About the Author
Jerry S. Palazolo is a lifelong philatelist and postal historian whose current interests include Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas with special emphasis on the Civil War period. He is an award-winning author, researcher, and exhibitor. Most recently he served as Chairman of The Civil War Postal Exhibition & Symposium at the American Philatelic Center in 2019. He is a Life Member of the APS, the Civil War Philatelic Society, the American Stamp Dealers Association, the Collectors Club of New York, and the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society for which he currently serves as a section editor in its journal. He is a fifth-generation Memphian where he resides with his wife of 45 years, Sandra, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well before the first European explorers plied the Mississippi River, indigenous Americans fully recognized the importance of the river as a means of transportation and communication, including those of the Chickasaw Nation. Early on, special significance was conferred upon certain strategic points along the waterway that could serve to protect the interests of those who wished to control the river’s use. Between the mouth of the Ohio River and present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi, there was a series of four bluffs that provided the only suitable sites for year-round defensible positions above the flood plain. These were – and are - known as the Chickasaw Bluffs. The first and second of these were located just north and south of the mouth of the Hatchie River. A third bluff was located near present-day Richardson’s Landing, followed by the fourth bluff at the mouth of the Wolf River. This last is formally known as the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, which eventually became the site of the town of Memphis (Figure 1).
Figure 1. “The Chickasaw Country in 1796-1800 G.H.V. Collot” published in 1901 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 73.
France also realized the strategic importance of the control of the Mississippi River as a means of consolidating its influence in America and protecting its lucrative fur trade. The Chickasaw people resented France’s ruthless efforts to dominate the area, which encompassed their tribal lands. The French colonial government launched a series of preemptive military expeditions designed to destroy the Chickasaw and drive them from the area. The Chickasaw managed to hold the French at bay until 1763, when France, facing defeat at the hands of the British in the French and Indian War, opted to cede its entire Louisiana Colony to the King’s neutral Spanish relatives to keep the possession from falling under British control.
At the conclusion of the American Revolution, Spain declared an interest in the entire eastern shore of the Mississippi River as a line of defense to protect its new colonial possession to the west. The interests of the young American nation, on the other hand, already extended across the Appalachian Mountains and as far as that same eastern shore. An American threat to arm the Chickasaw with guns and artillery as a means of ousting the Spanish from the eastern side of the Mississippi was sufficient to bring Spain to the negotiating table, resulting in the Treaty of San Lorenzo between the two governments, ratified in 1797, whereby Spain relinquished all claims on the eastern bank above the 31st parallel.
Shortly after the ratification of the treaty, an American contingent of troops arrived at the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff to establish Fort Adams, which was soon supplanted by the larger Fort Pickering, several miles to the south at a higher and more advantageous location. Faced with the emergence of the new American nation and its rapid westward expansion, the Chickasaw adapted to the new reality of their situation and eventually entered into long-term relations with the United States. Treaties were negotiated which provided for annual payments to tribal leaders in exchange for peaceful relations.
The U.S. government, as part of the treaties, appointed agents to act as ambassadors as well as dispensers of the annuities to the tribes, to be stationed at Indian Agencies within the tribal lands. The purpose of the agent was to manage Indian affairs and enforce policies and work to resolve grievances between the tribe and the government. The Agent to the Chickasaw Nation was appointed and dispatched to the place with the largest concentration of tribal elders, as there was no one single leader of the Chickasaw to speak for the entire Nation. The first agent to the Chickasaw, Samuel Mitchell, was appointed November 28, 1800. The agent resided in Houlka, in the Mississippi Territory on the Natchez Trace, about midway between the present-day towns of Pontotoc and Houston. It should be noted that this place is now known as Old Houlka, so as not to be confused with the current town of Houlka, which sits a few miles to the west of the original site. For the convenience of the government agent and contractors, negotiations with the Chickasaw resulted in a post office being established at this location on June 30, 1801, with John McIntosh as the first postmaster. Originally named Chickasaw Nation, the post office came to be known as Chickasaw Agency.
Figure 2. A folded address panel from the Chickasaw Nation post office dated December 3, 1802. From author’s collection.
A folded address panel from the Chickasaw Nation post office dated December 3, 1802, is shown in Figure 2. This example predates the earliest known letter originating from this post office as recorded by Bruce Oakley in A Postal History of Mississippi Stampless Period, Volume II. The letter’s contents are no longer enclosed, so it is not known if the letter originated at the Agency or some other location in the tribal lands.
As part of its domestic policy, the United States also established Factories throughout the frontier designed to lure various tribes into financial dependence upon the government. These outposts were not factories in the traditional sense of the word, but were actually trading posts set up to sell implements, firearms and general merchandise to the tribal members on credit against future sales of hides and pelts. The reality of the arrangement was that the income from the hides and pelts was never enough to satisfy the debts incurred, thus keeping these native people perpetually mired in debt.
The government-appointed factors, business agents, to staff the Factories. The lands of the Chickasaw Nation were expansive, comprising almost a third of the present-day state of Mississippi, all of Tennessee west of the Tennessee River, and all of western Kentucky. Despite their widespread lands, most of the nation’s members were concentrated in the northern part of Mississippi and the southern part of western Tennessee. As a result, in 1802 the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff on the banks of the Mississippi River was selected as the site for the Chickasaw Factory, alternatively known as the Chickasaw Trading House. The first factor appointed was Thomas Peterkin, who served from 1803 to 1806.
It is no coincidence that the Chickasaw Factory was located in close proximity to Fort Pickering, which at that time was the most western U.S. military outpost. The military presence served as a reminder of American military might, should the Chickasaw ever decide to withdraw from the terms of the treaties. Figure 3 illustrates a letter headed Fort Pickering, June 8, 1805, and is the earliest known letter in private hands originating from the fort. The letter is written by Fort Pickering’s first commander, James Swearingen. Note the annotation “Chickasaw Bluffs” on the address panel in the same handwriting as the address. This letter was no doubt carried to the Chickasaw Nation post office by private courier where it was eventually postmarked on June 20, 1805, and rated 25¢ collect.
Figure 3. Letter headed from Fort Pickering, June 8, 1805, and addressed to Frederick Bates, Postmaster, D’Etroit [Detroit] in what was at that time Indiana Territory. Note the annotation, “Chickasaw Bluffs” on the address leaf in the same handwriting as the address. This letter was no doubt carried to the Chickasaw Nation post office by private courier where it was postmarked on June 20, 1805, and rated collect 25¢ postage.
While the Chickasaw Agency site was located at a place central to the tribal elders, the Chickasaw Factory site was situated at a place central to commerce and shipping. Initially, only the Chickasaw Agency had a post office. It was not until 1819 that U.S. mail service was extended to the Bluff. Therefore, all letters with manuscript postmarks of “Chickasaw Nation” or “Chickasaw Agency” are from the post office at the Agency on the Natchez Trace. Figure 4 shows a letter postmarked at the Chickasaw Nation post office on December 16, 1807. The letter itself, however, was written by a member of the military staff at Fort Pickering at the Chickasaw Bluff. Conversely, some letters addressed to “Chickasaw Agency” were actually intended for the Factory at the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff. Figure 5 shows a letter dated August 30, 1809, addressed to David Hogg, Indian Factor, Chickasaw Trading House, Chickasaw Nation. The letter was six weeks in transit from Washington, DC, to the western frontier town of Detroit. From there it was routed to the Chickasaw Nation post office where it was entrusted to a private courier for its final 100-mile leg of its journey to the Chickasaw Bluff. These two examples illustrate the confusion created by the interchangeable and seemingly random use of terminology. Determining the actual origin or destination requires detailed knowledge of people, places, and dates to properly attribute the few surviving letters to the correct physical location.
Figure 4. A complete letter postmarked at the Chickasaw Nation post office on December 16, 1807, but written at Fort Pickering at the Chickasaw Bluff on December 1, 1807. It is signed by a member of the military staff at the fort. This letter was carried the 100 mile distance to the post office on the Trace where it entered the mail. It was almost certainly carried by one of the couriers mentioned in the Factory ledger quoted above. From author’s collection.
Figure 5. A letter dated August 30, 1809, addressed to David Hogg, Indian Factor, Chickasaw Trading House, Chickasaw Nation. It was routed through Detroit almost six weeks later, for unknown reasons. The Indian Factory system was administered by the War Department, so the letter may have been routed to Detroit so that it could be directed to Hogg at his current posting. The historical record indicates that Hogg arrived at the Factory at Chickasaw Bluff on March 1, 1808 (Plaisance, The Chickasaw Bluffs Factory and Its Removal…) From author’s collection.
In an earlier article by this author in the journal Tennessee Posts titled “Written Communications To, From and Through the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff…,” reference was made to letters written at the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, but entering the U.S. mail system at Chickasaw Nation post office. U.S. Agent Samuel Mitchell’s writings and accounts of the mail system clear up some of the confusion:
“…Several entries are found in the accounts of Samuel Mitchell, who was the U.S. Agent to the Chickasaw, for payments to Jeremiah and Thomas Love for “riding express to Fort Pickering” in 1803 and 1804. Mitchell was headquartered on the Natchez Trace near present-day Tupelo, Mississippi. Also located there was a U.S. post office operating under the name Chickasaw Nation (sometimes shown in the Post Office Department records as Chickasaw Agency.) Based on the entries in Mitchell’s accounts, it would appear that private express riders were retained to carry official dispatches and other communications to and from Fort Pickering some 100 miles to the west. Such a service provided a necessary and timely link to the otherwise isolated frontier post.”
Figure 6 illustrates a letter originating from Washington, DC, on March 29, 1809, addressed to “Samuel Treat, Arkansas, Louisiana, To the care of the Commanding Officer at the Chickasaw Bluff” [sic]. This letter was most likely originally directed to the Chickasaw Nation post office and then sent by a courier as mentioned in Mitchell’s account book to Fort Pickering at the Chickasaw Bluff. From there it was carried privately by yet another courier to Samuel Treat, who had just recently arrived to establish the new Indian Factory at Arkansas Post near the confluence of the Arkansas, White, and Mississippi Rivers. At that early date, government mail service had not yet been extended into the interior of the newly established Louisiana Territory.
Figure 6. A letter originating from Washington, DC, on March 29, 1809, addressed to “Samuel Treat, Arkansa, Louisiana (Territory), To the care of the Commanding Officer at the Chickasaw Bluff” [sic]. Most likely originally directed to the Chickasaw Nation post office and then sent by a courier as mentioned in Mitchell’s account book to Fort Pickering at the Chickasaw Bluff. From there it was carried privately to Treat who was at Arkansas Post. At that early date, mail service had not yet been extended into the interior of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. From author’s collection.
The Louisiana Purchase removed the last threat of European interference with the westward expansion of the United States. With that threat gone, the U.S.’ need for alliances with the various tribal nations east of the Mississippi River diminished rapidly. The United States policy towards the Indians pivoted from codependence to a more aggressive policy designed to coerce the tribes into surrendering large swathes of their lands in exchange for money and merchandise. The Chickasaw, well aware of their fading influence, were forced to negotiate with the Federal Government. Figure 7 shows the address panel of a letter mailed from Nashville on August 18, 1818, from Andrew Jackson to “Col. Henry Shelbourne, Indian Agent, Chickasaw Agency.” Note Shelbourne’s docketing on face of letter, “Order to suspend the payment of money to the Nation for the annuity of 1817.” The withholding of this annual payment was used as a bargaining chip during the treaty negotiations several months later. Those negotiations resulted in the cession of all of the Chickasaw lands between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. This transfer of land to the U.S. government resulted in the extension of the western lands of both Tennessee and Kentucky to the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. No longer needed, the Factory at the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff was abandoned. The former Chickasaw lands were opened for settlement and within a year the frontier government outpost on the Bluff became the site of the new town of Memphis.
Figure 7. An address panel of a letter mailed from Nashville on August 18, 1818, from Andrew Jackson to “Col. Henry Shelbourne, Indian Agent, Chickasaw Agency.” Shelbourne was at the Agency on the Natchez Trace at this time, having been appointed to this position on December 11, 1817 (according to Plaisance, The Chickasaw Bluffs Factory and Its Removal to the Arkansas River, 1818-1822). Note docketing on face of letter, “Order to suspend the payment of money to the Nation for the annuity of 1817.” This letter traveled down the Natchez Trace from Nashville. It is interesting that the address as simply stated does not specify that the destination was in the state of Mississippi. From the author’s collection.
The Chickasaw Nation, Chickasaw Agency: Two Places, One Post Office article is reprinted from the April 2021 issue of The American Philatelist, The Member Recognition Issue Issue. If you are interested in joining the American Philatelic Society to gain access to members-only benefits such as this highly acclaimed monthly magazine, visit Together We Grow today!
Chickasaw Nation. “Removal.” https://chickasaw.net/Our-Nation/History/Removal.aspx.
Frazier, D.R. Tennessee Post Offices and Postmaster Appointments 1789-1984. (Dover, Tennessee: Del Frazier, 1984).
Helbock, Richard W. United States Post Offices Volume VII – The Lower Mississippi Valley. (Scapoose, Oregon: LaPosta Publications, 2005).
Holcomb, Gene (editor). Mississippi, A Guide to the Magnolia State (New York City, NY: Viking Press, 1938).
Ledger of the U.S. Indian Factory System. Typed transcription of microfilm record (Memphis Public Library).
Oakley, Bruce C., Jr. A Postal History of Mississippi Stampless Period, Volume II. (Bruce, Mississippi: Bruce Oakley, 1980)
Palazolo, Jerry. “Written Communications To, From and Through the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff Prior to the Establishment of the Memphis Post Office” Tennessee Posts 18, no. 1 (April 2014).
Plaisance, Rev. Aloysius. “The Chickasaw Bluffs Factory and Its Removal to the Arkansas River, 1818-1822.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly XI, no. 1 (March 1952).