The Living Hell of December 1831

A more truthful version [than the accounts from the Arkansas Gazette] of the Choctaws’ first journey down the Trail of Tears.

Due to unusually heavy fall rains, which made the primitive roads in Arkansas impassible, the government agents in charge of the Choctaw Removal decided to transport the Choctaws by steamboat up the Arkansas and Ouachita Rivers, instead of the original plan to use wagons:

To help set the stage for December 1831–

  • The steamboats Walter Scott and the Reindeer carrying about 2000 Choctaws left Vicksburg and were steaming up the Mississippi for Arkansas Post.
  • The steamboat Brandywine left Memphis bound for Arkansas Post.
  • The steamboats Talma and the Cleopatra carrying about 1000 Choctaws, went down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Red River, intent on finding the Ouachita River, then walking overland to Ecore A Fabre (Camden).
  • Three hundred Choctaws opted to travel by land and were ferried across the Mississippi to Lake Providence, La. It was an ill-fated decision.

The following is an excerpt from the article “The Choctaw Removal of 1831: A Civilian Effort” by Arthur H. DeRosier, and published in The Journal of the American West, April 1967:

“Scarcely had [the steamboats] started along the Mississippi when a severe winter storm began; there followed the worst blizzard ever recorded up to that time in Arkansas Territory.

Because of conflicting orders [to the agents], all the Choctaws on the Reindeer and the Walter Scott, plus the party from Memphis on the Brandywine, disembarked at Arkansas Post between November 30 and December 8.

Here most of the two thousand five hundred Choctaw huddled in open camps throughout the terrible storm, because only sixty tents had been brought from Vicksburg. Food was in very short supply. Captain Brown [government agent at Arkansas Post] was completely unprepared to care for such a large number at the small post, for the original instructions, as they were delivered to him, stated that the Choctaw would not disembark until they reached Little Rock.

Therefore nothing could be done to remedy the situation; and Choctaw men, women, and children suffered greatly during December 1831, and early January 1832. Especially sad were the plight of the aged, the infirm, and the children. There were few blankets,  shoes, or winter clothes available – the bulk having been sent to Fort Smith. Worst of all was the sickness and death that accompanied this living hell of December 1831.

Only forty government wagons were available to transport 2500 emigrants overland to the Kiamichi River three hundred fifty miles away. The roads between Arkansas Post and Little Rock needed major repairs after the storm, but despite this – and even though there were no funds to purchase supplies – Brown decided to proceed along an overland route.

During January and February 1832 the wagons moved westward. They left Arkansas Post of January 13 and slowly and torturously made their way to Little Rock by January 20, where they secured additional supplies and then continued west. Travel over the three hundred-fifty mile route was tedious – twelve to fifteen mile being a good day’s journey. Repairs to the roads and trails required much labor and additional suffering, for they were all obstructed by washouts, fallen timber, and wrecked bridges. To make matters worse, the rain poured almost every day for the entire month of February, making the roads a quagmire and nearly impassable.

In the midst of all this suffering, the Arkansas Gazette ironically reported to the American people that the Choctaw appeared to be cheerful, content, and well-supplied with food and clothing.”

 

Footnote:  Arthur DeRosier, Jr. was the former president of East Tennessee State University, the College of Idaho, and finally, Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. He authored several books, including The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (1970).  Born 1831 in Connecticut, he passed away on Nov 15 2007.

***Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

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