One of the most common questions I am asked is about the role of Native Americans in the past of our area. While their role was somewhat limited, today’s column will look at how Native Americans also formed part of the Echo of Our Past. The Minden area was not the traditional home of any groups of Native Americans prior to 1700. About 1700, the policies of France and Spain, the European powers in the region, caused an upheaval in the lives of the tribes in Louisiana. The effects of this upheaval included a migration of tribes to new regions. These migrations brought the first groups of Native Americans into modern-day Webster Parish.
The first to enter our region were members of the Caddoan nations that had lived along the alluvial lowlands of the Red River. They began to move to the east into the hill country under the urging of the Spanish settlers of Texas. The Spanish hoped that the presence of Indians in the territory would discourage the entrance of English settlers from the east. Even though Louisiana was technically governed by the French at this time, the Spanish also claimed northern Louisiana — with the capital of Spanish Texas located at Los Adaes near Robeline. Most of the territory north of Natchitoches would eventually be given in a Spanish land grant to the Baron de Bastrop. While the Caddoan tribes did not enter the Minden/Webster Parish area in great numbers, settlement did begin in the area. Evidence of the Caddoan presence can be found in local place names: Bistineau, a word of Caddo origin, that apparently means “big broth”; and Dorcheat (which has also been recorded as Datche, Dacheet, Datache, Dauchite, Dorchite, and Dachet), derived from the Caddoan word for clan or people.
Shortly after the Caddos began to enter our area, another more powerful tribe entered the region. The Choctaw, encouraged by the Spanish, were attracted by the piney woods, similar to their ancient homes east of the Mississippi. Fearing the Anglo-American pressures, the Spanish had encouraged several tribes to migrate to Louisiana; these included the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Choctaw, Koasati (Coushatta), and Taensa (Tensas). However, since the Choctaw were the largest and strongest tribe in Mississippi, more of them came to our region. In addition, the Choctaw had traditionally had strong ties and friendly relations with the French and were thus more amenable to working with the Europeans.
After the Spanish gained control of Louisiana under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Spanish governors courted the tribal leaders, again encouraging their presence as a deterrence to English settlement in the lands near the Ouachita and Red Rivers and what is today central north Louisiana. The Spanish invited the Choctaw into the area, an act they soon regretted but could never correct. Hundreds of Choctaw poured across the Mississippi into what is now upper Louisiana, first to hunt, and then to settle or trade. These powerful newcomers were soon confronted by the Caddoan tribes, who threatened war. The Choctaw remained and war with the Caddo did not occur. By 1807, Choctaw were known to be scattered across present-day northern Louisiana from the Ouachita River to the Sabine, and the tribes had begun to find comparatively permanent homes. The Koasati, with a few Pascagoula and Yomanti Choctaw moved north from villages near Colfax and modern Boyce and settled in the Caddo country, north of Natchitoches, near the Arkansas boundary, entering modern-day Webster Parish and the Minden area. Choctaw communities were to remain the dominant Indian groups of the general region until the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Choctaw became the most widespread Indian population in Louisiana. These groups were not tribes in the traditional sense. Usually they were small bands of people, connected by family relationships. When John Sibley became Indian agent in 1807, he summoned North Louisiana Choctaw to Natchitoches and directed them to select a chief. Displeased with their choice, Sibley eventually managed to replace him with a friendlier chief. Still, these kin-based band leaders were not equal in authority to the traditional Choctaw chiefs east of the Mississippi.
During the half-century from 1780 to 1830, the Choctaw prospered and grew, at the expense of other tribes like the Adai and Biloxi, until Choctaw became nearly synonymous with Indian in much of Louisiana. Their influence had been almost universal among the southeastern tribes for years by the time the Treaty of Choctaw Removal, in effect from 1828 to 1835, had been signed with the federal government.
The Choctaw language became dominant and was the source of many place names in Louisiana. For several reasons, Choctaw became the best known and most widely used Native American language. It became the basis of the Mobilian dialect, a mélange of different tongues that was used for communication between tribes. In addition, the European explorers and traders used Choctaw guides, thus when inquiring about the name of a place, they were told the Choctaw name. Examples of these Choctaw names include, Coushatta, from the Choctaw word Koasati meaning white reed-brake. The name was shared by the Indian tribe we know as the Coushatta, Creek immigrants from Alabama. In reality the name Koasati came from the original home of this tribe, a white reed-brake in Elmore County, Alabama. The town of Coosada, Alabama derives its name from the same word. The name Kisatchie, that has been given to the National Forest in Louisiana, comes from a related Choctaw word. This name is a combination of the Choctaw words for river and reed-brake.
The Indian removals of the 1830s eliminated most of the Caddos from the area. However, the Choctaws, who did not live in traditional tribal structure, remained. Late in the 19th century a second Indian removal occurred when the Choctaw nation and others in Indian Territory became fearful that they would lose their lands to whites. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1900 began to seek Indians, especially full bloods, eligible for enrollment and tribal allotments in Oklahoma. Both government and private agents went to Louisiana and Mississippi to recruit emigrants, and soon the Louisiana Indians were boarding steamboats. Even here misfortune pursued them. One boat carrying Choctaw from the Florida parishes sank in Lake Pontchartrain. Another group, the Jena Band of Choctaw, walked up the railroad tracks to the vicinity of Idabel and Broken Bow in the Indian Territory. There they were told that no allotments were left in the territory, and they had to walk back to Louisiana. Once returned, they had no recourse except to live as sharecroppers on the lands of white and mixed-blood neighbors to whom they had lost their traditional village areas. A similar fate faced the Choctaws in the Minden area. Any mention of Native American settlements in our area disappear in the last half of the 19th century.
At least three large Native American communities were located near Minden. One was in the area around Webster Junior High and Cooley Creek, in a community called Warsaw. The name Cooley is a Choctaw adaptation of a French word, and apparently Warsaw must also be a Choctaw word. There were a few settlers in the Minden area who came from Eastern Europe, but none lived in the area of Warsaw. Probably this name is related to the Indian word “Wausau”, familiar from the old television commercials for the insurance company.
Another large settlement of Native Americans was located near the Germantown Colony. In fact, the Colony was constructed on an old Indian trace near the Military Road. Records exist of commerce between the colonists and these Choctaw. Another area settlement of Choctaws was located at Shongaloo, which is located on the site of a Choctaw village. The name Shongaloo comes from the Choctaw word “shakolo”, meaning cypress tree. It was eventually adopted by the White settlement originally known as Wiseville. This group of Choctaw remained in the area the longest, with records of their continued presence as a group into the Reconstruction era. An interesting story from the Shongaloo area was told by Dr. Christine Hunt regarding the chief of the Choctaw and Dr. Wise, the pioneer settler for whom Wiseville was named who was also an ancestor of Dr. Hunt. It seems that the Chief found Mrs. Wise more attractive or desirable than his own wife. He approached Dr. Wise and offered to trade his wife for Mrs. Wise. The doctor declined the offer.
The presence of groups of Native Americans in our area was recorded by various pioneer settlers of the region. One such source is the account of Isaac Murrell, the first European child born north of Campti in Louisiana. He wrote the following:
“We could almost daily see Indians, for there were many of them in the country. They lived in small villages, and moved from place to place as their hunting expeditions required. But these Indians were inoffensive, committing no depredations on stock or other property.”
Another reference to the Indians around Minden comes from a description of Christmas Day 1844 in Minden. This is a period after the removal and indicates that area Native Americans remained after this government edict was put into place. In 1929, Connell Fort, a long-time City Council member and twice Minden’s mayor, received a letter from a Mr. Arthur B. Phillips. Mr. Phillips had a collection of items relating to Minden’s past and included copies of these in his letter to Fort. One item in Phillips’ collection was a letter written in December 1873, by Mr. Pike Reynolds of Paducah, Kentucky to the Minden Democrat, a newspaper of that day. Mr. Reynolds had lived in Minden during the 1840s. Among the memories he recounted was an account of how Minden celebrated Christmas in 1844. This is Reynolds’ account of that Yuletide:
“We sometimes had brisk times at Minden, but the briskest day I ever noticed was on Christmas 1844. We had a ball or cotillion party, a horse race, chicken fight, shooting match, and the keno and all banking tables going, including all short games from full deck three up, and on the same day the main parallelogram was full of Indians, and their ponies packed with deer hides, and they were trading their peltry for provisions, ammunition, and whiskey and running foot races, dancing and singing their songs.”
It is obvious that Native Americans were a profound and forgotten presence and influence on the development of life and civilization in Minden and Webster Parish, and as such are another part of the Echo of Our Past.
Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald