Chief Pushmataha: Have Faith In Who You Are

~~A Timeless Lesson from Pushmataha~~

Chief Pushmataha gives us a timeless lesson to all of us in how to avoid the trap of letting others define who you are. You might think of the story as “the time when Pushmataha got the best of Andrew Jackson.”

I’m inclined to think there might have been more than one story if Pushmataha had lived as long as Jackson. Even though Jackson had little regard for Indians except as military force, Pushmataha did not turn away in anger. But neither did he give Jackson the power to make him less than he was. Jackson, in his opinion, was just another horse trader who would tell you that you do not have eyes to see the value of his wares.

An account of the legendary encounter between Pushmataha and General Jackson was expertly told by Ruth Tenison West in 1959 for The Chronicles of Oklahoma.

~~~Pushmataha’s Travels~~~

The Great Medal Chief, Pushmataha, dramatically demonstrated his knowledge of the land west of the Mississippi River, in his famous debate with General Andrew Jackson at the treaty ground near Doak’s Stand, Mississippi, a tavern, four miles north of Pearl River on the Natchez Trace, in the Choctaw Nation.

[Dunbar, Rowland, History of Mississippi, Heart of the South, Vol. I, pp. 98-101.]

He accused General Jackson of misrepresenting the country the U. S. Government wanted to “swap for a little slip of land at the lower part of the present Choctaw Nation.” (5,500,000 acres, subsequently divided into nine counties.) Jackson demanded that “General Push” prove his accusations.

Pushmataha described the western country and added: “He has offered to swap to me an undefined portion of Mexican territory. He offers to run the line up the Canadian River to its source and thence due south to Red River. Now I know that a line running due south from the source of the Canadian would never touch any portion of Red River, but would go into the Mexican possessions beyond the limits even of my geographic knowledge.”early map of indian territory

This was an amazing statement when one recalls that several streams from the Taos and Culebra ranges of the Rocky Mountains join in northeastern New Mexico to form the Canadian River which flows south then east across the Panhandle of Texas into Oklahoma, and that the Canadian is 900 miles long. Mexico did not win her freedom until the following year, 1821, and Spain jealously prohibited all foreign travel toward her prized trading posts at Santa Fe and Taos, near the head waters of the Canadian, as evidenced by the arrest for trespass of Zebulon Pike in 1807.

On July 12, 1820, John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, had written Gen. Jackson: “I cannot designate particular lands which it would be desirable to give to the Choctaws in exchange for theirs, not being sufficient acquainted with the localities of the West of the Mississippi belonging to the United States.”

[American State Papers, “Indian Affairs,” Vol. II, p. 232.]

Historian Gideon Lincecum records that General Jackson produced a map, and traced out and read the names of the rivers for Pushmataha. The Chief said, “The paper is not true,” and with the handle of his pipe hatchet he marked out on the ground the Canadian and the upper branches of the Red River.

[Dr. Gideon Lincecum, “Life of Apushimataha,” Mississippi Historical Publ., 1906, Vol. IX, p. 471.]

Major John Pitchlynn, who had served as U. S. Interpreter since 1786, had naturally been expected to use his influence to secure the land cession. For several months he had been busy following Jackson’s instructions, trying to influence the head men.

NOTE: Major John Pitchlynn, son of Isaac Pitchlynn, a Scotchman and an officer in the English army, came to live among the Choctaws about 1774, and soon won their esteem and respect. He was present with the Choctaw chiefs when making the Treaty of Hopewell in 1786, and was appointed by the U.S. government as Choctaw interpreter, a position he held in the tribe for many years. He had an expansive plantation home at Waverly, Lowndes (now Clay) County, Mississippi.

Jackson offered to “make it worth his while” if James Pitchlynn, the Major’s eldest son, would circulate through the Nation and persuade the Choctaws to give up their Mississippi lands and go west. James requested Jackson to “address yours to the Chickasaw Agency care of General Sherburne [Chickasaw Agent], to James Pitchlynn.”

Jackson’s reply was intercepted, opened, and an insulting endorsement added. The letter then travelled to David Folsom, to Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury (Presbyterian Missionary who had established the first Choctaw Mission in 1818), to Major John Pitchlynn, then back to Jackson. It created a scandal and feelings ran high in the Nation.

When Tecumseh had come to the Choctaws for help before the Creek War, following his great vision to organize all Indians west of the Alleghenies against the whites, Pushmataha had defeated him in a great contest of wills and oratory. Pushmataha had saved the isolated Tombigbee and Natchez settlements; Mobile called him their savior from Creek depredations.

Now a horde of land-hungry newcomers had surged into Mississippi after the war, all demanding Choctaw land. They neither knew, nor cared, about the great debt owed the Choctaws. On August 12, 1819, in General Council at French Camp, Choctaw Nation, Pushmataha had spoken for his people, “We are sorry we cannot comply.”

[American State Papers, “Indian Affairs,” Vol. II, p. 230.]

In 1820, to force the hand of the Choctaws, the Mississippi Legislature passed a highly controversial law abolishing all tribal rights and privileges of the Indians. Persons exercising the functions of chief were subject to prosecution. Citizenship was conferred to the Indians and State laws were extended over them.

[J.F.H. Claiborne, Mississippi as a Province, Territory & State, 1880.]

Claiborne states that Pushmataha and Moshulatubbee, forced to hold another treaty at Doak’s Stand, were “helpless to a great extent.” Pushmataha’s honors, so recently awarded by his white friends, were now meaningless. In 1813, Gen. Claiborne “had presented him with a splendid suit of brigadier regimentals, gold epaulettes, sword, silver spurs, and hat and feather, ordered from Mobile at a cost of three hundred dollars.”” In 1816, the Mississippi Territorial Legislature passed resolutions honoring him for his help in the late war, awarded him a $50 “rifle gun,” and authorized that $50 be paid him every first of January for five years.

[J.F.H. Claiborne, Life & Times of Gen. Sam Dale (New York, 1860), p. 133.]

The Choctaws had helped Andrew Jackson through the Creek War, at New Orleans, and Pensacola. Pushmataha led some 600 warriors on the Black Warrior River in 1814, more than 700 at Alabama Heights the following spring. They had never been paid.

To use the words of John Swanton, Andrew Jackson always showed “callous indifference” to the rights and justice owed the Indians.

[John R. Swanton, Indians of the Southeastern United States, Bulletin 137, Bur. Amer. Ethnol., p. 80.]

But Pushmataha knew the great western country that would be the future home of the Choctaws; Jackson did not. That day he also proved that he had taken the measure of Andy Jackson, the man. He used this knowledge to drive a sharp bargain in establishing the boundaries of the Choctaws’ new western lands.

Jackson denied there were white settlers living on this land. Pushmataha maneuvered him into giving his word that all white intruders would be put off. This bargain became a matter of vital importance during the period of negotiations in Washington in 1824-25.

[Dr. Gideon Lincecum, “Life of Apushimataha,” Mississippi Historical Publ., 1906, Vol. IX, p. 471-2.]

war dept building

Sadly the Choctaw lost their best negotiator when Pushmataha succumbed to a virulent respiratory infection December 25, 1824 in Washington, D.C. Fortunately for the Choctaws, James Lawrence McDonald, a graduate of Eastern schools and lawyer fluent in English, had been chosen a member of the 1824 delegation to Washington headed by Pushmataha. According to Thomas L. McKenney, McDonald took charge of negotiations after Pushmataha’s sudden death.

McKenney writes, “I found him so skilled in the business of his mission ….as to make it more of an up-hill business than I had ever before experienced in negotiating with Indians. I believe Mr. Calhoun thought so too.”

[Thos. L. McKenney, Memoirs, Bk. IL pp. 109-119. (New York, 1846).]

Agreement was finally reached and the treaty, called the Treaty of Washington City, was signed on January 20, 1825 by the nine remaining Choctaw delegates: J. C. Calhoun, Moshulatubbee, Robert Cole, Daniel McCurtain, Talking Warrior, Red Fort, Nittuckachee, David Folsom, and James L. McDonald in the presence of Thomas L. McKenney and John Pitchlynn, United States Interpreter.

The Choctaws gave up lands in Arkansas but gained pension payments for the Choctaw veterans of the War of 1812 and waiver of their debt with the U.S. Trading House on the Tombigbee River.

Article 1 – The Choctaw Nation do hereby cede to the United States all that portion of the land ceded to them by the second article of the Treaty of Doak Stand, as aforesaid, lying east of a line beginning on the Arkansas, one hundred paces east of Fort Smith, and running thence, due south, to Red River: it being understood that this line shall constitute, and remain, the permanent boundary between the United States and the Choctaws; and the United States agreeing to remove such citizens as may be settled on the west side, to the east side of said line, and prevent future settlements from being made on the west thereof.

NOTE: John Calhoun was Secretary of War from 1817 to 1825. He broadly interpreted his role as Secretary of War, by established the Bureau of Indian Affairs without legislation from Congress in order to correct perceived problems in Indian management. He oversaw the adoption of 38 new Indian treaties.

In 1816, Thomas L. McKenney became “Superintendent of Indian Trade,” and in 1822 became the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the predecessor to Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. President Jackson dismissed McKenney from his position in 1830 when Jackson disagreed with his opinion that “the Indian was, in his intellectual and moral structure, our equal.” McKenney wrote a monumental history, many years in the making, called The Indian Tribes of North America. More about Commissioner McKenney and a portrait HERE.

James Lawrence McDonald was born in Mississippi, educated in a Quaker school in Baltimore, and came to Weston, Thomas McKenny’s estate near Washington, D.C., in 1818, where he boarded at government expense. McDonald was enrolled in a Georgetown academy, and also worked for McKenney at the War Department. McDonald completed his legal training in Ohio in 1823, then took up practice in Jackson, Mississippi, where he assisted Pushmataha, the Choctaw chief, in defending tribal lands from white encroachment. McDonald officially became the Choctaw’s lawyer in 1824, and was among the signatories of the Treaty of Washington City.

James L. McDonald (1801-1833?) was the first American Indian to practice law in the United States, According to Professor Fred Hoxie of the University of Illinois, the “legal arguments McDonald devised during this crisis failed to prevent his tribe’s removal to the West, but they formed the basis for articulating a doctrine in indigenous rights within American law.”

Video of Professor Hoxie’s 2007 lecture about James L. McDonald on YouTube.

On May 23, 1831, Thomas L. McKenney wrote James L. McDonald for information on Pushmataha’s life to include in his history on Indian tribes. Here is McDonald’s reply:

“…. If I could now see Major Pitchlynn and spend a few days with him, I am sure that I could get some curious details of old Push’s history, and such as I think would prove interesting. But I am one hundred and fifty miles from Major Pitchlynn, and I do not expect to see him for some months.

Pushmataha was distinguished in early life as a warrior, and in the first or second battle in which he was ever engaged, he is said to have produced the scalps of five or six warriors whom he had slain with his own hand. His earlier contests were principally with the Osages, or Washashe; and on one occasion he was surrounded, with less than a dozen followers, in a vast prairie, by a band of about two hundred Osages, against whom he maintained an undaunted contest of more than an hour’s duration, until the enemy, struck with some unaccountable panic, retreated.

He was, however, chiefly distinguished for his eloquence. His style of speaking, whether in public or private, was nervous and highly figurative, and his talent at repartee was, I think, unequalled. I never knew him at a moment’s loss for an apt answer to any question, whether serious or jocose. He was facetious rather than sarcastic, and he was, generally speaking, the soul of good humor. He was slow to anger, but when aroused, as fierce as a tiger; of which, however, I never saw but one or two instances in all my acquaintance with him.pushmataha-1837

He was, indeed, an extraordinary man, and I wish that justice could be done him. You might safely say of him, that his intellect was of the highest order—his perceptions rapid—his eloquence persuasive or commanding, and his courage unconquerable. He was generous even to prodigality, and continued through life poor, when he might have become rich.”

The first published account of Pushmataha’s life was his obituary which appeared in the National Journal, Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 1824, reprinted many times over in the United States and abroad in the days that followed.

DlED, at his lodging at Tonnison’s, on Thursday night last, at about 12 o’clock, in his sixtieth year, Push-ma-ta-ha, one of the Choctaw Delegation, now at Washington, on business with the Government. The best attendance and the best medical skill were employed to save him, but in vain. He died of the croup, and was ill but a day.

He was buried on Saturday with military honors, which were performed by the Marine Corps, by directions of the Hon, the Secretary of the Navy, assisted by Captain Munro’s and Captain Dyer’s companies of volunteers: Chris tian ceremonies by the Rev. Mr. Hawley. The procession was large (at least two thousand) and highly respectable. General Jackson, who knew and appre­ciated the services of this Chief, paid his last respects to his memory, as did also many members of both Houses of Congress, and members of the government, some of whom attended him, though so distant, to the grave.

Push-ma-ta-ha was an extraordinary man. He was one of the three great Chiefs of his nation, and had attained that distinction by his powers of oratory and military prowess. Nature had impressed him with the stamp of greatness – and he was himself even in death. “I am told,” said he, (in his native tongue, for he spoke no English,) that I am better. It is a mistake. I shall die—and at about 12 o’clock, tonight. It has always been in my heart that I should die in the land of strangers.”

He then gave some directions respecting his family, and the disposition of his affairs, and concluded by saying—”When I am dead, let the big guns be fired over me.” His request was respected.

He had won this high distinction by his uniform attachment to the people and cause of the United States, and by the scars he had received, and the blood he had shed in seconding our power on our borders, when it was exerted to save our citizens from the hostile of his own race, and the combined hostility of the enemy with them, and especially in the late war. He even foiled Tecumseh—though not with the sword. He saw his opportunity, and seized it; he knew his means, and he employed them. He triumphed over that master-spirit, broke the spell in which he was attempting to bind his nation, and turned the sword of his people upon our enemies.

It was by the powers of his oratory. Every arm fell when Push-ma-ta-ha had spoken. Every hostile spirit was hushed—and the Choctaw nation, powerful as it was, was united to us. He put himself at the head of 500 warriors, and entered our service—was in twenty-four battles—served under the eye of General Jackson in his Pensacola campaign, and won the admiration of even this veteran.

Push-ma-ta-ha remembered his leader in death. “I want,” said he, “to see General Jackson.” But it was late at night, and the knowledge of this wish was not conveyed. To the writer of this hasty notice, General Jackson said, when informed of it the next day—”I deeply regret it. Had it been midnight, I would have risen arid gone to see him.”

Push-ma-ta-ha, though uneducated himself, saw the necessity of improving his people—and demonstrated his attachment to civilization, by giving $2,000 of his annuity, for 15 years, towards the support of the school system.

Push-ma-ta-ha sleeps with the great and the venerated of our land. He lies in the same enclosure with our Clintons and Gerrys. When the tidings of his death shall reach his people, they will be like the fall of the noblest tree in their forest, which had long furnished them with shelter and shade—every ear will listen to the echoes occasioned by its fall, and all hearts will mourn the mighty ruin. But let them remember, though he “died in the land of strangers,” that he was respected and treated like a friend, and that “the big guns” were fired over him, not barely in compliance with his last request, but out of respect for his services, and to show, that his attachment to our people, and his efforts in our cause, were not forgotten.

It was the boast of Push-ma-ta-ha that “his hand was white. It has never been stained,” said he, “by the blood of Americans. But it is red with that of their enemies.” “I am an American,” said he, the other day, to the writer of this. “My skin is red—but my heart is white.”

He was asked, about ten weeks ago, how he was ? He threw his eyes upward, and with a most devotional and grateful look, spoke. “He says,” said his interpreter, “he feels that the Great Spirit loves him today. He is so well that he feels happy.”

On his way to Washington he met an old acquaintance going to the land of his achievements in war. “You have come in a path, so far,” said Push-ma-ta-ha, “which is straight, and the green grass and flowers border it. The trees are all leafy, and the birds sing amidst their branches. You are going where the paths are all crooked, and where the land is desolate, and white with the bones of my enemies.”

Did time permit, even with the barren resources which are at hand, it would be easy to illustrate the extraordinary sayings of this man. He was of nature’s construction in intellect and prowess. And when she turns on a favorite, as in Shakespeare, art only fetters, and its adventitious aids are spurned, as beneath the attention of the mind, which is rich and powerful in its own resources.”


***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***


SOURCES [under fair use exception; not-for-profit educational purposes]

Ruth Tenison West, Pushmataha’s Travels, The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 37, No.2, 1959, Pages 162-174.

Death Notice, National Journal, Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Dec. 28, 1824, page 3.

Video of 2007 lecture, The First Indian Lawyer and the Birth of Federal Indian Law, by Professor Fred Hoxie.

Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830. Chicago: The Swallow Press Inc., Sage Books. 1974.

Choctaw Nation website – 1825 Treaty of Washington City

The “Peter P. Pitchlynn Collection,” Thomas Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, contains a letter McDonald wrote his good friend Peter Pitchlynn from Washington, dated November 6, 1824, reporting lack of progress on negotiations.


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