History of Newton County, Mississippi, from 1834 to 1894

Chapter 3



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To one who, like the writer, was born among the Choctaw Indians, when there were thousands of them in the counties of the Purchase, even after the first large emigrations, a ball play, or description of one, might interest to revive the old and long since passed national game of these wild savages, who probably for a thousand years had celebrated these gay and festive occasions, displaying great feats of manhood, great dexterity in the use of their very peculiar "ball sticks" and their fleetness unequaled by any people, probably, in the world. But to the youthful readers, who may become, or who are now, interested in these once wild and untutored savages, it may be of interest. The impression made by the Indians in the long ago, and the recollections were those connected with his dissipation and wickedness, in all his social and convivial relations in the time-honored ball play. In these games they yearly participated, and were in constant practice.

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The Indians speaking the same language usually divided into different clans, and were governed by a chief or captain, who was spokesman and to whom a becoming reverence of superiority was acknowledged. Jasper county had the Sixtowns and Beaver Creeks. Newton county had the Turkey Creeks and Bogue Chittos, etc. The Sixtowns and Beaver Creeks would challenge the Turkey Creeks, and probably some of the Bogue Chittos, or all, at a grand play, would come.

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The place of meeting would be on mutual grounds between tile homes of the different tribes. These games were not played for sport or recreation, but for the profit that was in them. There was not much money bet. They put up clothing, ponies, household goods; almost anything they had would be freely staked on the contest. Not only the men, but their women felt great pride and a consciousness of success of their own clan. Before the game commenced they would meet, and parties who bet would place things which they proposed to wager with each other on a common scaffold constructed for the purpose, each pair of betters having the things proposed to bet bound together and thrown on the scaffold. If it were their ponies, they would be secured together at some convenient place, to be taken by the winning party. This betting and depositing on a common scaffold is never done until just before the play commenced. On the evening before the play the two tribes or clans who have made the arrangements to play, meet on chosen ground. The males dressed in primitive style, their bodies as near nude as could be allowed, all the upper portion of the body having no clothing, hair long; some have on deer-skin leggins with a number of small bells attached; a deer tail well adjusted to the belt or waistband of the trowsers, face painted white, yellow and black in spots, so as to give the most hideous appearance possible. They appeared to assume on these occasions their wild animal natures, being perfectly oblivious to everything around them except the matter now in hand.

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On each side they numbered twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more. They arrayed themselves together on the previous evening before they play -- on each side at their respective headquarters, on the ball-ground, boasting, dancing, daring with the greatest assurance and self-satisfied air that they would be victorious over their opponents on the morrow. With their ball-sticks in their hands they make a charge at each other, both converging to a common center of the ground between the poles, like two contending armies. Their war-whoops that rent the air were deafening. They come to close contact but do not meet in conflict. They do not salute each other, but appear angry. In this way they sally back and forth boasting of their prowess, of what they expect to do to-morrow, and in that way pass the balance of the afternoon.

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The ball-sticks they use are something peculiar in their way. They are made of tough pieces of hickory, about thirty inches long, three quarters of an inch square; the wood at one end of the stick is made thin so as it can be made into a bow; after it is bent and bowed it is tied with strings. This bow is threaded with a string of deer skin, so with the pair a player can catch, hold and throw with great precision and force. As the night comes on they go through many of the forms and ceremonies previous to the play; now they shout the war-whoops, now they surround the supposed condemned victim; now they fill the air with shrieks and boast of anticipated victory over their opponents on to-morrow; now they, with confident emotion, declare their enemies' defeat; now they declare their manhood and great ability to vanquish.

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These proceedings go on by both opposing parties, but on different parts of the play-ground most of the night before the day appointed for the contest. Profoundly superstitious in all these performances, they had what they called a "witch killer" who was all the time chasing the evil spirits from their midst by the most peculiar and unbecoming gesticulations and gyrations of the head, hands and lower limbs, that could be thought of or imagined. Yet this "witch killer" was essential to them; they would not play without him. The women well performed this part.

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The old women, the children and the dogs, surrounded the camp-fires. These old crones looked grum, talked in low, incoherent and gutteral tones, attended to the cooking and took care of the children, scolded the dogs and enjoyed silently the prospect of to-morrow's victory. It must be remembered that all the Indians belonging to these different clans, male, female, old and young, from the youngest infant to the oldest man and woman, came to the ball-play.

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It was a great social reunion when they met their friends and witnessed a great fete. The young women went to dance. It was no old-fashioned reel; no cotillion, where time, order and grace prevail, nor no "modern waltz" or German. The men were not allowed to take part in this gay and festive sport. These dusky maids, six or eight on each side, with locked arms, stood facing each other. Between these two rows of facing maidens sat an old man with a drum made of a pot with a piece of raw-hide stretched over the top. This was all the musical instrument used. He sat down upon his feet, and in a low, melancholy voice sang: "Hummy hoga Hummy hoga!" repeating it five or six times. The Indian girls would then sing in loud voice and high key the same "hummy hoga" a dozen times, and just as they would commence to sing they would commence to dance. The dancing was with locked arms of six or eight, facing a like number, jumping up and down with right and left movement, with feet and body all at the same time, raising themselves three or four inches and coming down flat on the ground. Then they would rest a few moments and commence again. In this way they danced most of the night without changing partners.

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The next day the warriors meet, painted and stripped of most of their clothing. They continue to boast and dare until about the middle of the day. After that the poles, two large pieces of timber, made of a tree cut down and split open, or two smaller trees hewn on two sides, about fifteen feet high, placed perpendicularly in the ground with small space between, so that the ball could pass through. Each contending party had their poles, and they were about two hundred and fifty yards apart. The ball was to be thrown up at an equal distance from each end, or on neutral ground, and was to be thrown with the ball sticks, so as to strike one of the poles or go between them. After the men on each side had been placed on the grounds to the best advantage the signal was given. The best runners were placed in the field; the ablest, strongest men were placed at the poles of their opponents. The men on each side were placed to the best advantage, adapting each to a position where speed or strength or ability to throw or catch the ball best suited him.

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No game ever witnessed was more closely contested than an Indian ball play. The spirit with which they entered the contest was enough to win the admiration of all beholders. The perfect manner in which each one performed his part was sufficient to demand the pride of all. The dexterity with which they handle the sticks and throw the ball is a surprise to every one. Their powers of endurance under the scorching sun, for they choose the warm weather for such a contest, would satisfy the most incredulous that they were brought up to, and able to bear, the greatest hardships. The Olympic games were not more closely contested nor often more dearly won. Dreadful falls, terrible blows, bleeding and broken limbs, were the results of their efforts to win. Their property was staked, their manhood was matched. Their ambition to vanquish a rival, or reclaim a former defeat, all urged them to their best efforts. Their women ran with water, cheering by their presence and applause and with words of encouragement to deeds of valor, and if need be, to desperation. They not only played ball, but they fought; they worked, used every effort of mind and body, every cunning scheme and every deceptive ruse. And after the hard contested fight was nearly over; after one or the other side had eleven balls, unless each had eleven, the twelfth ball was to be thrown up at the poles of the ones having eleven. Sometimes those behind would make a desperate effort and win, and continue to do so until each had reached eleven. Then the last ball was played, and thrown up on a common center of the grounds. This last one would probably be the severest contest of any, as they claim to be so nearly matched. When the final result was reached, amidst the greatest excitement of spectators and participants, the vanquished, without a word, gave up their property, and the victorious rushed to the scaffold containing the goods, appropriating what they had won, receiving the compliments of their admirers, and rejoicing in the victory over their rivals.

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After these plays, if the Indians were in reach of whisky, the whites would commence to treat by buying enough to make many of them drunk. They would then commence to fight; not with knives, but with small sticks, and to pull each other's hair, not doing much damage. The women always acted as peacemakers and usually staid sober, while their lords drank; when a fight took place, as soon as they could separate them they did it. Sometimes they would have to tie them in order to control them. In this way nearly a week would pass in this general debauch. After all their money was spent for liquor, and their provision had given out, they slowly plodded their way home to repair their losses and allow their broken and bleeding limbs to heal.

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Having been accustomed to see these people only in their wild state, and their abandoned condition; to hear their wild revelry, and drunken orgies, listen to their weird songs, and endless dissipations, presenting at these times, haggard faces, wounded and bleeding forms, imagine the change in seeing them under religious and civilizing influences. After the death of the two Indian missionaries sent out from the Territory to preach to those in this and adjoining counties, they were left without any help except their own native Indians, and what the white preachers could do for them. This writer was invited by Charley Jackson -- Lo-man-ta-kubby is his Choctaw name -- to attend their regular monthly meeting, which was cheerfully accepted. This church is situated about fourteen miles from the railroad, near Connehatta. It is a small frame building, very well suited, and comfortable and commodious enough for those who worship there. Arrived in very good time, about 10 o'clock, just as the early services were over. Their treatment was very kind -- and they appeared pleased that white people would go to their meetings. This was the Sabbath of a three day's meeting, and there were gathered about one hundred Indians at the little church for public worship. The Indians had come, as they usually do, bringing their children, large and small, also their dogs. Some had walked and brought their baggage and provision, in their large baskets; others had ridden on horseback, while a number came with oxen and wagons, much as they had done when they attended the ball-plays, and at their cries, to mourn for their dead, and to have a homely and frugal feast. They were dressed in their best attire, more like the white citizen's dress, than is usual, for in all these years of association with the white race they have preserved some of their peculiar and primitive fashions. Some of the women wore bonnets made of cloth, not a fashionable one.

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They were generally dressed in the style well known and practiced by themselves. In the decorations about their heads high colors prevailed -- with variegated trimmings, gaudy handkerchiefs, strands of cheap beads around their necks, band-combs carrying the hair all back. Some of the women wore mourning, a very unusual thing. Most of the women wore shoes, yet some of them were barefoot. The men had on their best suits, most of them had on coats and cravats. All of them had on shoes. Some of them wore vests. and no coats. The very black hair of the men was cut short, resembling the style of the white citizen. The men originally wore their hair very long, and cut it only on certain portions of the head very short. Some of them were old but their hair was not much gray; none with very white hair, like some of our old white men. There was not a bald head among them; that seldom occurs among the Indians.

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This church has a regular organization, with between twenty and thirty members. This is a Baptist church, and it is claimed that four hundred have been immersed in various portions of the county.

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The Catholics claim about three hundred nominal members. The Methodist church has had a missionary among them for the last two years and claim to be doing a good work. This work is in this county, and several adjoining counties having Indians in them.

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The Methodist Conference which convened at Natchez. in December, 1892, licensed Simson J. Tubby to preach. He got up before that large body of learned men and in a plain way gave his experience and what he considered his conversion. A sufficient amount was subscribed to send him for a time to Millsaps College, at Jackson, and while the young man is now preaching to a church in Neshoba county, it is contemplated to send him to school and further prepare him to preach to his people.

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Most of the younger men read and write their own language. Very few of their women have learned to read or write. Jesse Baker, the Choctaw preacher, who came from the Nation, learned these young Indian men in a part of two years to read and write and sing religious songs. He did a good work for his people. Baker was a consecrated man, who had the work of the ministry and the salvation of souls as the ruling thoughts of his mind. His labors were not in vain. He died at his post, and it is fondly hoped went to enjoy a rich inheritance.

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At 11 o'clock we were called to the regular preaching of the day. Having good seats near the speaker, could easily hear what he said. It was a funeral and also a sacramental occasion.

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The preacher was Ben Williamson, Ne-nac-intu-Cubby, a man looking to be about thirty-five years old, having preached three years. He had a fine appearance, dignified, cheerful, intelligent. He was tolerably well dressed, though his suit looked rather worn. He wore cuffs and cuff buttons, shirt collar, collar buttons, without cravat. He was assisted by Thompson Baker, who said he had no Indian name, which is very uncommon. He is a fine looking man, younger than Ne-nac-intu-Cubby, though not so intelligent. He came from one of the adjoining counties. The speaker was born in Newton county. Baker wore good clothes, which fit him well, wore a watch, one of those "gold watches" "warranted" and cost about five dollars. He took it out of his pocket to learn the hour, then he put it to his ear to learn if it were still alive. He wore a nice cravat and Derby hat.

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Old Jack was the third preacher; he appeared to be about 60 years old. Jack has a young wife. He looks sad and dejected; has a poor voice and looks to have very poor health. Jack has seen the Choctaw Indian in all his wild, untutored state. He grew up as a devotee to all their wild ideas and shrank from all civilization. He engaged in all their time-honored customs, games and dances, believed in all their superstitions and participated in everything the Indian called pleasure and dissipation. In his more than mature manhood he became a convert to the Christian religion and a preacher of righteousness to his fallen race. He was the first preacher among them, and no doubt he has done good and is trying to live a Christian life and persuade others to do so. Yet his speech is slow, his frame is bowing, his noble manhood is gone and he now looks forward to the reward of hereafter. He is reverenced and respected by his people and will be missed when he is gone.

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The text on this funeral occasion was from 1st Corinthians, 15th chapter, verses 51-52: "Behold, I shew you a mystery: we shall not all sleep but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trump, for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed." In a very feeling way did he allude to the death of the child whose funeral he preached. He then presented his subject to his hearers; at first he appeared slow, making no gestures, and in rather conversational style; but after a short time he warmed up with his subject. He became more fluent; commenced to use his hands and arms, first in one way and then in another; now at full length, now brought close to his body. Then his head and his whole frame became in constant motion. His voice expanded and at no time lacked for expression of apparently the most appropriate phrases. He tenderly wept while he warned and persuaded his audience. He brought many of his hearers to tears. He came down from the platform from which he preached, talking all the while, walked to the middle of the house, addressing himself in the most earnest and emphatic language to his hearers. He preached about three quarters of an hour, his audience giving marked attention. White persons who heard him were favorably disappointed. Something was said that no white man in the county ever expected to hear -- a Christian Indian preaching in his own language, and one brought up in a wild and unlettered state until he was twenty-five years old.

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Alter the sermon Thompson Baker exhorted the people and presented to them Christ and baptism by immersion. He asked those desiring the prayers of the church to give their hands, and many of them, the older men and women, signified their desire to be prayed for. The elements of the Lord's Supper being present, the two younger ministers proceeded to the work of administering it. Thompson Baker read a portion of the eleventh chapter of 1st Corinthians, commencing, "That the Lord Jesus in the same night in which he was betrayed," etc., and proceeded to talk on the subject. Then the element representing the body of Christ was distributed. Ne-nac-intu-Cubby read another portion of the same chapter and proceeded to talk upon it; the deacons then handed the wine. The preacher impressed upon his hearers that long ago the Indian was much given to strong drink, but this was very different, representing as this did the blood of Christ, and that they must drink a very small portion of it. They offered an opportunity for membership' and one weeping woman came forward, was examined by the elder and admitted into the church. This was all done with as much order and decorum as it is in any of our white churches in the county.

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One is amazed and encouraged at the progress these people have made in Christianity, contrasting the situation of the Indians now and when they were first discovered in America, the progress being made by them and the wise and munificent provisions by the Government for them. They are becoming civilized, educated, and in many instances Christianized. One is reminded of the speech made by a New England orator, probably seventy-five years ago, that believed that the white man would drive away the Indian and probably annihilate him from the face of the earth. Mr. Sprague said:

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"Not many generations ago, where you now sit, surrounded by all that elevates and embellishes civilized life, there lived and loved another race of beings. Beneath the same sun that rolls over your head the Indian hunter pursued the panting deer; gazing on the same moon that shines for you the Indian lover woed his dusky mate. Now they paddled their light canoe along your rocky shores; now they dip their noble limbs in your sedgy lakes; here they warred and here they fought, and when the tiger strife was over, here curled the smoke of peace.

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"Slowly and sadly they climb the distant mountains and read their doom in the setting sun. They shall soon hear the roar of the last wave that shall settle over them forever."

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That language sounds like the cruel pale-face would exterminate the red man from the face of the earth. The prediction of this eloquent orator, though no doubt sincere in his ideas of the true condition of the Indians, is very far from being realized. On the contrary, the Government has assumed a fatherly care and guardianship over the Indians, and has furnished them with millions of dollars and substantial support and protection. The result is, they live upon their lands, holding lifetime rights, with no power to spend or waste them. They have splendid schools in the Nation, and elegant training schools in the States. They have good church privileges. Some of the tribes have an annual income from the Government. Some have fine fortunes, and some have princely sums in the hands of the Government. In several instances the United States Government has had to punish some of these restless and warlike tribes. Yet they find the "Great Father" and his people are their best friends -- that "the hand of justice has been tempered with mercy," and if they will obey they will be rewarded and blessed.

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The singing at the Indian church was also a surprise. The Indian songs that had been most popular among them were not as many as the whites have, but they had a song of rejoicing, a song of victory, and a song of sadness. They had no hymns or poetical songs. They would announce in their songs the loss by death of a child thus: Pus-cus Conneya Sally Hoga! The loss of a gun: Ta-napo Conneya Sally Hoga! If they should leave their blanket as security for a quart of whisky, after they had drunk it they would sing: Shuckabo boly Sally Hoga! They would express their grief or sorrow with the same chorus as their rejoicing. They had a song to be used at their cries, and one at their dances. These songs were familiar to every one who had listened to them, and it was strange they had no new songs. The one used on various occasions appeared to be as old as the race. The first song sung by the congregation the day they were visited was, "How tedious and tasteless the hours," etc. They sang in Choctaw, but the old tune, so familiar to these words, as is sung by the whites. The beautiful words of this hymn, "Christian Experience," by Dr. Newton, could not well be sung to any other tune than the one used by us. The next was a plain, old, common measure tune, suggesting the familiar and sublime words by Samuel Stinnet, "Majestic sweetness sits enthroned," etc. When they administered the sacrament they used, "Pass me not, Oh, Gentle Savior." They were deficient in vocal music, but not more so than some white congregations. They need teaching in vocal music by competent instructors, yet they do well even in this part of their worship.