Ask Rufus: Playing ball, 181 years ago

November 27, 2010 9:17:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


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]