There was a time when West Tennessee was dominated by the Chickasaw Nation and East Tennessee by the Cherokee Nation.
However, most Native Americans left Tennessee in the forced migration now known as the Trail of Tears. Over the last few decades, students have heard more about the Cherokee than the Chickasaw because the Eastern Band of the Cherokee continues to exist just across the border, in and near Cherokee, North Carolina. But it’s important that we know a lot about the Chickasaw Nation as well – especially if you live in West Tennessee.
Here are 14 fascinating things about the history and culture of the Chickasaw Nation:
1. The Chickasaw Nation used to occupy the land that is now West Tennessee, the southern part of Middle Tennessee, and North Mississippi and Alabama. (Click on the map shown on the left to make it bigger.)
2. The Chickasaw were a small nation by about 1800, numbering less than four thousand people. However they were quite skilled in battle, which is one of the reasons the nation survived.
3. The cultural center of the Chickasaw Nation was at about the present site of Tupelo, Mississippi. There were several Chickasaw villages in that area with names such as Pontotoc, Chickafalaya (Log Town), Chokkillisa (OId Town) and Chisha Talla’a. It was only recently that the sites of some of these long-abandoned villages were preserved, and historic markers put up.
4. Here are two Tennessee landmarks that used to be named for the Chickasaw Nation, but aren’t anymore: The Chickasaw Bluffs of the Mississippi River (now known as Memphis) and the road called Chickasaw Trace (now known as the Natchez Trace).
5. There are many similarities between Cherokee and Chickasaw culture, but there are differences as well. Within both nations, for instance, stickball was a common sport; people had a summer and winter house; and the “three sisters” of beans, squash and corn were key staples of the diet.
However, the Cherokee had (and has) seven clans within society. The Chickasaw also had (and has) clans, but were more than seven – including raccoon, alligator, bear, bird, deer, fish, fox, panther, skunk, squirrel or wolf (among others).
Like the Cherokee, Chickasaw culture was matrilineal; children were in the same clan as their mother, and remained in that clan for life.
6. The Chickasaw Nation was centered in about half a eight towns, each of which was led by a leader known as the “minko.” Although some minkos were more powerful than others, there was no overall, recognized leader of the entire Chickasaw Nation until they moved to Oklahoma.
7. Between 1785 and 1810, the Chickasaw Nation was less likely to be hostile to settlers than the Creek, Cherokee and Shawnee. In fact, when other Native American tribes were practically at war with the settlers in Middle Tennessee, the Chickasaw Indians were on friendly terms with the settlers.
8. In early American history, the most prominent Chickasaw leader was Piominko – a warrior in the 1760s who became more of a peace chief after 1783. Piominko signed the 1786 Treaty of Hopewell, and he frequently exchanged correspondences with John Sevier and James Robertson.
Piominko eventually visited George Washington at Mount Vernon, and also went to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond. However, Piominko had a rival in the Chickasaw Nation named Wolf’s Friend, who formed an alliance with the Creek Indians and the Spanish rather than the Americans in the 1790s. So Piominko spent a good bit of his time asking the Americans for weapons that they could use against the Creeks and the Spanish.
9. It was Piominko who, in a letter to Congress around 1789, first suggested that the Americans build a fort at the Chickasaw Bluffs. That fort was built around 1800 and is today the site of Memphis.
10. A contingent of Chickasaw Indians fought with and for Andrew Jackson at both the Battle of New Orleans.
11. Another famous Chickasaw Indian was George Colbert, who operated the ferry that crossed the Tennessee River along the the road from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi (then known as the Chickasaw Trace). Colbert was the Chickasaw chief that General Jackson corresponded with during the War of 1812.
12. In 1818, the Chickasaw Indians agreed to ceded all of what is now West Tennessee to the U.S. government in what was known as the Chickasaw Purchase. From that point onward, the Chickasaw Nation resided in present-day Mississippi.
By the way, future president Andrew Jackson represented the U.S. in the negotiations with the Chickasaw. On the left is a the announcement of the transaction which ran in the November 3, 1818 Knoxville Register (click on the image to make it larger).
13. When removal came in the 1830s, the Chickasaw nation accepted it and left together, determined to preserve their culture.
14. Finally, since the Chickasaw did not develop a written language until the twentieth century, we don’t know as much about the language and culture as we do the Cherokee. There are only about 35 people living today who grew up speaking the Chickasaw language, which means that Chickasaw is (technically) an “endangered” language.
However, in recent years the Chickasaw Nation has put more emphasis on preserving and teaching its language. Here is an example of it: the 2014 book for students called C is for Chickasaw — a page of which is shown here, on the left.