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Choctaw on the Ouachita - The Forgotten History


By Worth Camp, Jr.

The story of the Choctaw of South Arkansas is a forgotten history. It begins with the French colony west of the Mississippi River, all of which was considered Louisiana, including the Ouachita River Basin of what is now South Arkansas and North Louisiana. The French controlled this area from the late 1600s until 1763.

The Spanish returned to the region after 1763 when France turned over control of the region to them. The Spanish stayed in the territory until 1803 but had secretly sold the territory to Napoleon Bonaparte of France in October 1800. Napoleon, needing money for other problems, sold the territory to the United States in 1803.

The French had developed and the Spanish had continued a commercial system that used the Ouachita River and Red River Basins as Political and Economic Districts for the Orleans Territory, which comprised modern-day Louisiana.
Many modern Native American Choctaws migrated from Mississippi into the Ouachita River Basin of South Arkansas and North Louisiana during the Colonial Period. This was before George Washington was inaugurated President in 1789.
The Choctaw were very successful in Mississippi and good trading partners with the French who lost control of the east side of the Mississippi River to the British in 1763. The Choctaw came for the game, some wearing European-made clothing, using pots and pans, and flintlock rifles. Some lived in cabins.

They had Christian names picked up from the English protestant missionary efforts that drove the pioneer values during this period. The Choctaw are part of our recent history without sufficient buried evidence to be attended to by archaeologists. Native Americans were not included in the U.S. Census by name in these earlier years, and because of their Christian names, the genealogist seldom singles them out. Their descendents are now assimilated and unwritten about. They have a presence in Columbia, Ouachita, Calhoun, Bradley, Ashley and Union Counties.

In the colonial period, South Arkansas was first a part of Louisiana (New France) and not a part of British America. France explored the South Arkansas and Louisiana area in the 1600s, and established a trading post at Natchitoches on the Red River in 1714.
All Native Americans and French trappers in both the Red River and Washita River Basins, including the Hot Springs on the Washita, were required in the spring, at the end of the hunting season, to get their deer and other skins to Natchitoches. The Quapaw and others along the Arkansas River Basin were required to trade at Arkansas Post near the mouth of the Mississippi.

Native Americans were the Frenchman's best friends. Deer, bear, and beaver hides were dynamic necessities in demand all over the world. Hides were purchased from the Native Americans with "trade goods," and from the French hunters/trappers in merchandise or currency used at the trading posts.

The British owned America from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains. The French competed for the ownership of Canada, the Ohio River Basin, and from their Mobile port to New Orleans. The Choctaw of Mississippi and South Alabama were their friends and trading partners.

The French lost the American Seven Year War, and in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain took all of Canada and all lands east of the Mississippi River. Spain (New Spain) owned the Provinces of Florida and Tejas (Texas) and was granted all of France's Louisiana (Territory).

The Spanish on the Tejas side of Louisiana, particularly in the area of Nacogdoches, on the Southwest Trail (Kings Highway) were already known along the Sabine and Red Rivers as bad trading neighbors. They were not liked or accepted by the more easy going peoples of Louisiana. The Native Americans on the Red River preferred the friendliness and whisky of the French trappers and traders. Therefore, to avoid upsetting the tax revenues and the established commercial relations, the Spanish relied on the French managers to govern and run the trading system already in place. This is why it is so confusing today to figure out how the Spanish were involved in the Cajun History.

Ft. Miro on the Washita, 1784.
To increase the revenues to the Spanish, the new provisional Governor General Estevan Miro' in New Orleans, on February 1, 1783, named Jean-Baptiste Filhiol as commandant of a combination garrison and trading post as far up the Washita River as feasible. Filhiol was already living in the area of "la Prairie des Canots," the site of modern Monroe, Louisiana, and was familiar with the area.

S.D. Dickinson of Prescott, Arkansas, writes, when Commandant Jean Filhiol went up the Washita in 1783 to create the post at "Ecore a Fabri," where Camden, Arkansas, is today, he failed to recruit hunters from their remote camps to join the small staff at the post and thus give that station a commercial base. The hunters on Bayou Bartholomew refused to trade at that post location.
When that effort failed, in 1784 Commandant Filhiol relocated the post downstream below the mouth of Bayou Bartholomew at "la Prairie des Canots (Canoes)" where hunters were in the habit of assembling before and after making the winter hunting campaign. This political jurisdiction of "le Poste du Ouachita" was named Ft. Miro, for Governor-General Miro in New Orleans.
The political divisions after 1784 appear to be the: Orleans Territory, which includes the Natchitoches Post, and the Ouachita Post; and the Louisiana Territory with the Arkansas Post and the St. Louis Post. Each Post was a military (militia) garrison. Soldiers and others in the pay of France or the Spanish, after 1763, or later the United States Militia, could be paid their monthly wages or draw supplies. A voucher and receipt system protected the Post Commandant and the soldier or "official traveler" such as Lewis and Clark, or Dunbar and Hunter.

The Choctaw needed hunting space west of the Mississippi. There was an empty slot of Indian activity in the Ouachita River Basin. The Choctaw were gradually settling in the area and some were marrying Frenchmen or hunters in the area. The New Orleans governor licensed them to hunt and trade with the Spanish trading post of Poste de Washitas, Fuerte (Fort) Miro. The Monroe Chamber of Commerce Web Site says that the post was near the 1780 site of the first primitive French settlement, known as Prairie de Canots (Prairie of the Canoes), the real beginning of Monroe, Louisiana.

George Hunter and William Dunbar in their 1804 expedition observed Choctaw Indians living along the Washita from just north of the Red River continuing to a point near or above Fort Miro. The expedition recorded a report near the Little Missouri River above Camden from a German hunter named Palts with a 30-year history of hunting in Arkansas, "that there was a party of Chickasaws, Choctaws and other neighbouring Indians, about 800 in number, now on their way to the River Arkansa, to drive off those 400 warriors of the Osages who had lately come to that country, whose hands were lifted against every description."
Caddos had lived west of the Ouachita River in South Arkansas. However, by the1780s they were concentrating in the Red River Basin, which includes Bodcaw Creek and Dorcheat Bayou in west Columbia County. The Caddo had been trading for over 50 years with the buyers at the post (Fort St. Jean Baptiste) at Natchitoches, Louisiana, in the Red River Basin.

Quapaws had lived east of the Ouachita River in South Arkansas, but now concentrated on the Arkansas River and traded with buyers from Arkansas Post, a fort 20 miles up river from the Mississippi River.

The Tunica of southeastern Arkansas and the Greenville, Mississippi, area, and northeastern Louisiana are not mentioned at this period in the Ouachita River Basin.

Osages lived in southern Missouri and in North Arkansas. The Spanish governor in New Orleans refused the Osage trading privileges at Arkansas Post. They were required to take their furs a long distance to the traders at Fort St. Louis. These Arkansas Osage were outraged and attacked Arkansas Post. About six French Soldiers, French trappers, traders, a few pioneers defended the post.
The governor of New Orleans, under the French or Spanish, was in charge of all Louisiana. New France was not profitable to the French government, and not popular with the French taxpayers. The French, therefore, licensed commercial companies for the management of the territory. Baron Bastrop had a license for a large district, north of Ft. Miro into Arkansas. The baron controlled the Washita River and licensed John Nunn, the ferry owner at Ecore Fabre, to navigate the Washita to Ft. Miro for trade goods.

The Spanish governor of New Orleans later separated the four river basins into economic and political divisions. The rivers were the highways, and the fort system was like our county judge and sheriff. The division maximized the collection of taxes and provided for the common safety of the people and a profit for the licensed companies.

The Arkansas Native Americans and French trappers, men similar to the mountain men of the Rockies (and North Arkansas), at the end of the trapping season, floated or packed their furs down river to sell at the forts. The traders (buyers) paid the taxes to the governor. He in turn paid France or Spain.

In the Warm Springs (Hot Springs) area, mountain men could raft from below the "Great Falls" of the Ouachita at Rockport (next to Malvern). In 1804, George Hunter wrote in his diary, "At the great falls. . . the river was full of giant rocks, which formed ledges with only occasional openings wide enough for the boat to be (pulled) through . . .(and only) after many hours of great exertion, which could have destroyed the boat."

General Arbuckle, at Ft. Smith, was under instructions to keep the peace and assist in the relocation of all Native American groups from North Arkansas, which he did through 1828. The Arkansas territorial governor, acting for the U.S. Government, was authorized to enter into treaties for the further relocation (removal) of the Cherokee in North Arkansas west of Washington County to that part of the Territory, now Northeast Oklahoma. He also negotiated several Treaties with the Quapaw until they were reduced to a very small group near Pine Bluff, the center of their traditional lands, and finally joined with another tribe in now Oklahoma. No treaty or official action has been discovered by this writer to remove Native Americans from South Arkansas, before or during the Trail of Tears, 1831 to 1839.

South Arkansas and North Louisiana became a resting area (maybe for weeks or a whole growing season for one stay) for thousands of Choctaw who traveled back and forth between the recognized tribal lands in Southeast Oklahoma and Mississippi. The Choctaw, at the time of their removal, from 1831 to 1833, were permitted to remain in Mississippi, if they abided by Mississippi laws, which outlawed the Ghost Dance, restricted land ownership, and tribal leaders.

Resting areas in Union County were: Bayou de Loutre at US Hwy. 167 south of El Dorado; near the Sandy Bend County Road from Strong to Urbana; a field, west of the Marysville Methodist Church and north of US Hwy. 82; and a field on the old Pigeon Hill to Champanolle Road near the Thatcher Dam. This is based on statements from persons over 75 years old who saw or discussed the Choctaw or Cherokee on these properties with their older generation.

Like modern American families, Native American families before and after the Civil War traveled long distances through Arkansas and Louisiana to care for family and find work, food, or places to make a crop. This continued into the 1900s.

Dr. John Aaron Moore, grandfather of Dr. Berry Lee Moore, was the first country doctor at Lisbon (Union County) in the early 1900s. His patients included traveling Choctaw or Cherokee Indians, who brought their family and lived on Camp Creek, until the doctor got their family member well enough to travel.

The Choctaw or Cherokee ancestors who stayed in South Arkansas abided by the Sheriff's laws, did not do the Ghost Dance, and were silently assimilated by mixed marriages into both the white and black communities. The Gardner Community at Strong, Arkansas, is one of those communities.

The ancestors did not talk about their history with their children. The stigma of being a Native American quietly passed as each generation replaced the other. Few memories have been recorded, and the story is likely lost unless today's heirs will recall even small portions of their memories and share that history. A local newspaper could be helpful if they had a "History Day" and the editor encouraged short memories or stories, subject to editing.

An estimated 30 percent of today's South Arkansas citizens have Choctaw or Cherokee ancestors, most of whom were living here in the Ouachita River Basin when the early pioneers were arriving in the late 1800s.

Choctaw and Cherokee descendants have become our teachers, students, school administrators, employees, business owners, lawyers, judges, and sheriffs. Union County has had at least two sheriffs, now deceased, who were both descendants of Cherokee ancestors, who served us well. My wife, Janis, was a distant cousin to one of these sheriffs. She has a first cousin who used his Columbia County Choctaw heritage in a minority business venture and another first cousin's wife that has a Cherokee ancestor from Strong.

Today's history students and teachers are beginning to recognize this unique Native American culture still "silently" present in South Arkansas. It has not been written in the school textbooks, but South Arkansas is a good illustration of successful assimilation of Native Americans into the new American society.

Worth Camp, Jr., an El Dorado resident, is a writer, history enthusiast, and a country lawyer.

Works Cited

Arnold, Morris S. Colonial Arkansas 1686-1804: A Social and Cultural History. Fayetteville: U. of Arkansas Press, 1991.

Bolton, S. Charles. University of Arkansas, Little Rock (Spanish Buffer)
Summer 2004 Program: Indian Removal & Arkansas River-Before the Trail of Tears by the Arkansas chapter of the Trail of Tears Association in cooperation with the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Moderator: Dr. Daniel F. Littlefield Jr.

Camp, Worth, Jr. The Choctaw and Cherokee in Union County: Before and After the Removal of the 1830s and Today, El Dorado: South Arkansas Historical Journal 2 (Fall 2002): 32.

Dickinson, Samuel Dorris. Observations Summares sur le Ouachita by Louis Badins,
(Translated and Annotated), 2003 Clark County Historical Association and the Pete Parks Center for Regional Studies, Ouachita Baptist University.

Encyclopedia Britannica. "History of the United States," 1995, Propaedia 18: 959.

Gore, Glen. Portraits of the Ouachita Limited Edition 2004 Ouachita River 2004
Calendar (Excerpts from both William Dunbar's & George Hunter's Journals),
Monroe: Ouachita River Museum Foundation.

Hunter, George. Manuscript Journal of George Hunter Up the Red & Washita Rivers
with Wm. Dunbar, 1804, by order U.S. & Up to Hot Springs, transmitted by G.H. to Government & was found in the office of the Adj. & Insp. Gen. Of Army, U.S.A: Parker.

Key, Joseph Patrick. Arkansas State University, Jonesboro (Quapaw)

National Geographic Map Supplement Indian Country- North American Indian Cultures,
Sept. 2004.

Personal interviews by Worth Camp Jr. (a recent member of the Arkansas Chapter of the
Trail of Tears Association) with:

Hot Springs Historian Marcus Phillips during 2003 and 2004. Garland County Historical Society, 328 Quapaw, Hot Springs, AR 71901, Bobbie McLane, Executive Director.

Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Park Interpreter, Bob Norman (on loan from the Texas State Parks System), 130 Moreau St., Natchitoches LA, Mgr. Rick Seale, April 23, 2004.

Los Adaes State Historic Site (Presidio Los Adaes), Dr. George Avery, NW State University, and Interpreter Cornial Cox, U.S Hwy. 84E, Robeline, Louisiana.

City of Nacogdoches Historic Sites Manager, Brian W. Bray, 211 S. Lanana St., Nacogdoches, Texas 75961.

Frank Schambach, Professor of Archeology, Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia, at a meeting of the South Arkansas Chapter of the Arkansas Archeology Society. Arkansas Archeological Survey, May 14, 2002, "Lost Prairie Cherokee Presentation."

Hundreds of descendents of Choctaw and Cherokee ancestors who presently live in and their families originated in South Arkansas.

Phillips, Marcus and Sandra Long. Indian Folklore Atlas of Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs: Garland County Historical Society & the Hot Springs Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission.

Teague, Sara. On Parlait Francais Ici: French Affairs in the Louisiana Territory before
the Purchase, El Dorado: South Arkansas Historical Journal 3 (Fall 2003): 3-10.

Webb, Clarence H. and Hiram F. Gregory. The Caddo Indians of Louisiana, 2nd Ed.
1986 Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission.

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