Generations of schoolchildren have known –or at least have been expected to know –that the Mississippi River was “discovered” by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. (If nothing else, he was the first European to document the existence of that river.) Histories of the Mississippi River Valley traditionally began with De Soto’s expedition, or after a cursory introduction moved quickly to the entry of Europeans into the area.
However, the river – and the lands it watered –did not exist in a vacuum. Many indigenous peoples called the area home long before the arrival of Europeans –and these peoples were not necessarily scattered or sporadic. The Mississippians, whose settlements ranged across the Midwest and Southeast, had been particularly dominant in the Lower Mississippi Valley, as were the various tribes descended from them. In fact, the center of Mississippian culture –and, for centuries, the largest settlement north of Mexico –was Cahokia, located near present-day St. Louis. Cahokia had been abandoned for a century when Europeans arrived, and the Mississippian culture had declined, but there were many other Native Americans living along the Mississippi. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, Caddo, Natchez, and Tunica occupied territories in the Lower Mississippi; the Sioux, Sauk and Fox, Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Pottawatomie, Illini, Menominee, and Ho-chunk (or Winnebago) occupied the Upper Mississippi.
The Mississippi – named from an Ojibwe or related Algonquin-language word meaning “Great River” –had long been an important factor in inter-tribal commerce, and this continued to be the case when the various tribes began to interact with European traders. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century this commerce, at least in the Lower Mississippi, involved the Indian slave trade; some tribes raided others for the express purpose of acquiring captives to sell to Europeans. These enslaved Indians were sent to colonial plantations in North America and the Caribbean. The Indian slave trade died out by the early eighteenth century, as chattel slavery became more and more an exclusively African experience. In time commerce between Indians and whites on the Mississippi was dominated instead by the fur trade.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to the relocation of Native American groups living east of the Mississippi. Although a few holdouts from several Southeastern tribes managed to elude authorities and remain in their ancestral homelands, the vast majority of Indians was removed –often forcibly. Tribes were often divided over the issue of whether to acquiesce and sell their land or hold out. The results were the same, regardless.
In 1830 Choctaws signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. About one-third of the nation managed to remain in their Mississippi homes; the rest were sent to new lives in Indian Territory. Many died along the way. As many as four thousand may have died of a cholera epidemic near Memphis, as they were waiting to be loaded onto boats to cross the Mississippi. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville watched the tragic departure. “The sight will never fade from my memory,” he wrote. “All the Indians had already got into the boat that was to carry them across; their dogs were still on the bank; as soon as the animals finally realized that they were being left behind forever, they all together raised a terrible howl and plunged into the icy waters of the Mississippi to swim after their masters.”1
The Sauk and Fox bands signed a similar treaty in 1830 –at Fort Crawford, in what would later be Wisconsin –ceding their lands east of the Mississippi. Two years later, however, some of the “removed” Indians –led by Black Hawk –decided to return to their ancestral lands. This led to a running battle throughout the summer of 1832 between Black Hawk’s band and a combined force of federal troops and Illinois militia (one of these militiamen was a captain who never saw combat –Abraham Lincoln.) The war culminated in a massacre, with over 150 members of Black Hawk’s band killed on the banks of the Mississippi.
The American Civil War would present new challenges for Native Americans in the region. Leaders of the “Five Civilized Nations” (Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees) who were removed to Indian Territory officially allied with the Confederacy, participating in several battles. The remnant which stayed behind in the Mississippi Valley followed a similar path; at least one full battalion of Choctaw Indians was raised for the Confederacy in Mississippi.2
Meanwhile, in the Upper Mississippi, the federal government’s focus on the Civil War contributed to violent confrontation in 1862. Distracted (or apathetic) government authorities did not make promised payments to Minnesota’s Eastern Dakota bands, also called the Santee Sioux. Hunger and resentment led the Indians to desperation; knowing that federal forces were occupied with their own war, the Dakotas struck. Hundreds of settlers and Indians died. When the Indians surrendered, 303 were sentenced to hang in ad hoc trials –some lasting less than five minutes –which the Sioux did not understand. President Lincoln upheld 38 of the convictions –those which had strongest evidence of violence against civilians rather than military personnel –and commuted the sentences of the remainder. The executions took place at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862.
The Reconstruction era and beyond were trying times for Native Americans along the Mississippi. In the North, warfare against the Sioux continued for more than a decade after the Civil War ended. In the South, Choctaws remaining in Mississippi saw their rights further infringed upon when local governments tried to classify them as “colored.” Choctaws, safely “civilized” for decades, had the benefit of many nostalgic white supporters who had developed a romanticized view of Indian influences on their home state; the Sioux, who were still fighting U. S. troops (and sometimes, as at the Fetterman fight and the Little Bighorn, even winning), were too frightening to be the subjects of public nostalgia or support. A large segment of the American population viewed Native Americans –“wild” and “civilized” alike –in the same way that Mark Twain did in his 1870 essay “The Noble Red Man.” “He is ignoble,” Twain wrote, “base and treacherous, and hateful in every way.”