In the post office in Macon, Mississippi, a commercial illustrator departed from type and explored dark and emotive styling to depict a critical event in local history: The Signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830. Spencer Douglass Crockwell was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1904. As an artist, he became well-known for creating illustrations and advertisements that were featured in the Saturday Evening Post. Some of his most recognized work was for Republic Steel, Friskies dog food, Welch’s grape juice, De Soto cars, Wyeth pharmaceuticals, and Camel cigarettes. Crockwell created murals and posters for the Works Progress Administration, and painted the murals in the post offices in Endicott, New York and White River Junction, Vermont as well as Macon. Crockwell’s commercial work is described as similar in style to Norman Rockwell’s. In addition to his murals and commercial illustrations, Crockwell also experimented as an avant-garde abstract animator. His films include Motion Painting No 1 (1949), Glen Falls Sequence (1946) and Long Bodies (1947). These were short, flip-card films that were viewed through a mutoscope. These experiments in the avant-garde abstract reflect Crockwell’s ability to explore different forms of artistic expression such as the Macon mural, which is clearly less commercial and “Rockwell-esque” than his advertisements and magazine illustrations. The dark color palette, flowing human shapes, and evocative environmental elements differ from so much of the work he was known for. S. Douglass Crockwell died in Glen Falls, New York in 1968.
The event Mr. Crockwell chose to depict in his mural, the signing of the Treaty at Dancing Rabbit Creek, was critical to the formation of Macon as well as the larger area in Mississippi and Alabama. In 1833, three years after the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the area encompassing the site of the Treaty was established and authorized as Noxubee County by the State legislature of Mississippi. The town of Macon, home to this mural, was chosen as the county seat for its central location. The first land sales in the county began in 1834 and land sold for about $1.75 per acre. Macon was named for Nathaniel Macon, a statesman of North Carolina. Today, Noxubee County is an agricultural area, producing timber, corn, soybeans, catfish, cotton and wheat. Since 1986, the city of Macon has hosted an annual Dancing Rabbit Festival to “celebrate Noxubee County’s heritage,” described as a “fun-filled festival...named for the 1830 Treaty at Dancing Rabbit Creek signed in the area between the Choctaw tribe and the U. S. Government, through which the Choctaw ceded their lands in Mississippi for land in what is now Oklahoma.”
The actual circumstances of signing of the Treaty at Dancing Rabbit Creek are a problematic cause for celebration, however. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was the last in a series of treaties through which the Choctaw ceded their land to the United States. At the time of European arrival in North America, the Choctaw lived in the south-eastern United States. By the early 18th Century, the Choctaw had established trade relations with European settlers encroaching on their territory, selling them agricultural goods and livestock. The Choctaw thus developed a strong economy, and their land holdings throughout the 18th Century were extensive, though some land was lost as a consequence of their alliance with the French in the French and Indian War (1754-63), which was lost to the British. However, with the establishment of the United States, the new nation began to work towards acquiring more land for settlement and defense purposes. Following the formation of the Mississippi Territory in 1798 and the election in 1800 of Thomas Jefferson to the U. S. presidency, President Jefferson deemed it strategically necessary for the federal government acquire all the lands bordering the east side of the Mississippi River to defend against France, Spain, and England. In 1801, the Choctaw ceded 2,641,920 acres of land from the Yazoo River to the thirty-first parallel to the United States through the Treaty of Fort Adams. Between 1801 and 1830, when the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed, the Choctaw ceded more than 23 million acres to the United States. At the time of the Treaty signing in 1830, there were more than 19,000 Choctaws in Mississippi. In the following 3 years, approximately 13,000 Choctaws were removed to lands west of their homeland. However, some Choctaw refused to leave, and their descendants are still in Mississippi today, organized as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which is federally recognized.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was engineered by deputies of President Andrew Jackson, Major John H. Eaton and Colonel John Coffee. The two were instructed to ensure a treaty was signed, as the government was determined to acquire the land the Choctaw were living on, but the Choctaw had already ceded so much land, they did not want to sign any more treaties. Major Eaton and Colonel Coffee arrived at Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 15, 1830. The Choctaw gathered at the negotiation site, led by Greenwood LeFlore, Moshulitubbee, and Nittakechi, numbered approximately 6,000 at first, and were later joined by the people of Hopaii Iskitini (Little Leader) and the “Christian Indians” with Colonel David Folsom. Three days were spent in preparations for negotiations and, on September 18, Eaton and Coffee addressed the Choctaw and expressed the need for their removal to lands to the west. After days of discussion and a vote by the Choctaw rejecting the Treaty, Major Eaton began to use theatrical and severe language, threatening ruin and destruction at the hands of the United States military should the Choctaw refuse to sign the Treaty. Colonel Coffee himself referred to these tactics as persuasion at gunpoint, and many of the Choctaw who were opposed to the Treaty left the negotiations. This left only those who favored the Treaty in attendance, and certain articles were added to the Treaty and Eaton again painted a dark picture, insisting the Choctaw would face war unless they agreed. The Choctaw signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830. Under Article 14 of the Treaty, those Choctaw who wanted to remain in Mississippi could register for allotments of land. After the signing of the Treaty, they registered for 500 square miles. However, mismanagement and harassment of the Choctaw meant that the application of this Article was inconsistent at best. Of the 500 square miles of land allotted to Choctaw families under the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, not a single section has remained in Choctaw ownership.
It is clear that this was a sad and dark time for the Choctaw, as they were coerced into accepting a Treaty they did not want, and whose terms were not honored. This mural draws upon these themes of darkness and loss through its dark colors, deep shadows, and the despairing expression of the Choctaw painted in the lower right of the mural. As noted above, the mural is a marked departure from Crockwell’s wholesome commercial depictions of American life, and more of an expressionist or abstract depiction of a historical event, heavy with emotion. Notably, the Choctaw in the foreground is the only figure in the mural whose face is painted clearly. In fact, Eaton, Coffee, and the other United States representatives are all painted from behind. The physical postures of those Choctaw who are distinguishable as individuals are tense, and the rest of the Choctaw surrounding the clearing melt into one large mass of inseparable faces and bodies. Circling the clearing in which the Treaty is being signed, they resemble the close-growing trees, and seem to fade into them, as though into the background and the shades of the past. There is also something primitive about them, a mass of people all painted in flesh tones, with no clothing distinguishable. The mural is also a marked contrast to the County’s continued “celebration” of the Treaty with a festival. Instead, the mural serves as a somber reminder that the signing of this Treaty was not a festive occasion, but a devastating and painful event for thousands of Choctaw who called Mississippi their home and precipitated the brutal westward migration of the Choctaw known as the “Trail of Tears.”
By Meghan A. Navarro
Image courtesy of Keith Parish. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.
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