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Choctaw chief who saw to it that his people never fought a war against the United States
Very little about the early life of Pushmataha is known, except that he was most likely born in Mississippi sometime around 1764. Accounts of his exploits against the Creek as a young man abound, but how many of those accounts are true and how many are exaggerated is unknown. What is known, however, is that he gained a reputation among the Choctaw as a skilled and brave warrior.
About 1800, Pushmataha was made a chief of the Oklahannali (Six Towns) district of the Choctaw Nation. In this capacity, he met with American envoys at Fort Confederation in 1802, negotiated the 1805 Treaty of Mount Dexter with the United States, and met with President Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to Pushmataha's oratorical and negotiating skills, relations between the Choctaw and the United States always remained friendly, and the Choctaw never saw it necessary to wage a battle against federal forces.
In 1811, Tecumseh, having already united most of the tribes of the upper Mississippi Valley, came south in hopes of recruiting the Muskogean tribes into his British-backed attempt to reclaim all Indian lands that had been lost to white settlers. Although he made an impassioned appeal before a combined meeting of Choctaw and Chickasaw, he was unable to overcome the response given by Pushmataha. In the end, only 30 warriors from the two tribes agreed to follow Tecumseh, while the leaders of both tribes agreed to formally ally themselves with the United States.
In 1813, Pushmataha formally offered the services of himself and all the warriors he could recruit to the United States Army, which was then engaged against the British in the War of 1812. The offer was accepted, and Pushmataha was subsequently commissioned a Brigadier General. Although Pushmataha and his warriors saw little action against the British, they played an important role in General Andrew Jackson's campaign against the Creek, who had allied themselves with the British, including at the decisive Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Choctaw warriors also helped Jackson defeat the British at New Orleans.
Throughout the War of 1812, Pushmataha's skill as a warrior, soldier, and leader gained him admirers within the U.S. Army, and many high-ranking officers respectfully called him "The Indian General." After the war, Pushmataha returned to his home on the Tombigbee River, and was subsequently elected by tribal leaders as Chief of the Choctaw Nation.
By now well respected within both the "white" and Indian worlds, Pushmataha worked hard to maintain peace between his people and the U.S., as well as to improve the lives of Choctaw everywhere. He favored the adoption of American technologies and practices, and made sure that all five of his children received the best education possible. And, while many other Indian tribes were facing forced removal from their lands to make way for white settlers, the Choctaw were able to avoid that fate for many years thanks to Pushmataha's efforts. But the Choctaw would be unable to avoid relocation forever.
In 1820, Pushmataha negotiated a treaty wherein the Choctaw agreed to sell most of its lands in Mississippi and relocate to what is now Oklahoma. In return, however, the United States had to agree to remove all white settlers on the lands to which the Choctaw were to gain title. Pushmataha also insisted that a significant amount of money be set aside as a perpetual school fund for Choctaw youth. Although the Choctaw would be leaving their ancestral lands, they would be doing so on much more favorable terms than had most other Indian tribes.
In 1824, the federal government "asked" the Choctaw to sell more of their Mississippi lands, and Pushmataha decided to make a trip to Washington and personally tell officials there that the request would not be honored unless and until the government fulfilled its promise to stop whites from encroaching on Choctaw lands in Oklahoma. While there, he personally met with President James Monroe and spoke with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. He also sat for a portrait by Charles Bird King in his Army uniform. That portrait hung in the Smithsonian Institution until 1865, when it was destroyed by fire. Fortunately, many prints of that portrait were made, and it was from one of those prints that the picture on this page was taken.
Pushmataha contracted pneumonia while in Washington, and died on December 24, 1824. As per his request, he received a full military funeral befitting a General of the U.S. Army, and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery.
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This page was last updated on 12/24/2017.