Ask Rufus: At the prairie's edge

 

The site of the Mossy Oak Golf Club was once the edge of a prairie in the Chickasaw Indian Nation. The author saw a killdeer — a bird of the prairie — swoop low in front of ancient oak and sweetgum trees.

The site of the Mossy Oak Golf Club was once the edge of a prairie in the Chickasaw Indian Nation. The author saw a killdeer — a bird of the prairie — swoop low in front of ancient oak and sweetgum trees. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Rufus Ward

 

 

 

Friday I attended the opening of the Mossy Oak Golf Course. Though not having played golf in years, I have been interested in the Mossy Oak course because it is a links course returning to golf's Scottish heritage. It is an absolutely beautiful course planted with native prairie grasses, and the roughs filled with prairie wild flowers. Except for greens and sand traps, the landscape was basically unaltered. 

 

While waiting for the program to begin, I talked to Toxey Haas who was pointing out ancient oak and sweetgum trees along a nearby fairway. The trees stood just about where an 1834 land survey described stands of oak and sweetgums on the southern edge of the finger of a large grass-covered prairie. 

 

George Bryan (he and Toxey developed the course) had asked me about the history of the land where the course is located. The course, designed by Gil Hanse, who also designed the Olympic course at Rio, merges into the rich heritage of the land upon which it sits and preserves the natural beauty of the rolling land at a prairie edge. 

 

While talking with Toxey, a killdeer (pronounced killdee), a bird of prairie landscapes, suddenly flew low overhead. It brought to mind the story of the land and its rich history. The course is located not far above Tibbee Creek, and where once oak, sweetgum and hickory forest gave way to a tall grass prairie. 

 

English surveyor and naturalist Bernard Romans in 1771 traveled through the prairie only a couple of miles west of the present day Mossy Oak course. He wrote that the savannas or prairies "... consist of a high ground often with small gentle risings in them ... the largest within my knowledge is on the road from the Choctaw to the Chickasaw nation (roughly Highway 45A between West Point and Okolona), and is in length near 40 miles over from north to south, and from one end to the other, a horizon, similar to that at sea, appears; there is generally a rivulet at one or other, or at each end of the savannahs ... the soil here is very fertile."  

 

The only high growth he found within the prairies were willows by the creeks and some small oak and junipers (cedar). Romans also told of finding a crimson flower of the sunflower family and many wild strawberries. 

 

In 1822, a missionary described traveling through the prairie about three miles south of the golf course on his way to the old Mayhew Mission. He wrote: "The grass, which will soon be eight feet high...has all the freshness of spring. ... As you proceed, Mayhew... rises to view in still greater loveliness, half encircled with 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." 

 

Mossy Oak's location just north of Tibbee Creek was the ancient homeland of the unconquered and unconquerable Chickasaw Indian Nation -- a land that may well have seen the passage of Hernando de Soto in 1540 and one traveled by Davy Crockett in 1814. It was near here at the time of the War of 1812 that the Chickasaw General William Colbert, who had once been presented a peace medal by George Washington, lived. 

 

Archibald McGee, a Chickasaw, may have lived close by, and he and Lachico, another Chickasaw, were granted the land on which Mossy Oak sits by the Treaty of Pontotoc. 

 

Two miles southwest in the bottom land near Tibbee Lake, which was a sacred site, lived another Chickasaw. Anny McGee was an unmarried female, without family, living alone in the woods near the sacred lake. There is probably a story there to try and find. 

 

A few miles to the southeast of Mossy Oak on Plymouth Bluff in the Choctaw Nation, John Pitchlynn constructed his residence about 1810. His residence was fortified in 1813 during the Creek Indian War and became a meeting place for U.S. military officers and Chickasaw and Choctaw leaders. Pitchlynn was married to a Choctaw, and their son Peter later became Chief of the Choctaw Nation. 

 

In the late 1830s, after the removal of the Chickasaw to the west, George H. Young built a community and then a mansion at Waverly. The land that is now the golf course became farmland. Then around World War I the White family purchased the land, and it became a dairy farm. The pastures of the dairy farm preserved the natural lay of the land. That farm has now given way to the beautiful golf course. 

 

Mossy Oak is more than just another golf course. It is the preservation of a historic landscape. My thanks to Dr. Brad Lieb, tribal archaeologist with the Chickasaw Nation, for his assistance in tracking people from long ago.

 

 

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