctaws have had their principal residence in that part of the country east of the Mississippi river, which now forms the State of Mississippi, and have had intercourse with the European race, from the time of the discovery of that region by the French, nearly two centuries ago. In 1820, that tribe was sup posed to consist of a population of twenty-five thousand souls. They have always maintained friendly relations with the American people, and have permitted our missionaries to reside among them; some of them have addicted themselves to agriculture, and a few of their females have intermarried with the white traders.
Pushmataha was born about the year 1764, and at the age of twenty was a captain, or a war chief, and a great hunter. In the latter occupation, he often passed to the western side of the Mississippi, to hunt the buffalo, upon the wide plains lying towards our southern frontier. On one occasion, while hunting on the Red river, with a party of Choctaws, he was attacked by a number of Indians of a tribe called the Callageheahs, near the Spanish line, and totally defeated. He made his own escape, alone, to a Spanish settlement, where he arrived nearly starved; having, while on the way, given a little horse, that he found grazing on the plains, for a single fish. He remained with the Spaniards five years, employing himself as a hunter, brooding over the plans of vengeance which he afterwards executed, and probably collecting the information necessary to the success of his scheme. Wandering back to the Choctaw country, alone, he came by stealth, in the night, to a little village of the enemies by whom he had been defeated, suddenly rushed in upon them, killed seven of the inhabitants, and set fire to the lodges, which were entirely consumed before the surviving occupants recovered from their alarm.
After this feat, he remained in his own nation about six years, increasing his reputation as a hunter, and engaging occasionally in the affairs of his tribe. He then raised a party of his own friends, and led them to seek a further revenge for the defeat which still rankled in his bosom. Again he surprised one of their towns upon Red river, and killed two or three of their warriors without any loss on his own side. But engaging in an extensive hunt, his absence from home was protracted to the term of eight months. Resting from this expedition but ten days, he prevailed on another party of Choctaw warriors to follow his adventurous steps in a new enterprise against the same enemy, and was again victorious, bringing home six or seven of the scalps of his foes, without losing a man. On this occasion, he was absent seven or eight months. In one year afterwards, he raised a new party, led them against the foe whom he had so often stricken, and was once more successful.
Some time before the war of 1812, a party of Creek Indians, who had been engaged in a hunting expedition, came to the Choctaw country, and burned the house of Pushmataha, who was in the neighborhood intently occupied in playing ball, a game at which he was very expert. He was too great a man to submit to such an injury, and, as usual, immediate retaliation ensued. He led a party of Choctaws into the Creek country, killed several of that nation, and committed as great destruction of their property as was practicable in his rapid march; and he continued from time to time, until the breaking out of the war between the United States and Great Britain, to prosecute the hostilities growing out of this feud with relentless vigor; assailing the Creeks frequently with small parties, by surprise, and committing indiscriminate devastation upon the property or people of that tribe. Such are the quarrels of great men; and such have been the border wars of rude nations from the earliest times.
In the war that succeeded, he was always the first to lead a party against the British or their Indian allies; and he did much injury to the Creeks and Seminoles, during that contest. His military prowess and success gained for him the honorary title which he seems to have well deserved; and he was usually called General Pushmataha.
This chief was not descended from any distinguished family, but was raised to command, when a young man, in consequence of his talents and prowess. He was always poor, and when not engaged in war, followed the chase with ardor and success. He was brave and generous; kind to those who were necessitous, and hospitable to the stranger. The eagerness with which he sought to revenge himself upon his enemies, affords no evidence of ferocity of character; but is in strict conformity with the Indian code of honor, which sanctions such deeds as nobly meritorious.
It is curious to observe the singular mixture of great and mean qualities in the character of a barbarous people. The same man who is distinguished in war, and in the council, is often the subject of anecdotes which reflect little credit on his character in private life. We shall repeat the few incidents which have reached us, in the public and private history of Pushmataha.
He attended a council held in 1823, near the residence of Major Pitchlynn, a wealthy trader among the Choctaws, and at a distance of eighty miles from his own habitation. The business was closed on the third of July, and on the following day, the anniversary of our independence, a dinner was given by Major Pitchlynn, to Colonel Ward, the agent of the government of the United States, and the principal chiefs who were present. When the guests were about to depart, it was observed that General Pushmataha had no horse; and as he was getting to be too old to prosecute so long a journey on foot, the government agent suggested to Mr. Pitchlynn, the propriety of presenting him a horse. This was readily agreed to, on the condition that the chief would promise not to exchange the horse for whisky; and the old warrior, mounted upon a fine young animal, went upon his way rejoicing. It was not long before he visited the Agency on foot, and it was discovered that he had lost his horse in betting at ball-play. “But did you not promise Mr. Pitchlynn,” said the agent, “that you would not sell his horse?” “I did so, in the presence of yourself and many others,” replied the chief, “but I did not promise that I would not risk the horse on a game of ball.”
It is said that, during the late war, General Pushmataha, having joined our southern army with some of his warriors, was arrested by the commanding general for striking a soldier with his sword. When asked by the commander, why he had committed this act of violence, he replied that the soldier had been rude to his wife, and that he had only given him a blow or two with the side of the sword, to teach him better manners “but if it had been you, general, instead of a private soldier,” continued he, “I should have used the sharp edge of my sword, in defense of my wife, who has come so far to visit a great warrior like myself.”
At a time when a guard of eight or ten men was kept at the Agency, one of the soldiers having become intoxicated, was ordered to be confined; and as there was no guard-house, the temporary arrest was effected by tying the offender. Pushmataha seeing the man in this situation, inquired the cause, and on being informed, exclaimed, “is that all?” and immediately untied the unfortunate soldier, remarking coolly, “many good warriors get drunk.”
At a meeting of business at the Agency, at which several American gentlemen, and some of the chief men of the Choctaw nation were present, the conversation turned upon the Indian . custom of marrying a plurality of wives. Pushmataha remarked that he had two wives, and intended to have always the same number. Being asked if he did not think the practice wrong, the chief replied, “No; is it not right that every woman should be married? and how can that be, when there are more women than men, unless some men marry more than one ? When our Great Father the President, caused the Indians to be counted last year, it was found that the women were most numerous, and if one man could have but one wife, some women would have no husbands.”
In 1824, this chief was at the city of Washington, as one of a deputation sent to visit the President, for the purpose of brightening the chain of friendship between the American people and the Choctaws, The venerable Lafayette, then upon his memorable and triumphal tour through the United States, was at the same metropolis, and the Choctaw chiefs came to pay him their respects. Several of them made speeches, and among the rest, Pushmataha addressed him in these words : ” Nearly fifty snows have melted since you drew the sword as a companion of Washington. With him you fought the enemies of America. You mingled your blood with that of the enemy, and proved yourself a warrior. After you finished that war, you returned to your own country; and now you are come back to visit a land, where you are honored by a numerous and powerful people. You see every where the children of those by whose side you went to battle, crowding around you, and shaking your hand, as the hand of a father. We have heard these things told in our distant villages, and our hearts longed to see you. We have come, we have taken you by the hand, and are satisfied. This is the first time we have seen you; it will probably be the last. We have no more to say. The earth will part us for ever.”
The old warrior pronounced these words with an affected solemnity of voice and manner. He seemed to feel a presentiment of the brevity of his own life. The concluding remark of his speech was prophetic. In a few days, he was no more. He was taken sick at Washington, and died in a strange land. When he found that his end was approaching, he called his companions around him, and desired them to raise him. up, to bring his arms, and to decorate him with all his ornaments, that his death might be that of a man. He was particularly anxious that his interment should be accompanied with military honors, and when a promise was kindly given that his wishes should be fulfilled, he became cheerful, and conversed with composure until the moment when he expired without a groan. In conversation with his Indian friends, shortly before his death, he said, “I shall die, but you will return to our brethren. As you go along the paths, you will see the flowers, and hear the birds sing, but Pushmataha will see them and hear them no more. When you shall come to your home, they will ask you, Where is Pushmataha? and you will say to them, He is no more. They will hear the tidings like the sound of the fall of a mighty oak in the stillness of the woods.”
The only speech made by Pushmataha, on the occasion of his visit to Washington, was the following. It was intended by him to be an opening address, which, had he lived, he would doubtless have followed by another more like himself. We took it down as he spoke it. The person addressed was the Secretary of War.
“Father I have been here some time. I have not talked have been sick. You shall hear me talk to-day. I belong to another district. You have no doubt heard of me / am Pushmataha
“Father When in my own country, I often looked towards this Council House, and wanted to come here. I am in trouble. I will tell my distresses. I feel like a small child, not half as high as its father, who comes up to look in his father’s face, hanging in the bend of his arm, to tell him his troubles. So, Father, I hang in the bend of your arm, and look in your face, and now hear me speak.
“Father When I was in my own country, I heard there were men appointed to talk to us. I would not speak there; I chose to come here, and speak in this beloved house. I can boast, and say, and tell the truth that none of my fathers, or grandfathers, nor any Choctaw ever drew bows against the United States. They have always been friendly. We have held the hands of the United States so long, that our nails are long like birds’ claws; and there is no danger of their slipping out.
“Father I have come to speak. My nation has always listened to the applications of the white people. They have given of their country till it is very small. I repeat the same about the land east of the Tombigby. I came here when a young man to see my Father Jefferson. He told me if ever we got in trouble, we must run and tell him. I am come. This is a friendly talk; it is like a man who meets another, and says, How do you do? Another will talk further.”
The celebrated John Randolph, in a speech upon the floor of the Senate, alluded thus to the forest chieftain, whose brief memoirs we have attempted to sketch: “Sir, in a late visit to the public grave-yard, my attention was arrested by the simple monument of the Choctaw Chief Pushmataha. He was, I have been told by those who knew him, one of nature’s nobility; a man who would have adorned any society. He lies quietly by the side of our statesmen and high magistrates in the region for there is one such where the red man and the white man are on a level. On the sides of the plain shaft that marks his place of burial, I read these words: ‘Pushmataha, a Choctaw Chief, lies here. This monument to his memory is erected by his brother chiefs, who were associated with him in a delegation from their nation, in the year 1824, to the government of the United States. Pushmataha was a warrior of great distinction. He was wise in council, eloquent in an extra ordinary degree; and on all occasions, and under all circumstances, the white man’s friend. He died in Washington, on the 24th of December, 1824, of the croup, in the 60th year of his age‘ ‘ Among his last words were the following: “When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me.”
This chief had five children. His oldest son died at the age of twenty-one, after having completed an excellent English education. The others were young at the time of the decease of their father. A medal has been sent by the President to the oldest surviving son, as a testimony of respect for the memory of a warrior, whose attachment to our government was steady and unshaken, through out his life.
The day after the funeral of Pushmataha, the deputation visited the office in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The countenances of the chiefs wore a gloom which such a loss was well calculated to create. Over the face of one of the deputation, how ever, was a cloud darker than the rest, and the expression of his face told a tale of deeper sorrow. Ask that young man, said the officer in charge of the Bureau, what is the matter with him. The answer was, “I am sorry.” Ask him what makes him sorry. The loss, the answer was expected to be, of our beloved chief But no it was, “I am sorry it was not me.” Ask him to explain what he means by being sorry that it was not him. The ceremonies of the funeral, the reader will bear in mind, were very imposing. The old chief had said, “When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me;” and they were fired. Besides the discharge of minute guns on the Capitol Hill, and from the ground contiguous to the place of interment, there was an immense concourse of citizens, a long train of carriages, cavalry, military, bands of music, the whole procession extending at least a mile in length; and there were thou sands lining the ways, and filling the doors and windows, and then the military honors at the grave, combined to produce in this young chief’s mind a feeling of regret that he had not been, himself, the subject of these honors Hence his reply “I am sorry it was not me;” and so he explained himself.