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|Settlers flee to Natchez fort in 1780 dispute with Choctaw|
In Natchez country in 1780, the Choctaw Indians had "become so troublesome and exciting," wrote historian John F.H. Claiborne in his 19th Century book on Mississippi, "that most of the settlers abandoned their homes and moved to the vicinity of Natchez."
John Hutchins, who was born and reared along Second Creek about nine miles south of Natchez, said the problems with the Choctaw in 1780 began when settlers' horses "were frequently stolen by the Indians, who always returned them by the offer of a large reward, but, by and by they demanded a price so high that our people refused to submit to such a piracy."
Hutchins said it was not unusual for Choctaw to come to the homes of settlers and demand blankets or other goods, or steal corn from the fields or vegetables from gardens. The Indians, too, had become dependent in many ways on guns and other trade goods offered by the Europeans and sometimes frustrations over a lack of these items were taken out on settlers.
The Natchez Indians had decades earlier changed their way of life by providing deer skins to Europeans in exchange for various goods. As the French encroached on their ancestral lands and as brutal leaders added insults and hardships on the tribe, the Natchez rebelled in 1729 in a massacre at and near Fort Rosalie. Two years later, however, French retribution, with the aid of the Choctaw, brought as end to the Natchez nation.
As settlers from New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina, Virginia and other British colonies came to settle Natchez country in the 1770s, conflicts with the Choctaw arose. Wrote Hutchins about the theft of horses: "Five young men of the highest courage determined to pursue the Indians and take the stolen horses by the force of arms. They met the Indians about 200 in number, a combat ensued, the Indians were driven back, the horses retaken."
Hutchins said one settler and three Indians were killed in the skirmish. "To avenge the loss," said Hutchins, the Choctaw "determined on a general massacre under such circumstances we had to run" to the Natchez fort.
There were about 14,000 Choctaw in what became the state of Mississippi in the 1770s. On the other hand, white settlers in the Natchez district in 1773 included about 2,500 and 600 African slaves.
The Choctaws allegiance was divided between the English and the Spanish. The British were using their Choctaw allies as spies along the river at Natchez during the American Revolution, which meant there were numerous Choctaw parties moving in and out of the area. Oftentimes they camped at the Natchez fort.
For a brief period in 1778, some 150 Choctaw warriors, many from Chief Franchimastabe's tribe settled along the Yazoo, occupied the Natchez fort at the request of the British following the raid by James Willing and dozens of Americans on a mission for Congress, according to historian Greg O'Brien in a Summer 2002 article for the "Journal of Mississippi History." But Willing, who had lived briefly in Natchez and while there enjoyed the hospitality of many, pillaged and plundered farms from Natchez to Baton Rouge, acts which turned the local settlers against the American cause.
Afterward, the Choctaw came to the fort to protect the settlers on behalf of the British government. During this brief occupancy, two Frenchmen docked their bateaux at the Natchez landing. There, two Choctaws in the garrison recognized the two Frenchmen as having been with Willing's party which had roughed up two Choctaws and killed another. The Choctaw didn't give the two Frenchmen "eye-for-an-eye" justice, but they did return home with their scalps.
"The Choctaw like other tribes had a warrior tradition," said historian Jim Barnett of Natchez, who has long studied southern Indians and has written extensively about the Natchez Indians. "It was important for a young man to go out and kill somebody or participate in a raid in order to have a warrior's name. For that reason it was easy in some cases for people like the English and Spanish to mobilize these raiding groups."
Additionally, Barnett said Indian villages or clans stuck together and if one of their group was attacked or killed, the entire clan often sought revenge. When the three Choctaw were killed in the skirmish with John Hutchins and other settlers, this likely brought on the Choctaw's desire for revenge. This, added to the fact that there was no military presence in Natchez at this time, left the settlers vulnerable.
MURDER IN A CORN FIELD
A few miles to the west of the Hutchins' farm on Second Creek, a colony of settlers from New Jersey, led by Rev. Samuel Swayze, were working the corn fields in what is now the Kingston area. A Swayze descendant, Dr. C.F. Farrar, said the New Jersey Settlers had planted their first corn crop in 1773.
Farrar's account, which is included in Francis Preston Mills' book on the these settlers, notes that improvements were made along Town Creek that year and a stockade was built "where they could assemble with their families and protect themselves against any attack from Indians."
Farrar said the next year the settlers "made corn at what is known as Egypt Plantation. All they had to do was cut and burn the cane, make holes in the ground and put in and cover the corn, then cultivate by knocking down the weeds with sticks. After it was mature they would go after it and it was a saying among them they were going down to Egypt after Corn -- hence the name of this plantation."
John Hutchins said that after his father, Anthony, came to Natchez country in the 1770s that a descendant of the Natchez Indians provided their first crop of corn. Not long after arriving here, Anthony returned to South Carolina to fetch his family after having staked a claim on an ancient, abandoned Natchez Indian village site known as White Apple on Second Creek.
While he was gone, the Natchez descendent known as Indian Tom selected the "top of a ridge of land," dug a hole, lined it "with bark from a tree," and planted the corn. "Then the full bark was laid over it on which dirt was thrown, covering it with leaves. This gave the new colony that came with my father seed for the next year..."
Among the greatest hardships faced by the settlers, said Swayze descendant Dr. Farrar, "was the stealthy attacks of hostile Indians." As John Corey Jr., a grandson of Rev. Swayze, worked in a corn field in 1780 he was murdered by a marauding band of Choctaw.
This incident, coupled with others, sent the white settlers throughout Natchez country in a panic.
THE SMITHS ON ST. CATHERINE
Not far from the Natchez fort along St. Catherine's Creek lived the family of the late Rev. Jedediah Smith, a Presbyterian from Massachusetts. The Smiths and others fled New England as the revolution broke out in 1776. Suffering many hardships during their journey by ship, the Smiths arrived in New Orleans at the time of a smallpox outbreak.
As they journeyed up the Mississippi in the sweltering heat of August, a storm blew up and almost sunk their boat. The heat grew excessive and for days it showered two to three times a day, making the conditions dismal and miserable.
Shortly before arriving at Natchez, the reverend was stricken with a high fever, grew delirious one day and jumped into the river. He was rescued, but his condition worsened and on Sept. 2, 1776, 10 days after the family's arrival in Natchez, Rev. Smith was buried in a common burial ground atop the bluff, a site which has since caved into the river.
Rev. Smith's widow was now left to raise 11 children on her own. Her 14-year-old son, Philander, who would one day become a respected, leading citizen in Natchez country and serve in the Mississippi Territory Legislature, recalled when in 1780 "the sudden alarm of a possible attack of Indians" arrived at his mother's house. Everyone was urged to make their way quickly to the fort for protection.
Sarah Smith quickly gathered up food for her children before they cautiously made their way to the fort, scanning the woods and meadows along the way for Indians. The Smith family found the fort so crowded with refugees that not a chair was available for Mrs. Smith to rest her weary body.
Young Philander Smith couldn't stand to see his mama so uncomfortable so he slipped out of the fort unnoticed, made his way home, lifted a large armchair to his shoulders and carried it back in the darkness to the fort for his mother.
John Hutchins said some families remained at the fort for as long as eight months "in a very suffering state, with very little provisions and almost naked. During this time the Indians destroyed all our domestic animals and burned out houses, consumed our corn and left us destitute of everything that we could not carry on our backs in our retreat."
CONFLICTS WITH THE CHOCTAW
The conflicts with the Choctaw, of course, had much to do with the differences in lifestyles and culture between the white man and the red man and also much to do with the encroachment of settlers on ancestral Indian lands. Although treaties were signed and agreements made, European governments and American colonists had a bad habit of breaking these commitments.
Clashes over these lands caused bloodshed and fueled the outbreak of the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763, which resulted in a British victory. To the Indians, this war was not over the land belonging to the French, British and colonists in America -- it was over their land. The colonists were pushing them off sacred ground that held the bones of their ancestors and the Indians could never understand why any European would want to leave their ancestral land.
A British Indian superintendent in New York named Sir William Johnson wrote that the Indians told him during conference talks that both the French and English were smug and arrogant. Johnson said the Indians knew full well that the French and British were fighting to "become masters of what was the property of neither the one nor the other."
John Hutchins said that when peace returned at Natchez the settlers made their way back to their homes but "our houses were burned and to shelter ourselves we had to build bark camps, such as the Indians occupy. Our farming tools were gone, what could we do?"
They found an ax, a foot adz and mattock in the charred remains of their settlement. The foot adz was a long-handled tool with a blade at the end used to finish heavy timbers for a house or barn. Usually, the pioneer straddled a piece of wood and swung the adz between his legs. A mattock is similar to a pickax.
"With the axe," said Hutchins, "we cut saplings and built houses; with the mattock we could grub the cane and bushes, after which we turned it into a plow, by which means we could scratch the mellow soil. The foot adz we used as a hoe to cut the most stubborn weeds and each child was furnished with a staff of hard wood to beat down the young cane and tender weeds among the corn."
Even Rev. Samuel Swayze had been forced to flee to Natchez during this time. Historian Claiborne said Swayze -- the "faithful shepherd" -- was "undoubtedly the first Protestant pastor and congregation in the Natchez district. Under many drawbacks, growing out of Indian depredations, and discouragements after the country passed into Spanish hands, this pious teacher and his kindred met together on the Sabbath, often in the swamp and cane-brakes, for divine service."
Claiborne said when the settlers abandoned their homes during the 1780 crisis with the Indians that the "venerable pastor settled on the east bank of St. Catherine on what was long afterwards known as 'Swayze's old field,' on the left of the road from Washington to Natchez, where he died in 1784."
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