Researching Choctaw Indian Ancestry

By Harold Graham

featherSpecial thanks to Melvin Tingle, Okla Museum, and to DeNiechsi Comans Layton, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, in the preparation of this article.

The Choctaw Indian tribe had existed in the Southeastern United States for several centuries before the Dutch engineer and adventurer Bernard Romans visited the area in 1771 that would later become Newton County. He was not the first white man to come in contact with the Choctaw Indian tribe nor the first to write about them, but he was the first person to attempt to both describe their customs in great detail and to map the villages in which they lived. During a process of approximately two years he traveled throughout the Choctaw Nation to meet the Chahta people and write about his experiences.

The first documented visit of a white man to Newton County, Mississippi, was that of Regis du Roullet, an officer of the French colonial government, who from October 13 through October 15, 1729, stayed at the village of the Yellow Cane People, Oskilahna, now in southeastern Newton County and near the Jasper County line. He would later visit other villages in the county. Roullet was authorized by the French provisional government to strengthen trading relations between the French and Choctaws while dissuading the Choctaws from trading with the English. Based on notes from his journal we know that traders, both from France and England, had preceded him into Choctaw territory.

At their height of power the Choctaw Indian tribe occupied and controlled most of what would later become the southern two-thirds of Mississippi, much of the Mississippi Delta, and part of western Alabama. Although there were regional differences in physical appearance and language, the Choctaws were bound together by a common government, social practices, and history.

Our greatest understanding of their culture comes from the writings of Henry Sales Halbert (1827-1916), a Catholic missionary and teacher to the Choctaws from 1888-ca 1900. Living at Tucker in Neshoba County and at Conehatta in Newton County, H. S. Halbert provides a detailed description of the culture and history of the Choctaws through his prolific writings. In the early 1900s his research efforts were joined by those of John Reed Swanton (1873-1958).

The Choctaw culture was strictly matriarchal and any discussion of Choctaw ancestry begins with the knowledge that the greater prestige in ancestry begins with an understanding of the family tree of your mother, your grandmother, ad infinitum. Social rules dictated that you not marry within your iska or sub-clan.

Most Choctaws lived in villages since his arrangement provided mutual protection as well as other advantages.The Choctaw mother spent most of her time at the village, giving birth and rearing the children. The farm plot of maize, beans and other crops were also her responsibility and those of her minor children. If she had problems with one of her sons, she turned not to his biological father, but to her oldest brother or to a village elder for help.

The primary roles of the Choctaw adult male were those of hunter and protector; therefore, the male often spent more time in the forests and fields than at the village where his family lived. He followed game on a seasonal basis, meaning he had to frequently relocate his camp. While it may seem difficult for the modern reader to comprehend, and given the fact that Indians traveled primarily by foot, Choctaw braves ventured as far north as Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri in search for material from which to make their spears and arrowheads and as far west as the modern states of New Mexico and Arizona in search of bison and other game. The braves contact with his children was only incidental and he bore no responsibility in their upbringing. Members of both sexes practiced polygamy, but it was most often the men who had more than one spouse--each wife ideally living in a different village, of course. (The great chief Pushmataha had three wives.)

Writing Table used by H S HalbertPictured Right: Writing table used by H. S. Halbert and built from a crate marked Marks-Rothenburg and which was used by Halbert when he lived at Conehatta with the George Langford family. Books in foreground are Byingtons Choctaw Dictionary, Byingtons Choctaw Testament, and Dictionary of the Biloxi and Ofo tribes. Items courtesy of Okla Museum and Melvin and Betty Tingle.

Rev Cyrus Byington (1793-1868), a missionary from Massachusetts, taught and ministered in the Choctaw Nation beginning about 1819. From his study of the Choctaw language he developed a phonetic code that resulted in the production of a Choctaw testament, grammar, speller, and dictionary. This dictionary was revised and published by Allen Wright in 1880 as The Choctaw Dictionary (A Chahta Leksikon), then later revised and reissued in 1915 by Halbert and Swanton. Despite the efforts of Byington and those who followed him, the Choctaw language (Chahta anumpa) remained primarily an oral medium.

Choctaw names were typically of two or three syllables length. A single name (no surname) was given a child during their youth, and as translated, generally signified some unique quality or event for that individual. It follows, therefore, that an individuals name could later change if a more significant event happened. The great chief Pushmataha refused a permanent name until he could prove his own courage and bravery. The village elder who finally gave him his name kept a bag of stones. With each act of courage one stone was removed. When no stones were left, Pushmataha finally agreed to receive his permanent name, literally meaning no stones left.

The first Choctaw Indians to use surnames were those of mixed ancestry, including Pierre Juzan, Peter Pitchlynn, Greenwood Leflore, and David Folsom. These four mingos were among 44 half-breeds who signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. As contact with the white man increased, more and more Choctaws adopted surnames. They also adopted American names while retaining their Indian names. They became, in fact, not only bilingual but bicultural as well.

White transcribers of the Choctaw language had no written model to follow and depended solely on their listening ability and phonetic skills. It is not surprising, therefore, at the variation in spellings of many Choctaw names. The river Tombigbee, for example, appears on early maps as Tom-Bec-Be.

Prior to 1880, the federal government made only a limited attempt to document the Choctaw Indian population, and then often with the intent of relocating them to western lands. Beginning with the 1880 Federal Census, Indian, as an ethnic category, was first used by the U. S. Census Bureau.

The most valuable collection of records useful for genealogical purposes is the Dawes Applications, although these records are flawed by irregularities.

Key Record Collections for Documenting Choctaw History and Ancestry Prior to 1900
(All documents available from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

    n 1722-1834 Ratified Indian Treaties

    n 1803 ff-- Bureau of Indian Affairs, Records of Choctaw Trading House

    n 1831 Indian Census (Armstrong Roll)

    n 1826-1845 Bureau of Indian Affairs, Choctaw Agency Emigration

    n 1833-1860 Bureau of Indian Affairs, Choctaw Agency Reserve

    n 1855 Indian CensusChoctaws in Mississippi and Louisiana

    n 1856 Indian CensusEastern Choctaws

    n 1861-1865Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers

    n 1870 Federal Censusalthough not intended as such, census enumerators in many Mississippi counties,
            including Newton and Neshoba, recorded Choctaws with entries such as Joe Indian.

    n 1880 and subsequent Federal Censuses with Indian as a category.

    n 1885 Choctaw-Chickasaw Census

    n 1896 Census of Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen

    n Final Rolls of Citizens and Freemen of the Five Civilized Tribes, Choctaw and Chickasaw Rolls,
           1898-1914contains 14, 000 plus names and genealogies of Choctaw applicants for land under the
           terms of the Dawes Act.

    n H. S. Halbert Papers, ca. 1888-1916

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    References

Gay, Ann Harwell, Place Names in Choctaw County, Alabama, Revised Edition, Brown Printing Company, Meridian, Mississippi, 1998.

Kidwell, Clara Sue, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818-1918, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1995.

Reeves, Carolyn Keller, The Choctaw Before Removal, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, 1985

Romans, Bernard, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, 1772.

Rowland, Dunbar and A. G. Sanders, Mississippi Provincial Archives, French Dominion, 1729-1740, Volume I, Press of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi, 1927.

Swanton, John R., Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 103, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1931

Swanton, John R. and Henry S. Halbert, Ed. A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language, Smithsonian Institute, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin #46, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1915.

Wells, Samuel J. and Roseanna Tubby, editors, After Removal, The Choctaw in Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, 1986.

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