Choctaw Indians, an important tribe or confederacy of Muskogean stock formerly holding most of Southern Alabama and Mississippi, with adjoining portions of Louisiana, U.S.A., but now resident in Eastern Oklahoma. The origin and meaning of the name are uncertain. According to their own tradition, which agrees with linguistic evidence, they were formerly connected with the Chickasaw and crossed the Mississippi together from the West. Their first appearance in history was in 1540, when their giant chief, Toscalusa the “Black Warrior”, opposed De Soto’s march in what was perhaps the most terrible Indian battle ever fought in the Eastern United States.
Their connected history dates from the establishment of the French at Biloxi in 1699. They were generally more friendly to the French than to the English, but were always unsatisfactory and uncertain allies. They made their first treaty with the United States in 1786, since which time they have never been at war with the Government. In 1820 they sold their last remaining lands east of the Mississippi and agreed to remove to Oklahoma, but the removal was not completed until about twenty years later. Even then a considerable band, known later as Mississippi Choctaw, remained behind, most of whom, however, have recently joined the main body, though there are still hundreds in Louisiana. Those in the Territory constituted an autonomous Government under the title of the Choctaw Nation until 1906, when they were admitted to American citizenship. They number now altogether about 18,000 souls, probably their original number. The Choctaw were agricultural, dwelling in regularly arranged towns, with houses of logs plastered with clay, or of poles covered with mats or thatch. They were noted for their beautiful pottery and artistic basketry. In temperament they were considered rather indolent and without the sense of honor which characterized some tribes. Among their peculiar customs was that of flattening the head, and of digging up and cleaning the bones of the dead, after a short interment, for preservation in the family. They were much given to an athletic ball-play, which is still a favorite among them in the West. Not much is known of their myths or religion, which probably resembled those of the Muskogean tribes generally. Their tribal organization was lax and without central authority. They had the clan system, with descent in the female line, but the number of their clans is not definitely known.
Catholic mission work in the tribe was begun early in the French period, and though renewed effort was made under Jesuit auspices some years later, there were few results. In later years the work has been more successful, and the majority of those still remaining in their old homes are now Catholics, while two mission schools are also in operation among those in Oklahoma. The earlier missions among the Choctaw were intrusted to the Jesuits. Father Mathurin le Petit began work in the tribe in 1726, and continued until his transfer to New Orleans as superior of the Louisiana missions about two years later. He was succeeded by Father Michel Baudouin, who continued with them eighteen years, often in extreme danger from their treacherous and insolent disposition and the hostility of the English traders, until both governor and superior deemed it necessary to recall him and discontinue the work for a time. It was afterwards taken up by Father Nicholas le Febvre, who appears to have continued it until the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1764. Protestant work was begun in Mississippi by the American Board of Foreign Missions in 1818, and continued with success in the West. The Baptists began work in the Territory about 1832. Of the Protestant missionaries the most noted names are those of the Revs. Cyrus Byington and Allen Wright, both of whom have made important contributions to our knowledge of the language. In accordance with a former policy the earlier Protestant establishments were supported largely by Government funds.