March 22, 2014 11:40:45 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
This past week has been a most interesting one. I had the pleasure of having four houseguests who are working on a historic sites study for the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations of Oklahoma. They were in Mississippi locating and visiting historic Native American sites in east Mississippi. Their quest ranged from attempting to locate the site of the early 1800s Choctaw Council House on the Noxubee River, to visiting the scene of a Chickasaw legend at Tibbee Lake, to reviewing John Pitchlynn's estate records in the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus Lowndes Public Library.
Wednesday was a day to journey to Tibbee Creek, Tibbee Lake and the Mayhew Choctaw Mission site. All are located south of West Point and between Columbus and Starkville. Traveling west on the "Old West Point Road" from Columbus brought visions of another time to mind. That part of the road south of Tibbee Creek closely followers the route of the old 1820s Columbus to Mayhew Mission Road. Though only remnants of the original prairie along the route remain, it is easy to imagine just how even more beautiful that countryside must have been when it was the home of the Choctaw.
In April 1822, William Goodwell traveled the same route and wrote a letter describing the countryside:
"As you approach it (Mayhew Mission) from the east, there opens unexpectedly to view an extensive prairie...which appears to be without a single stone, or tree, or fence, except now and then a small cluster of trees at great distances, like the little isles of the sea...the grass, which will soon be eight feet high, is now about eight inches...As you proceed, Mayhew often almost wholly disappears; again it rises to view in still greater loveliness, half encircled with the oak, which, with the sycamore, and mulberry, borders the prairie on all sides. Flowers of red, purple, yellow, and indeed of every hue, are scattered, by a bountiful God, in rich profusion, and in all the beauty and innocence of Eden, on each side of the path."
At Tibbee Creek we stopped and walked along the bank recalling that it was the traditional boundary line between the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. Once again representatives of the two Nations stood together on the banks of the creek and talked of ancient traditions.
A couple of miles down a gravel road from Tibbee Creek we stopped and gazed upon Tibbee Lake. Although it is near the creek it appears to be an oxbow remnant of some prehistoric stream not only larger than Tibbee but once larger even than the Tombigbee. As would be fitting for such a strange lake there is a Chickasaw legend about its formation.
The story as recorded by E.T. Winston in 1931 tells of how in the distant past a Chickasaw family once camped by a fallen tree in Tibbee swamp. In the early morning the mother and father departed to search for game or other food while leaving their young son and daughter at the camp site. Upon returning in the afternoon the parents were horrified to find the ground around their campsite had caved in forming a huge lake. There where the lake covered the fallen tree and the place where their children had been left were together swimming two huge snakes. In fear of the cataclysm that had occurred and apparently turned their children into serpents the horrified parents fled and the lake was "shunned" from that day.
Located a few miles west of Tibbee Lake, the cemetery at the Mayhew Choctaw Mission site more than anywhere else in the area speaks of times past. There, headstones dating to the early 1820s do not say "died in Mississippi" or even the United States. They say died in C. N. or Choctaw Nation. It is a beautiful site on a ridge overlooking Tibbee bottom. Earlier in the week we visited the Pitchlynn family cemetery at the old Town of Plymouth across the Tombigbee from Columbus. There in the woods the only signs of a once bustling town were a few scattered bricks, jonquils still arising in former gardens and three headstones in the cemetery. But at the cemetery there were signs of many other graves and of vandalism and missing headstones. It is a sad commentary on present day society.
In the scale of time it was but a blink of an eye that where we live today was the home of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. It is their homeland and as its custodians we have an obligation to try and preserve its sacred sites just as we hope future generations will preserve the cemeteries wherein our loved ones rest.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]