American Native Press Archives and Sequoyah Research Center
Choctaws Were Hastened in Starting "Trail of Tears" [a machine-readable transcription]
James Culberson was the son of Tushpa, or John Culberson, and Lucy McDonald. Tushpa had been with the Choctaws as they removed from their traditional homeland in Mississippi to Indian Territory. James Culberson wrote on Choctaw history for Chronicles of Oklahoma over the years. The following is the son's account of Tushpa's story of that historic journey.
The American Indian is peculiarly a product of the new world. It is generally conceded by most enlightened people that God created and arranged the continents and their occupants in a wise and practical manner so that there would be nothing but harmony to mark the progress of life and the growth of nature in His plans. So we find that in all things the main idea was to find this question solved.
The fish were put into the sea, for that is their natural element. The birds were designed to fly in the air, for that is their proper element; so was man created to occupy the land for that, too, is his proper element, and the place where he attains his greatest power and glory.
But the almighty God did more than that with man; when He created him, He placed a distinctive individual man upon each of the great continents. The black man in Africa; yellow man in Asia; the white man in Europe; and the red man (the American Indian as we know him) in North and South America.
This was an arrangement made without our leave, and must have been good in the eyes of the creator. So did the white man find the American Indian when he came roving the seas, and so is he today, with some slight changes from environment, but from nothing else.
The white man may talk about his ‘ego’ and such as that, but he has nothing on the Indian for concealing his ‘I am.’ No one does penetrate the inner self of the Indian. He always holds something in reserve. He may tell you of a successful hunting trip, and illustrate it beautifully, but he does not tell you that he saw friends or enemies on that trip, and you may never know that he saw your best friend or neighbor then; but that is the Indian. He is true, honest and faithful, generally speaking, as any race, but he is that way as a matter of honor for his spoken word, not that he knows that ‘it pays’ as we say now days.
Such was he in the days of Columbus; and he is clothed a little artificially now, and his tutor, the white man, but retains his inner ego just as when he came from the smoking mountain according to the legend of his creation, and such are we, his descendants with a little more polish on us only to cover up the defects in our original selves.
Ages spent in the open has trained his faculties to so keen a pitch that his subconscious mind is yet active and alert to catch the faintest note of warning that his enemy betrays to him, and that is why an Indian is seldom misled by any statements you may make to him.
The next time you have occasion to be in their presence when any statement in which it is sought to interest them is being made, notice the penetrating, quick glance the speaker will get from his listeners. That has been brought down through the ages of conflicts--where a true estimate of the truth of any statement had to be made on the instant, for the life of his community probably depended on a quick, correct decision.
This has been changed to a small extent since the Indians have been partly civilized for something more than a hundred years, and may be entirely eliminated by processes of education. But by the progress now being made, such a goal may be attained by the elimination of the race.
The strictly individual character of the man is not taken into consideration and the theory of education flows over, around, and passes on by him and worries him not a bit. His theory is that is only fit for the white man, and the white man wants him to think that way so long as he does not interfere with his plans.
Eventually the Indian dies, and he has lived an apparently indifferent soul, but really a kind-hearted, generous nature capable of greater things than he is ever given credit, and his place in the sun is taken by one who aspires to other things.
History gives numerous instances where the native peoples of a newly discovered country have suffered from contact with those who have discovered them. Sometimes it is the natural aversion of one race to another, but more often it is a conflict of custom and habits and the change one race tries to bring about on the other race for its material gain.
I want the reader to take the map of Oklahoma and turn to a point in LaFlore County, on the State highway two miles east from Spiro to Fort Smith, Arkansas; there you will locate the remains of an ancient village.
This place was one of the first real settlements by any Indians in what is now Oklahoma, and was known or named Skullyville, and the first Indian Agency in the West was located there by the United States Government in 1833, and a post office established.
The Indians were pleased with this location, as it was an ideal place for a home according to their manner of living. There were rolling timbered hills, with springs at the foot of every hill, and every home had its individual spring, and the branches radiated throughout the land carrying quantities of living water for man or beast; but beyond these timbered streams were occasional glades and open country called prairies where cattle and horses might be raised with no expense.
This town was made up of Choctaw Indians who had just come from their old homes in the state of Mississippi, and some of them were in good circumstances and built houses and improved these new lands, as they brought their slaves with them.
Those who were so fortunate as to be so situated suffered no privations from this radical change of leaving the homes and lands of their forefathers, but the great majority were not so situated, and being Indians, they suffered in silence and no one will ever know the heartaches they endured to make this journey to a new country.
The order was given out to them and they did go. Among them that made the long trip, bare-footed and bare-headed, scantily and on short rations of parched corn and occasional venison or other fresh meat as the hunters chanced to kill game, was a full-blood Choctaw boy of ten years of age. This lad was a bright, industrious fellow and chanced to belong to the family of the clan Haiyup Tukle (twin lakes), and as they were chosen by clans to make the trip, he was counted in the number with his father and mother to make the journey.
This particular band consisted of about one hundred persons, men, women and children, and were all full-blood Choctaw Indians of very small means, and in fact had nothing of value to help them make this trip. The captain or head man of this band arranged the order of travel and assigned to each grown man just what he should carry and in what amounts, and he was cautioned to preserve and protect it with his life. They realized that whatever should be lost or destroyed once they had left their homes could not be replaced, as there was no place to get new supplies.
New homes were to be started and a living to which they had grown accustomed was to be provided, and every need was provided in advance from their scanty stores. One man was selected to carry choice seed corn for the planting of new fields; another to choose and select seeds from choice peach and apple trees so that new orchards might be planted; another to choose and select choice bean and melon seeds for the new gardens, and so on, including seeds of all the vegetables to which they were accustomed.
The provisions for the journey were selected and apportioned the same way, and the care and protection of each and every thing was the particular duty of each one to whom such articles were apportioned. After the decision to leave had been fully decided, the excitement and bustle of preparation took away to some extent the sadness of leaving their only homes they had ever possessed, and by the time the band was ready to travel many were actually glad to begin the journey.
In some countries subject to earthquakes the native peoples have been known to return and build over anew the fatherland after it had been destroyed in some such natural catastrophe, and apparently forget the destruction and death that had wrought such havoc to friend and neighbor, but the earthquake produced in the hearts and minds of the native-born Choctaw Indians when the knowledge that the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek had been agreed upon and approved by some of their head chiefs was greater than any that has ever occurred in the natural world.
It created a panic in their very souls. How could this be? Was not General Jackson their friend? Had they not sent their warriors on with him to battle against their common enemies? And had they not fought and sacrificed together to free this (their country) from the common enemy. Surely this could not be true. There must be some mistake.
And again, was not this the sacred burial ground of their fathers, and had they not hunted, fished and dwelt there always? They could not leave all on earth they possessed--home, land, aged parents, neighbors, friends, and march out into a wilderness penniless and helpless and expect to live! It struck terror to the hearts of the women and children, who had comfortable homes and pleasant surroundings, to think of the many miles which lay between these sheltered homes and the land provided for in the treaty.
Some might travel by boat, but not all. The great U. S. Government would furnish transportation; but when? So many would be compelled to go, and there were no boats. Already there was talk of using force to get them out of their land and homes. Many meetings were held in all of the country the Choctaws occupied, but all with the same result. The treaty had been approved by the majority of their head men and chiefs, and they must abide by it.
Besides had not Apushmataha, the soldier friend of General Jackson, gotten a delay in making this treaty, and did he not make a hurried trip west to see this land which in this treaty they were to have, and had he not said it was a fine rich land with prairies and creeks and rivers and plenty of timber for houses and wood for fires?
It was true that General Jackson had been their friend in the time of war, but that was over now. The white men and women who were their neighbors had been their friends too, especially when they first began to move into their country, but not so now. They were sorry--they said--to see them put in such a predicament, but it was the Government's doings, and they did not want to meddle in the affair.
And so it gradually dawned upon them that they had no friends even in the land where they had been born and were considered aliens on the only soil to which they had any claim. Some died of broken hearts over having been betrayed. Some made a show of resistance to what many thought was an unjust treaty; but at the appearance of the U.S. soldiers they all decided best not to cause any loss of life if possible.
And if it were many days travel to this land, and no road leading to it, had not some of their brothers in times past gone out into this far west and made homes for themselves and were happy, and might not we do the same? ([Culberson's] Note: Alabama Indians.)
They argued and debated this question months and years, and many having decided that a quiet home awaited them in the West, would band together and depart. Some who had property of any consequence were comparatively safe but were under surveillance. And so it went on and on, until a great majority of the Choctaws came to the conclusion that it was best for all to leave rather than remain under suspicion and questioning and be a marked people forever.
A burden of sorrow was in their hearts, and to relieve the pressure a visit was made round to the different meeting houses and graveyards, and a public ‘Yaya’ or cry was held by old friends and associates in commemoration of the saddest event in their lives, the expression of sorrow just the same as though a death had occurred.
Fortunately for this band of Indians, when the rumor that they were about to be forced to leave their homes, they need not be delayed as the greater part of their preparations for the journey had been made, so soon after this last dire news reached them, a concerted move was immediately begun to get away as soon as possible. The head chief, Baha, ordered that all those who had been selected to go in his band to get ready for a forced march.
Only a partial list of those who went in this band is necessary for us to know, and among those who figure in our narrative are: Tushpa, the bare-footed lad; Ishtona, the deliverer, the mother of Tushpa; Kanchi, the seller, the father of Tushpa; Ishtaya, the fire bearer; Halbi [sic], the kicker, second chief, and Chilita, the wise daughter of Habli [sic]. The principal parties and others of various ages, and both men and women as burden bearers and cooks and other help, soon began meeting and planning for the departure.
In every crisis there are always a few souls who arise above the harsh surroundings and set an example of heroism and self-sacrifice to set us to thinking of the vast stores of greatness dormant in the human make-up, even though of an insignificant race or training.
Kanci, who had heard a missionary preach from what he told the Indians through interpretation was a book from God, called his brethren together in the camp and while the news of the disaster of the burning of their homes was fresh on their minds, and some swearing vengeance and others for giving up all and resigning to fate, and bade them listen to him.
He said: ‘My own kin and blood brothers, I know how you feel about what has happened to you; I too have felt the same and looked about for comfort from this wretchedness into which we have been brought.’
‘The Great Spirit gave us a good land and it pleased our fathers to occupy it for many years in peace. They loved their homes and so did we their children and inheritors. We lived strictly according to the customs and traditions of our ancestors. They prospered and we thought to have enjoyed the same happy lives; but no, there has come a change and we are in much distress.’
‘Why are we surrounded by foes and cast out of our homes? I have thought much about it and I can see only one thing wrong. We must not have pleased the Great Spirit, and if we did not, in what way did we not please him? It must be in only one way, and in a way that is new to us.’q
‘Some time back beyond our old homes I heard a man preach from a book that he called a Bible (Holisso Holitopa), and although that book was read by a white man, I believe there is something better in it than the way the white man acts. This book sets the heart right, as I know; and it makes a new man if he be red, white, or black. Now let us all take this word and change our hearts so that we forget this great wrong that has been done us and be better men so that we do not want to kill somebody but want to help them, and maybe we may be better men than we have in this country.’
‘Maybe we need to do a good to somebody in that new country, and we cannot do this if we go with a butcher knife in one hand and a musket in the other hand like we used to do. We must change our way and live for love of somebody from our hearts’.
And imitating the action of the missionary, Kanchi called on all who wanted to be better to stand up. Almost the entire assembly stood up. Still imitating the missionary as nearly as he could remember, he raised his hand and said:
‘The Great Spirit of our Forefathers look down in pity upon us today. We have been a hard, cruel, revengeful race of men. We have scalped our enemies, as it had been the custom of our heroes to do ever since the world began. We could not be blamed. We thought it was right; but today we want to do different. Help us to forget all these hard ways and live better lives. We are in much trouble now, but don't want to kill or destroy, so give us hearts that we hear about in this book and let us be good, and if we live to see this new country to which we travel, help some of us to do good to those we meet. Perhaps we will not bring shame upon the land.’
Having made this plea, he dismissed them. It made a great impression upon all present, but none were more deeply moved than Tushpa and Chilita, whose youthful minds remembered all the details of this impressive ceremony for many years and under circumstances calculated to bring them vividly to remembrance.
It was now early spring 1834, and the Mississippi river was carrying a larger amount of headwater this spring than usual, so it was necessary to wait until the river had fallen in its flow so it could be crossed.
The party put up some shelter and arranged temporary camps and prepared to stay on the banks of the river until they might cross it. On the second night of their stay a runner announced that a fire had destroyed their former homes and everything that had been left in them so that the last hope of remaining in this homeland was rudely snatched away from any of those who had up to this time been faint-hearted about leaving. There was now nothing to do but to face journey with whatever perils it might have and be content with whatever fate might await them.
The young lived in joyful anticipation of what new adventure lay just ahead on the morrow or the next turn of the forest road, whether in rain or sunshine, and the elder ones doubtful of each move to be made and filled with dire fears as to the success of the one chance left for their lives and the assurance of happiness again on earth. Well might a more cultivated people have given up all hope of life and happiness, and ended it all by a plunge in the murky waters of the big river.
The Mississippi at flood stage in front of them, marooned upon its muddy banks, the band of exiles with homes destroyed in the rear of them, lost not faith in their destiny as men to achieve that which they sought, but with renewed zeal covenanted together to go on in the purpose they had undertaken, and they consecrated their all to that end while they thus were encamped.
Chief Baha ordered that arrangements be made for the crossing; so a plan to use a raft made of logs to carry over a part of the baggage and make a quicker crossing was agreed upon. There were only a few skiffs and canoes to be had for use in getting over the river, and consequently there were many delays.
The point at which the party crossed is in the southeastern part of Arkansas in Desha County at the mouth of Cypress Creek south of Friars Point. The river here is about one mile wide and has a pretty stiff current at low tide, but being wider at the mouth of this creek, the current is less felt than where there are banks on both sides of the river, so this crossing was thought the easiest made by all Indians who had had much experience at crossing the big river (Bokchito).
An island known as Bihi or Mulberry Island was near the middle of the stream and broke the swift current of the main river and was used as a place to rest and straighten the cargo if it should become wet or displaced in the crossing.
Baha, the chief headman, had often made this crossing to visit some Indians who lived over the river near the Big Mound, and told his people they could make an easy crossing as he knew all the currents and landing places. During the two weeks' delay a number of small canoes and one large raft of logs were made by the men and all were glad to learn that on the morrow they would begin the crossing.
Four canoes with four men in each were used to pull the raft loaded with household goods, clothing and other things to be carried or used in the journey, and also some persons, men, women, and children, were shipped over as each raft load made the crossing. The dangers of the crossing seemed small in comparison to the fears they had felt when leaving home, and there was really no danger unless a sunken log or tree should come floating beneath the surface of the current and catch them with an irresistible force, unexpectedly.
Such an accident happened when it appeared that the success in crossing would be complete. The raft was being towed across on its fifth trip laden with people and goods, when it was struck by a swiftly moving submerged tree. The tree was moving in a whirling movement and struck one corner of the raft plunging that corner under the water and throwing goods and people into the current, all screaming for help.
In the excitement Kanchi, who was on duty as a guard, after rescuing two children and balancing the raft, in some manner became entangled in the swirling, twisting mass of brush, trees and refuse, and caught in the undertow; never came to the surface again. His death cast a pall of gloom over the entire party, as he was the spiritual life of the majority and the source of confidence to the weak and doubtful in any crisis.
Some thought of going no farther on the journey, but realized it was impractical now as half of the party had already crossed over the river. Others recalled the prayer that Kanchi had made for them, and the God of their friend who had so nobly set them the example of self-sacrifice and pledged his spirit that they would endeavor to become worthy of the love he had expressed to them in his life and tragic death.
A far greater influence was wrought through his death upon the spiritual life of the younger people of the party than the older ones. This journey was the one grand adventure in their lives and all the attendant circumstances were epochs in the making of history, and they were profoundly impressed that a God should guide and protect them through this man whom they had learned to respect for his good character.
Some of the younger ones decided that in his memory they should study this book he defended, and they lived accordingly to see if they could not become men of usefulness. Among those who agreed to do this were our young friends, Tushpa, Ishtaya, and Chilita. They met at irregular times during the tedious journey, being joined by a large majority of the men and women.
The final crossing was made after a week of hard work, and the party decided to rest for a few days before attempting the westward journey, and accordingly made a temporary camp upon the high ground away from the riverbank.
It had been six weeks since leaving their homes and a greater part of the time there had been occasional rains, and not having had proper shelter the aged people and young children had begun to show signs of the exposure which they had encountered. As a result of the weather an old lady and three small children died.
These were the first deaths on the journey and left a vivid impression on all the party and only feebly forecast the number of victims to fall by the way ere the remainder should view the promised land. The burial custom of these people, inherited from their primitive ancestors, was a Yaya or funeral cry set for the 21st of April in remembrance of the departed ones.
All gathered at the graves and performed the last rites according to the ancient custom; blood relatives first in line; very intimate friends, and lastly, strangers in the outer group. The heads of both the men and women of the inner group were covered with cloths in a sense of sorrow and humiliation, and each uttered a muffled cry accompanied by some expression of sorrow, or extolled the good qualities of the deceased.
This ceremony occurred each day at noon so long as they remained in camp near enough to visit the graves. As the body of Kanchi could not be produced, a proper offering in his behalf was consigned to the waters of the river which concealed it. ([Culberson's] Note: Contrary to popular rumor, the Choctaw Indians did not bury favorite animals in the graves at death, but did bury personal ornaments and trinkets; sometimes food was placed as an offering to the spirits upon or near the grave.)
Masonry was unknown to them, but small compact houses enclosing the graves were often erected of wood, and with a watertight roof remained for years over graves of wealthier members of the tribe as a memorial from their friends and relatives.
These burial customs existed among the Choctaw Indians for many years after they came to Indian Territory and were frequently to be seen in secluded spots chosen for the beauty of the scenery and the quietness of the surroundings.
A few days after the funeral rites were performed the headman, Baha, issued orders that they would take up the journey again--so with a renewed spirit preparations were begun to renew the march. Sunshiny weather now prevailed and a more cheerful band made the woods ring with their shouts and laughter as they worked and planned together.
Also they appreciated the dense thickets now budding and blossoming with the early spring and echoing with the barks of the squirrels and the call of the crow. Dodging in and out of the May apple bushes, which covered the lowlands, and the redbuds now in their beauty, they made a gay company, these bronze sons and daughters of the forest. The spirit of fun and pleasure caught the majority and again they talked about reviving the ball games.
Every community had its ‘hetoka’ or ball ground. It would pacify the people and help them to forget their sorrows. Chief Baha ordered that a ground be laid out at each stop of more than a day if suitable grounds were convenient.
An hetoka, or a ball ground proper was a square 36 feet by 300 feet, with a goal post 20 feet high in the middle of each end and a space 12 feet half way between the goal posts where the ball was tossed up and started in each game. The game was played with a yarn or hair ball about one and one half inches in diameter and was caught only with a racquet or a stick 18 inches long with a cup made out of one end and covered with dressed buckskin.
Considerable art was required to catch a ball and throw it with these sticks or racquets, but as this was the national game, a great deal of time and training was devoted to the practice of it, and many became what is termed as professionals. These sticks were called kapucha or ball sticks and great skill was shown in the making of them. The rules of the game were made by a committee selected by the rival teams at the hetoka and were strictly adhered to.
It was a great sport but became a menace as the gambling spirit invaded the clans and communities, often caused one clan to be impoverished over betting on the result of one game. Thousands attended the big contests and all activities would be suspended for weeks.
The writer has attended many where at least one thousand persons camped overnight and danced and sang as though possessed over anticipating the one great tribal game. The conduct at such times was surprisingly peaceful for the times (this was fifteen years before statehood in Oklahoma), as no one was killed, although two or three fights took place.
A grand rally was held at night and again the morning of the game, and the victory chant was given in unison as the players in uniform (breech-cloth and feathers and paint and a deer tail protruding in the rear) marched in fours chanting as they marched, at intervals giving the challenging turkey gobble.
The barbaric thrill given to such a performance under these circumstances surrounded by deep forest was extremely gripping and enchanting and could claim a much more sophisticated person than a mere Choctaw Indian, and many white people attended these games. When it became known that a hetoka would be played it was remarkable the enthusiasm and the jolly spirit the knowledge revived among the Indians.
Groups gathered and planned, divided into rival factions and anticipated victory each to his side. Tushpa told his partisans that they would practice and play ball with any of the other boys who wanted to play, but that there must be no betting, as his dead father, Kanchi, would not have permitted it.
The march was resumed and much hard work was done to overcome the difficulties they now encountered. The trail now led through a dense forest, and as it never had been a permanent road and only used occasionally, it was strewn with logs and brush and in places vines had so overrun the trail as to make it very difficult to pass over single file, and especially to carry anything.
The old and the young soon wearied and were compelled to rest very often, and those bearing burdens soon added to the confusion of the march. Something had to be done about it, so Baha called the headmen in a council and it was finally decided to have a gang of men under a sub-chief go ahead and clear the trail about one day in advance of the marching clan.
This proved a wise plan as this gang also prepared rafts on the bayous and rivers and no time was lost when the clans reached the streams. A trail was opened up as near as was practicable through these swamps, but often it led through much water and mud and had to be waded for long distances at times, and many were bare-footed. This caused much sickness and generally weakened the bodily strength of many older persons.
But the march was continued and persisted in once they had left the high grounds near the Mississippi river, as the headmen had been informed that dry grounds and open country was theirs to enjoy if once they could get through these swamps. Ten miles was ordered for a day's journey, and all, young and old alike, set their program to make the ten miles at any cost.
The first three days were the most disagreeable they were to experience as it was nearly all swamps, sometimes knee deep in muck, and added to that, camp had to be made in these swamps and on damp grounds, and they often had to sleep in wet clothes.
Brush was piled up and made a very comfortable place to sleep if only a good fire had been built and a good meal cooked, their bodies would have been revived in condition to carry on. But the emergency was urgent, and no conveniences were to be had.
The Choctaws had learned the elementary facts about health, and usually prevented sickness, but did not know much about caring for the sick or curing them, and usually became indifferent and panicky when a friend or relative became delirious. They associated this condition with the spirits and usually abandoned a patient who had reached that stage, and on that account many died from neglect rather than disease.
[Original editor's note](The outline--This is the third installment of ‘The Trail of Tears’ recreating the greatest race migration in the history of the North American Indians. These tribes Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles, came west by boat, wagon, horseback, but the majority of them walked with their earthly goods to Indian Territory. The privations were many and it took this particular band of Choctaws one week to cross the Mississippi. Historical facts reveal that 20,000 Choctaws (2,000 dying on the way out); 20,000 Cherokees (2,000 dying); 4,000 Creeks; 3,000 Seminoles, and 3,000 Chickasaws were removed according to Thoburn's History of Oklahoma and Riley's History of Mississippi. Culberson's story deals with one band of the twelve Choctaw contingents of the removal of 1834.)
Having crossed the most dense swamps, the marchers located on dry ground and prepared the camp, where they remained a few days looking after the sick. The Choctaws had not been in mud and water so long before, and the effect was being felt in the fevers that afflicted most of those now sick.
Some common remedies known to the attentive Choctaw medicine men were used, and a quick improvement was noted among the sick number. The provisions were reduced, so hunters were selected to kill game along the route which was very successfully carried out. Bear, deer, and wild turkey were often added to the food supply, and squirrels were plentiful. By slow, painful marches they at last reached Little Rock, Ark., on the fifteenth of May, 1834, having been on the road two and a half months already and only about one-half of the journey complete. A halt was made at this post and clothing and moccasins were repaired.
Old Choswa, the shoemaker, had saved and tanned every good deer hide and had an ample supply on hands, so soon calls were made on him to fix their moccasins or make new ones. Choswa was a skillful artisan and often cut out patterns only from measurements given.
A butcher knife, awl and a supply of buckskins, together with the necessary deer tendons for thread, was his stock in trade. This was more than enough to meet the demands. Like all shoemakers (moccasin-makers), he would talk and moralize and cuss the government, in this case the United States, whom he believed caused all his troubles and this enforced exile, but as he would rave and rant about the injustice and the crime of it, no one paid much attention to him now, as they knew that it could not now be changed.
By persuasive talk they got Choswa to cut and make the necessary footwear, and the women even ornamented some of them with colored beads woven in attractive patterns. Beautiful designs were made on many pieces of buckskin clothing such as short coats and a sort of vest used much by the hunters of the time, also ammunition pouches, belts, and other things.
The women were skilled in the work and labored so patiently and continuously that the amount they accomplished was surprising. Many complaints of sickness were heard in the camp, and Baha thought it best to move camp as it might renew the spirit of the people. So after having been at the Post one week they began the march on the Post road towards their final destination, Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Skullyville, in Indian Territory, fifteen miles west of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
This post road was a much drier and more sandy one, but was very hard on the travelers, who were now getting tired of marching. The complaining ones were coaxed to get a moving spirit on them, and all apparently had some joy from the journey.
Three days out of Little Rock an Indian boy, named Shunka, died from a sort of dysentery and it quickly spread in camp among the weakened ones, and in the course of a week, before the disease could be checked, three others died from apparently the same cause.
They were laid away near one of the camps and the funeral rites performed over their lonely resting places by all the company, comforted by talks by Tushpa and Chilita, who assured their brethren that the great spirit had only called these through his purpose to prepare them all to do his greater glory in their lives, and they must so live as to do this will of the Great Spirit if he should call them to service.
The great dangers of the journey had been passed and the promised land was only a short distance away, and they were patient and prayerful. The good people renewed their hopes of seeing the new land and as they now believed it to be much nearer than it really was.
It inspired many to put more efforts into finishing the journey than they would likely have done otherwise, and a more cheerful spirit came over the company generally, and good progress was made towards Dardanelle on the Arkansas River, which they reached on the 30th of May.
A ferry boat was used here in crossing the river by the post service, and after some parleying the owners of the ferry consented to take all the company free of charge and ask the United States government to pay the bill at some future time.
Other emigrant Choctaw Indians had passed before, and the terms of the agreements under which the Indians were being removed were understood all along the public highways, but some sympathy had been enlisted in their favor on account of so many sick and feeble ones in the band.
Having crossed the Arkansas river on the 31st day of May, the route of the company was over a somewhat traveled road but there were many hills to climb and the road was so hard and dry that many suffered from these difficulties. The number of sick increased and a forced camp was made in the hills ten miles out from Dardenelle, Arkansas.
The water was good here and plenty of wood was to be had for the foraging, and much hopes were held out that the sick might speedily recover. The medicine men waited upon them as best they could, but two more died at this camp before their efforts had good results.
Ishtoua, the mother of Tushpa, had been complaining for sometime, and at this turn was among those included in the list of the sick ones. Some of the days were now getting too hot for the sick people. They were in a strange land and were afraid to strike a permanent camp in the country where they were.
So again they continued their journey amid grumbling from some, but the necessity of going came home to these when it was explained that the parched corn and other foods were almost used up. If they could reach Fort Smith, Arkansas, or Skullyville, all their wants would be supplied by the United States agent, but they were 50 miles or more away now.
A council of the headmen was called and a plan agreed to make a camp for the sick and have members to remain and nurse them and the able-bodied ones to go on to their destination. No one wanted to do this at first as they declared that they were all as one family. That they had suffered together this long and were willing to die together.
So much contention arose as to who should remain that it was finally decided to cast a ballot to settle the question. This method was practiced for years among the Choctaws in deciding matters of importance. Only twenty-five voted to leave the sick ones in camp, the entire company having left the decision to Baha, the Chief.
He called off the names of twenty-five additional ones and insisted that they go. These fifty accepted this as a necessary thing to do, and made ready to leave at once. Great sorrow was expressed at leave-taking, as so many misfortunes had already befallen them in life, none had heart but to believe that this parting was forever final. And so it was to many of them.
Some of those who went at this time met friends of former days and settled in various parts of the Indian Territory. In their homes the sad experiences of the journey to this promised land haunted them and was never to be forgotten.
Baha having conducted them safely into Indian Territory, returned at once with provisions to the sick camp. Conditions had become worse, and some had died during his absence, and so many were sick that a near panic had taken place. Some claimed that the evil spirit had followed them all along this hard journey and now intended to smite them before they had a chance to enjoy the happiness and pleasures of a home in the new land.
That they were accursed and some sacrifice should be made to remove this curse. A panic of fear is demoralizing to a civilized people who should know better how to control their emotions, but it is more so to a semi-civilized race, and is the main cause of the great fatalities among Indians from disease. Once he becomes sick, he has little resisting power, it seems.
In this extremity the deaths reached a total of eight, a staggering toll for such a small group of people. Ishtoua died during a storm in the night, with Tushpa, Chilita and other good friends by her couch. She knew that her death was near, and she admonished them to have no fear that the Great Spirit was yet with them, and would always remain with those who sacrificed for the good of the world.
That a vision had appeared and that Tushpa would yet be a great and good man, and that Chilita would be the mother of great men whose deeds she was unable to read. That they must love the Great Spirit, the one who had claimed Kanchi in the wild waters of the Mississippi river, and who was their friend and now their Guardian Angel, and there would be pleasant traveling, and the sick ones would be few among them.
Many believed in her prediction; the sick recovered, and others were moved to wonder that such words could come from the dying. No less can you wonder even now, who have held the hand of a dear friend pulsating with the last beat of life, at the words of wisdom, prophesy and admonition that flow with a last breath.
They believed the Great Spirit was with them, and although deeply affected by the deaths, they buried their dead, paid the customary ai-aksho (funeral cry) and when the invalids sufficiently recovered, longed to see the Indian Territory and their friends.
On the last night of their stay at this camp, Tushpa, Chilita, and Ishtaya visited the grave of Ishtoua for a last ai-aksho. The small presents that Ishtoua had treasured and made with own hands and given to them were now brought as offerings to her spirit and placed about the well-marked grave.
The after years tell that Tushpa fulfilled this pledge. As a soldier engaged in a battle of the Civil War nearby, he slipped away one night to this lonely grave, which he had much trouble in locating. He spent one entire day in resting and pondering by this sacred spot.
On departing, to show his fidelity to her memory, he took the bayonet off of his rifle and marked it as the headstone of the grave by thrusting it deep into the soil and gravel. It was the most prized treasure he possessed at the time and was given according to their custom as a sign of devotion to his mother.
The remnant of this devoted company, weary, emaciated and penniless reached the promised land, Indian Territory, on July 1st. At Skullyville they met real friends who took care of them and provided them with the necessary comforts for their immediate relief. Great rejoicing was experienced by them.
No greater humiliation can be placed upon a free people than to be ordered from their homes by a stranger. No greater forbearance can any people show than to give up these homes to be desecrated and destroyed by a stranger. Yet this is just what happened to this semi-civilized peoples, and all because their head chiefs had asked them to do thus. Can you believe it? History says that is what happened, and the suffering and hardships and privations these people endured on account of this pledge is unparalleled.
The promise had been given to not shed the blood of a white man in the earliest settlements. This was honored by all succeeding Choctaws, and now their Chiefs and Headmen had pledged their word to the United States government that the Choctaws would give up all claim to the only sacred homes they possessed on earth, at a certain time, and to make this word good they staggered and almost fell from the shock to their consciousness, but recovered and gathered their last personal relic in a bundle and turned their faces westward to face unknown perils by land, and in the forest, and make themselves new homes rather than violate the pledged word of their Chiefs.
After a few day's rest, the party so long together, separated to locate homes for themselves. Chilita remained near Skullyville with relatives. Ishtaya located a little farther east of Skullyville near the Poteau River. He became a preacher. Later he and Chilita were married and moved across on the east side of the river, making a home in Pecola, where he was known as the famous preacher and evangelist Willis Folsom. Their descendents occupy many places of trust in the state today.
Tushpa joined his relatives in the Clan Haiyup-tukle and located about thirty-five miles west of Skullyville, temporarily. Then in a few years he moved westward on the Sans Bois Creek and assisted in clearing land and raising stock. In 1838 he witnessed the ‘falling of the stars’ as it was called, often telling the incident to his children.
He lived in that community until the Civil War between the States began, when as a patriotic duty he joined the Choctaw regiment, known as Jack McCurtain's company, and fought for the South. He was in the battle of Poison Springs, on the edge of the state of Arkansas. He visited his mother's grave at this place.
Tushpa contracted the smallpox and was taken to the hospital at Fort Towson, Indian Territory. He was enrolled as John Culberson, which name he accepted, and was never known by the name Tushpa any more. After recovery from the smallpox, he remained as a helper around the hospital until the end of the war, returning to Skullyville to work. He was known as a sober, industrious and Christian man. He attended church and Sunday school regularly, having learned to read while at the hospital, and became known as a zealous church worker.
He met at these services Lucy McDonald, daughter of the village blacksmith, and they were married in 1868, at Skullyville, by the preacher, Ishtaya, otherwise Willis Folsom, friend and companion of the ‘trail of tears.’ This couple moved to a farm two miles southwest of Skullyville, where they lived in peace and amid devoted home life.
Their home was known for its generosity and hospitality and no man was denied shelter and food no matter what be his race or creed. The good and the bad were treated with charity alike, and the widow and orphan in the community received the attention enjoined in the scriptures.
The fireside was often visited by Willis Folsom and Chilita when he had an appointment to preach at Skullyville, and many good times were enjoyed by them. Sometimes Culberson and his family would pay a visit to the Folsom home, and no happier time ever occurred than such an occasion.
Their happiness was so great that the hardships of the great trek from the state of Mississippi would be almost forgotten until someone less fortunate than they (who had been with them on this journey), would happen to bring its horrors afresh in their minds again.
One evening in the fall, as a big fire was blazing in the chimney place, someone called out at the front gate. Culberson had gone on a hunt and had not returned. The dogs bayed and the visitor said, ‘Culberson, mutte?’ meaning, ‘where is Culberson?’ Realizing him to be a friend, he was invited in. He did not attempt to speak English, but was asked to take a chair near the roaring fire.
His name afterwards was learned to be Tushpatubbee, alias Johnson Bond, a name acquired as Culberson had. He was a fellow journeyman on the great trek, and a great time was had when Culberson returned. His appearance in the bright light and his garb drew direct attention; coonskin cap with tail, hunting coat of various colored yarn woven into it, buckskin beaded shot pouch or ammunition bag, with powder horn and rifle laying on the floor beside him.
He also wore buckskin breeches with fringe all down the sides ending in the boot tops. You admired and wondered at this makeup, but you were amazed when, after sitting there some fifteen or twenty minutes, he moved about to unbutton his hunting coat and reaching into an inside pocket he drew out a stone pipe, and reaching into another pocket he fished out a plug of homemade tobacco. Yet again he reached around and from his belt he slowly drew out a large butcher knife.
Now from the appearance of the man you could have guessed him to be capable of butchering the whole family, but he calmly proceeded to cut up some of the tobacco off the plug, to fill his pipe and have a quiet smoke.
Tushpatubbee was a great wit and storyteller. He had accompanied the band from Mississippi and acted as a road maker and camp builder, and had a varied collection of experiences which he cunningly wove into entertaining stories for camp and hunting expeditions, and always had an audience.
He had been a great hunter, but becoming old he was not so well favored by fortune as those who had taken other pursuits. Culberson offered him a home, but he gently refused it, as he said he was a man of the woods and there were too many fields in that neighborhood to beckon him.
John Culberson, or Tushpa, lived in peace and contentment at his home for many years, being a devout member of the Methodist church and never missing a service. He was superintendent of the Sunday school and was always present, no matter how inclement the weather, and always had the members of his family with him, thus setting a befitting example to his community.
The prayer meeting nights were always graced by his presence, as well as all revival meetings. He often became so enthused that his knowledge of the English language would escape him and he would zealously end a prayer in his mother tongue, the Choctaw language. Such occasions being greetings from the brethren who knew him to be a sincere man of God.
So lived this man, and so did he die, the faith in which he lived, and gave as a last request that his sons and daughters might live in this faith, as the holy legacy he wished to leave them. He died on January 28, 1884, and was buried under the direction of the Masonic fraternity, which claimed him as a brother and a true man.
The little old cemetery at Skullyville holds all the mortal remains of our pioneer citizen and friend. May we ever remember that the true man comes from no certain station in life, and that the Great Spirit reaches out to his Indian children and saves them by their faith, as well as ones who hold the Bible in their book chests all their lives.
This, my fellow reader, is the true story of the life of John Culberson, or Tushpa, my father, a full-blood Choctaw Indian son of Ahekutubbee on his father's side and Tekmoontubbee on his mother's side, who possessed the noblest virtues of any man of any race. And who on his deathbed enjoined me to keep the family together and give them a chance for an education; to be a good citizen, and write the history of the journey if I thought it a benefit to mankind.
. Located in southeast Oklahoma near the Arkansas border.
. Located in LaFlore County, 15.5 miles southwest of Fort Smith, Arkansas
. Two miles east of Spiro, Oklahoma.
. The first Treaty to be made and ratified under the Act of May 28, 1830 (ratified on February 24, 1831). The Choctaw ceded to the U.S. Government all of their land east of the Mississippi river and agreed to emigrate to the Indian Territory within three years.
. Pushmataha, a chief of the Choctaws and a central character in their history.
. In southeastern Arkansas near the Mississippi River.
. In northwest Mississippi near the River.
. Near Russellville, Arkansas, 72 miles from the Oklahoma border.
. Presently Pocola, 8 miles east of Spiro.
. In Haskell County, Oklahoma.
. Col. McCurtain, responsible for enlisting numerous Choctaw into the Confederate ranks during the Civil War.
. In Choctaw Country, Oklahoma.