One of the most historically significant and influential groups of people to have lived along the Natchez Trace were the Choctaw.
You may not know that visiting Winston County, MS would mean visiting the heart of the ancient Choctaw homelands, but for many years the center of the Choctaw homelands was situated in this region at a place place called Nanih Waiya. Nanih Waiya is a large platform mound located in present day Winston County, Mississippi, and one origin story of the Choctaw claims the Choctaw people came from the mud of this great mound and nearby cave system. The story states that several tribes originated from Nanih Waiya and ventured off to settle new lands, while the Choctaw stayed. Today, Nanih Waiya is controlled and maintained by the Choctaw nation and is revered as a sacred site.
The Choctaw also share an origin story with the Chickasaw. According to oral tradition the Chickasaw and Choctaw peoples came from a single group who lived far to the west of what is now Mississippi. The prophets of these peoples or “hopayi” are said to have been instructed by their divine spirit “Aba’ Binil’li” to travel eastward and settle in new lands near the rising sun. The people were to take a sacred pole that had been created and blessed by the divine spirit and place it in the ground each night as they camped. When they awoke each morning, the pole was examined, and the people continued walking the direction it leaned. When the pole stood straight up it signified they had arrived at their destined new home.
Two groups, one led by a young leader name Chiksa, and the other by his brother named Chahta, traveled for many days through rough conditions, finally reaching what is thought to be the great Mississippi River. It took several days to traverse the river, but when they finally did, the pole was set down once again. The pole seemed to wobble oddly, before finally setting down still and straight. Chahta saw it as a sign that this was to be the newly appointed homeland of their peoples. His Brother, Chiksa, is said to have disagreed however, and he carried his people further eastward. This separation resulted in one group becoming the Choctaw and the other the Chickasaw, taking name from the brothers they followed.
Today along Natchez Trace Parkway at a site called Line Creek, milepost 213.3, visitors can see the boundary between the Chickasaw and Choctaw regions.
The ancestral homeland of the Choctaw people once spanned from most of central and southern Mississippi, into parts of eastern Louisiana as well as parts of western Alabama. The Choctaw were known as fierce warriors, excellent farmers, and skilled traders.
One of the key characteristics of the Choctaw culture was their agriculture. Corn was the staple food for the Choctaw and virtually all southeastern American Indians, including the Natchez and Chickasaw. The Choctaw often grew great surplus of corn and other crops to trade with other American Indian nations, and later Europeans and Americans, throughout their homeland and along the Natchez Trace.
Sports also played a large role in Choctaw culture. Games such as stickball and chunky stone were used to imitate war and create friendly competition amongst different clans and tribes. These games were often used to settle rivalries and disputes amongst different tribes and families. While these games imitated warfare, and in some instances, acted as an alternative to it, the Choctaw were no strangers when it came to an actual battle.
The Choctaw were fierce warriors, and during the early eighteenth century they became allies with European forces, often aiding in battles against other American Indian groups. This was not uncommon for tribes to do during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as it provided some security to the tribes and established powerful trade connections. The French were one of the first European groups to ally with the Choctaw, and in the early eighteenth century their combined forces decimated the Natchez Indians, killing most of them, and forcing the rest to flee their homelands and join other tribes.
After the United States became established, many American Indian tribes were compliant and even aided the American government through trade and warfare, but undue hardship eventually came upon these people.
With the influx of American colonizers beginning to settle in the Southern United States, American Indian peoples were soon displaced from their homelands, sometimes by treaties and political manipulation, and other times by force. These methods of colonization slowly encroached on the native homelands of the Choctaw people, and in 1816 the Choctaw chiefs were persuaded to trade some of their homelands east of the Tombigbee River. By 1820 they were eventually asked to give up even more of their native homelands away. This trade would see many of them leave their homelands, and accept new ones in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The changes did not stop there however, and in May of 1829 a southern congressman introduced the Indian Removal Act into Congress. It included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw Indian tribes, basically everyone in the south-eastern United States. Hundreds of petitions flooded Washington D.C. claiming this act was immoral, destructive, and wrong. After heated debate, President Jackson and the US congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing the Choctaw to relinquish their homelands completely and move westward.The act passed the House in May, 1830 by only five votes.
The Choctaw largely walked this long journey from Mississippi to Oklahoma, a harsh trek that saw many of the Choctaw die along the way.
Roughly 70,000 people were forced out of their homelands and at least 3,000 lost their lives on the march. This forced walk is now commemorated as the Trail of Tears.
Some Choctaw people remained in Mississippi, and some returned years later. Today they are known as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, located in Choctaw, Mississippi, near Philadelphia, approximately 25 miles east of the Parkway at Milepost 160.