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Ask Rufus: Playing ball, 181 years ago


An 1867 engraving from a George Catlin painting of a Choctaw ball game.

An 1867 engraving from a George Catlin painting of a Choctaw ball game. Photo by: Provided photo


Rufus Ward



Ball games have been a part of Native American culture since prehistoric times. Early French missionaries among the Choctaw found them playing a form of stickball in 1729. Stickball in various forms was popular among almost all Indians in eastern North America. It was from stickball that the modern game of lacrosse evolved. 


In the 1800s, the Choctaw form of the game was played on a field of anywhere from 100 to 500 yards in length but with no designated width. At each end a post would be set up. The object was to use ball sticks to throw a ball made from deer hide and hit the post. Ball sticks were 2 to 2 1/2 feet long with a loop pocket at one end to catch and throw the ball. The ball could not be touched by anyone''s hands. 


The ball games were used for both entertainment and to settle disputes. Games between different communities could have thousands of spectators and hundreds of players. Depending on the circumstances of the game, each team could have from 20 to more than 200 players. Generally 10 to 20 points was set as the winning score, with a point scored each time a team struck its post with the ball. 


In 1829, Columbus resident Gideon Lincecum decided to gather together some of the best Choctaw ball players and take them on a tour of the eastern United States. Lincecum planned to take two teams of 20 players each to put on exhibitions of Choctaw stickball. With assistance from John Pitchlynn, word was sent out for interested Choctaw ball players to gather at Oak Slush Creek (a few miles west of Columbus) on Nov. 28, 1829. 


By noon on Nov. 28, more than 400 Choctaw ball players had assembled. There was to be a lottery for the selection of the ball players who would make up the two traveling teams. To ensure he got the 40 best players, only the names of those preselected players were placed in the hat from which the drawing was made. 


On the morning of Nov. 29, 1829, Lincecum and the 40 Choctaw ball players set out on what would be an eight-month tour of stickball exhibitions. They soon crossed the Tombigbee at Tanyard Creek (now called Moore''s Creek) and entered Columbus traveling on the Military Road. One wonders if perhaps they commenced their journey by playing an exhibition game in Columbus. 


Not far from the old Tombigbee River crossing and Tanyard/Moore''s Creek stands an ancient cypress tree. Had the Choctaws played an exhibition game, the tree would have marked the edge of the most likely location for a ball field, and thus the site of the first ball game in Columbus. 


As Tanyard Park, Columbus'' proposed new sports park would be linked by name and location with the rich 181-year multicultural heritage of ball playing in this area, all still overseen by an ancient cypress sentinel.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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Reader Comments

Article Comment walter commented at 11/29/2010 1:58:00 PM:

As somewhat a history buff, myself, I am always happy to see and read Rufus' interesting, very enlightening tidbits of Columbus and Lowndes County's past. There is some fascinating stuff in official records and unpublished personal letters contained in private collections, within and beyond the county's border.

To better understand what brought us to this point, we (all of the citizens and residents of the area) are greatly served by the meticulous research Rufus conducts to uncover the facts and the well-written articles he submits, based thereon. I firmly believe that once we realize just how interdependent we are and truly, just how related we really are, we will develop the trust and cooperative spirit necessary to face the challenges that are already before us, as well as those that await us. A people kept divided and suspicious of each other are easy prey for those from outside who seek to prey upon us all. As long as we're divided, it is easier to put before us visionless men and women who endeavor to represent everybody's interest except the interests of the decent hard-working citizens and residents of Lowndes County.

Our history is deep; it is broad and interwined. Isn't it about time we begin to reflect who we really are and what we're really made of?

Tanyard Park is a good name for the future complex. i don't know who the oldest Native American living in the county, today. When I was a young man, I knew several. If the name of the eldest Native American living in the county today can be ascertained, I would suggest that the complex be named after him or her. If none reside in the county today, perhaps the name of the last one to reside there, based upon census records, should be selected and adopted as the name of the new complex. Tanyard Park, given the history recounted here of the name, is a very good suggestion, too.


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