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Choctaw Crime and Punishment, 1884-1907, by Devon Abbott Mihesuah.

April 26, 2014

Choctaw Crime and Punishment, 1884-1907, by Devon Abbott Mihesuah.  University of Oklahoma Press (2009), Hardcover, 352 pages.

A carefully researched history by a Choctaw author about violence and politics in the Choctaw Nation in the years leading up to its inclusion in the new state of Oklahoma.

Like the other “civilized” tribes of the American southeast, the Choctaws were forced out of their traditional homelands and settled on land that is now part of the state of Oklahoma. Although they were promised the land and self-government in perpetuity, white settlers moved into their lands, especially following the Civil War. Some white men married Choctaw women and gained citizenship in the Choctaw Nation and access to its natural resources. By the 1880s, railroads had been built and massive coal mines had begun to exploit the lands of the Choctaws. White outlaws escaped capture in Choctaw Nation. Among the Choctaws themselves, fierce political differences split those who wanted to maintain traditional ways of life and those who sought to adopt the practices of the white settlers. Choctaw politicians on both sides used violence to kill off those who opposed them.

Devon Abbott Mihesuah is a respected scholar and the great-granddaughter of Charles Wilson, a Choctaw politician who opposed giving up tribal power.  He was killed by his political opponents in 1884. Because of their high standing within the Choctaw government, the murderers were not punished. The only man to be executed was a black freeman who accompanied them. The violence continued, as in 1896, when Silan Lewis and a group of other traditionalists killed political leaders whom they believed had won an election by rigging the ballot boxes. As a member of the losing side, Lewis was executed.  Meanwhile the Choctaw Nation was under increasing pressure to give up tribal government and permit their land holdings to be divided into individual allotments which could be sold to whites. Many Choctaws opposed these measures, unsuccessfully.

Mihesuah has diligently researched the available documents relating to the politics and animosity of the time. As she makes clear, however, many documents for the Choctaw Nation are missing. This book is a careful reconstruction of the years between when her grandfather was killed and when Oklahoma statehood took place in 1907. Her sympathy lies with her great-grandfather and the others who fought to retain Choctaw traditions and power, but she gives fair and equal treatment to both sides. She does note that some of the men who facilitated the division of land and statehood have received high praise from historians who have not acknowledged their criminal actions.  She pointedly asks how mainstream Americans choose their heroes.

Choctaw Crime and Punishment was not an easy book to read nor one that well appeal to many general readers. The story she tells is complex and pulls in many directions. I bogged down at times in all the names and places. I would have liked fewer details and a more narrative approach, but I trust the validity of what she has written.  I would have appreciated more attention to context.  The failure of the Choctaw Nation government which Mihesuah describes were not the only or main factor leading to the Dawes Act ending tribal government and tribal ownership of lands.

Like Mihesuah, I grew up in the region which was once the Choctaw Nation. Like her white grandfather, my grandfather was an early mayor of McAlester, in southeast Oklahoma. Her Choctaw ancestors were well established there when her great-grandfather was killed in 1884; my family arrived there in the 1890s. My grandfather bought land for his house from a Choctaw, before the allotments had been finalized. I grew up in McAlester, living in that house. In the second grade, I had one Indian friend, but few lived in my part of town or went to my school. In high school, there were a handful of Choctaws, but none that I knew well. The Choctaw legacy of the region was practically invisible, maintained in a token way only by the name of our high school yearbook, a name none of us understood.

I read this book because I am curious about what I never knew about my grandparents and the history of a place that shaped me. I have done some research on my grandfather and the Choctaw Nation. Mihesuah expands what I had learned in interesting ways. More importantly, I had never before realized the extent to which violence pervaded the peaceful land where I grew up. Reading this book, I was enthralled and troubled.

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