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The Indispensable Indian: Edwin Forrest, Pushmataha, and Metamora

  • Bethany Hughes

Edwin Forrest, then a not-yet-famous actor, spent the summer of 1825 living in the greater New Orleans area among the Choctaw. It has been alleged that he spent these months with his friend Choctaw chief Pushmataha. From this relationship, Forrest learned how to play “Indian,” acquiring knowledge that informed his later interpretation of the title character in John August Stone's 1829 play Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. Accounts of Forrest's time with Pushmataha appear in biographies of the actor and critical assessments of his acting. In none of these texts is the fact of their relationship disputed.

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Research for this article was supported by the Newberry Library and the American Indian Graduate Center.

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1. Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags loosely follows the events of King Philip's War, renaming Metacomet, known to the English colonists as King Philip, Metamora. The title role of the play became the “model Indian” in American life, according to Gordon Sayre. In his book The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) he explains Metamora was “the most popular role for the most popular actor in the nineteenth-century United States” (80) and thus had outsized influence on American theatre practice and theatre history. See Sayre's chap. 3 for a discussion of Metacomet in American literature and theatre.

2. In this article, I use the word “Indian” to refer to a stereotypical and racialized figure/idea and “Native American” to refer to actual indigenous people whose homelands are now called the United States of America but who commonly refer to the land as Turtle Island. I understand that these terms bring their own sets of problems and limitations, but choose to employ them in an attempt to communicate clearly and effectively.

3. Moody, Richard, Edwin Forrest: First Star of the American Stage (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), 3940 .

4. Harrison, Gabriel, Edwin Forrest: The Actor and the Man (Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Eagle Book Printing Department, 1889), 37.

5. Cushman's, H. B. History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians (Stillwater: Redlands Press, 1962) was first published in 1899 (Greenville, TX: Headlight Printing House). Gideon Lincecum's biography of Pushmataha (see note 31) was originally published in 1906 (as “Life of Apushimataha,” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 9, 415–85) but had been written decades earlier.

6. See Carson, James Tyler, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999); Pre-Removal Choctaw History: Exploring New Paths, ed. O'Brien, Greg (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008); Lambert, Valerie, Choctaw Nation: A Story of American Indian Resurgence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007); O'Brien, Greg, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750–1830 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002); and Birchfield, D. L., How Choctaws Invented Civilization and Why Choctaws Will Conquer the World (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007).

7. Moses, Montrose J., The Fabulous Forrest: The Record of an American Actor (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1929), 62.

8. Moody, 46–7.

9. Alger, William Rounseville, Life of Edwin Forrest: The American Tragedian, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1877), 1: 138.

10. Moody, 47.

11. Ibid.

12. Books of the Day,” Appleton's Journal: A Magazine of General Literature 3.3 (September 1877): 284–8, at 285.

13. Alger, 1: 138.

14. For more on the American phenomenon of white men playing Indian see Philip J. Deloria's seminal work Playing Indian, Yale Historical Publications (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

15. Alger, 1: 138.

16. Ibid., 1: 239. Emphasis added.

17. There are currently two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes—the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)—and others that hold some form or state or self-recognition, including the Herring Pond, Assonet, Chappaquiddick, and Namasket bands/tribes.

18. There are currently three federally recognized Choctaw tribes—Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and Jena Band of Choctaw Indians (Louisiana)—plus a few other bands and groups that hold state or self-recognition.

19. In a December 1829 message to Congress, mere days before Metamora opened, President Andrew Jackson suggested “setting apart an ample district West of the Mississippi … to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it” (Register of Debates, 21st Congress 1st Session, 14). Although this was not the first time removal was suggested as a policy for addressing Native American presence in the United States, it did mark the beginning of earnest debate that led to the passage of the Indian Removal Act in May 1830.

20. Lepore, Jill, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 201.

21. Ibid.

22. Rebhorn, Matthew, “Edwin Forrest's Redding Up: Elocution, Theater, and the Performance of the Frontier,” in “Popular Entertainment and American Theater Prior to 1900,” ed. Witschi, Nicolas S., special issue, Comparative Drama 40.4 (Winter 2006–7): 455–81, at 467.

23. Ibid.

24. Stanciu, Cristina, “‘The Last Indian’ Syndrome Revisited: Metamora, Take Two,” Intertexts 10.1 (2006): 2549 , at 34.

25. Ibid., 34, 36.

26. Kippola, Karl M., Acts of Manhood: The Performance of Masculinity on the American Stage, 1828–1865 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 61.

27. The Choctaw people lived in a territory that included modern-day Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, though regular hunting and war trips were made well beyond this area, including west of the Mississippi River; so to confine their nation to one modern state is a clumsy and brief way of articulating the nation's homelands. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the author of this article is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and therefore a descendant of the Choctaw who lived in the southeastern region of the United States.

28. Lanman, Charles, “Pushmatahaw,” Appleton's Journal: A Magazine of General Literature 4.71 (6 August 1870): 166–8.

29. His birth year is agreed upon by various sources, though no more specific information is available as to month or day. His death date is verifiable through newspaper records and his gravestone at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.

30. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma maintains a brief biography of Pushmataha on its website, along with biographies of its chiefs since 1830. Its contents agree with the above-listed biographies on all major points of his life and contributions to the nation. For Appleton's Journal, see note 28; for Cushman, see note 5.

31. Lincecum, Gideon, Pushmataha: A Choctaw Leader and His People (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 89.

32. The 1802 Treaty of Fort Confederation lists four representatives on behalf of the “lower towns and Chicasawhay,” two from the “upper towns,” and four on behalf of the “six towns and lower town.” Pushmataha was the fourth of the first group to sign his x mark on the treaty (his name spelled Poosha Mattahaw). “Treaty with the Choctaw, 1802,” 17 October 1802, 7 Stat. 73, in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, vol. 2: Treaties, ed. Kappler, Charles J., 2d ed. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904), 63–4.

33. The original Choctaw meeting records have been published alongside an English translation in Pitchlynn, Peter Perkins, A Gathering of Statesmen: Records of the Choctaw Council Meetings, 1826–1828, trans. and ed. Haag, Marcia and Willis, Henry J. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

34. Alexandria Gazette, “Died,” reprinted from the Washington [DC] National Journal (Alexandria, VA, 4 January 1825); retrieved from NewsBank Early American Newspapers, Series 2, accessed 30 January 2016.

35. For more information on his military career during the War of 1812, see Lewis, Anna, Chief Pushmataha, American Patriot: The Story of the Choctaws’ Struggle for Survival (New York: Exposition Press, 1959), chap. 6.

36. Alexandria Gazette, “Died.”

37. Notable burials include John Philip Sousa, the march composer, and Mathew Brady, the Civil War photographer. For more information see “Welcome to Historic Congressional Cemetery,”, accessed 25 February 2016.

38. The online internment records were previously searchable online and as of 25 February 2016 listed Pushmataha's entry as “Y T Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, Chief 12/25/1824 R 31/41.” The new search feature note Section1, Site 41, Range 31 and maps indicates where the grave is located:, accessed 2 October 2017.

39. Alger, 1: 126–7.

40. Alger, 1: 119. The claim to owning Bowie's own knife also appears in Lawrence Barrett, Edwin Forrest (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1881), 35.

41. For a summary of Forrest's early career see E. T. W., The Biography of Edwin Forrest the Distinguished American Tragedian (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1835). See also Barrett, 39–41.

42. Barrett, 48.

43. Williamson, William R., “Bowie Knife,” in Handbook of Texas Online (Texas State Historical Association, 2010),, accessed 29 August 2017.

44. Alger, 1: 127.

45. Cushman, 266.

46. Lanman, 166–8.

47. Lewis, 185.

48. “Ratified Treaty No. 160. Documents Relating to the Negotiation of the Treaty of September 27, 1830, with the Choctaw Indians” (Washington, DC: National Archives, 1830), 76, lines 4–5; online at, accessed 27 October 2017. (Some other government printings have “Pushmilaha, and Puckteshenubbee.”)

49. Jennifer [Mieirs], “Observations from a Genealogy Addict,”, accessed 7 May 2016. This blogger has extensive coverage of Choctaw genealogy, but does not provide links to or thorough citations of sources.

50. See “Alabama Legislative Acts,”, accessed 7 May 2016.

51. For an index to the acts of Congress for the Fifteenth Session see xx–xxvii at, accessed 10 October 2016.

52. Journal of the Senate of the State of Mississippi at the first session of the first General Assembly (Washington, MS: Andrew Marschalk, state printer, 1817).

53. Kappler, 317.

54. Cushman, 271.

55. Mississippi County Court Records (Greenwood, MS: n.p., 1958), 61.

56. Imaghoka may have been a clan name or a town name that indicated more precisely the woman's identity. In Indian Agent correspondence from the 1840s Choctaws from “Emogahoka” or of “Moghaka” are mentioned a few times. See letters from William Armstrong dated 17 March 1847 and 27 April 1847 in Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs 1824–81, Choctaw Agency Emigration, 1826–1859 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1959), Microfilm Roll 186 (1846–9).

57. Mississippi County Court Records, 61. Betsie appears three times in the document, twice spelled Betsie and once spelled Betsy.

58. The Choctaw Academy: Official Correspondence 1825–1841, ed. Goss, Joe R. (Conway, AR: Oldbuck Press, 1992), 144–5.

59. For a representative sample of Choctaw names during Removal refer to Choctaw Emigration Records: 1831–1856, comp. Olsen, Monty (Calera, OK: Bryan County Heritage Association, 1990).

60. Philadelphia Baptist Church: Record of Organization and Conferences. Tulsa Annals: May and September Volumes, 1975,” ed. Schorn, Leslie N., in A Compilation of Records from the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Genealogical Society, 1979); Newberry Library, Chicago, Microfilm no. 381.

61. Ibid., 693.

62. Pitchlynn, 9; the map had first been published in Kidwell, Clara Sue, Choctaws and Missionaries, 1818–1918 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995). Twentieth-century biographer Anna Lewis states Pushmataha was born in and led the Six Towns district; Lewis, 13, 119.

63. See Lewis, 119; Pitchlynn, 11.

64. “Records of the Choctaw Trading Post, St. Stephens, Mississippi Territory, National Archives Microfilm T500, Roll 1 & 2,” in Records of Choctaw Trading Post, St. Stephens, Mississippi Territory 1803–1815, vol. 1: 1808 & 1810 Census, Washington County, Mississippi Territory (Alabama), comp. Strickland, Ben and Strickland, Jean (Ashdown, AR: Jody Strickland, 1984 ; reprinted Moss Point, MS: B. & J. Strickland, 1990); see, e.g., 28–9.

65. Biographies of Forrest also state that his Choctaw friend regularly visited New Orleans, and that is where they first met.

66. Strickland and Strickland, 43.

67. Barrett, 32.

68. Moody, 40.

69. Alger, 1: 139.

70. Bratton, Jacky, New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 103.

71. His military presence endured into the 1860s when the US Navy named a ship after him: the Pushmataha was a screw sloop, a propeller-driven warship mounted with guns. For more information see, accessed 19 October 2016. “Pushmataha,” in US Naval History and Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (posted 25 August 2015).

72. The Five Civilized Tribes include the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek (Mvskoke), and Seminole. They still maintain a special relationship among themselves and since 1949 have combined to address important national topics in the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes. For more information see, accessed 19 October 2016.

73. Alger, 1: 127.

74. As cited in Moody, 96.

75. Lepore, 213.

76. Alger, 1: 126.

77. Ibid., 139.

78. Moody, 89.

79. Harrison, 37.

80. Ibid., 38.

81. Moody, 40.

82. No source consulted for this article mentions or even suggests Forrest spoke or understood Chahta Anumpa. Further undermining Forrest's claims to have known the real Pushmataha is the fact that Pushmataha was not fluent in English. His obituary, written for and published in American newspapers, specifically states he needed an interpreter, “for he spoke no English.”

83. Harrison, 38.

84. See Young's, Harvey Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010) for a discussion of blackness and the relationship between “the” and “a/an” in the construction and (mis)recognition of race.

85. For examples see Grose, B. Donald, “Edwin Forrest, Metamora, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830,” Theatre Journal 37.2 (1985): 181–91; Jones, Eugene H., Native Americans as Shown on the Stage 1753–1916 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988); Jones, Sally L., “The First but Not the Last of the ‘Vanishing Indians’: Edwin Forrest and Mythic Re-creations of the Native Population,” in Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture, ed. Bird, S. Elizabeth (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 1327 ; Mallett, Mark E., “‘The Game of Politics’: Edwin Forrest and the Jackson Democrats,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 5.2 (1993): 3146 ; Martin, Scott C., “Interpreting Metamora: Nationalism, Theater, and Jacksonian Indian Policy,” Journal of the Early Republic 19.1 (1999): 73101 ; Mason, Jeffrey D., “The Politics of Metamora ,” in The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, ed. Chase, Sue-Ellen and Reinelt, Janelle (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 92110 ; McConachie, Bruce, “Theatre of Yeoman Independence for Jacksonians, 1830–1855,” in Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), 65–15; Miller, Tice L., Entertaining the Nation: American Drama in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), chap. 3; Sollors, Werner, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), chap. 4; Gaul, Theresa Strouth, “‘The Genuine Indian Who Was Brought upon the Stage’: Edwin Forrest's Metamora and White Audiences,” Arizona Quarterly 56.1 (2000): 127 ; Wilmeth, Don B., “Noble or Ruthless Savage? The American Indian on Stage and in the Drama,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 1.1 (1989): 3978 ; and see the previously cited Kippola (esp. chap. 2), Lepore (esp. chap. 8), Rebhorn, Sayre, and Stanciu.

86. See, e.g., Deloria, 184.

87. Bank, Rosemarie K., Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 64.

88. See Wilmer, S. E., Theatre, Society and the Nation: Staging American Identities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chap. 3.

89. Hewitt's Theatre USA and Meserve's An American Entertainment, respectively, as quoted in Roach, Joseph, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (Columbia University Press: New York, 1996), 187.

90. Ibid., 189.

91. Ibid., 187.

Research for this article was supported by the Newberry Library and the American Indian Graduate Center.

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