Thursday, March 28, 2013

Choctaw Family relationships Part two

After reading over half of the court of claims testimonies from 1838 through 1845 and well over two thousand Dawes files, I am still not an expert on traditional family relationships and how the Choctaws viewed them. Part one was a factual look at the usage of family relationships from historical sources. It is a guideline for the complex family structure in that it shows that the Choctaw had names for just about every relationship one could imagine. However, I think there were subtle distinctions that historians and genealogists are still struggling with today.

It is not uncommon to see the term "distantly related" in the court of claims testimony. In some cases, I know the relationships are on the paternal side, but in other cases you may see, "distantly related and calls him Uncle". At that you may think, "huh?". I think it could mean great Uncle, but to be honest I am not sure. I have also seen the terms "distantly related and calls him nephew", I think that is similar and probably a case where the person was the great Uncle of the person he was testifying for. I think so, but given that members of the same clan may have had the honorary names of Aunt, Uncle, Grandmother and Grandfather (as they do among the Creeks), it is difficult sometime to determine exactly what that means. I have seen testimony that clearly states they are of the same clan but not related, but that is rare.

I am sure at this point when I read "brother and cousin", that means a maternal cousin, and is commonly something  used by both mixed and full bloods in earlier records (pre removal) and exclusively by full bloods in later I records (dawes files and even probate cases in the 1920's). Yet again, I ran across a testimony that said someone was their cousin and they called him Uncle. In this case the individuals were over 40 years apart in age, so it makes me think that the speaker did not understand the cousin concept, and was probably a descendant of a maternal cousin of the individual. Probably. See that's the point. Nothing is clear, and sometimes the more you read the more complex.

A lot depends on the person who is giving the testimony. In early testimonies, there is a great disparity on the understanding of typical European concepts such as age in years and family relationships. Some full bloods seem to be more aware, and there testimonies are a bit clearer, while others have no idea of the ages of their own children, and sometimes even, the names of their own relatives. It was traditional in the Choctaw culture that a husband called his wife so and so's mother, and the same thing went for the husband. What I didn't know is that family members may also do the same and not know the proper name. It is also clear that they also had nicknames and proper names, and in the same testimony one may see a husband give the name Hatona and the witness Imahatona and they are the same person.

Later testimonies are much different than the early ones. Mixed blood families follow traditional European concepts of families, and the full bloods, while they may still use and consider the traditonal Choctaw family structure in their family concepts, have a fuller understanding of the European one, and so they will clarify the relationship. In early testimonies clarification of adopted children's status (most often the orphaned children of their own child or their sisters children) is made, whereas in later testimonies the person's relationship is specifically stated as niece, nephew or grandchild.

The one theme consistent in the early testimonies is that the people who gave the clearest testimony often were leaders, Captains, Mingos, and Lighthorse men and even if they weren't educated they seemed to have a better understanding. It is almost as if they were "educated" and the full bloods who weren't leaders were "uneducated" when you read their testimonies. They seemed to grasp the importance of the testimony, and had in general gave clearer and more thorough information.

To be honest, it is thanks to Robert Cole and Coleman Cole that insight into the family relationships is truthfully made. Coleman Cole was educated, and Robert Cole was not, but both seemed to understand that there was a difference between the Choctaw view of family and the European or American one, and they are the most specific in the testimonies they gave for their family and as witnesses for others.  The following is an example of a testimony of Robert Cole.

"Eden Nelson is his nephew and he is related to all the Nelsons to the same degree. Mohala married his niece, he calls him son in law. Muscoga is his brother in law. Istacapona is a kind of brother. Istamonachubbe is his nephew. Billy Frazier and himself are half brothers, sisters children. Daniel McCurtain is his brother in law. Joe Perry is kind of a brother in law, Charles Frazier is his brother in law. He calls Atoka his son, a white man would call him nephew..."

The use of "kind of" isnt' unique to his testimonies. A best guess is that it is either a relative that is his Uncle's children or his father's, or both. Now Robert Cole was the son of a white man, so in his case the best guess, would be these relate to an Uncle's children, but it is entirely unlikely we will ever truly understand the exact meaning of that phrase.


  1. I am of mixed Choctaw and European (mainly German) descent. My father's grandmother was full Choctaw (pre-removal) from Georgia. I remember growing up that my mother of full European heritage (English, Scots, French) attributing many of my father's family traditions to the Choctaws. She pointed to their zero divorce rate as the "mate loyalty" of Choctaws. Close and caring family ties and warm relationships were other traits she said were Choctaw in nature. Is there anything to this? (

    1. First of all that couldn't be further from the truth. The Choctaw had divorces frequently, in fact many Choctaws in 1830's had marriages that lasted sometimes not even until the birth of the first child.

      I think second of all you must realize the Choctaws never lived in Georgia. Georgia is primarily Cherokee and Creek country. There are smaller more obscure tribes, some of whom spoke a muscogean language all along the gulf coast, but the Choctaw as a people have always been primarily in Mississippi and Alabama.

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    Have you ever run across Jesse Nelson or his wife Chema? They are mentioned in the Rabbit Creek Treaty, but not as Garret Nelson's son...Any info you might have come across pertaining to Jesse, Chema, or even their Daughter Mary Anne Nelson would be greatly appreciated. If you need more info, just let me know what would be most helpful, I have DNA results from my Grandfather that definitely show Native American ancestry, just trying to make a conclusive documented link. Thanks!