They called it the “Indian problem.” White settlers wanted more land, and the tribes held rich acreages. Removing tribes from the Southeast was more than just an idea by the time Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. The Indian Removal Act was among his defining pieces of legislation. Jackson argued that moving tribes west of the Mississippi River would guarantee their survival. Instead, it launched an era of genocide. Thousands died during the forced marches to land designated as Indian Territory. For members of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma, the removal stories have not been forgotten.
The Choctaw removal history is a long one, with removals dating as far back as the 1790s and as recently as the 1950s.
The Choctaw Nation uses the term “removals” instead of “Trail of Tears” to refer to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Referring to Choctaw removals as the Trail of Tears erases the tribe’s history, a tribal historian said.
Ryan Spring, director and geographic information systems and global positioning systems specialist for the historic preservation department, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said the tribe refers to them as removals instead of using the term Trail of Tears when talking about President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.
The Trail of Tears was a term coined by the Cherokees about the period from 1838-1839 when they were forced to give up their land in the southeastern United States and move west of the Mississippi River.
The Choctaw Nation had removals in a more varied range than the Trail of Tears proper, and prefers not to use the term.
In the late 1700s, the Choctaw Nation was pressured by the U.S. government to begin moving from the East Coast to Central Territory Some moved from Mississippi to Louisiana. Others stayed where they were and tried to fight, but were defeated.
After the Indian Removal Act was signed by Andrew Jackson, the Choctaw people realized they needed to move to maintain their relationship with the United States and become allies. They fought for America during the Creek wars and in the Battle of 1812, according to the National Park Service, and were the first to sign a treaty with the federal government agreeing to relocate.
With the idea of Manifest Destiny becoming increasingly popular, the U.S. government took even more land from the Choctaw people, and the tribe realized it needed to do something more drastic. In 1818, the Choctaws invited teaching missionaries to work among them in Mississippi. They started to build schools, but as this was happening, they were forced to cede more of the land that earlier treaties had given back to them.
In the 1830s, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek threatened the tribe’s sovereignty if it stayed in the lands it had inhabited for 15,000 years. So they made the difficult decision to move.
The removals were disorganized. Some federal removal agents were helpful to the Choctaws, but others took advantage of them, which included stealing their money.
“Someone was sent to check on the corruption and found the embezzlement to be so severe that it was covered up,” Spring said.
During that removal, which happened about the same time as the Trail of Tears proper, the Choctaw Nation lost about a fourth of its people. The deaths were caused by disease and exposure during a harsh winter, as well as a lack of supplies.
Once in Indian Territory, the 12,000 tribal members who survived the removal had to build a new government and establish communities.
After the first major move to Indian territory, tribal members slowly made their way to Oklahoma during the 1840s and 1950s, with as many as 3,000 more added to their numbers.
The treaty of 1866 forced the Choctaw people to allow railroads on their land. Later, oil and coal operations forced their way onto their territory as well.
In 1902-1903, the tribe experienced another significant round of removals. Choctaws came by train from Mississippi, through Louisiana, into Dallas, and then were dropped off in Ardmore with just the clothes on their backs and no supplies. This led to a disbandment of the tribe in 1906, in which each member was given a small allotment to live on, and the Choctaws lost their community.
In the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs implemented the Indian Urban Relocation Program, which Spring said uprooted Choctaws and dropped them into bigger cities in an effort to get Natives to assimilate. Spring said they were spread across the United States under the guise of helping them find jobs.
Although the Choctaw Nation, headquartered in Durant, contributes $1.2 billion to the state, it’s still trying to repair the damage caused by the removals. Tribal leaders are connecting with Choctaws dispersed across the country and are setting up various programs to help them reconnect.
“The Choctaw Nation is rebuilding its relationship with the land and re-educating its members who lost their history, including their language. Deep wounds left by the removals of the Choctaw people are beginning to heal,” Spring said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the fifth installment in the ongoing Gaylord News series, Exiled to Indian Country, which The Ada News began publishing before the novel coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, disrupting publication of the series. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more information about this project and to view an interactive map of Tribal homelands, go to bit.ly/EXILEDTOINDIANCOUNTRY.
Cheyenne Plummer is a reporter with Gaylord News, a reporting project at the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.