What the Irish did for – and to – the Choctaw tribe

One family of Irish officials treated their ‘red brethren’ with humanity, but Scots-Irish President Andrew Jackson oversaw the tribe’s ruthless eviction from their lands

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 subscribed at day’s end would come from the chiefs of the Choctaw Nation, who were also present.

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”.


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.

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.

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 Co 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.

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.”

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. 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. 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.”

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.

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. 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.”

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.

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. 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.

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. 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".

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”. 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. 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.

Respect for Native Americans

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Meanwhile, William had to contend with considerable discord within the Choctaw Nation itself, brought about by the appalling 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.”

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.

Most remarkable contribution

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. 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.

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.”

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.”

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”.

Major William Armstrong died at Doaksville, aged fifty-three, on 12 June 1847. His remains were brought to Nashville for burial. 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, is an honorary Choctaw chief, and a plaque acknowledging the Choctaw contribution is mounted in the Mansion House in Dublin.

On March 12th, 2018, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is due to meet with leaders of the Choctaw in Durant, Oklahoma, to thank them for the succour that their ancestors provided.

This story is extracted from Turtle Bunbury’s book “1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery”, published by Gill in 2016. The acclaimed book is available via Amazon. www.turtlebunbury.com