While reading an 1842 Columbus newspaper, The Southern Argus, I came across an interesting article about the Choctaw Nation. It contained comments on their famed chief, Pushmataha.
Pushmataha was the most remarkable man that the nation since their great Mingo, Chactas ever produced. He was six feet, two inches high, robust and almost gigantic strength. His form and features were after the finest models of the antique: his deportment graceful and his manner at once dignified and seductive. He was sometimes called the “Panthers Claw” and the “Waterfall,” in allusion to his exploits in battle and the sonorous and musical intonations of his voice. The late Gen. Dale informed us that he had heard all the distinguished orators in Congress, but never one who had such music in his tones, and such energy in his manner, as this renowned warrior.
We received the same information from Mr. James Stanley now a respectable citizen of Holmes County, but long a resident among the Choctaws. His cadences were admirably regulated, sometimes when addressing the Grand Council, sinking to a whisper soft as a zephyr, yet perfectly audible, then rising to a key so loud that the echo of his voice would be distinctly heard dying away far back into the silent forest. Pushmataha acknowledged no paternity. “Who are your parents?” he was asked. “I have no father and no mother,” was his proud reply. “The lightning struck an oak tree, and Pushmatahah sprang out of it, just as he is.”
In 1832, the New York newspaper, The American for the Country, published an article lamenting the state of poetry being written in the U S. Its article suggested that “we wish too, to see the figures and imagery of poetry a little more characteristic, as if drawn from nature and not from books. Of this we have constantly recurring examples of our North American Indians.” Their example of Indian prose that was better than most American poetry was that of Pushmataha.
Pushmataha’s reputation as an orator and storyteller is confirmed by his statements to missionaries in answering who his parents were:
“It was a long time ago; at the season when the glorious sun was pouring down his brightest, balmiest and greatest life-giving influence; when the gay flowers, bedecked in their most gorgeous habiliments, were sweetest, brightest and most numerous; when the joyous birds in full chorus were chanting their gleeful songs of life and love, full of inspiration; when all nature seemed to quiver in rapturous emotion. ‘Twas noon. The day was calm and fair and very pleasant. There was a beautiful wide spreading plain, with but few trees on it. One there was of giant size and venerable age. It was a red oak and its dark waving branches, overshadowing an immense area of the beautiful green plain, had bid defiance and braved unscathed the storms of many winters. There it stood, vast in its proportions, calm in its strength, majestic in its attitude. It had witnessed the rise and fall of many generations of animal life. But everything must have its time, fulfill its destiny. That magnificent red oak, the prominent feature on that far reaching landscape, and had been for centuries, had not accomplished the object for which the great spirit had planted it. There it was in full foliage, casting its dark, widely spreading shadow, upon the sunlit plain. All nature was clad in smiles of joy on that bright day. Anon a cloud was rising in the west, a black, angry, threatening cloud, looming upwards and rapidly widening its scowling front. Harshly grumbling as it whirled its black folds onward, nearer and nearer, very soon it overspread the whole heavens, veiling the landscape in utter darkness and appalling uproar. It was a sweeping tornado, fringed with forked lightning, thunders rolling and bellowing; the winds fiercely howled and the solid earth trembled. In the height of this confusion and war of elements a burning flash of fire gleamed through the black obscurity. A shattering crash, followed by a burst of terrific thunder that, heavily rumbling through the surging storm, seemed to shake down the humid contents of the fast rolling cloud in irresistible torrents. Awful sounds assailed the startled senses in all directions as the frightful tornado swiftly swept by in its devastating course. Soon it passed and was all calm again. The sun poured down his beaming rays in their wonted brilliancy but the vast, time honored sylvan king, the red oak, had been shivered into fragments, its oddshapen splinters lay widely scattered on the rain-beaten plain. Not a vestige remained to mark the spot where once stood that towering tree. Not even a snag of the stump remained. The object of its creation was accomplished, and it its place there was a new thing under the sun! Shall I name it? Equipped and ready for battle, holding in his right hand a ponderous club, standing erect on the place of the demolished red oak, was your dauntless chief, ‘Apushimataha.’”
The example that the newspaper used was Pushmataha’s last words to his Choctaw companions before he died in Washington in 1824: “I shall die, but you will return to your brethren. As you go along the paths, you will see the flowers, and hear the birds sing; but Pushmataha will see them and hear them no more. When you come to your home, they will ask you, ‘Where is Pushmataha?’ And you will say to them, ‘He is no more.’ They will hear the tidings like the sound of the fall of a mighty oak in the stillness of the wood.”
In 1824, during Lafayette’s American tour, Pushmataha and fellow Choctaw Chief Mushulatubbee met Lafayette. Pushmataha greeted the hero from France saying: “About 50 years ago you drew your sword, the companion of General Washington. With him you traveled and warred against the enemies of America. In spilling the blood of your foes, you generously shed your own, thereby consecrating your devotion to the cause in which you were engaged. After the termination of that war, you returned to your country; and now you revisit this land. … We have come. We take you by the hand and are satisfied. It is the first and last time. We shall see you no more. We part on earth, forever. That is all I have to say.”
Pushmataha’s words could not have been more prophetic, for he was reported to have met Lafayette on Nov. 24, 1824. Only a month later on Dec. 24, while a member of a deputation from his nation to transact some business with the U.S. government in Washington, he died.
Thanks to Carolyn Kaye for transcribing the old newspaper accounts. To read more about Pushmataha, I would suggest the University of Alabama Press’ publication of Gideon Lincecum’s account of Pushmataha, A Choctaw Leader and His People.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.