The Choctaw Indians are the most numerous branch of the Muskogean language group, which also includes Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Natchez. They are classed as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes." In historic times they inhabited the region of southeastern Mississippi and extreme southwestern Alabama, having migrated to that region from the west at an earlier, undetermined time. Choctaws are closely associated with the Chickasaws, and many of their early legends indicate that the two tribes descended from a common people. Apparently, after crossing the Mississippi, two brothers who had led the nation separated-the Chickasaws moving north and the Choctaws south.
The Choctaw tribe was divided into two moieties, which consisted of six to eight clans. Each clan was further divided into local groups that might consist of a group of towns or a single village, or, in rare occasions, a part of a village. These divisions dominated Choctaw social and ceremonial life. Marriage within a moiety was forbidden. Spouses were required to belong to opposite moieties, and children became members of their mother's group. Fathers had no authority over their children; rather, the children were watched over by their oldest maternal uncle. In addition to the moieties, the Choctaws were divided into three districts, each of which was led by a mingo or principal chief elected by the men of the district. Administrative ability, proven military status, and illustrious ancestors, were the three most prized qualities of a chief. The mingo was assisted by elected captains and subcaptains and was superior to the war chiefs. The three mingos would often convene at a national council meeting where issues of concern could be debated and discussed. Through this system, the Choctaws achieved an efficient and democratic political system.
Delivery of children was to be carried out by the mother with the least possible disruption to the family's lifestyle. Men played no role in the birthing process, and the mother received little assistance. When a child was born, a mare, a colt, a cow, a calf, a sow, and pigs were set aside for it with the provision that none of them could be sold or given away. In this way, when the child reached maturity and the stock formally became his, he had a good start in life. Adoption was common even among families with many children. The process was completed through the symbolic act of allowing the child to eat from the family bowl. At maturity, a Choctaw boy or girl had complete freedom to chose a mate, provided the spouse was from the other moiety. The young man would visit the family of his love and during the evening would toss small stones or sticks at the object of his affection. If the young woman was interested, she would play along; if not, she might leave the room in a rush. If accepted, the young man would leave and return a few days later with presents for his prospective in-laws. They would set a wedding date and prepare a feast and dance for the occasion. At the beginning of the party, the prospective bride and groom were led to separate cabins. The bride was then released to run toward a pole set up on a distant hill, and after she had been given a head start the groom was released to chase her. If he caught her, as he usually did unless the bride had for some reason changed her mind, the friends and family showered her with gifts and the marriage became official. Choctaw marriages lasted as long as both parties were satisfied. Separation or divorce was not disparaged, although all children were kept by the wife. Both monogamy and polygamy were accepted. In cases of polygamy, wives were usually sisters or at least close relatives. In rare cases where wives were unrelated, the husband was required to set up two or more residences.
Women generally performed the drudge work, laboring in the fields, making clothing, and preparing and storing food. Men were responsible for providing game, building houses, manufacturing tools, carrying out governmental duties, and protecting the tribe during wars. Apparently the Choctaws were less warlike than many of their neighbors but defended themselves bravely against any attacks. They rarely carried out offensive campaigns unless in retaliation for aggression against them. In such cases, the campaign was preceded by a war dance that might last eight days. Women sometimes accompanied the men to the battlefield to encourage them and supply them with arrows. Stealth and cunning were primary factors in Choctaw war making, like that of most other Indians. Aboriginal Choctaw homes were constructed of wooden posts, connected with lianas and covered with mud. The roofs were made from cypress or pine bark, and a hole was left in each gable end of the structure to allow smoke from the internal fire to escape. By the early nineteenth century, especially in Texas, these structures had been largely replaced by log cabins that were sparsely furnished. A cane bed, raised three or four feet off the floor and covered with deer or bear skins, served as table and chair as well. The Choctaws were primarily farmers. Corn was their most important crop, although they also raised beans, melons, pumpkins, peas, sunflowers, and tobacco. They cleared land by girdling trees and burning the undergrowth around their cabins and surrounding vicinity. Their agricultural proficiency often led to surpluses, which they sold or traded to neighboring tribes. Once cattle were introduced, they saved a portion of their surplus corn to feed their stock. Choctaws raised cattle with such success that they often sold excess to other Indians and White men living near by. Choctaw men and women in aboriginal times allowed their hair to grow long, and the men, like most other Indians, removed their scanty beards. They also customarily flattened the heads of infants with a piece of wood, which caused them at first to be known to White men as Flatheads. Their dress was similar to that of other southeastern Indians. Men wore deerskin breechclouts with a skin shirt and leggings in winter time. Women wore deerskin skirts and a shawl of skin, woven feathers, or the inner bark of a mulberry tree.
The first recorded European contact with the Choctaws was by members of Hernando De Soto's expedition in 1540. The Spaniards encountered Tuscaloosa, a mingo, from whom they demanded servants, canoes, and women. Tuscaloosa supplied carriers and rafts but delayed delivering women until De Soto and his army reached the town of Mabila. Upon reaching the town, Tuscaloosa, who had been a hostage, escaped and refused to grant any further concessions. A battle ensued in which Mabila was burned and hundreds or perhaps thousands of Choctaws and eighteen to twenty-two Spaniards were killed. The Spaniards, recovering from battle, remained in the area for another month and then moved on. Scattered incidental contacts with Europeans occurred in the following years, but not until 1700 did significant contact occur between Choctaws and Europeans.
American contact began in the late eighteenth century and became gradually more significant by the turn of the century. Between 1801 and 1830 the Choctaws signed a series of treaties with the United States, by which they ceded virtually all of their Mississippi lands in exchange for territory in Oklahoma. After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830), the remaining Choctaw lands were ceded, and the Choctaws agreed to move to Oklahoma or apply for allotments under article 14 of the treaty. A census of the Choctaw population before removal indicated a total of 19,554. Approximately 12,500 migrated west, 2,500 died, and 5,000 to 6,000 remained east of the Mississippi. Of those migrating to Indian Territory, more than 700 split off to move to Texas, which was then part of Mexico. Apparently a few families had drifted into Texas earlier, for in 1830 ten to fifteen families lived on the Texas frontier.
Choctaws were participants in the Cherokee Treaty of February 23, 1836. Members of the tribe resided in Nacogdoches and Shelby counties in 1837 and were considered friendly. The Choctaws continually boasted that they had never made war on the White man and apparently remained at peace with the Texans during their residence in the republic. The Texas Senate refused to ratify the Cherokee Treaty, and further efforts to secure territory for the Cherokees and their allied tribes also failed. The Indians' situation deteriorated further when Mirabeau B. Lamar became president of the Republic of Texas. His aggressive policy toward the Indians resulted in a two-day battle at the headwaters of the Sabine with the Cherokees and their allies in July 1839. After their defeat, most of the Indians abandoned their homes and fled to Mexico or the United States. The Choctaws probably joined their kinsmen on their reservation in southeastern Oklahoma.
The United States census of 1910 showed 14,551 Choctaws in Oklahoma, 1,162 in Mississippi, 115 in Louisiana, 57 in Alabama, and 32 in other states, for a total of 15,911. The Department of Indian Affairs, however, showed more than 19,000 in Mississippi and more than 1,200 in Mississippi in 1916–19. The census count was apparently erroneous. In 1974 there were 3,779 Choctaws in Mississippi, and a 1975 census showed 9,018 in Oklahoma. Only 2,930 of these were half or more Choctaw.