Author Interview--Fay A. Yarbrough (Choctaw Confederates) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Fay A. Yarbrough to talk about her book, Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country, published by the University of North Carolina Press in November 2021.

Fay A. Yarbrough is Professor of History and Associate Dean, Programs and Special Projects in the School of Humanities at Rice University. She received her Ph.D. from Emory University. She has previously published Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (2008).

Fay, to start, this is not your first book on Native Americans in Indian Territory, but you did switch from Cherokee to Choctaw--what intrigued you about the Choctaw to write about them?

FAY: We have one Mrs. Mildred Brown to thank for my change in focus.  Mrs. Brown was a volunteer archivist that I met at the Oklahoma Historical Society while doing research on my first book.  She saw me dutifully come to the reading room each day to scroll through the rolls of microfilm and asked me what I was working on.  She then perked up and told me that I should write about her family.  She is a descendant of William Beams, whom Daniel Littlefield has written about.  Beams was a white man living in the Choctaw Nation in the nineteenth century who gained citizenship through his marriage to a Choctaw woman and with whom he had several children.  He then had children with an enslaved woman.  He attempted to free his children of African descent, but after his death, his part Choctaw children attempted to re-enslave their half siblings.  I like to say that this story had the makings of a Lifetime movie!  Mrs. Brown offered reams of family research she had compiled over the years.  And I dove into the Choctaw legislative record.  There I was surprised to find evidence of fierce Choctaw support of the Confederacy in the Civil War and wondered why.  What about the Confederate cause so resonated with Choctaw lawmakers?  Answering that question became the heart of my book Choctaw Confederates.

What do you argue in Choctaw Confederates?

FAY: I argue that the Choctaw Nation allied with the Confederacy during the American Civil War because of a desire to protect Native sovereignty and Choctaw identity and a commitment to practicing the institution of slavery.

I had intended to ask this later, but you pushed the door open, so, let's tackle the big question: why would the Choctaw or any tribe forcible removed from the Southeast join forces with exactly the same people who forced them off their ancestral homeland? It seems so illogical.

FAY: Your question is precisely what fascinated me about the Choctaw alliance with the Confederacy.  These southern states represented some of the same governments that clamored for the removal of Native peoples from the southeast to Indian Territory, and yet the Choctaws chose the southern side in the war. A combination of factors led to this decision.  First and foremost, the Choctaws took the Confederacy’s claims to honor Choctaw (and Native) sovereignty seriously.  Native people already had clear evidence that the federal government did not have a good track record of fulfilling treaty agreements or respecting Native sovereignty.  They had only to look at what was happening in the Kansas and Nebraska territories for confirmation.  The Confederacy, on the other hand, offered to respect Choctaw sovereignty and land claims and threw in other inducements besides such as assuming the debts due to the Choctaw Nation by the federal government.  Second, but also very important, the Choctaws practiced the enslavement of people of African descent and developed ideas about race that disadvantaged people of African descent, both of which created more common ground with white confederates.  There are other factors such as the fact that so many agents to the Indian nations were themselves southerners, many investments of funds due to the Indian nations were in southern business, and the pressure exerted by whites in the nearby states of Texas and Arkansas, but I argue that these first two, concerns over sovereignty and the desire to maintain slavery, are the most important.

What was slavery like among the Choctaw people?

FAY: There are aspects of slavery in the Choctaw Nation that would look familiar to students of the American South:  work patterns, religious practice, and some of the treatment by enslavers, for instance.  Similarly, Choctaw lawmakers also created legislation that prohibited miscegenation between enslaved people and Choctaws or whites, literacy for enslaved people, agitation for abolition among the enslaved, and the carrying of weapons by enslaved people without permission from their enslavers.  There were also some differences in slavery in the Choctaw Nation versus the larger South, however, that respected traditional Choctaw practices.  For instance, Choctaws devoted more resources to corn production and animal husbandry than their southern counterparts.  Choctaw lawmakers also made exceptions for free people of Choctaw and African ancestry when they targeted people for expulsion from the nation, a nod to traditional ideas about the importance of a blood connection to the tribe.

As much as I would like to spend the next ten questions looking at everything you just said, I think we should leave some of this to the readers and make them buy your book. However, I do want to touch on one topic because you got a lot of different groups here: Choctaw, Choctaw-slave, Choctaw-free-people-of-color, white residents on Choctaw land: this seems like a nightmare to maintain order at the time and for you a nightmare to untangle in your research. How challenging was this?

FAY: Keeping track of these various actors was not hard because the Choctaw Nation kept such careful accounting of them. This is what let me know that these categories had meaning—Choctaw lawmakers were careful to distinguish between these categories of people in legislation.  This fact provoked the questions why and to what end.  Answering those questions shed light on how Choctaws were thinking about their own identity and about who could be included and excluded from it.