BOOK REVIEW: James Colbert and his Chickasaw Legacy by Stephen L. Kling, Jr. and Guy B. Braden (St. Louis, MO: THGC Publishing, 2022)
The history of the American Revolution is filled with shadowy figures, about whom little is known, though scattered documents provide fragments of information and hint at their importance. One such individual was James Colbert, who was closely associated with the Chickasaw Indians throughout most of his life. Colbert was apparently illiterate, so only a few of his letters survive, and these were written for him by others. His name also appears in many American, British, and Spanish documents, indicating his significance even if some of the material is contradictory or even unflattering.
Stephen L. Kling, Jr., who has made great efforts to shed light on the largely forgotten events of the Revolutionary War west of the Appalachian Mountains, seeks to rescue Colbert from undeserved obscurity in James Colbert and his Chickasaw Legacy. In this volume, Kling corrects many errors and misconceptions surrounding Colbert, from the erroneous assertion that Colbert was born in Scotland to Spanish accusations that he was a robber and pirate. Kling argues that an examination of the evidence demonstrates that Colbert “was a much more significant force in the [Revolutionary] war than has been previously recognized,” (page 85) and supports this assessment with extensive research in the records of three nations–the United States, Great Britain, and Spain–that appears to have discovered virtually every document that mentions Colbert. This material is supplemented by equally thorough research in secondary sources, which Kling carefully analyzes to rectify inaccuracies. Kling’s account of Colbert’s life, “James Colbert and the American Revolutionary War,” comprises nearly two-thirds of the volume, with the remainder consisting of a reprint of Guy B. Braden’s 1958 article, “The Colberts and the Chickasaw Nation,” from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.
Kling opens with a concise account of the Chickasaw nation in the eighteenth century, their opposition to French efforts to subjugate them and claim their homeland in present-day western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, and establishment of trade relations with France’s enemy, Great Britain. This economic relationship subsequently became a military alliance. Colbert arrived in Chickasaw territory about 1740, when he was still a teenager, and almost certainly as or with a trader. He soon married the first of his three Chickasaw wives. His trade connections strengthened his position among the Chickasaw, who depended heavily on the British for arms, ammunition, cloth, and other goods. By 1760 he was leading Chickasaw war parties in operations against the Cherokee during the Anglo-Cherokee War, and was awarded a captain’s commission by the colonial government of South Carolina. After the war, he served the British Indian Department as an interpreter and messenger.
When the American Revolution began, Kling notes, Southern Indian Superintendent John Stuart relied on Colbert to provide intelligence of American activities on the Mississippi River. By 1779, Colbert had been appointed an assistant commissary in the Indian Department, though he was assigned to work with the Chickasaws’ southern neighbors, the Choctaws. After Spain entered the war in 1779 and invaded British West Florida, seizing British posts on the Mississippi River and Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico, Colbert and a Chickasaw party harassed Spanish forces near Mobile in 1780. Later in the year, Colbert and the Chickasaws made an unsuccessful attack on American Fort Jefferson on the Mississippi River, then struck at American settlements south of the Cumberland River, forcing the inhabitants to abandon several of them. In November 1780, Major General John Campbell officially commissioned Colbert to lead Indian and Loyalist forces against the Americans and Spaniards.
Colbert brought some one hundred Chickasaws to Pensacola in April 1781 to help defend that town from a Franco-Spanish attack, leaving when the British garrison surrendered in May. Afterwards, Kling describes the campaign that Colbert and the Chickasaws waged against American and Spanish vessels on the Mississippi, as well as Colbert’s last major operation, an assault that failed to capture the Spanish garrison at Arkansas Post in 1783. He died later that year on the return journey from St. Augustine, where he had gone to confer with British leaders.
Braden’s portion of the volume focuses on the activities of Colbert’s children after the Revolution. Like their father, they remained important figures as the Chickasaws made the transition from allies of the British to allies of the Americans, assisting Anthony Wayne in his operations against the Indian confederation in the Old Northwest and aiding Andrew Jackson in his campaign against the Creeks. Despite this support, the Chickasaws could not stave off encroaching settlers who occupied their lands, or avoid removal to Oklahoma, though because they ultimately accepted that fate, they were spared most of the hardships suffered by the Cherokees in that nation’s westward journey. This book, particularly the first section, is a valuable contribution to the history of the Revolution in the West and provides an excellent account of Colbert’s role. Several transcribed documents supplement the text, providing more detail on Colbert’s personality and activities, and showing him to be a committed Loyalist and friend of the Chickasaw, not an opportunist or freebooter. The volume also helps to illuminate the relationship between Native Americans and the British Indian Department in the years preceding the Revolution and during the war. The second section occasionally shows its age, with references to male Indians as “braves” and one mention of women as “squaws,” and on one occasion describing the Natives as “primitive,” yet overall, it treats its Chickasaw subjects fairly and is useful for following the postwar career of the Colberts along with the history of the Chickasaws in the Early National period. Readers interested in the American Revolution and in Native American history will find much of value in this brief, well written work.
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