Above: In the summer of 2015, Kindred Spirits, a sculpture by Alex Pentek was unveiled at Bailic Park in Midleton, County Cork, to commemorate the Choctaw Nation and their kindness to the Irish. It stands just across the N25 by-pass from the site of two stone warehouses, or grain stores, one of which was used as an ‘auxiliary workhouse’ when the Midleton Workhouse became full in 1846. Kindred Spirits is a beautiful work that comprises of an empty bowl made from nine giant stainless-steel eagle feathers. Gary Batton, present chief of the Choctaw Nation, attended the unveiling and declared: “These are great healing moments. A great moment for us to show our respect back to them as nation to nation. A chance to stand up and say, ‘A, Chata Sia.’ ‘Yes, I am Choctaw.'”

*****

Skullyville, Oklahoma – Tuesday 23 March 1847

On that spring day, as Major William Armstrong surveyed those who had gathered in the small timber agency where he lived, he must have experienced mixed emotions. For one thing, the meeting had been summoned to raise money for ‘the relief of the starving poor of Ireland’, the birthplace of his own father. For another, while the crowd included many missionaries and traders, much of the $170 (circa $5000 in 2021) subscribed at day’s end would come from the chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, who were also present. [i]

Major Armstrong had known these Choctaw men for many long years, having served as the US government’s chief agent in the region since 1832. He had been with them through the ‘Trail of Tears’, in which perhaps as many as four thousand Choctaw men, women and children perished when they were bullied out of their ancestral homelands and forced to cross the River Mississippi.

The major’s wife, Nancy, and his older brother Frank had been as keen as he was to help the Choctaw, but both died in the wake of the Trail of Tears. And when the 52-year-old Armstrong himself succumbed in the summer of 1847, less than three months after the Skullyville meeting for the ‘white brethren of Ireland’, the chief of the Choctaw Nation, Colonel David Folsom, would recall him as ‘our father and our friend’.[ii]

Oral histories collected in the nineteenth century include tantalising suggestions that the ancestors of the Choctaw Nation were hunting for mammoths over 12,000 years ago. Nanih Waiya, an ancient grass-covered earth mound held sacred by the Choctaw, lay at the heart of their ancestral lands in the Mississippi region. During the eighteenth century they traded with French, British and Spanish alike, but following the Treaty of Hopewell (1786) they became close allies of the United States itself. In fact, the Choctaw called themselves ‘Chahta’ but the interpretation shifted over the years to become Choctaw.

When Britain went to war against the US in 1812, many Choctaw warriors served in the American army of Andrew Jackson, particularly during the crushing defeat he inflicted on the Creek Indians, Britain’s erstwhile allies, as well as in the successful rescue operation of two hundred Tennessee Riflemen from a British ambush.[iii] David Folsom was among the 50 or 60 young Choctaw warriors who were still with Jackson’s army when he annihilated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. .

However, the Choctaw’s credit with Jackson amounted to little when he became President of the United States fourteen years later. During the 1830s ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson was responsible for transplanting numerous American Indian tribes, including the Choctaw, over the western frontier and appropriating their ancestral lands for settlement. Jackson, whose parents were both born in County Antrim, Ireland, had barely been elected to the White House when he persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in June 1830, thereby legitimising his ruthless eviction policy.

Much of Jackson’s focus was on the fertile lands east of the River Mississippi belonging to five nations, including the Choctaw, known as the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ by the Anglo-European colonists and settlers of the period. The state of Mississippi had been admitted to the Union in 1817. Twelve years later Mississippi passed resolutions that declared Choctaw lands ‘state property’ and ‘terminated’ Choctaw sovereignty, thereby making the Choctaw communities subject to the state’s laws and open to possible attack by the militia.

In September 1830 the Choctaw minkos (chiefs) signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the last of seven such land treaties, by which they ceded nearly 11 million acres of their ancestral homeland in present-day Alabama and Mississippi to the US. In return, the Choctaw were to receive 15 million acres of wilderness across the Mississippi in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), lands that had already been obtained by a cessional treaty a decade earlier.

Alexis_de_tocqueville
Above: The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville chanced to encounter the Choctaw during their mass exodus.

By Christmas, 1831, an estimated seven thousand Choctaw had set off for the Indian Territory, where the US had promised to leave them to their own devices. In the widely published ‘Farewell Letter to the American People’ (1832) one of the minkos, George W. Harkins, explained that ‘we as Choctaws rather chose to suffer and be free, than live under the degrading influence of laws, where our voice could not be heard in their formation.’ [iv]

In December 1831 the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville chanced to witness ‘a large troop’ of Choctaw men, women and children stumbling out of the forest near Memphis, Tennessee, on their way to the Mississippi.[v] He also observed an American agent who, with the aid of a wad of banknotes, managed to induce a steamboat captain to escort the group ‘sixty leagues further’ downriver into Arkansas.

De Tocqueville watched as the Choctaw ‘advanced mournfully’ towards the steamboat. The horses were loaded first; several took fright and plunged into the river, from which they were ‘pulled out only with difficulty’. Then came the men and women, with their children either attached to their backs or wrapped in blankets. And finally the elderly hobbled on, including a desperately emaciated, semi-naked woman who, de Tocqueville learned, was reckoned to be 110 years old. ‘To leave one’s country at that age to seek one’s fortune in a foreign land, what misery!’ opined de Tocqueville.[vi] The Frenchman also knew that the promise that the Choctaw would be left alone on the far side of the Mississippi was a joke; he felt it would be ten years at most before the insatiable white man came looking for more land.

‘In the whole scene,’ continued De Tocqueville , ‘there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas [sic] were leaving their country. ‘To be free,’ he answered. – I could never get any other reason out of him … It is a singular fate that brought us to Memphis to watch the expulsion, one can say the dissolution, of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.’[vii]

De Tocqueville was right to feel so gloomy. That first migration of the Choctaw proved utterly devastating, coinciding with one of the coldest winters ever recorded. Endless blizzards, flash floods, pestilent swamps and iced-up rivers combined with a cholera epidemic and malnutrition to kill thousands of the hapless migrants. When they finally reached Little Rock a Choctaw minko was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette as describing the trek as a ‘trail of tears and death’. After a journey of 600 miles, the survivors would later settle in what became the state of Oklahoma, the name being Choctaw for ‘red people’.

Trail of Tears

Numbers tend to vary wildly, but it is thought that, between 1830 and 1834, about 12,500 Choctaw embarked on the Trail of Tears, of whom between 1,500 and 4,000 died along the way. A further 6,000 Choctaw chose to remain in Mississippi, where they would experience considerable harassment during the 1830s and 40s from the influx of Anglo-European settlers. Many continued to embark on the Trail of Tears, with a thousand Choctaw migrants making the journey in 1846 alone, while many more simply succumbed to the alternative reality bestowed by an addiction to whiskey.[viii]

When one reads of the Trail of Tears – or, indeed, of the Great Famine in Ireland – one is generally inclined to think that the scoundrels who allowed these grim events to happen must have been the most villainous blackguards that ever lived. I assumed that those who orchestrated the ‘forced relocation’ of the Choctaw were the sort of yobbos you see in cowboy films who yelp with delight as they set fire their to tipis. However, history is rarely that simple. Contemporary correspondence suggests that Frank and William Armstrong – the two principal government figures during the Trail of Tears era – were utterly appalled by what happened to the Choctaw that cruel winter.

Like Andrew Jackson, the Armstrong brothers were of Scots-Irish stock. Colonel James Armstrong, their father, was born in 1736 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and is said to have been a son of the Rev. Gustavus Armstrong.[ix] He was known as ‘Trooper’ Armstrong from his time with the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, a regiment of the British army largely mustered in Ulster. A contemporary later recalled ‘his superb figure and great physical strength, as well as his skill and enterprise.’[x] Trooper Armstrong is thought to have served in the Seven Years’ War, in which the Inniskillings fought with great distinction at the Battles of Minden and Wetter in 1759. He subsequently left the army and immigrated to America shortly after the Revolutionary War. By 1786 he had settled in Abingdon, Virginia, and married Susan Wells, daughter of Charles Wells, founder of Wellsburg, West Virginia.

In July 1791 Trooper Armstrong’s gentlemanly education came to the fore when he served as an ‘arbiter elegantiarum’ during Governor Blount’s seven-day council with the Cherokee at White’s Fort (now Knoxville), Tennessee. More than 1,200 unarmed Cherokee observed the courtly manner in which the Ulsterman presented forty-one chiefs and warriors to the governor, introducing each one by his aboriginal name.[xi]

A decade later Trooper Armstrong moved his family to a 2,500-acre farm on Flat Creek, fifteen miles from Knoxville, where he died in 1813.[xii] He was survived by two daughters and five sons. His sons fought in Andrew Jackson’s army during the Creek Wars of 1813–14 and again at the Battle of New Orleans. Such service stood them in good stead when Jackson was elected to the White House in 1829. Robert Armstrong, a particular ‘pet’ of Jackson’s, became postmaster of Nashville, while William became the town’s mayor.[xiii]

In April 1831 another brother, Frank, was despatched to the Mississippi to take a census of the Choctaw and to survey their farms before their departure.[xiv] Born in Virginia in 1783, Frank Armstrong is one of those near-miss household names: he reputedly designed a short-barrelled pocket pistol, of large calibre, and then showed the pattern to a gun-maker named Henry Derringer. When Derringer successfully manufactured the weapon, a delighted Armstrong selflessly christened it the ‘Derringer pistol’.[xv]

Many years later the Choctaw chief David Folsom would tell of how he had known Frank since 1810 and of how he had surveyed the Choctaw lands ‘faithfully and to the entire satisfaction of all concerned’.[xvi] On 7 September 1831, the day on which he completed the census, Frank was appointed agent to the Choctaw in Indian Territory. As such, he was to prepare for the arrival of all those Choctaw who would soon be spilling across that mighty, rolling, yellow river to establish a new life.[xvii] He set in motion the construction of a wagon road from Fort Smith to Red River. Built by US soldiers, the Military Road, as it became known, was fraught with complications, requiring numerous causeways across the boggy marshes.

Meanwhile, in July 1832, Frank’s younger brother William was assigned the task of looking after the remaining Choctaw on the east side of the Mississippi. Although the Armstrongs had served under the hard-nosed Jackson, they had inherited their father’s honourable demeanour as well as his respect for the Native Americans and the pioneer’s determination to improve someone’s lot. However, entrusted with the thankless task of overseeing the mass exodus, they were both badly hampered by a lack of money and resources.[xviii]

By April 1833 it was reckoned that the majority of Choctaw had crossed the river, and Frank Armstrong secured $10,000 to build a council house for the Nation, as well as houses for the chiefs of the three districts and a church in each district, which were to double as school houses until actual schools could be completed. These schools were set up at the request of the Choctaw chiefs, and most were paid for out of the money the Choctaw had obtained in exchange for land cessions. As a result, it could be argued that the Choctaw Nation had the first publicly funded school system in the US.

Frank seems to have been on good terms with the Choctaw, but it was a tough slog for everyone. When the crops failed in the dire spring of 1834 he tried to get hold of as many bushels of corn as he could to relieve the starving Choctaw, as well as commissioning looms and spinning wheels. His diplomacy was greatly prized by the government, and by 1835 he was picked to negotiate a treaty with the Comanche and other ‘wandering tribes’ west of Missouri and Arkansas. He also erected a new logwood head office, known as the Agency Building, some fifteen miles west of Fort Smith. The settlement that grew up around the building became known as Skullyville; the name derives not from ‘skully’, the Choctaw word for money. However, Frank was struck down by an unidentified disease and died, aged fifty-two, on 6 August 1835. One wonders whether he passed away tormented by the promises he’d been unable to keep to the Choctaw, embittered by the government’s almost total failure to meet his demands during the grim trek to Indian Territory. Either way, he died and was buried at Fort Coffee in Le Flore County, Oklahoma.

At the time of his death twelve logwood schoolhouses were either finished or nearing completion. Books had been bought and ‘steady, sober, married’ candidates were being interviewed as potential teachers. Three months after Frank died his wife delivered a posthumous son, Frank, Jr, who would later earn the distinction of being the only Confederate general to start the Civil War fighting for the Union.[xix]

After Frank’s death his brother William succeeded him as Superintendent for Indian Affairs for the Western Territory. He moved across the Mississippi and occupied the Agency Building, where he was based for the next twelve years. As Chief Folsom put it, William ‘came among us with his family’, but a few months later his wife, Nancy, died. ‘My friends, but few of you knew the loss we sustained in the death of Mrs Armstrong,’ said the chief. ‘She was an excellent woman. The sympathies of her heart flowed out to the Choctaws – to the poor Choctaw women.’[xx]

Meanwhile, William had to contend with considerable discord within the Choctaw Nation itself, brought about by the apalling sorrow of the previous years. His diplomatic skills ensured that he was also deeply embroiled in negotiating the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation to the Indian Territory from their lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and the Carolinas.

Like Frank, William spent much of his time helping to create a semblance of a society for the Choctaw in their new location, with a particular emphasis on education. He had a good deal of success in this regard, and a report in the Missionary Herald of early 1847 applauded the ‘great efforts’ being made ‘by the leading men to establish schools, and a strong desire is manifested by the people to avail themselves of the benefits of schools.’[xxi] Among these buildings was a boys’ school founded in 1844, known as the Armstrong Academy, which was eventually destroyed by fire in 1921.

On 23 March 1847 William Armstrong chaired the meeting at the Agency Building in Skullyville at which the $170 was raised for Irish famine relief. It is assumed that the Choctaw contributed because they felt immense empathy for the Irish situation, having experienced such similar pain during the Trail of Tears a little over a decade earlier. The money was then forwarded to Charles Goffland, Treasurer of the Memphis Irish Relief Committee.

Of all the thousands of benevolent bodies and individuals who contributed to the General Irish Relief Committee of the City of New York in 1847, ‘the Choctaw tribe of Indians in the far West’ were regarded as the most remarkable.[xxii] The committee’s chairman was the 65-year-old Myndert Van Schaick, a veteran New York politician and former State Senator. On 22 May 1847 he wrote to Joseph Bewley and Jonathan Pim, joint secretaries of the Quaker-inspired Central Relief Committee in Ireland, stating that American contributions had thus far raised nearly $145,000, and expressing his satisfaction that the first vessels laden with ‘bread stuffs’, clothing and other provisions had already arrived in Ireland. Another ship was being loaded as he wrote.[xxiii]

Van Schaick then drew specific attention to a sum of $2,747, which had been collected by James Reyburn, president of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, from donors in Mississippi and Tennessee. Van Schaick observed that, ‘out of $170 of that sum, the largest part was contributed by the children of the forest, our red brethren of the Choctaw nation. Even those distant men have felt the force of Christian example, and have given their cheerful aid in this good cause, though they are separated from you by many miles of land and an ocean’s breadth.’[xxiv]

The $170 raised in Skullyville was not the only money raised by the Choctaw. More than 150 miles south, the citizens of Doaksville, the largest town in Indian Territory, gathered to consider ‘the benefit of the starving Irish’ in early May 1847. The meeting was chaired by Joseph R. Berthelet, a public-spirited soul who would go on to found the Milwaukee Cement Company. A total of $153 was ‘immediately subscribed’, prompting Charles de Morse, editor of the Northern Standard of Texas, to remark: ‘Considering how far in the wilderness Doaksville is situated, its small population, the fact that nothing but unprompted sympathy for distress elicited their aid, and its very great distance from the scene of the famine and from all active efforts in its behalf … we consider it very creditable to the citizens of that little place.’[xxv]

The Arkansas Intelligencer published a rather more self-congratulatory tribute on 8 May: ‘What an agreeable reflection it must give to the Christian and the philanthropist, to witness this evidence of civilization and Christian spirit existing among our red neighbors. They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from the benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism. Not only by contributing a few dollars, but by affording evidence that the labors of the Christian missionary have not been in vain.’

Curiously there is no record of the Doaksville contribution in the accounts of the General Irish Relief Committee. Nonetheless, the Choctaw money that did reach Ireland was gratefully received by the Society of Friends, who referred to it as ‘the voice of benevolence from the western wilderness of the western hemisphere.’[xxvi]

Major William Armstrong died at Doaksville, aged fifty-three, on 12 June 1847.[xxvii] He was buried in Swallow Rock Cemetery, beside his beloved wife, Nancy Irwin. Her brother and his brother are also buried there. A month after his death the Nashville Whig published Chief Folsom’s remarkable appreciation in which he commended William, ‘our father and our friend’, for being so ‘deeply interested’ in the well-being of the Choctaw. ‘He was careful to do everything he could to make our wives and little ones comfortable. He saw us settled in our homes.’ [xxviii]

Assistance to the Irish people notwithstanding, the Choctaw of Mississippi were still in torment in 1849. They described how they ‘have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.’[xxix]

The Choctaw’s generosity to the Irish was vaguely remembered during a terrible drought in 1860, which killed almost all their crops and left them on the verge of famine. Elias Rector, the Southern Superintendent of Indian Affairs, issued a reminder of their generosity in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington. ‘As we aided in sending food to starving Ireland, so we should preserve from destruction and misery these faithful allies and dependents.’[xxx]

In 1989 the author/ humanitarian and media producer Don Mullan attended a lecture in upstate New York, in which he learned of the Choctaw donation. He subsequently became the first Irish person to travel to Oklahoma, accompanied by his father-in-law, Dermot Beatty, and thanked the Choctaw for their kindness. He invited the First Nation to lead the annual AFrI Famine walk in 1990, an event that was broadcast in over 50 countries by Worldwide Television News. Mullan was made an honorary Chief of the Choctaw Nation.

In 1992 a group of twenty-two Irish men and women walked the 600-mile Trail of Tears, raising $1,000 for every dollar given by the Choctaw in 1847. The money went to relieve suffering in famine-stricken Somalia. Seven years later Gary White Deer, a member of the Choctaw Nation, reciprocated when he visited County Mayo and led the annual Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh.[xxxi]

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, is also an honorary Choctaw chief, and a plaque acknowledging the Choctaw contribution is mounted in the Mansion House in Dublin. On 10 March 2018, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met with leaders of the Choctaw in Durant, Oklahoma, to thank them for the succour that their ancestors provided.

The link between Ireland and the Choctaw will be the basis of an event called “A Ripple in Time: A Night of Native and Irish Collaboration” to air online in the summer of 2020 in which I spoke with sculptor Alex Pentek, musician Grant Crawford, writer Jessica Militante (the first recipient of the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship to study at Univeristy College Cork) and event organiser TC Crawford about the ongoing serendipity that this bond has generated and which, as Alex said, quoting the late Irish poet John O’Donohue, brings ‘the intimacy of distance’  to our lives. In July 2020, Ciara O’Donnell, a member of the Choctaw Nation, was awarded the second Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship to study for an MA at UCC.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in May 2020, a good news story broke across the world about how over 25,000 Irish men and women were ‘repaying’ and ‘honouring’ their debt to the Choctaw. These Irish donors actually contributed more than $1.8 million to help supply clean water, food and health supplies to people in the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation (an area of 84,000 km², so almost exactly the same same size as Ireland) through two relief funds, the Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund and the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund. U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr donated $100,000 towards bottled water for the drought-hit Navajo Nation, which straddles parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. By February 2021, some 27,000 Irish donors had given over $1 million. Irish Central recorded some of the remarkable messages of thanks on its website here.

The donation is also said to have inspired a decision by the Irish men’s lacrosse team to withdraw from the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, to make way for the Iroquois Nationals – a confederacy of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations. Cheyenne Lazore, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) crafter from Akwesasne,  designed a beautiful ribbon skirt by way of a thank you. As Ka’nhehsí:io Deer reported for CBC News in November 2020: ‘The bright green skirt is called I Dteannta a chéile – Together As One, after the slogan adopted by both lacrosse teams following the announcement. The skirt includes six panels with Irish influences and beaded celestial trees — a common symbol in Haudenosaunee cultures.’

The story continues to run, gathering momentum all the time, as more people tune into this fabulous circle of giving and celebrating the possibilities of unity and generosity over adversity.

In February 2021, the Oklahoma home of artist Waylon Gary White Deer, a member of the Choctaw Nation, was destroyed by an ice storm. Waylon formerly lived in Donegal and his Irish friends headed up by Don Mullan created a GoFundMe account to help him repair the house.

On 24 February 2021, I was honoured to speak alongside Alex Pentek (sculptor of Kindred Spirits), Chief Gary Batton (Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Ethel Billie Branch (former Navajo Nation Attorney General and founder of the Navajo and Hopi families Covid 19 relief fund) and Dr Alice Hill (director of the Antipodean Family Foundation) at a Harvard Alumni Allyship event focusing on the the relationship between the people of Ireland and the Indigenous Peoples of North America—especially the Choctaw, Navajo, and Hopi people. For me, the takeaway messages from the event were that recognition is the first step to reconciliation and that we must learn to forgive the past. As Alex remarked, quoting the American poet Richard Blanco, “We are always becoming. It never stops.”

*****

The bulk of this story is extracted from Turtle Bunbury’s acclaimed book ‘1847-A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery’, published by Gill in 2016. The book is available via Amazon. This post formed the basis of my contribution to a Backstory podcast in 2019. My thanks also to Tony Harpur.

*****

A chapter in LeAnne Howe‘s book Shell Shaker (Aunt Lute Books, 2001) focuses on the Choctaw gift to the Irish people in 1847. She discusses the impact of the gift, along with Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Padraig Kirwan, in a 2017 Irish Times article entitled ‘Famine bonds: Choctaw and Irish poets combine.’

The following clips were filmed by the Choctaw Nation film crew while they attended the sculpture launch and visited the studio of sculptor Alex Pentek (www.alexpentek.com). Alex subsequently won a commission for a piece to be located at a Washington DC high school commemorating the life of Charles Hamilton Houston. The work comprises of an allium flower, the surface of which will feature 620 individual flowers, which mathematically divide the flower into interlocking circles. ‘This,’ said Alex, ‘is sacred geometry. Visually, it communicates mathematics in nature and the idea of an integrated world.’

 
 
*****

www.turtlebunbury.com

FOOTNOTES

[i] On 3 April 1847 the Arkansas Intelligencer reported that ‘a considerable portion’ of the $170 raised at the Skullyville meeting was contributed by ‘the “poor Indian” sending his mite to the poor Irish!’ Quoted in Nehemiah Adams, The Life of John Eliot (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847‬), p. 324. Another account from the Conneticut Courant of 24 April 1847 added that whole Major Armstrong took the chair, J.B. Luco was appointed Secretary. Major Armstrong read out a circular of the “Memphis Committee “, after which the meeting contributed $170. “All subscribed, Agents, Missionaries, Traders, and Indians, a considerable portion of which fund was made up by the latter.” A misprint dating from at least 1916, perhaps copied from the Arkansas Intelligencer, mistakenly put the figure at $710. It can be found in Joseph B. Thoburn, A Standard History of Oklahoma (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1916‬), p. 266, as well as in Joseph B. Thorburn and Muriel H. Wright, Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People, Vol. 1 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1929), p. 249, and in ‘James Shannon Buchanan’, Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 30, no. 3 (September 1930), p. 353.

As observed by my friend Austin Sullivan, this is essentially the biblical story of the poor widow contributing two copper coins as from Mark 12:41-44: And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

[ii]         Nashville Whig, 16 July 1847. A fuller version of Chief Folsom’s speech can be found at http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Armstrong-1995.

[iii]         The Tennessee Riflemen were commanded by General Billy Carroll when a party of fifty to sixty Choctaw came to their rescue. Iti Fabussa, ‘Choctaws and the war of 1812: A high point in relations with the US’, in Biskinik, the Official Publication of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, February 2015, p. 11.

[iv]         George W. Harkins, ‘Farewell Letter to the American People’ (1832). Reprinted in Wayne Moquin and Charles Van Doren (eds.), Great Documents in American Indian History [1973] (New York: DaCapo Press, 1995), p. 151.

[v]         Alexis de Tocqueville, letter, on board the Louisville, 25 December 1831, at http://www.tocqueville.c-span.nsatc.net/ms2.hhtm.

[vi]         Alexis de Tocqueville, letter, on board the Louisville, 25 December 1831, at http://www.tocqueville.c-span.nsatc.net/ms2.htm.

[vii]         Alexis de Tocqueville, letter, on board the Louisville, 25 December 1831, at http://www.tocqueville.c-span.nsatc.net/ms2.htm.

[viii]         ‘Choctaw social and ceremonial life’, in John Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1931).

[ix]         ‘James Armstrong (1736–Sept. 28, 1813)’, in Mary U. Rothrock (ed.), The French Broad-Holstein Country (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1946). His birthplace is reported by one source as ‘Knock Ma Knowles’, presumably Knockmanoul, Co. Fermanagh.

[x]         Recollections of Dr J. H. Calendar, quoted in Zella Armstrong and Janie Preston Collop French, Notable Southern Families (Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1974‬), p. 4–16.

[xi]         J. G. M. Ramsey, Annals of Tennessee (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1853), p. 555. Quoted by Carolyn Thomas Foreman, Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 15, no. 2 (June 1937), p. 293. Under the terms of the ensuing Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Holston, the loosely affiliated Cherokee tribes were to fall under the protection of the United States, while the government would oversee all foreign affairs.

[xii]         In 1801 James ‘Trooper’ Armstrong, then living at Abingdon, Virginia, bought 2,180 acres from Francis Maybury, to which he added 400 acres from Nicholas Tate Perkins seven years later.

[xiii]         In 1836 Brigadier-General Robert Armstrong commanded the Tennessee mounted volunteers at the Battle of Wahoo Swamp, Florida, during the Second Seminole War. In 1845, he was appointed United States consul to Liverpool, remaining in England until 1852. He was also sometime publisher of the Washington Union and a close adviser to President Polk.

[xiv]         Frank’s first port of call was the office of George S. Gaines, a licensed trader and friend of the Choctaws, who noted that Frank ‘appeared to be entirely ignorant of the actual state of things’. Gaines duly introduced him to the Choctaw chiefs.

[xv]         The story about Frank Armstrong showing Henry Derringer the pattern was recorded by William Park, the Donegal-born husband to Armstrong’s sister Jane (Jenny), who stated that he personally witnessed this. This story and other details about Armstrong’s connection to Derringer are covered in an appendix in Carolyn Thomas Foreman’s article ‘The Armstrongs of Indian Territory, part II: William Armstrong’, from Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 30, no. 4 (1952), at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v030/v030p292.pdf.

[xvi]         A fuller version of Chief Folsom’s speech can be found at http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Armstrong-1995.

[xvii]         Frank Armstrong’s census of 1831 is available at https://familysearch.org/search/catalog/625276.

[xviii]         In November 1831 William Armstrong went to Washington and secured $50,000, but this seems to have been only to help fund the agents orchestrating the emigration. Severe weather delayed his return until late January 1832.

[xix]         Francis Wells Armstrong was buried at Swallow Rock (Fort Coffee) at Spiro in Le Flore County, Oklahoma. His wife, Anne Willard, was a Catholic from Baltimore, Maryland, who, after his death, married General Persifer Smith, military governor of Mexico City in 1847. After General Smith’s death in 1858, Anne entered a convent and became a mother superior.

[xx]         A fuller version of Chief Folsom’s speech can be found at http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Armstrong-1995.

[xxi]         On 3 February Mr Charles C. Copeland, a licensed preacher, wrote a letter from Norwalk to the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions describing the improvement made by the Choctaws since he went to reside among them. ‘It is perceptible in every thing; and in nothing more than in the interest that is manifested in schools. Great efforts are made by the leading men to establish schools, and a strong desire is manifested by the people to avail themselves of the benefits of schools. The applicants for admission to the boarding schools would fill twice as many.’ Missionary Herald, vol. 43 (1847).

[xxii]         The General Irish Relief Committee was originally ‘appointed by the inhabitants of the City of New York’ to devise ‘efficient measures for the relief of the starving poor of Ireland, to collect and transmit funds and provisions, and to do such other acts as they might from time to time think expedient.’ Full details of all those who contributed between February 1847 and February 1848 were published in Aid to Ireland: Report of the General Relief Committee of the City of New York (New York: General Relief Committee, 1848).

[xxiii]         Aid to Ireland: Report of the General Relief Committee of the City of New York (New York: General Relief Committee, 1848), p. 91.

[xxiv]         Aid to Ireland: Report of the General Relief Committee of the City of New York (New York: General Relief Committee, 1848), p. 92. See also p. 51. When Van Schaick read of the Choctaw’s kindness it was likely to have stirred memories of his father, Goose Van Schaick, an officer in George Washington’s Continental Army, who received the thanks of Congress in 1779 for the ‘activity and good conduct’ displayed by his troops in ‘the late expedition against the Onondagas’ of upstate New York. The Onondaga Indians, one of the constituent nations of the Iroquois, were being punished because some of their warriors had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Colonel Van Schaick’s force of 558 men attacked their principal settlement along Onondaga Creek, methodically burning fifty houses, along with their provisions and stores. Van Schaick took thirty-two prisoners without losing a single man. However, the thanks extended by Congress made no mention of the alleged rape and murder of Onondaga women, or the killing of the Onondaga’s cattle. Nor did it observe that the settlement was largely undefended because all the Onondaga warriors were away.

[xxv]         Northern Standard, 5 May 1847. Quoted in Richard B. Marrin and Lorna Geer Sheppard, The Paradise of Texas: Clarksville and Red River County, 1846–1860 (Clarksville, Tex.: Heritage Books, 2007), p. 235–6.

[xxvi]         Quoted by Christine Kinealy in A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997), p. 111.

[xxvii]         The Armstrong family had been heavily involved with Native Americans for nearly sixty years by this time. As one descendant put it in the 1930s, ‘their humanity to the Indians under their charge caused them to be loved by the red men.’ Carolyn Thomas Foreman, ‘The Armstrongs of Indian Territory, part II: William Armstrong’, Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 30, no. 4 (1952), p. 292.

Correspondence in the Baltimore Patriot, 15 July 1847 (www.history.vt.edu/MxAmWar/Newspapers/MG/MG1847fJulyDec.htm), suggests that William Armstrong’s 23-year-old son, a lawyer in St Louis, was in the running to succeed him in his post. The other candidate was Major Arnold Harris, son-in-law of Brigadier-General Robert Armstrong. However, the man who ultimately succeeded appears to have been Samuel M. Rutherford (see footnote 6 at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v007/v007p152.html).

The Agency Building later became home to Tandy Walker (1814–77), a mixed- race Choctaw and sometime governor of the Choctaw Nation. It was considered the oldest building in Oklahoma when it was destroyed by fire in 1947.

[xxviii]         Nashville Whig, 16 July 1847. A fuller version of Chief Folsom’s speech can be found at http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Armstrong-1995. It was previously believed that Major Armstrong’s remains were brought to Nashville City Cemetery for burial. In January 2019, I was contacted by Mary Perkins whose late husband was a great-grandson of Major Armstrong’s son David and a grandson of David’s daughter Lucretia, who married Dr.Rufus Carroll. She kindly informed me of her discovery of the major’s burial at Swallow Rock.

[xxix]         ‘Three efforts at development among the Choctaws of Mississippi’, in Walter L. Williams (ed.), Southeastern Indians Since the Removal Era (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1979), p. 142–53.

[xxx]         The letter states: ‘The Choctaws and Chickasaws are, it is believed, the greatest sufferers from drought; their crops have almost wholly failed, and it is thought that many will perish for want of food, unless some provision is made by the government to relieve them. Humanity urges that the department should ascertain their condition and necessities …’ Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1860), p. 117.

[xxxi]         It is sometimes said that the Choctaws’ attention was caught by the story of the Doolough Tragedy in Co. Mayo, in which at least sixteen people perished in a blizzard while seeking to obtain relief from the Poor Law Union. However, the Doolough Tragedy ocurred on 30 March 1849, two years after the Choctaw donation. This horrific event took place when a desolate group went to the town of Louisburgh to be assessed for famine relief by the Board of Governors. When they arrived they were told the two commissioners had gone on to Delphi Lodge, a hunting lodge 12 km south. The group were advised to be there for assessment at seven o’clock the following morning, but when they arrived they were turned away. In appalling cold and sleet they attempted the return journey to Louisburgh, but many perished along the way. The bodies of seven men, women and children were found on the roadside. Another nine disappeared, either washed into the open waters of Doolough or Killary. Local lore puts the figure considerably higher.

The AFRI (‘Action from Ireland’) Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh has taken place annually since 1988 and was famously led by Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1991.

[xxxii]         Adam Kemp, ‘Ireland recognizes gift from Choctaw Nation during potato famine’, Oklahoman, 23 March 2015.