Published on May 10, 2012 by Amy
Pushmataha (c. 1760s – 24 December 1824; also spelled Pooshawattaha, Pooshamallaha, or Poosha Matthaw), the “Indian General”, was one of the three regional chiefs of the major divisions of the Choctaw in the nineteenth century. Many historians considered him the “greatest of all Choctaw chiefs”. Pushmataha was highly regarded among Native Americans, Europeans, and white Americans for his skill and cunning in both war and diplomacy.
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Rejecting the offers of alliance and reconquest proffered by Tecumseh, Pushmataha led the Choctaw to fight on the side of the United States in the War of 1812. He negotiated several treaties with the United States.
In 1824, he traveled to Washington to petition the Federal government against further cessions of Choctaw land; he met with John C. Calhoun and Marquis de Lafayette, and his portrait was painted by Charles Bird King. He died at the capital and was buried with full military honors in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The exact meaning of Pushmataha’s name is unknown, though scholars agree that it suggests connotations of “ending”. Many possible etymologies have been suggested:
Pushmataha’s early life is poorly documented. His parents are unknown, possibly killed in a raid by a neighboring tribe. Pushmataha never spoke of his ancestors; a legend of his origin was told:
“A little cloud was once seen in the northern sky. It came before a rushing wind, and covered the Choctaw country with darkness. Out of it flew an angry fire. It struck a large oak, and scattered its limbs and its trunk all along the ground, and from that spot sprung forth a warrior fully armed for war.”
Most historians agree that he was born in 1764 in the normal manner near the future site of Macon, Mississippi.
When he was 13, Pushmataha fought in a war against the Creek people. Some sources report that he was given the early warrior-name of “Eagle”. Better attested is his participation in wars with the Osage and Caddo tribes west of the Mississippi River between 1784 and 1789, He served as a warrior in other conflicts into the first decade of the 1800s, by when his reputation as a warrior was made. These conflicts were due to depletion of the traditional deer-hunting grounds of the Choctaw around their holy site of Nanih Waiya. Population had increased in the area, and competition among tribes over the fur trade with Europeans exacerbated violent conflict. The Choctaw raided traditional hunting grounds of other tribes for deer. Pushmataha’s raids extended into the territories that would become the states of Arkansas and Oklahoma. His experience and knowledge of the lands would prove invaluable for later negotiations with the US government for those same lands.
By 1800, Pushmataha was recognized as a military and spiritual leader, and he was chosen as the mingo (chief) of the Okla Hannali or Six Towns district of the Choctaw. (One of three in the Choctaw tribe, this covered the southern part of their territory, primarily in Mississippi). His sharp logic, humorous wit, and lyrical, eloquent speaking style quickly earned him renown in councils. Pushmataha rapidly took a central position in diplomacy, first meeting with United States envoys at Fort Confederation in 1802. Pushmataha negotiated the Treaty of Mount Dexter with the United States on 16 November 1805, and met Thomas Jefferson during his term as President.
On his return from the wars, Pushmataha was elected paramount chief of the Choctaw nation. A cultural conservative, Pushamataha resisted the efforts of Protestant missionaries, who arrived in Choctaw territory in 1818. But he agreed with learning new technologies and useful practices from the Americans, including the adoption of cotton gins, agricultural practices, and military disciplines. He devoted much of his military pension to funding a Choctaw school system, and had his five children educated as well as possible.
Pushmataha negotiated two more land cession-treaties with the United States. While the treaty of 24 October 1816 was counted of little loss, composed mainly of hunted-out grounds, the Treaty of Doak’s Stand (signed 18 October 1820) was highly contentious. European-American settlement was encroaching on core lands of the Choctaw. Although the government offered equivalent-sized plots of land in the future states of Arkansas and Oklahoma, Pushmataha knew the lands were less fertile and that European-American squatters were already settling in the territory. “He displayed much diplomacy and showed a business capacity equal to that of Gen. Jackson, against whom he was pitted, in driving a sharp bargain.” Reportedly, in a tense exchange with Andrew Jackson, they exchanged frank views:
Gen. Jackson put on all his dignity and thus addressed the chief: “I wish you to understand that I am Andrew Jackson, and, by the Eternal, you shall sign that treaty as I have prepared it.” The mighty Choctaw Chief was not disconcerted by this haughty address, and springing suddenly to his feet, and imitating the manner of his opponent, replied, “I know very well who you are, but I wish you to understand that I am Pushmataha, head chief of the Choctaws; and, by the Eternal, I will not sign that treaty.”
Pushmataha signed only after securing guarantees in the text of the treaty that the US would evict squatters from reserved lands.
In 1824, Pushmataha was upset about encroaching settlement patterns and the unwillingness of local authorities to respect Indian land title. He took his case directly to the Federal government in Washington, D.C.. Leading a delegation of two other regional chiefs (Apuckshunubbee and Mosholatubbee), he sought either expulsion of white settlers from deeded lands in Arkansas, or compensation in land and cash for such lands. The group included Talking Warrior, Red Fort, Nittahkachee, Col. Robert Cole and David Folsom, both mixed-race Choctaw; Captain Daniel McCurtain; and Major John Pitchlynn (married to a Choctaw), the official U.S. Interpreter.
The delegation planned to travel the Natchez Trace to Nashville, then to Lexington and Maysville, Kentucky; across the Ohio River (called the Spaylaywitheepi by the Shawnee) to Chillicothe, Ohio (former principal town of the Shawnee); and east along the “National Highway” to Washington City.
Pushmataha met with President James Monroe, and gave a speech to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. He reminded Calhoun of the longstanding alliances between the United States and the Choctaw. He said, “I can say and tell the truth that no Choctaw ever drew his bow against the United States … My nation has given of their country until it is very small. We are in trouble.” (Hewitt 1995:51-52)
While in Washington, Pushmataha sat in his Army uniform for a portrait by Charles Bird King; it hung in the Smithsonian Institution until 1865. While the original was destroyed by a fire that year, numerous prints had been made. It has become the most famous likeness of Pushmataha. While in Washington, the chief also met with the Marquis de Lafayette, who was visiting Washington, D.C. for the last time. He hailed Lafayette as a fellow aged warrior who, though foreign, rose to high renown in the American cause.
In December 1824, Pushmataha acquired a viral respiratory infection, then called the croup. He became seriously ill and was visited by Andrew Jackson. On his deathbed, Pushmataha reflected that the national capital was a good place to die. He requested full military honors for his funeral, and gave specific instructions as to his effects. His last recorded words were these:
“I am about to die, but you will return to our country. As you go along the paths, you will see the flowers, and hear the birds sing; but Pushmataha will see and hear them no more. When you reach home they will ask you, ‘Where is Pushmataha?’ And you will say to them, ‘He is no more.’ They will hear your words as they do the fall of the great oak in the stillness of the midnight woods.”
Pushmataha died on 24 December 1824. As requested, he was buried with full military honors as a Brigadier General of the U.S. Army, in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington. He is the only Native American chief interred there. His epitaph reads: “Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief, lies here. This monument to his memory is erected by his brother chiefs who were associated with him in a delegation from their nation in the year 1824 to the general government of the United States.”
The National Intelligencer reported on 28 December 1824 on his death:
At Tennison’s Hotel, on Friday last, the 24th instant, Pooshamataha, a Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Indians, distinguished for his bold elocution and his attachment to the United States. At the commencement of the late war on our Southern border, he took an early and decided stand in favor of the weak and isolated settlements on Tombigby, and he continued to fight with and for them whilst they had an enemy in the field. His bones will rest a distance from his home, but in the bosom of the people he delighted to love. May a good hunting ground await his generous spirit in another and a better world. Military honors were paid to his remains by the Marine Corps of the United States, and by several uniformed companies of the militia.
The “Hampshire Gazette (MA), Jan. 5, 1825, p. 3″ reported:
At Washington city, PUSHA-A-MA-TA-HA, principal chief of a district of the Choctaw nation of Indians. This chief was remarkable for his personal courage and skill in war, having been engaged in 24 battles, several of which were fought under the command of Gen. Jackson.
On Pushmataha’s death, Oklahoma (known as “Red People”), rose to become chief of the Okla Hannali Choctaw. Reportedly Oklahoma was later removed from office because of drinking problems. General Humming Bird succeeded Oklahoma. Nittakechi (Day-prolonger) succeeded Humming Bird after he died in 1828.