George Catlin’s 1832 drawing of a Choctaw stick ball game in Oklahoma from the 1867 edition of his book Letters and Notes on North American Indians. Photo by: Courtesy photo
April 5, 2014 8:20:42 PM
This is a ballgame weekend. Professional baseball has just cranked up, basketball's Final Four started Saturday and college baseball is in full swing. But long forgotten is the story of how what may have been America's first professional ball team assemble at Columbus in 1829.
Since before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Native Americans have been playing the game of stick ball. Though the game was played by tribes from present day Canada to the Gulf, it was the Choctaws from who most early descriptions of the game have survived. To call it simply a game, though, is a misnomer for its playing was not only a social and cultural event but often a means of settling disputes between villages and even neighboring tribes. Until the early 1900s stick ball was referred to as "the ball game".In 1856 a Canadian who had witnessed stick ball games there, reconfigured the game and named it lacrosse.
The Choctaw version of the game was played on a field ranging in length from 100 to 500 yards. Historic accounts of games show each team usually having a large number of players ranging from about 20 to hundreds of players on each team. At each end of the field would be planted tall poles, sometimes one and sometimes two poles. If there was one pole, the object was to hit the pole with the ball. If there were two poles then the object was to throw the ball between the poles in order to score a point.
In 1832 and again in 1836, George Catlin witnessed Choctaw ball games and in 1841 he published a description of the games. He described sticks used by the Choctaw of Oklahoma in ball games: "The sticks with which this tribe play, are bent into an oblong loop at the end, with a sort of slight web of small thongs tied across, to prevent the ball from passing through. The players hold one of these in each hand, and...catch the ball between the two nettings and throw it, without being allowed to strike it, or catch it in their hands."
Catlin also stated that it was a rule in that;"no man shall wear moccasins on his feet, or any other dress than his breech-cloth around his waist, with a beautiful bead belt, and a tail made of white horsehair or quills, and a mane on the neck of horsehair."
A couple of weeks ago I had house guests from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who were working on a Choctaw cultural history site survey. They brought me a set of competition sticks and a ball. Ryan Spring, a GIS/GPS specialist with the Choctaw Nation, is an active stick ball player and explained to me how the sticks are held and used. There are two sticks, one about 33 inches long and the other about 30 inches long. He called the long one the "father" and said it was for defending. The shorter one he called "the mother" and said it was held in your prominent hand and used for throwing the ball. The ball he called "the child" and said it was made by wrapping a rock in strips of an old cotton T-shirt, then wrapping that in tape and weaving a round ball around it using strips of rawhide. Finally it was painted bright orange with enamel paint to make it hard but very visible.
In 1829 Columbus resident Gideon Lincecum had an idea as to how some money might be made. He decided to raised two teams of Choctaw ball players and take them on a tour of the eastern United States putting on exhibitions of ball games and traditional dances. Word was sent out across the Choctaw Nation, then in Mississippi, that any ball players who wished to join the traveling teams should be at Okshush Spring (Oak Slush Creek about two miles west of downtown Columbus) by noon on Nov. 29. More than 400 ball players showed up. .Lincecum only wanted 40 players and rigged a drawing so as to only get the 40 players that he wanted to travel with him. The two teams departed Columbus traveling up the Military Road, first passing what has become the site of Columbus' new soccer complex. The only exhibition game I have seen a reference to was possibly one in Huntsville, Ala.. The trip turned into a financial failure.
It is not clear how far the travailing Choctaw teams made it. There was a reference by Lincecum to seeing Pushmataha's grave and as it is in Washington, D C, they may well have made it that far.
The Choctaws were to be compensated for their time and so by today's standards they were professional ball players. Possibly the first professional ball players in America.
Choctaw stick ball games are still played in Mississippi on the Pearl River Reservation during the Choctaw Indian Fair each summer.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.