Although generally the least known of the Five Civilized Tribes, no other tribe played a more significant role in Britain’s victory over France for control of North America. Variously described as the “Unconquered” or the “Spartans of the lower Mississippi Valley,” the Chickasaw were the most formidable warriors of the American Southeast. British traders from the Carolinas were quick to recognize their prowess in this area, arming the Chickasaw after which, the French were crippled in engaging in any commerce along the lower Mississippi River. The tribe never lost a battle until they sided with the Confederates during the Civil War. Even then, the Chickasaw Nation was the last Confederate government to surrender to Union forces.
An important Muscogean tribe, the Chickasaw were closely related to the Choctaw in language and customs, although the two tribes were mutually hostile. The principal difference between the two tribes were that the Choctaw were more sedentary and had a greater devotion to agricultural pursuits, while the Chickasaw were more turbulent, restless, and warlike.
The earliest habitat traceable for the Chickasaw was in north Mississippi. Their villages in the 18th century centered about Pontotoc and Union Counties, where the headwaters of the Tombigbee River met those of Yazoo River and its affluent, the Tallahatchie River. This is where Hernando de Soto narratives placed them in 1540, under the name Chicaza.
Their main landing place on the Mississippi River was at Chickasaw Bluffs, now the site of Memphis, Tennessee, where a trail more than 160 miles long led to their villages. They also had two other landing places farther up the Mississippi River.
The Chickasaw were noted early on for their bravery, independence, and warlike disposition. They were constantly fighting with neighboring tribes; sometimes with the Choctaw and Creek, and later, with the Cherokee, Illinois, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Mobile, Osage, and Quapaw. They combined with the Cherokee about 1715 and drove the Shawnee from their territory on the Cumberland River. In 1732 they totally destroyed a war party of Iroquois who had invaded their country.
In 1744, the English trader, James Adair, guided a pack train of trade goods into the Chickasaw Nation and began to do business with the tribe. He would maintain a friendly relationship with them for the next two decades. When he departed from the Chickasaw for the last time in 1768, he took with him a book-length manuscript that he was determined to see published. In more than 500 pages, Adair’s manuscript contained a wealth of information about the tribe. Adair stated that the Chickasaw had four contiguous settlements, each having several villages within them. Their town sites were described as sophisticated, they practiced agriculture, and possessed a highly developed ruling system complete with laws and religion
However, the warlike Chickasaw claimed other territory far beyond the narrow limits of their villages, land that extended north to the confluence of the Ohio with the Tennessee Rivers, as well as a large area north of the Tennessee River to the ridge between Duck and Cumberland Rivers and south to the Tennessee River.
According to other reports, there was also an outlying colony of Chickasaw who dwelt on the Savannah River nearly opposite Augusta, Georgia, but trouble with the Creek tribe drove them westward again.
They were constant enemies of the French, a feeling intensified by the intrigues of British traders and their hatred of the Choctaw who had entered into friendly relations with the French colonists. The Chickasaw urged the Natchez to resist the French encroachments, and gave shelter to them when driven from their home.
In the French and Indian War of 1756 to 1763, which was actually a war between Great Britain and France, they allied with the English, fighting in a number of battles and resulting in British domination of America.
Though they had formerly allied with the Cherokee to drive the Shawnee from their territory, they later would fight with them when the Cherokee tried to drive the Chickasaw out. Although the Cherokee outnumbered the Chickasaw five to one, the Chickasaw would prevail in the end. After eleven years of skirmishes, the Cherokee were routed at a battle fought near the Chickasaw Old Fields in 1769. The British arranged a peace the following year, and although they never relinquished their claim to the disputed area, the Cherokee chose not to challenge the Chickasaw again.
Negotiations with the United States began with the Hopewell Treaty in 1786, when their boundary on the north was fixed at the Ohio River. They began to emigrate west of the Mississippi River as early as 1822, and treaties for the removal of those who remained in their old locations were made in 1832 and 1834.