Tales of Turbulent Times | June 22, 2020

—Originally published in The Missouri Review, Volume 14, Number 3:  A Man Between Nations: The Diary of Peter Pitchlynn 1828 – 1837

from the Foreword

This issue’s “History as Literature” manuscript provides a look at the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands.

Expulsion and relocation of Native Americans in this country was a consistent governmental policy executed throughout most of the nineteenth century. The protagonists of removal, both white and Indian, portrayed it to be a kind of universal solution for tribal problems. The cost of this policy was thousands of lives. By the 1870s, when Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) was being overrun by whites, a growing body of Indian “philanthropists,” “experts,” government officials, and some tribal members began to push the next grand solution: the policy of serverality, which would abolish tribes as landholding institutions and allot land to individuals.

White philanthropists passionately believed that allotment was the last chance to salvage some justice for Indians. In their minds, the woes of the heathens derived from their habits of slothfulness, profligacy, sociability, and communism. Ending communal land ownership was seen as the key to fixing everything else. It was the magic bullet for the “Indian problem.” Government panaceas have a way of turning into their own opposites, and severality was exactly that—the antithesis of the previous grand solution. Instead of creating safe “reserves” of tribal land, they would abolish the tribes and parcel out their land. The Indian governments, particularly the Seminole, Cherokee, and Choctaw, fiercely resisted allotment, as they had resisted removal sixty years before, and again they lost.

Because of the strength of their resistance, the original Dawes Act excluded the Five Civilized Tribes from allotment, but a few years later the Dawes Commission was set up specifically to enforce allotment among these tribes. The Dawes Commission employed five hundred bureaucrats and took twelve years, but by the turn of the century it had succeeded in breaking down tribal resistance, determined the tribal rolls, and had taken possession of the largest estate known in western history, 31,000 square miles of Indian lands. A fraction of this land was allotted to tribal members and the rest was disposed of in various ways. Native Americans were now thrown into the rough and tumble of the great American real estate game. In effect, what remained of their lands was put into the hands of individuals many of whom were poor and could ill afford to hold on.

Peter Pitchlynn was a mixed-blood Choctaw whose life would span both eras; born and raised in the Mississippi homelands, influential throughout his life, he first became involved in tribal affairs at the beginning of the removal period. Pitchlynn would live to see the craze for allotment take hold, although he had died before the tribe finally gave up resistance, in 1898.

As a young man, Peter Pitchlynn went on a journey of exploration, set up in 1828 by federal negotiators, to the land which had been designated to be the Indian Territory. He kept a diary of this journey and continued to write in it sporadically during the Choctaw removal itself in 1832 and again in 1837. Later Pitchlynn would become the Principal Chief of the Choctaw Tribe.

A few years after the last entry in Pitchlynn’s diary, Charles Dickens happened to meet him on a riverboat in Ohio, and he characterized him at some length in his American Notes. Dickens’ portrait of Pitchlynn is tinted by the myth of the innocent embattled in a lost paradise, the wise and dignified representative of a doomed, idealized race—an emblem of the Native American that predated The Last of the Mohicans and will live on beyond Dances with Wolves. Something of the real Pitchlynn peeks through Dickens’ mythical haze, but the diary here presented, and the story it tells, affords a more complex portrait.

In this year of memorializing the half-millennium since Columbus’ arrival, we would be well served by learning more of the true chronicles of Native Americans, rather than casually turning them into symbols of this or that—brutal savages or helpless sufferers, idealized ecologists, or dwellers in Eden cast out by some inevitable force. Out of the gritty stuff of history we can perhaps carve a finer monument.

SM, 1991

Read Peter Pitchlynn’s diaries here: “A Man Between Nations”

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