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|Choctaws labeled young John Hutchins a 'medicine man' after frontier encounters|
More than 200 years ago as just a boy, John Hutchins had many duties on his father's plantations in frontier Natchez. One job, Hutchins recalled in a memoir he wrote for his grandchildren, was "to watch the landing to receive freight."
The landing on the Mississippi River was about three miles east of White Apple Village, a deserted Natchez Indian village site which by the 1770s was the home of the Anthony Hutchins' family, immigrants from South Carolina. Located 12 miles below Fort Panmure at Natchez, White Apple Village was in the deep wilderness of Natchez country and John Hutchins was born there and grew up among frontiersmen and also among hundreds of Indians, particularly Choctaw.
"Now, John, don't waste your time," Anthony Hutchins told his son when sending him to the landing, "you are wanted in the field." John Hutchins took off on foot, his flintlock on his shoulder and his "spy glass" in his hand. "It was a pretty good telescope," said Hutchins, "and very long when drawn into focus."
At the landing, Hutchins observed about 100 Choctaw encamped along the river. Hutchins leaned his rifle against a tree and in a short time saw the keelboat loaded with supplies coming upriver from New Orleans. As the crew rowed toward the landing, Hutchins pulled out his spy glass and looked through it at the vessel.
In a short time, a group of Choctaws walked over to Hutchins and asked him if he was going to "shoot the boat. I told them no, that I was only bringing her closer to me that I might look into her loading."
He handed the telescope to one of the Indians who looked through it not knowing what to expect and screamed in terror when the boat suddenly appeared close enough to touch. He backed away and shouted, "Medicine man." Said Hutchins, "In less than five minutes there was not an Indian to be seen."
A POISONOUS BIT OF DECEPTION
To be a frontiersman in the American wilderness of the late 1700s meant frequent encounters with Indians. The experiences were both good and bad and by the time an eight-year-old boy was toting a flintlock, he was working the fields from daylight to dust, hunting to put meat on the table and nurturing his skills of survival.
He also learned quickly how to communicate and interact with Indians and the smart and crafty John Hutchins understood when he was called a "medicine men" by the Choctaw there on the Mississippi River bank that it might be something that could work to his advantage.
Not long afterward "a large number of Indians" -- men, women and children -- encamped "within a quarter of a mile" of the Hutchins' home, which was on Second Creek near present day Hwy. 61 about nine miles south of the city limits of Natchez.
Indians didn't understand private ownership of land in the sense that a field of corn, for example, could belong to just one man. Everything was to be shared. But the white man was setting boundaries on traditional Indian lands and conflicts often happened.
Imagine a boy such as John Hutchins being sent by his father to an Indian encampment "to drive them away." That's certainly a taller order than telling your child today to clean up his room.
Hutchins' father, like the Choctaw in Natchez at this time, was pro-English and due to the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1863, the French gave up Natchez country to the British.
"There were many instances during the days before and during the Revolutionary War that the Choctaw were in this area a good bit," said historian Jim Barnett, who has long studied the Natchez, Choctaw and other Indian cultures. "The Choctaws were a big confederation of maybe as many as 14,000 at that time and they were all located in Mississippi, spread out through 50 villages in four or five counties in eastern Mississippi."
But, said Barnett, "They were not unified under one leader. Villages and groups of villages routinely made their own alliances." He said before the Treaty of Paris that the Choctaw were pro-French, but now one group of Choctaws was pro-English and another group pro-Spanish.
"The group of Choctaw in Natchez during the Hutchins' day were pro-English as was Anthony Hutchins," the father of John Hutchins. "When the Revolutionary War broke out, at the bidding of the English, the pro-English Choctaw were asked to go to the Natchez area and watch the Mississippi River, particularly for Spanish (which held Louisiana) and to guard against Americans. They also came to Natchez to hunt and trade."
"I was soon at the camp," said Hutchins, who rode his "pony horse" there to run away the encamped group of Choctaws. He said the "Indians looked formidable." He found the chief, who Hutchins was able to identify in part because the man wore "a large tin medal...I addressed myself to him, told him that my father had sent me to tell him that he must move his people off his land."
The chief looked at Hutchins with contempt and said, "The land is free to all. It is mine as it is your father's. Go home, boy, and tell your father that I say I won't leave this spot until I please."
Before leaving, Hutchins noticed that the Indians had a number of dogs in their camp and remarked about how fat they looked.
"Yes," said the chief, "bear dogs." Hutchins replied that the dogs looked as if they were fat "on white people's hogs and cows."
No," said the Indian, "I feed them venison."
The chief protested Hutchins' accusation that the Indians were killing his family's livestock. To prove who was right, Hutchins predicted that by sunrise the next day the Indians' dogs would begin to die.
"If my dogs die," said the chief, "by that time I will move."
Hutchins said he would return the next morning.
On the way home, Hutchins put into play a plan that came to him back at the Indian camp. At that time, he said, "our country was infested with wolves in great numbers." The settlers trapped some, shot some and poisoned others. Once at home, Hutchins prepared some poison and inserted "a dose wrapped up in a small piece of thin paper in a mouthful of fresh meat, at least to the amount of one hundred pieces..."
At twilight, Hutchins said he "rode around the (Indian) camp, dropping piece after piece, until my sack (of poisoned meat) was empty." Barnett points out that the event could have happened just as Hutchins described it, but noted that "the main value of dogs to Indians was that they acted as sentinels. The Choctaw didn't use them as hunting dogs."
Possibly, those particularly dogs got a good whiff of Hutchins when he visited the camp earlier in the day and because he was dropping food they may not have barked at his presence if they saw or smelled him at twilight.
The next morning, as agreed upon, Hutchins returned to the camp and found the Indians in a "bustle and confusion and hurry." He asked what was going on.
"Going away," said the chief, "Dog die too fast." This, said Hutchins, convinced them that the young Hutchins' boy was "a great medicine man."
Barnett says medicine men played a major role in Indian culture, which had both its upside and downside. "Every village had a medicine man. Some might be able to cure an illness. The people who did this had to live by their wits."
Making a prediction that didn't come true or trying to cure someone who died "would really be worth the life" of the medicine man who "could be killed out right" if this happened.
300 INDIANS READY TO BATTLE HUTCHINS
When only 10 years old, two hunters in the woods saw an Indian shoot one of the Hutchins' cows. The men caught the Indian "and gave him a sound thrashing," a policy often used on the frontier.
Barnett said the Indians' "concept of ownership was different from the concept of Europeans. If the Indians found a cow grazing out of sight of a farm house it was fair game. Plus, they were needing to feed their families. During the Revolutionary War period, deer were being thinned out."
The day after the Indian was whipped, the man complained to his chief, a Choctaw named Spaniky. Hutchins said the chief gathered 300 warriors -- likely an exaggeration in number, says Barnett -- and planned to exact revenge on the hunters. In those days, said Hutchins, "My father's house was the place of rendezvous on all alarming occasions...all the inhabitants that were near, both white and black, were soon collected."
As the Indians approached the Hutchins' cabin, the women and children went inside while about 15 men prepared a defense. Fifty yards from the house, the Indians "took their stand...Our men, some with guns, some with axes and others with hoes, formed a line in front of the door."
For a time, the two parties eyed one another but no one made a move. At length, said Hutchins, his father told an interpreter to explain to the chief that the Indian was whipped because he shot one of Hutchins' cows.
At this time, Hutchins said he saw an Indian boy -- the chief's son -- who was about Hutchins' age and "well armed with a bow and a small quiver of arrows and as I thought there was war, I thought I would have a hand in it." So Hutchins did a thing that astounded everyone there -- "I stepped up to the Chief's son...snatched from his hands his implements of war and before he had time to attempt its recovery I shot him" in the belly.
Calling what he did a "mad act," Hutchins said there was "an immediate rush and the Indians advanced." But the advance was checked, said Hutchins, who was standing by his father, when some of the Indians began pointing a finger at young Hutchins and "crying out 'medicine man'...a medicine man in the person of a small boy upset all their courage."
Quickly, Hutchins' father provided the Indians with a "few blankets" and "peace was restored." Hutchins doesn't say whether the chief's son survived his wound.
By the time he was 13, Hutchins said he had studied "the character of the Indians," was an expert "at all their games" and with handling a tomahawk. He said he "learned their weak points and much about their superstitions."
He boasted: "I soon became with them what they call a medicine man. I worked on their fears until I could command them at pleasure and as I practiced my talents improved until I was so well known as to make my name a terror to them..."
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