In the 1970s, I found an old Choctaw basket in the attic of my great aunt Marcella Sykes Billups Richards‘ home in Columbus. It was not a tourist-trade basket but a well-made, reinforced work basket more than 100 years old.
In trying to trace the history of that basket, I have traveled a trail going back more than 200 years. It is a story that takes one on a journey that begins in 1811 and ends at the time of World War I.
When I found the basket, my aunt had passed away and I asked an elderly cousin, John Bailey Hardy Sr., if he had any ideas. He told me he recalled groups of Choctaws periodically coming to his family’s southern Lowndes County farm. They all wore brightly colored clothes and would ask permission to temporarily camp on the farm. While there, the men would hunt and in exchange do some work on the farm. The women would make baskets from split cane and trade them for chickens that they could cook. Hardy said he did not recall seeing any Choctaws groups pass through this area after World War I.
He told an oral tradition about a Choctaw who lived near the Hardy place when the first Anglo-American settlers moved in after the Choctaws lost their homeland through the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The Indian was known as Red Pepper and until 40 or 50 years ago, his 1830s house site was still known as ”the old Pepper Place” or “Pepper Hill.” The story told how Red Pepper, whose Choctaw name was “Tish a ho ma,” had a house and a farm near Trinity in southern Lowndes County and decided to remain and live under Mississippi law after Indian removal.
He was friends with many of the white settlers in Columbus and near his farm. One of the first white families to build a house on the former Choctaw lands was the Jennings family, and Red Pepper was said to have helped them build their first house on what is now Lindsey Ferry Road.
There is another tradition that when whites first settled in the area, a group of men gathered on a cold winter’s day to place a rope across the Tombigbee to make it easier to cross at what became Lindsey Ferry. They were standing on the river bank debating how to get the rope across as they had no canoe or boat, and the water was ice cold. Red Pepper rode up and asked what the problem was. They responded that they were trying to determine how to get the rope across the river.
Red Pepper replied, “Well that’s easy.” He grabbed the end of the rope, swam across the river with it, tied it to a tree and swam back. When he got out of the water he turned to the astonished people and said, “See how easy that was.”
Hardy said the folks commented “he must be as hot as a red pepper“ and started calling him Red Pepper. Red Pepper actually was a Choctaw captain and was referred to as Capt. Red Pepper in legal documents.
There is another story about how Red Pepper got his name. It is a great story to tell but I have seen it told about both Red Pepper and another Choctaw and am not sure which or if either is true.
It is the story of Gideon Lincecum giving a Choctaw at his store a drink made of rye whiskey and red pepper. The Choctaw drank it and acted as though nothing was wrong. He then went into a back room and let out a blood curdling scream. He returned to the table completely composed and said: “Best drink I’ve ever had. Give me another just like it.”
It is interesting though that Red Pepper and the Lincecum family were friends.
Capt. Red Pepper, as Tish a ho ma was known, first appears in the historic record in 1811. One of the famous figures in early American history was the great leader of the Shawnee Nation, Tecumseh. In 1811, he traveled through the Indian nations of present-day Alabama and Mississippi in an attempt to convince the Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks to reject the quickly spreading Anglo-American influences. He met first with the Chickasaws, who were at peace with the white settlers and rejected his proposal.
Tecumseh then traveled south and crossed Tibbee Creek near where present-day Highway 45 Alternate crosses it below West Point. Tradition says that he was met there by Choctaw Capt. Tisha Homa a.k.a. “Captain Red Pepper.”
Red Pepper was known as a man of peace and as such was sent to escort Tecumseh into the Choctaw Nation. The first night Tecumseh was in the Choctaw Nation, he and the 20 Shawnee warriors and prophets who accompanied him camped in a grove of trees on a hill in the southwest corner of present-day Lowndes County. The next day he arrived at a home of Mushulatubbee, the chief of the Northern District of the Choctaw Nation, where his message was not well received.
The Choctaws held several councils with Tecumseh, one near present-day Brooksville. At the last of the councils, his plan was rebuffed after an impassioned speech by the great Choctaw leader and warrior, Pushmataha.
By the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, the Choctaw Nation lost its homeland in Mississippi. However, certain Choctaws who were tribal leaders or had a house and a farm could remain on a reservation of their land but live under US and Mississippi law. Red Pepper desired to remain on the land that before him had been “his father’s and his father’s father’s.”
It appears that Red Pepper at first failed to receive that land. His relief was addressed by an act of Congress in 1834, an unusual action which reflects the high opinion influential people in the Columbus area had for Red Pepper.
PRIVATE, No. 153
AN ACT for the relief of Hishe Homa, otherwise called Captain Red Pepper, an Indian of the Choctaw tribe.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Hishe Homa, otherwise called Captain Red Pepper, an Indian of the Choctaw tribe of Indians, be entitled, under and subject to the provisions and restrictions of the fourteen article of the treaty made by between the United States of America and the Choctaw Indians, at Dancing Rabbit Creek, on the fifteenth of September, eighteen hundred and thirty, to a reservation of a section of land containing six hundred and forty acres, to include his improvements at the time of making the treaty; and a half section to be located adjoining thereto for his son, aged over ten years.
SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the register and receiver of the land office of the northeastern district be required to lay down on the maps the claim of the said Hishe Homa, and reserve the same from sale.
APPROVED, 30th June, 1834.
Carolyn Kaye has uncovered a tragic end to this story which will conclude next week.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.