Choctaw Trails

It’s funny how we can grow up in a place, even own part of it, and take it for what it is in the moment. Never know the history behind it, the earth under it, the woods on it, and the streams running through it. Mostly, we take our lives for granted and never peel back from the surface or dig to find rich layers beneath. Or make discoveries. How much do we miss in life by seeing only what’s there now and not taking the time to wonder what was there before?

It scares me because I almost missed a great deal of my family’s story and how I align with historical periods. As a kid, I observed; as an adult, I looked deeper.

My grandpa was fourth generation in Kemper County, Mississippi. I’m sixth generation to still own a small tract of his portioned-out farmland, covered with woods and natural springs and a stream, along with poor dirt and scrub trees and a deep gully. It’s now a pine plantation.

Childhood summers, I visited that farm, ran over the pine-needled paths in the words, climbed trees, played in the creek, rode the old horse named Dixie, tried to dig up a grave with a tin can in the MacDonald Cemetery, and went with my grandfather to bring the cows home each evening before Wagon Train came on TV. Even picked cotton once. Ate blackberries, muscadines, and watermelons warm off the vines.

I remember the short jaunts to the watermelon patch. Grandpa took the kids—cousins, sister, me—on a slide, a flat wooden platform with runners on the bottom. He’d stand at one end holding long plow reins from Dixie’s harness, as she pulled us. We’d sit behind Grandpa as the slide scuffed down the narrow dirt lane from the walnut tree and henhouse on the left and the peanut patch on the right, past cotton and corn fields, until the road forked at the plum tree. The watermelon patch was south of the lane. One fork of the road turned north and went by the old family homesite, past a natural spring, and onto the land of my great uncle. The other road kept east and was not as well traveled.

I remember the push of the slide runners against the yellow sandy dirt prominent on Hardy Hill. This land was once covered by ocean. It was hard to imagine Kemper County, north of Meridian, under gulf waters. My grandmother hated that sand around her house because the kids were always tracking it onto the porch. She carried bucket after bucket and dumped it in the woods.

I looked at the weeds and cotton plants and dried corn stalks go by as the slide sashayed through the deep, soft sand, making a “sh” sound. The road was deeper than the surface ground. Maybe two feet in places. Little cliffs that kept getting eaten into and washed away by heavy rains rose up from the sandy bottom. I wondered if someone had dug out that road.

No. This was Choctaw Indian land. Thousands of Choctaws lived here back in the 1700s and 1800s. The Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty in 1833 opened Mississippi land for settlement, and white people migrated in and set up farms, towns, churches, and new ways. By the early 1900s, they’d put those Choctaws on a trail of tears and death west to open lands in Oklahoma.

My father said there are about seventy-five Choctaw graves on that land. Each one was covered with a big red-iron rock. My grandfather respected them and left them alone, but my grandmother’s brother moved in for a while and plowed all those graves up and hauled the rocks to storage in a storm shelter. A tribal community lived on our land before we did.

Those narrow roads were Choctaw trails, walked on and beaten down by the hundreds that lived and moved around on the site for two hundred years. Then came Hardy mules and wagons and horses and buggies and footsteps of a hundred children over a hundred years. Then the rains came and washed dirt from the sides and ran in streams down the trail, washing it out. It’s what you’d call a worn path. Worn deep down.

I try to imagine all these people of bygone days living, working, and walking across my land. And I figure their time overlapped; the Choctaws and the Hardys lived on the land together for some time.

I know this because when I did genealogy twenty years ago, I learned in church minutes that my great-great-grandfather’s sister got pregnant and had a child out of wedlock and got kicked out of the church. Her brothers covered it up, and she went down in family history as a “spinster, never married.” After this baby, she got married and had a family. I remember when I was a little girl, my grandmother snickered and told me one of the great aunts got pregnant by an Indian chief. I merged those two pieces of knowledge. Martha Hardy and a Choctaw Indian chief. So the Hardys mixed with the Choctaws, and it was not a good thing at the time, even if it was the chief, and even in my time, people didn’t want to believe it.

But I did. I like history and how I fit. I like to get on those worn paths and wear them down even more. I like digging around to find things nobody else has found and learn things about where I came from. I like the truth. I’m not satisfied with what I see on the surface or what little bit of information someone hands me and tells me to believe. I want more. I want it all. I want to know where those worn-down trails are going to take me.