when the first white settlers arrived. His name in the Chickasaw language was “Tashka Ambi”, or “Tashkambi”,meaning “the warrior who kills.” It was the English, Scots and
Irish who later changed the spelling to “Tuscumbia.”
Although he wore the title of Chief, he has never been listed among the principal chiefs of his
people. One source in Mississippi referred to him as one of the priesthood, being labeled as “Chief
Rainmaker of the Chickasaw Tribe”.
Chief Tashka Ambi was a contemporary of other notable Indians who lived at the Muscle Shoals. Chickasaw Chief George Colbert operated a ferry and an inn a few miles west of Tuscumbia on the Tennessee River at the crossing of the Natchez Trace. Cherokee Chief Doublehead lived across the
river in what later was to become Lauderdale County, and Chiefs Bigfoot and Glass were at one time or another in the Colbert County area.
The Chickasaw Nation, with a population that ranged between an estimated 3,500 to 4,500, was small in comparison to its neighbors, the Cherokees, Choctaws and Creeks. The early domain of the Chickasaws included Northern Mississippi, Eastern Tennessee, Southwestern Kentucky and a small
section of Northwest Alabama.
The Chickasaws’ closest cultural affinity was with the Choctaws, and it is believed that in more ancient times they were an integral part of the Choctaw tribe. The Chickasaw and
Choctaw language, except for dialect differences, were the same.
Their language, known as the Muskhogean, was described by early settlers as very agreeable to the ear, courteous, gentle and musical.
At the time Chief Tashka Ambi lived at the Big Spring in what would become Tuscumbia. The cap-ital of the Chickasaws was in Mississippi at Old Pontotoc, or Long Town, near what was to become Tupelo.
How the Chickasaws came to this part of the Southeast is a basic part of their early religious belief. According to the tradition of their elders, their original home at some remote historic time was in the land of the setting sun; which was probably in Mexico or Central America. Each generation, it was said, was instructed in the long and difficult search for the homeland ordained by their deities. Their guide was an oracular pole, carried on each day’s march by the tribe’s holy men.
Each night the priests placed the pole upright in the ground. During the night, the pole would, shift about and the direction to which it had shifted served as a compass to guide the new day’s march. Almost without fail they moved toward the rising sun and eventually crossed the Mississippi and continued eastward until they reached the Tennessee River.
They journeyed as far as what is now Madison County, Alabama, and at that point the pole remained erect. With great rejoicing the tribe believed they had found the “Promised Land.”
They cleared their fields, planted corn and built settlements. After a time, however, the pole leaned westward and the Chickasaws abandoned their settlements and marched in the direction from whence they had come. In the Tombigbee high-lands of Northeast Mississippi the pole once again remained erect, and this, their new promised land, was where they were when the white settlers came into the territory.
When the white people made their first contact, Chief Tuscumbia was living with a small group of his people at the Muscle Shoals. His brother Jack lived near what was to become Corinth, Mississippi.
Colonel James Robertson of Nashville led a raid in June 1787 to the mouth of Spring Creek. At that time he burned the Indian village known as Oka Kapassa and the French Trading Post that had thrived there for some time. Twenty-six Indians, three French traders, and a white woman were killed.
Robertson had learned from the Chickasaws that the warriors from this village at the Muscle Shoals, mainly Creeks and Cherokees, were the ones responsible for the raids against the white settlers in Middle Tennessee.
Chief Tashka Ambi was a young warrior at that time, it is doubtful he had any connections with the people at Oka Kapassa. However, one historian, in writing about this era at the Muscle Shoals, had this to say about Chief Tuscumbia:
“The settlements were continually being harassed by Indians from all quarters, but the Indians’ particular stronghold was the territory along the Tennessee River and to the South of Tennessee. One of the particularly spiteful chiefs was named Tuscumbia who lived at the great spring where the city of Tuscumbia is now located.”
It was about this time in the late 1780’s that Chief Tuscumbia married Im Mi, whose full name was Im Mi Ah Key. There was a strict rule among the Chickasaws that a brave had to go outside his home clan to find a wife. It is believed Tuscumbia found his bride in the eastern part of the nation. It was also not
uncommon among the Chickasaws for a brave to have more than one wife at the same time, especially if there were a number of sisters in the bride’s family. Im Mi apparently had no sisters therefore, from all accounts; she remained Chief Tuscumbia’s only wife as long as he lived.
The Chickasaw marriage came about after the brave declared his matrimonial intentions by sending the young lady a small present. “If she accepted the gift,” they were considered engaged.
The marriage ceremony was a gala event in the village and quite different from the traditions brought into the land by the white settlers. James Adair, who lived among the Chickasaws, described the proceedings as follows:
When Michael Dickson and his family landed at Muscle Shoals in 1815, they found Chief Tuscumbia and Im Mi to be an amiable couple. Dickson was able to persuade the chief to sell him the site of the City of Tuscumbia, plus all the land between the Big Spring and Tuscumbia Mountain to the South, and all the land to the Tennessee River on the North, for the amazing price of five dollars and two pole axes. This became known as “the Tomahawk Claim.” After the Federal Government acquired “the groom divides an ear of corn in two pieces before witnesses.
He keeps one of the pieces and presents his bride with the other half. After accepting the corn, or sometimes a deer’s foot, the bride then proceeds to present her new husband with some cakes
of bread that she has prepared for the marriage occasion”. the Indian lands following the Treaty of 1816, they allowed Dickson two lots in the town of Tuscumbia for his claim.
The city that later was to be named for Chief Tuscumbia was incorporated December 20, 1820 as Cold Water. Six months later the name was changed to Big Spring, and on December 31, 1822, it was changed a third time to Tuscumbia. There is a legend that the citizens were asked to select either the name “Annie”, in honor of the infant daughter of Michael Dickson, who was the first white child born at that place, or the name “Tuscumbia” in honor of the old chief who was still living in the community. The name Tuscumbia won by a majority of one vote, and the Chickasaw chieftain was so pleased that he
presented little Annie with a tiny pair of moccasins.
Sometime after 1822, Chief Tuscumbia and his wife, Im Mi, moved back to his old home some nine miles South of the present city of Corinth, near the Danville community. Here Chief Tuscumbia built a small cabin on land that adjoined his brother Jack’s property. The Chief spent the remaining years of his life
as a farmer; it was said, using a primitive plow drawn behind a pinto pony.
Chief Tuscumbia died about the year 1834. A grave was dug under the couch, inside the house, where he had died. They washed his body, anointed his head with oil, painted his face red, and dressed him in his best clothes. The body was placed in a sitting position facing west, and his personal effects, including his gun, ammunition, pipe, tobacco and a supply of corn, were placed alongside the body in the grave. The mourning for the chief involved extinguishing the fire in his house, removing all ashes, and starting a new fire. His widow, Im Mi, according to Chickasaw tradition, wept over his grave just before
sunup and sundown for a month.
In December 1836, a neighbor, Ruffin Coleman, bought Im Mi’s land for $820; she had been granted this farm by the Treaty of 1834. In 1838 Im Mi and her children were forced to follow the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with the other Chickasaws.
Chief Tuscumbia’s grave near Danville, Mississippi, was only a short distance from the Tuscumbia River that bears his name.
In 1838, Im Mi’s old homeplace was sold again, this time to Hesekiah Balch Mitchell, for the price of $2,000. Mitchell built his home, which became known as “The White House” on the high ground where he and his son, Lyman, had earlier attended the funeral of Chief Tuscumbia. Not wishing to build over the
old chief, he removed Tuscumbia’s body to another location, and in the passing of time, the exact site of the second grave has been lost.
But the name of Tuscumbia will not soon be forgotten, for there is a river in Mississippi, and a city and a mountain in Alabama named for him. They speak softly of the noble warrior who lived among these lands before the white man came to take it from a proud people known as the Chickasaws.
Lore of the River by: Dr. William L. McDonald
Copyright 2007 by
Bluewater Publications – Heart of Dixie Publishing
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