The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic by Angie Debo, Ph. D. 314 pp. Ill. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1934.
The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic is the sixth volume in the Civilization of the American Indian Series published by the University of Oklahoma Press. The format of the book is artistic and attractive. The text was prepared by Miss Debo in securing her degree as doctor of philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. The first three of the twelve chapters in the book present a review of the early history of the Choctaws, dealing principally with their record up to the main emigration of the nation from Mississippi in 1831-4. The rest of the book stresses their history for the period between 1865 and 1906—namely, between the end of the Civil War and the close of the Choctaw government as a separate republic.
In the last analysis, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, which contains much that is interesting and informative, has errors in statement, half-truths and refutations that destroy its value as authentic history of the Choctaws. The title of the book is a misnomer in itself. The Choctaw republic rose but it did not fall. From its inception over a century ago, it was planned as a training ground for the Choctaw people, in preparation for the time when they of their own volition would become citizens of their protector Republic, the United States. When at the end of almost three quarters of a century, they cast a majority vote in favor of such a step by adopting the Atoka Agreement and later the Supplemental Agreement, they as a nation had attained a position where their leaders were counted among the leaders in the new State of Oklahoma organized soon afterward. Thus, the Choctaw Nation as a republic did not fall, it attained its objective.
The text of Miss Debo's volume is inadequate and superficial in many places, due to her unfamiliarity with Choctaw affairs and hurried research. Its prejudiced viewpoints and inaccurate statements will leave misleading, even wrong, impressions which will make it difficult for the reader unacquainted with the Choctaws to gain a fair estimate of them and their history. Footnote citations to documentary and printed sources throughout the book
may lead one to think it can be classed as authoritative. Yet comparing the sources cited in the footnotes with the interpretations, deductions and statements found in the text, one finds the latter are not always to be relied upon. In this connection, some illustrations are cited below.
In Chapter I, Miss Debo gives a brief account of the appearance and location of Nanih Waya, the ancient mound held sacred by the old time Choctaws in Mississippi. In an explanatory footnote on page one, she gives her interpretation of the name in the following authoritative manner:
"The name, Nanih Waya, clearly signifies 'leaning' or 'sloping hill,' but the meaning of this designation has been lost."
This interpretation is erroneous. In Choctaw, the word nanih means "hill" or "mountain;" the word waya (native authorities aspirate the last syllable making the word wayah) is a form of the verb meaning "to produce" or "to bear fruit." Therefore, the name Nanih Waya signifies "productive" or "fruitful hill (or mountain)."
Some early day students and scholars wrote the name Nanih Waiya, which does signify "leaning" or "bending hill (or mountain)." The difference in the two interpretations of the name lies in whether once uses waya which means "to produce" or waiya, "to lean." Doctor John Swanton, whose work on early Choctaw customs and beliefs Miss Debo has cited among her sources in Chapter I, favors the form Nanih Waiya.
However, even such an authority as Doctor Swanton leaves the signification of the name of the sacred mound of the Choctaws open to question and further investigation. It may be stated here, the spelling and the interpretation of the name is important since it has bearing upon the ancient Choctaw religion and may help to determine the prehistoric location of the tribe. According to tribal legend, the ancient Choctaws said their people were created on a mountain called Nanih Waya, somewhere in the Far West. To interpret the name as "productive" or "fruitful mountain" seems more in keeping with the idea in the legend. However, laying these thoughts aside, if Miss Debo favored the signification "leaning hill," she should have spelled the name Nanih Waiya, and not Nanih Waya.
Chapter II of her book forwards the theory that considerations in the way of gifts—money, merchandise, etc.,—presented Choctaw chiefs by the United States during early treaty negotiations, involving the relinquishment of tribal lands to the United States, were in the nature of bribes and established corrupt practices and dishonesty as precedents for the acts of Choctaw officials in carrying on their government at a later date. Page 34 carries the following statements (italics the reviewer's):
"The inducements offered by the United States to persuade the Choctaws to grant these concessions established precedents which were to have a great influence on later Choctaw history; there was the idea of compensation to those who suffered individual loss, the beginning of a permanent tribal income and the pernicious practice of systematic corruption of the Chiefs. The Treaty of 1801 granted two thousand dollars in money and merchandise, and three sets of blacksmith's tools to the Choctaws whose homes were in the ceded lands."
The statements in the last sentence are in error when one compares them with the treaty of 1801, itself. There was no money paid the Choctaws for the land cession in 1801. Goods and merchandise to the amount of two thousand dollars, by the terms of the treaty, were to be delivered to the "Mingos, chiefs and warriors of the said nation." The terms "Mingos, chiefs and warriors" implied the whole male population of the Choctaw Nation at that time, women and children being counted dependents.1 Also, the three sets of blacksmith's tools were granted "the said nation," in this way providing one set for each of the three districts which constituted the political divisions of the Choctaw country
1The word "Mingo" is a misspelling of the Choctaw term miko (pronounced nearly minko) meaning "chief." Therefore the use of the word "chief" in the phrase "Mingos, chiefs, and warriors" reduplicates the literal meaning of the word "mingo." Elsewhere in the treaty the phrase appears "Mingos, principal men, and warriors." Thus the two terms "chiefs" and "principal men" were used synonymousy in the treaty of 1801, due to unfamiliarity with the Choctaw language on the part of those who wrote the treaty. In reality, the terms referred to the sub-chiefs or head-men who were the local leaders of various Choctaw communities and clans. The term "miko" applied to the district chiefs, of whom there were three. The executive power of the Choctaw Nation was vested in three district chiefs until changes in the constitution just preceding the Civil Waar. By the constitution adopted in 1860, which remained in force until 1906, the supreme executive power was vested in one "principal chief." At the same time the offices of the three district chiefs were continued in an advisory capacity.
in Mississippi. Furthermore, the sixteen Choctaws whose names appear among the signers of the document represented their nation; a study of the identity of each revsals that most of them, if not all, lived in the settled, central portion of the Choctaw country. The cession of 1801 covered the extreme southwestern corner of the Choctaw country in Mississippi. Few Choctaws, if any, lived in the ceded lands.
To maintain that "the pernicious practice of the corruption of the chiefs" at early treaty negotiations was the origin of official corruption in the later Choctaw government is a theory which contains subverted thought when analyzed. Such a theory would indicate weakness of the Choctaw racial mind, which enlightenment and education could not overcome. It would indicate that the race should be punished for the reprehensible acts of individuals. Yet, Chapter X, Society in the Choctaw Nation, sets forth the advancement of the Choctaws and the establishment of a modern, enlightened social order in their nation in the latter half of the 20th Century.
The United States as a Government never established nor accepted the definite policy of willfully defrauding the Indian people. As years passed, pledges on the part of the United States in the treaties were not carried out due to changes in administration and in the personnel of officials at Washington. These broken pledges thus became a matter of expediency in pushing the growth of the country oftentimes, without any regard to what happened to the Indians. This condition together with corrupt practices of some representatives of the Government, officials and others, who had not reached the point of holding "a civilized conception of disinterested public service" in their contracts and dealings with the Indians have left a blot on the history of Federal relations. Such questionable methods have included defamation of character and charges of corruption against individual Indians, which have been taken as the bases of written reports, arguments and briefs to be found even among U. S. Government documents. Some of these documents concerning the Choctaws were a part of the propaganda resorted to by the political and speculative forces in the States, that sought the furtherance of the Net Proceeds claim at Washington and the opening of the Indian country to white settlement. Therefore, students and writers of Choctaw history cannot accept
information set forth in all Government documents as facts in a given case, any more than they can recount the "mud slinging" that goes on during some political campaigns as the truth.
In Chapter IV, statements appear that reflect against John H. B. Latrobe, of Baltimore, attorney for the Choctaws during the making of the Treaty of 1866. There are also statements which may be interpreted by the uninformed reader as charges against the integrity of the Choctaw delegates of 1866, and particularly Allen Wright, one of the delegates and treasurer of the nation. Fairness and justice to the Choctaws who signed the treaty and to Mr. Latrobe calls for a brief review of conditions existing in 1865-6, which Miss Debo's volume either does not make clear or fails to recount.
The U. S. Commissioners in the first meeting with the Choctaws after the Civil War, held at Fort Smith in September, 1865, were radical and prejudiced against any person or group of persons who had been aligned with the cause of the Confederate States. The Choctaw delegates at this meeting were compelled to sign a preliminary agreement which made their nation "liable to a forfeiture of all rights of any kind, character and description, which had been promised and guaranteed" by the United States. Thus, the commissioners sought to establish the principle that former treaties with the Choctaw Nation had been abrogated by the United States during the war and all property belonging to the nation was subject to confiscation because it sided with the Confederate States. A drastic treaty based upon this principle was subsequently submitted by the commissioners at Fort Smith. By its terms, the Choctaws (1) were to surrender (together with the Chickasaws) approximately 3,500,000 acres of land east of the 98th Meridian for the settlement of Kansas Indians, compensation for the land to be determined later by the United States; (2) were to lose all annuities and other money withheld from payment by the United States between 1861-5; and (3) were to provide for their former negro slaves, subject to the approval of the United States,—namely, to establish them upon an equal footing with citizens of the nation in all rights, privileges and division of property. The Choctaw delegates refused to sign the treaty. Further negotiations were to be carried on at Washington.
The Choctaws took immediate steps to maintain the rights of their nation in the terms of the new treaty yet to be negotiated with the United States. An executive session of the Council was held in secret owing to the grave situation existing at the time. A resolution was passed stating that the Choctaws "would sooner yield all claims to any due the Nation on the part of the United Government, than to be induced or forced to sacrifice any principle of honor, which is due their people and posterity in regard to the territory which is so dear to them." The resolution "clothed" the delegates with plenary power for negotiating a treaty and gave them instructions in regard to certain provisions. Under no circumstances should an acre of land east of the 98th Meridian be sold. If the sale of these lands was forced upon them, the whole question was to be referred back to the people.
The five delegates chosen to proceed to Washington—Robert M. Jones, Allen Wright, Alfred Wade, James Riley, and John Page—were selected for their unquestioned ability to represent their nation and further its welfare. Under the former rights and privileges by existing laws, the one recourse open to the Choctaw Nation in its claim against the United States was to employ an attorney. In 1865-6, this could be accomplished through contract with agents and attorneys who were citizens of the United States. Colonel Jones, as an older and experienced leader (chairman of the Choctaw delegation at Fort Smith, president pro-tem of the Choctaw Senate during the secret executive session, and one of the wealthiest slave-holders and planters in the Southwest) made preliminary arrangements with Douglas H. Cooper and John Cochrane to employ legal counsel in behalf of the Choctaws in securing a new treaty. General Cooper, who had been U.S. Agent to the Choctaws and Chickasaws before the War and commander of the Confederate forces in the Indian Territory during the War. was thoroughly familiar with the affairs in hand. He had lately associated his interests with John Cochrane, agent for the 30% attorney contract on the Net Proceeds Claim. Under the preliminary arrangements made by Colonel Jones and General Cooper and Cochrane, the attorney fee in negotiating a new treaty was to be "one half of such sum as may be recovered," contingent upon securing for the Choctaw Nation by the terms of the new treaty, all back annuities, all land east of the 98th Meridian, and at the
same time avoid opening the country to the Kansas Indians and other tribes. Cooper and Cochrane engaged the services of John H. B. Latrobe, one of the most prominent and ablest attorneys on claims, in the East. These arrangements were the results of efforts to harmonize the interests and affairs of the nation, existing at the end of the War, and to supply a strong force to carry out negotiations most favorable to the Choctaws.
When they arrived in the East, the delegates called upon Mr. Latrobe for his advice and counsel in reference to the nation's affairs. No mention was made in regard to his compensation though it was understood through Cooper and Cochrane it was to be upon a contingent basis. Early in the negotiations, Mr. Latrobe succeeded in establishing the fact before departmental authorities at Washington that former treaty rights of the Choctaw and the Chickasaw nations had not been abrogated by U. S. presidential proclamation during the War. His work in drafting the new treaty in consultation with the delegates was known to the public and received the approbation of the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
The treaty making covered two steps: namely, (1) negotiating the document and (2) securing its ratification by the United States Senate. The first step ended with the signing of the document on April 28, 1866, by the U. S. Commissioners, the four Choctaw delegates—Wright, Wade, Riley, and Page (Jones having left Washington at an early date),—Chief Pitchlynn, and by the members of the Chickasaw delegation. Among the witnesses who also signed were Mr. Latrobe and Douglas H. Cooper.
Beginning the second step, the Choctaw delegates were called upon by Mr. Latrobe and his associates—Cooper and Cochrane—to assist in securing the ratification of the new treaty. Generally in making Indian treaties, after the document had been signed by the Indian delegates, it was laid before the Senate and its ratification furthered by Government officials. In view of conditions existing at Washington in 1866, the appearance of the delegates before members of the Senate was important for success in the work for the Choctaw Nation. The acceptance of the 9th and 10th articles of the treaty, which provided for the resumption of payment of all money, (approximately $1,800,000 in back annuities, confiscated bonds, school funds and general funds), due the nation
in 1865, by the United States, and the ratification of the articles were vital to the nation in maintaining its government and schools and the general welfare of its citizens. The 10th Article also provided that the Net Proceeds claim (approximately $2,500,000 of the U. S. Senate's award, 1859) and future annuities arising from former treaties should be paid. Thus, the 9th and 10th articles and also, articles 46 and 48, which provided for an advance of certain sums as soon as practicable after ratification, were analagous to appropriation measures before Congress. It required extra effort to secure their inclusion and ratification, owing to the rabid sectional feeling surrounding the political situaton at Washington in 1866.
While the treaty was before the Senate, Mr. Latrobe, in behalf of his associates (Cooper and Cochrane) and himself, completed the preliminary arrangements made with Colonel Jones, in a written memorandum signed by Wright, Wade, Riley, and Page. The attorney fee was to be one-half of the back annuities and the confiscated bonds (and not less than $100,000) withheld and diverted by the United States from 1861-5, contingent upon their recovery in the treaty when ratified. It was understood all parties associated in the agreement were to exert every effort toward the successful completion of the treaty, the members of the delegation to be paid for their services out of the attorney fee, contingent upon the inclusion of the 10th Article in the treaty when ratified.
The treaty was ratified by the Senate on June 28, 1866, and signed by President Johnson on July 10, following. By its terms, the Choctaw Nation was preserved with its former rights and privileges, all its land east of the 98th Meridian (under certain provisions for sectionizing and allotment in severalty), and all money due under former treaties. There were other important provisions for the regular organization of the so-called Indian Territory by the nations and tribes living therein.
After the ratification of the treaty, the Choctaw delegates and the attorney with his associates were paid for their services.
Wright, Wade, Riley, and Page received pay for their employment in negotiating the treaty, from early November, 1865, to April 28, 1866. The sum received by reach was $2,968, the premium on gold being at the rate of 40%. This amount included travel to and from Washington, $440, and salary plus expenses,
$10 per day, under provisions of the Act of the Choctaw Council on October 17, 1865.
Late in the summer, Mr. Latrobe received an advance of $100,000, subject to the approval of the Choctaw Council, in the form of two payments, as his fee for services under agreement. This amount was paid out by Allen Wright, as treasurer, who received a receipt for the same. Latrobe and his associates retained half the amount, Latrobe receiving $16,000 as his personal fee. Of the other half, Wright, Wade, Riley and Page each received $9,583.33. Colonel Jones's share of $9,583.33, as a member of the delegation, was taken in charge by Chief Pitchlynn pending a settlement for his having secured the release of a large amount of Jones's cotton confiscated by the United States during the War.
Force of circumstances compelled the four delegates to remain in Washington after the signing of the treaty on April 28. When they were selected as members of the delegation in October 1865, they had no funds to go on but had to borrow money personally, at interest, and run on credit in meeting expenses at Washington. They remained in the city five months after April 28, furthering the affairs of their nation. Choctaw finances in the hands of the U. S. Government were in such a chaotic condition due to the Civil War, that even after the ratification of the treaty, the delegates were uncertain when any payments in money would be made the nation. Though they finally received back pay for services and personal expenses up to April 28, they still had to meet their own expenses after that date, until their departure the last of September. When they were paid out of the attorney's fees for servics rendered in securing the ratification of the treaty, the nation was thereby saved several thousand dollars for salary and expenses that would have been lawfully due the delegates for that work. This amount would have been in addition to the attorney fee, the whole of which could have been legally retained by Mr. Latrobe.
On page 88, Miss Debo stated that Mr. Latrobe "maintained that he wrote and secured the adoption of the peace treaty." She took the position that Mr. Latrobe did not give the members of the Choctaw delegation credit nor recognition for their efforts in
securing the treaty. In comparing her statement with Mr. Latrobe's Address to the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations (Baltimore 1873), cited by Miss Debo as her source of information, one finds Mr. Latrobe wrote as follows (italics the reviewer's):
"* * * Whether ill done or well done, the work was mine. To say that the treaty, or anything like it was prepared at the Department is to misrepresent the fact. Competent as was the Secretary of the Interior or the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to suggest and prepare just such a treaty as was made, it so happened that on this occasion their part of the work was to discuss what was offered to them. The treaty itself was prepared by me in consultation with your delegates, held day after day, during the winter of 1865-6; altered, amended, changed and improved until the nine articles of the project of Fort Smith, which were all that the Indian Bureau proposed in the first instance as a basis, were expanded into the fifty-one articles of the treaty that was finally ratified by the Senate.
* * *
"One thing is certain. I was not competent of myself to do all that was required in prosecuting the claim of back annuities, reaffirmed by the 10th Article, out of which my fee was to be paid. My profession, after the negotiation of the treaty, confined me to Baltimore.—But services were to be rendered in Washington. The ratification of the treaty placed back annuities in the category of 'Claims on Government.' I could write arguments, prepare memorials and conduct correspondence,—all of which I have done, until my correspondence alone, in this connection more than doubles all the other correspondence of an active practice. But I could not take up my residence in Washington, hunt for information in the public offices, urge estimates at the Department, explain to members merits of appropriations, and furnish them with materials for discussion, even when it was possible to excite some passing interest in a matter apart from politics and touching private rights alone. This was to be done by persons at the seat of Government, such as are stigmatized by the late Chairman as 'claim agents,' as if, without such agents, claims prosecute themselves. Sometimes, this could be better done by the agent than the principal. Sometimes, the appearance of the principal was required to expedite the business. In this Indian
matter, the appearance of the Indians themselves gave weight to their application, and secured a hearing, when a local agent would be put off to a more convenient season.
"It was for services of this description that the delegates were to be paid out of the compensation mentioned in the contract made in my name. Services wholly distinct from the negotiations of the treaty,—to be performed when, all their duties in regard to the treaty having ceased, it had passed out of their hands, and was before the Senate for ratification. Services which they had the same right to engage in, as any others of their people; and in the contract, made in my name, these were the services, which, if called upon, they were expected to render, to be paid for, not by their people, but out of my own contingent compensation."
Not one of the Choctaw delegates of 1866 did anything but what he thought was just and right in view of the conditions and the laws existing at that time. When they returned to their nation, the Council approved all their acts in securing the treaty.2 As for Allen Wright, one of the younger men on the delegation, his personality, ability and educational advantages won for him recognition as a leader during his sojourn at Washington. A man
2Chief Peter Pitchlynn had been in Washington during the whole period of the treaty making and was acquainted with all the acts of the delegates. He no doubt exerted his influence to secure the treaty and advised the delegates, because of his knowledge of affairs and his acquaintance at Washington. It was through Pitchlynn that the delegates were able to borrow some of the money they were compelled to secure in order to meet their expenses during the time of the teaty making. When the delegates received pay ($2,968) for negotiating the treaty, Pitchlynn also received the same amount ($2,968) as an advance subject to the approval of the Choctaw Council, in order to meet his own expenses. Allen Wright, as treasurer, received a receipt for this sum from Pitchlynn who pledged his Masonic honor he would return the money to the Nation if the Council did not approve the advance. Upon his return to the Nation, Wright presented his treasurer's report to the Council which approved the same with the exception of the sum advanced Chief Pitchlynn. At this time (about the middle of November, 1866), Wright was succeeded in his office as treasurer by T. J. Bond who receipted Wright in full for his papers as treasurer. Some time later, Chief Pitchlynn paid the sum advanced him by Wright, in the form of a draft on Riggs and Company of Washington, prominent bankers in good standing at the time, the draft being made payable to T. J. Bond as treasurer of the Choctaw Nation. The draft was not cashed immediately, the whole matter remaining unsettled. In the meantime, Wright's official bond as treasurer remained uncancelled, thus making him liable to pay the amount advanced Pitchlynn. For this reason, about 1870, Wright entered a mandamus suit before the courts of the Nation to settle the matter. By its decision in a review of the case, the Supreme Court of the Nation cancelled Wright's official bond as treasured and returned it to him, leaving the matter of the Pitchlynn draft open, pending a settlement between Pitchlynn and the Nation in regard to the Net Proceeds Claim.
of principle and honor, he considered it his duty to apply himself energetically to each task that he was called upon to perform in furthering the welfare of his people. During the period of one year (1865-6), he served as treasurer of the nation, delegate to Fort Smith, delegate to Washington to negotiate a new treaty, was specially employed to assist in securing its ratification, and just before returning home, receved word he had been elected principal chief. He served two consecutive terms (four years) in this position and remained to the end of his life beloved by a host of friends and a respected citizen of his nation, whose advice and counsel, due to his ability and experience, were sought by leaders among his people and in the States. What he accomplished in the educational and governmental affairs and in the mission field was outstanding in the history of the Choctaws and of the Indian Territory.
However, the delegates of 1866 were not the only Choctaw officials against whom derogatory remarks and charges were made in Miss Debo's volume, without due regard for proofs of such statements. In Chapter X, pages 243-4, she concludes her deductions in a sweeping generalization on the character of the Choctaws—
"A people strangely gifted in thought and speech but slow in action and practical judgment, deeply susceptible to religious feeling but inclined to violent deeds, withdrawing to themselves in clannish reserve yet kindly and friendly to other races, loving their country but condoning corruption, receptive to new ideas but clinging to their institutions with desperate tenacity—a people who were being submerged but not absorbed in the waves of white immigration that were flooding their country."
Contradictions to these deductions are found elsewhere in the book. According to the above, the Choctaws were "slow in action and practical judgment," yet from the conclusions drawn in Chapter I, page 23, they were practical minded and adaptable; "deeply susceptible to religious feeling," yet in Chapter I, they were distinguished for the absence of religious feeling; "condoned official corruption," yet in Chapter I, they seemed to have a contempt for falsehood and a high sense of honor in dealing with their friends.
According to the above generalization, the Choctaws were "strangely gifted in thought and speech" and "clung to their institutions with desperate tenacity," yet the last page of the book sets forth the statement they had unwittingly chosen their ultimate destiny * * the white man's road. Again from the above, they were "a people who were being submerged but not absorbed in the waves of white immigration," yet on the last page, they were said to have been absorbed and merged into "the composite citizenship of the newest commonwealth."
Such contradictory statements are a travesty on the character and the record of the Choctaw people.
—Muriel H. Wright.