Magnificent mounds, significant sites—from the peoples of prehistory to the spectacular victories and heartbreaking defeats of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes—Native American history is deep, and deeply affecting, in the Mississippi HillsFace the Nations

Like so many great stories of the Mississippi Hills, the Native American story begins with the land, the verdant landscapes and flowing streams that nurtured the peoples of prehistory for thousands of years before DeSoto ever set his sights on the Mississippi Hills.

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In the beginning, they were hunters, stalking mastodons and giant bison on what would eventually become the Natchez Trace. Then, century upon century, generation upon generation, these proto-Mississippians came together to build communities and to create rich and vibrant cultures during what archeologists today call the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippi periods, until finally came the crowning glory: the complex mound-building societies that thrived here before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Mississippi Hills is perhaps America’s most significant region to the Chickasaw Nation, which made its capital near what is present-day Tupelo, with villages concentrated around the headwaters of the Yazoo and Tombigbee Rivers. Many of the Choctaws also made their home in the Hills, and while the two tribes shared many cultural resemblances such as similar language and matrilineal organization, what set the Chickasaw apart was their staunch independence.

They were fierce warriors—they had to be, with their relatively small numbers (2,000 to 4,000 compared to as many as five times that number of the sometime friend-sometime foe Choctaws). But the Chickasaw were also as astute at political tactics as they were brave in battle, navigating between colonial powers to survive. And even in the first clash between a colonial power and the Chickasaw, it was touch and go as to whether the European would survive.

The conquistador fails to conquer.

Inspired by the earlier explorations of Ponce DeLeon, Hernando DeSoto had dreams of glory and gold in 1539 when his party marched off their ship in what is now the state of Florida. But while it may have been those dreams that drove DeSoto across the Southeast, it was also the less-than-warm welcome that met his attempts at conquest. A horrific battle with the Mobilian Chief Tuskaloosa in Southern Alabama left thousands of Mobilians dead, yet was hardly a victory for the now physically, provisionally and psychologically devastated Spanish. Fearing his party was about to flee to the coast to “jump ship” on the expedition, DeSoto led his battered forces into the Mississippi Hills to nurse their wounds during the winter of 1540-41.

At first, the relations between the Chickasaw and the Europeans may have been harmonious, if not entirely willing by all parties. The first Christian marriage ceremony in America was performed here on Christmas Day of 1540 when Juan Ortiz, a member of DeSoto’s party, claimed Sa-Owana, a Chickasaw captive, as his bride.

Happily ever after, however, was not to be between the two groups. After DeSoto’s demand for 200 Chickasaw slaves, the tribe attacked. According to some accounts, the Spanish might have met their end then and there if the Chickasaw had not allowed them to leave and head across the Mississippi River.

But if the tribe was merciful, the disease left behind by the Spaniards was not. As much as 90% of the Southeast’s population was wiped out, a devastation which some historians believe may have led the Choctaws into the region for the first time.

While the origins of the tribe are unclear, Choctaw oral history offers two different accounts, one migratory, the other mystical: According to one version, the tribe actually came from the west, led by two brothers Chata and Chicasa (“Chata” is still the name the tribe uses), ending their journey in the North Mississippi Hills at Nanih Waiya, now a preserved mound site in Noxapater. The mystical account suggests that the Choctaws were actually created at the sacred mound, emerging whole from some unknown netherworld.

However the tribe came to be, or came to be in North Mississippi, their arrival on the scene complicated matters for the Chickasaws. Over the next two centuries, the two tribes would battle each other, both directly and through their allegiances. The Chickasaw made common cause with the British, the Choctaw with the French, and some notable battles in the Mississippi Hills were the bloody result. One of the most dramatic was the Battle of Ackia.

Defeating armies, but not the deluge.

The Chickasaws “breathe nothing but war and are unquestionably the bravest on the continent,” a French governor wrote in 1726. Yet a decade later, the French would have to learn that lesson in battle. After routing the rebelling Natchez peoples (many of whom joined the Chickasaws in the aftermath), French leaders felt the time was right to move against the Chickasaws as well, to degrade their numbers or at the very least to humble the proud warriors.

“It is absolutely necessary that some bold and remarkable blow be struck, to impress the Indians with the proper sense of respect and duty toward us,” wrote Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. However, in 1736, at the Battle of Ackia near present-day Tupelo it was the French who were humbled, defeated soundly despite outnumbering the Chickasaw three to one. After a third defeat in 1739, the French decided to negotiate their way to a treaty with the Chickasaw protecting French shipping trade on the Mississippi River.

The final coup for the Chickasaw (and possibly dire blow against the Choctaw) seemed to arrive with end of the French and Indian War in 1763, as the French were forced to cede all territory west of the Mississippi River to the English, and all territory west to the Spanish. Unfortunately for both tribes, however, there was now yet another “colonial” force on the scene, the colonies soon to beome United States of America. Throughout most of the end of the eighteenth century the Chickasaw managed to move skillfully between Spain and the new nation of America, playing one country off the other. However, with the opening of the Mississippi Territory in 1798, the tide of white European settlers became inexorable.

Treaties that lead to tears.

By then, both tribes had already offered conciliation and allegiance to the new nation, Chief Piomingo having negotiated the Treaty of Hopewell, officially opening relations between America and the Chickasaw Nation in 1786. And for the tribes, their promises were more than words on a page, they were commitments fulfilled on the field of battle. One of the last full-blooded Chickasaw leaders, Chief Tishomingo (his name derived from “tishu minko,” minko meaning chief), fought with distinction for the American cause in the War of 1812, battling the Creeks in the Red Stick War.

That loyalty, however, would not be returned. When Mississippi became a state in 1817, the new state government passed legislation relinquishing all Chickasaw lands to the state. A devastating cascade of U.S. treaties and legislation followed, including the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Choctaw leaders Greenwood LeFlore (son of a French trader father and a Choctaw mother) and Moshulatubbee negotiated the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, but while Moshulatubbee led his tribe to Oklahoma, LeFlore, ever the shrewd trader himself, remained behind on 1,000 prime Mississippi acres he had negotiated for himself.

Finally, in 1832 at the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek, all Chickasaw lands east of the Mississippi were also ceded to the U.S. With the stroke of a pen, the fierce, proud warriors who had held on against impossible odds were finally exiled from their homeland.

Must-see mounds, museums and more:

Today, in the Mississippi Hills visitors are immersed in the echoes and evidence of these two historic tribes and their complex, often heartbreaking history. The mound sites are many and majestic, including the grand Nanih Waiya and the rich treasure trove of the Ingomar Temple Mounds, which reveals, layer upon layer, the story of a civilization more than 2,200 years old. It was here in 1885 that the Smithsonian Institute first unearthed Spanish artifacts dating from DeSoto’s camp.

In the Hills, you’ll also discover multiple museums for exploration, including the Tishomingo County Courthouse, the Oren Dun Museum and the exhibits of the Natchez Trace Parkway; the Parkway itself is a road leading deep into the heart to Native American history. The natural beauty of the Parkway is spectacular, but some of the man-made art inspired by the DeSoto’s arrival is also impressive. The charming and historic Pontotoc post office displays a hand-painted mural of that first Christian marriage, while at the Hernando County Courthouse, larger-than-life murals capture a dramatic moment as DeSoto and his men look out over the Mississippi River admiring their “discovery” in the “New World,” even as the ancient world of the Native tribes is about to change forever. A tour of French Camp gives a peek at the Council House of Greenwood LeFlore, while the site of the Chickasaw National Council House is also a good stop; here in this former capital of the tribe, known then as Pontatok, two historic treaties were signed, including the Treaty of Pontotoc. A few miles away at the Chickasaw Village take a walk on the nature trail grown with the indigenous plants the tribe used for medicine.

Let the healing and history begin here in the Mississippi Hills