Ask Rufus: The first OK?

January 12, 2014 1:40:56 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Last week I was asked to explain the origin of the old saying "The Lord be willing and the creek don't rise." There are several traditions about the origin of the phrase but one clearly sticks out in my mind. The story goes that Benjamin Hawkins (Creek Indian Agent 1796-1816) was on an occasion summoned to Washington D C, at a time when trouble was brewing in the Creek Indian Nation. He responded that he would be there if "the Lord be willing and the Creek don't rise up."  


Thinking of old sayings and this being early January the Battle of New Orleans comes to mind.  


Jan. 8, 1815, saw the climax of the Battle of New Orleans. Andrew Jackson's great victory over the British propelled him into the national spotlight and may have provided America with one of its favorite expressions. The battle itself had a number of ties to east Mississippi. 


In October 1814, General John Coffee, with over 3,000 Tennessee troops of the Second Division, hurried south to reinforce Jackson above Mobile. Initially it was not known whether the British assault would occur at Mobile or New Orleans, so troops were marshaled first near Mobile before marching to New Orleans. Gen. Coffee traveled down the St. Stephens Trace (roughly now Highway 45) and paused his march for supplies both at Pitchlynn's on Plymouth Bluff and at William Starnes' on the Noxubee River (near present day Macon). Prior to the battle Jackson was also reinforced by a company of Choctaw warriors commanded by Choctaw Captain Pierre Juzan. Juzan was married to Choctaw Medal Chief Pushmataha's niece and resided at "the Lauderdale Springs" near present day Meridian. It was out of that scene that the expression "OK" or "okay" may have first entered the English language. 


The Dictionary of Word Origins gives several possible sources for "OK." One of the possibilities is that it came from the Choctaw word OKEH or "it is so". Another possibility is attributed to Andrew Jackson. Yet another source may have been " Old Kinderhook" a nickname for President Martin Van Buren who was from Kinderhook, N.Y.. Interestingly, Van Buren and Jackson had been political allies. 


A Southern tradition actually merges two of those possible origins. That tradition is that during the Battle of New Orleans General Jackson asked Chief Pushmataha if the battle was going good for the Choctaw troops. The Chief was said to have responded with the Choctaw word "OKEH." However, the histories of the battle do not put Pushmataha there. Charles Juzan. his niece's husband, did command Choctaw warriors during the battle, though. As for the word OKEH, it does not appear in Cyrus Byington's 1852 "English and Choctaw Definer" but the word OKE does. It is a particle used after a verb to mean "it was so". 


History does provide a picture of events leading up to the British assault of Jan. 8. In his book the Life of Andrew Jackson, published in 1860, James Patton wrote of Jackson deploying his troops prior to the battle: "A cloud of dust on the levee, and the thunder of horses feet soon announced to the expectant General the approach of cavalry. Colonel Hinds, of the Mississippi Dragoons, emerged from the dust cloud galloping at the head of his troops, whom he lead swiftly by to their designated post. Coffee, with his Tennesseans, was not far behind. Halting at the General's side, he conversed with him for a few minutes...A battalion of colored freemen, under Major Dacquin, and a small body of Choctaw Indians, under Captain Juzan arrived, halted, passed on..." 


Could words have been exchanged between Juzan and Jackson? That is quite possible and a Baltimore newspaper, the Niles Weekly Register, in its Jan. 28, 1815, edition even printed an address Jackson had his Aid-De-Camp deliver to Major Dacquin's troops before the battle. 


It is not out of the realm of possibility that Andrew Jackson asked Captain Juzan if the Choctaws were prepared to battle the British and received the reply OKE, "it was so." Jackson may well have liked the term and began using it. Thus, "OK" may well have found its way into our language. Even if that is not the real origin, its a good story. 


Pushmataha, was he there? While histories do not place him at the battle, Gideon Lincecum a veteran of the Creek Indian War who personally knew Pushmataha, stated that the great chief "accompanied General Jackson to New Orleans, where, without being a participant, he witnessed the battle of Jan. 8, 1815."

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