Great Crossings

In the 1820s, an unusual school sought to create common ground for Indians and whites.

In 2011, when historian Christina Snyder first visited the site of Choctaw Academy, the last large structure remaining from the school was intact, though its roof was starting to sag. This building served as both dorm and classroom space. Credit: Christina SnyderAll Rights Reserved.

In the heart of bluegrass country, in a weedy meadow a few miles west of Georgetown, Kentucky, stands an old stone building. Two-story, with shuttered windows flanking the centrally placed door, the 200-year-old structure is imposing, but not opulent. It suggests determination and resolve.

The building is the biggest physical remnant of Choctaw Academy, one of the United States’ earliest and boldest experiments in finding common ground between whites and Native Americans. Built near the spot where bison once forded Elkhorn Creek, the Academy and its home community of Great Crossing sprang up where North met South and where East shaded into the Western frontier. The entire community dealt with diversity of all kinds, every day.

“Part of why I wanted to focus on this community is that that it is an experiment,” says historian Christina Snyder, who tells the story of Choctaw Academy in her 2017 book Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson. “People at the time called it an experiment. It was seen as being a special place, a place where maybe Americans could think about a more inclusive way to build a nation.

“I look at how these different groups of people tried to find common ground. And ultimately, how that dream broke apart.”

Stories not told

Snyder hails from the Deep South, growing up in Macon, Georgia, 85 miles southeast of Atlanta, right in the middle of the state. “It’s a place where people are obsessed with history,” she says. “I went to a high school that was founded in the 1870s. There were monuments to the Confederacy, monuments to the Civil Rights movement. Our train station still had extra bathrooms from when African Americans were not allowed to use the ‘white’ bathrooms.” As a young white girl, she absorbed it all. “I felt history was very important, very present. And I could see how it shaped modern race relations,” she says.         

But that public history largely left out the area’s prior residents, despite the multitude of Indian place-names and the towering presence of a ceremonial mound created by the Mississippian Mound Builders who lived in the area a thousand years ago.

Among the stories Snyder did not hear as a child were the efforts Indian nations made to co-exist peaceably and productively with their new neighbors. “The Native people were working incredibly hard to try to find peaceful ways to live together—and they thought that education and economic interests were a form of common ground,” she says.

Tribes in the Southeast had farmed the region for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. When white settlers moved in nearby with new and highly profitable practices, the tribes adapted. Their leaders gained recognition of their national rights via treaty with the young U.S. They established business relationships with their new neighbors, shifted away from communal property to individual holdings, and, in some cases, took up the enslavement of Africans.

Slavery in some form was not new to them; long before Europeans came to America, Indians had held other humans in bondage, mostly based on the capture of members of other tribes. Snyder explored this in her first book, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Although many of the captives suffered harsh treatment, they were not considered inferior by nature. Over time, either the captives themselves or their children or grandchildren became assimilated as full members of their new tribe. Snyder says this “open” form of slavery “was a short-lived experience, and there’s no one class of people that are potentially slaves.”

That changed when European settlers brought a very different form of slavery to the American colonies, the Caribbean, and Brazil. In this “closed” system, says Snyder, “slavery passes from one generation to the next and is settled on a particular group, and there’s almost no way of escaping it. The idea is that race justifies all of this.”

A different vision

Choctaw Academy presented a very different view of race, at least with regard to Native Americans. The school was the brainchild of Richard Mentor Johnson, a local plantation owner and former Indian fighter. He had parlayed his claim that he killed Shawnee leader Tecumseh at the 1813 Battle of the Thames into a political career. By the 1820s he was a U.S. Senator, with his eye on even higher office. He saw an Indian school as a good source of revenue, but he also was, in many ways, a legitimate reformer of the era. He held progressive views of the inherent value of Indian lives and the power of education to improve their abilities and prospects.

The vision that embraced the intellectual potential of Native Americans did not extend to all of the community’s members, however. The vast majority of the labor on Johnson’s plantation and at the Academy—farming, carpentry, cleaning—was done by slaves.

Still, Johnson doesn’t seem to have believed that the slaves’ status was inherent in their race. The woman he considered his wife, Julia Chinn, was African-American and was, in fact, his slave. She was also the undisputed mistress of his household. When Johnson was out of town on political business, Chinn ran the plantation, handling accounts, negotiating with vendors, and supervising both free and slave workers. Johnson didn’t hide her; she hosted major public events like the visit in 1825 of the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Johnson doted on their two daughters and made sure they were well-educated by Academy tutors—and when they reached adulthood, he freed them.

The Academy

Such was the community that welcomed the first class of Indian students in the fall of 1825. All 21 were Choctaw boys, sons of prominent families—the tribe’s elite. Within a year, they were joined by boys from several other tribes in the Deep South and the Upper Midwest. Over the next 20 years, more than 600 students from 17 tribes attended Choctaw Academy.

The tribes paid a small fortune for the privilege; that first year, the Choctaw Nation paid $70,000, about $1.5 million in today’s dollars. That was a big chunk of their tribal wealth, evidence of their belief that education was the way forward for their entire nation.

One member of the first class was 19-year-old Peter Pitchlynn, the eldest child of a white father and a mother from a prominent Choctaw family. He had a keen intelligence, a gift for public speaking, and a powerful sense of duty to his nation. He fully recognized his elite status within the tribe, and seemed to identify more with prominent whites than with people further down the social ladder: slaves. When the Academy opened, the Choctaw nation held fewer slaves than any other southern Indian nation (about 3 percent of their population, compared to 20 percent in the Chickasaw nation and 23 percent in white-dominant Kentucky), but Pitchlynn’s family was the biggest slaveholder in the tribe, with 60 enslaved blacks. “Looking at a tri-racial environment complicates our view of race,” says Snyder. “People are really complicated.”

Defining a nation

In the Academy’s early years, pupils studied mathematics, geography, English grammar and literature, and the classics of Greece and Rome. Writings from those ancient empires were seen as being especially relevant to the new American empire. “At the time, Americans were not shy about using the term ‘empire,’” says Snyder. “That’s actually part of their enthusiasm for the opening of the frontier—that it was a great thing. Who else was going to spread liberty across the continent and even beyond?”

American leaders of the time believed that the U.S. would succeed where other empires had failed, she says. “American exceptionalism,” which today usually refers to being a beacon of civil liberties, back then meant that the U.S. would be better than all earlier empires, which maintained their exalted positions for a few hundred years at most and then, beset by corruption, military over-reaching, or environmental disaster, declined—in most cases, disappearing forever. The U.S., they thought, would be immune to that fate.

Pitchlynn and other Native Americans had a very different view of empire and of historical time.

“They were reading the histories of ancient Greece and Rome, but they were drawing very different conclusions” than white Americans did, says Snyder. “They said, ‘I see the mistake those empires made, and it’s the same mistake you’re making.’ ”

They also had a different perspective on history because of how long their nations had been here. Whites were newcomers with a shallow grasp of historical time, a description that still holds, says Snyder. “If we look at some of these areas in the Deep South, white families were there for just one generation before the Civil War. The ‘Old South’ is not actually that old.”

Removal—and rebirth

Choctaw Academy’s hopeful start soon came up against outside forces. In 1828, Andrew Jackson won the Presidency with the support of poor, rural whites who coveted the southern tribes’ rich farmland and believed Jackson would deliver it to them. Jackson stoked racial animosity to justify displacing the Indians, and he admitted, or perhaps boasted, that the U.S. no longer had to abide by its treaties with the Native nations. “He felt that it was all about power—that Indian treaties are relics of a time when the United States was relatively weak and needed to appease Indian nations, and that now the U.S. was powerful enough that it no longer had to respect Indian treaty rights,” says Snyder.

Pages of a math workbook belonging to Alfred Wade, a student at Choctaw Academy during its early years. Wade carried the large, leather-bound book on the "Trail of Tears" forced relocation. Each displaced Indian was allowed just 30 pounds of baggage, including clothes, household goods, tools, and everything else. The book now resides at the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City. Credit: Photo by Christina Snyder, courtesy of Oklahoma History CenterAll Rights Reserved.

Just over a year after taking office, Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act and began what essentially was a process of deporting Native Americans from their own lands. The tribes were paid for their land—nowhere near what it was worth—and promised equivalent land holdings in Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma). The Choctaws (including students at the Academy) were first to go on the “Trail of Tears,” making the 500-mile trip during the winter of 1831-32. All but the very old and very young walked it. They were not allowed to take livestock. They were allowed to take slaves, who became a kind of living repository of their wealth. Whether intentionally or not, this policy helped spread the practice of slavery to the western territories.

Pitchlynn and his wife, young children, and their slaves were among those who endured the exodus. Many died on the journey, but their troubles didn’t end when they reached Indian Territory. A flood washed out the first crop they planted. The next few years, the region suffered a drought even worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The relocated communities were hit by cholera, whooping cough, and smallpox. Skirmishes broke out with whites trying to claim the land for themselves. All told, more than 25,000 Indians—about one-fifth the total number living east of the Mississippi prior to removal—died during the trek west or from disease, famine, or violence after arrival.

But more survived, and when the drought ended and they were able to grow a decent crop and feed themselves well, they began to recover. They built homes, businesses, roads, towns—and schools. Peter Pitchlynn never wavered in his support for education—not the manual training Indian children were often forced into, but serious, intellectually ambitious learning like what he thrived on at Choctaw Academy. He helped the Choctaw Nation establish its own system of public schools, the first in the United States. It included a boarding school for girls and offered weekend classes for adult students. Basic education was free for all members of the tribe, and compulsory for children. The schools were so much better than those of nearby white communities that many white families paid a fee so their children could attend.

Most Native-focused histories of the