Around 1815, the Dickson family arrived on the shores of the Tennessee River, near what would become the town of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Long associated with the history and lore of the town, the story became the subject for Jack McMillen’s New Deal Era mural, Chief Tuscumbia Greets the Dickson Family. Commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, the painting was installed in the Tuscumbia post office in 1939.
The town of Tuscumbia is located between what was once the traditional lands of the Cherokee to the east, the Chickasaw to west, and the Muscogee (Creek) Indians to the southeast. When the Dickson family and countless others arrived to the region, they were looking to establish farms and build houses. These pursuits may seem benign or just part of the “American Dream,” but the impact they had on the tribes of the Southeast cannot be denied. The ramifications of settler’s desire for Indian lands, culminated with President Andrew Jackson signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which legislated the forced removal of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Indians to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
However, the disruption of Native lifeways is of no concern in McMillen’s painting. The artist depicts the moment when Michael Dickson and his family arrive to lands occupied by the Chickasaw Indians. In McMillen’s scene, the family is greeted by Chief Tuscumbia who purportedly traded them a large tract of land for $5.00 and two pole axes. Like most paintings that depict specific moments in history, the scene is loosely based on the actual events.
Historical accuracy, particularly in the depictions of Chickasaw and Chief Tuscumbia, seem to be of little concern to the artist. The tipis in the background of the composition are not representative of the housing structures of the Chickasaw, whose homes were usually smaller thatched roof houses or tree branch constructed wikiups. Instead, the artist chose to depict the tipis used by the Plains tribes. Since the 19th century, art and popular culture in the United States had been inundated with images and stories of these well-known tribes of the Plains, and McMillen’s tipis are used as a stereotypical representation. They are a signifier of structures associated with the “Indian” popularized in dime store novels, Wild West shows, early cinema, and art.
Chief Tuscumbia plays an important role in the story of establishment of Tuscumbia; so much so, that the town, once named Ococoposa and later called Big Spring, voted to permanently change the name to Tuscumbia in 1822, in honor of the Chickasaw who allegedly traded land to Michael Dickson. Interestingly, despite his attribution as being a chief in various accounts, official records of the Chickasaw do not list him as a principal chief. However, it does appear that he was an important tribal leader at the time the Dickson family arrived to the Muscle Shoals area.
Although the Chickasaw depicted in the painting are key to the story of the founding of Tuscumbia, the three American Indians standing on the river bank seem secondary to the arrival of the white settlers as their boat moves closer to the Indians that greet them. Tuscumbia stands at the center of this figural group; his pose is almost statue-like as he raises his right arm high into the air as a signal of greeting to the Dickson family.
By placing emphasis on the Dickson family’s arrival, McMillen is perpetuating the myth of settlers bringing forth “civilization” to the region. More specifically, the artist depicts, Michael Dickson standing at the back of the boat, steering it toward the shore. A rifle is prominently placed nearby, indicating it could be used against the Indians if any trouble arises. Ms. Dickson is seated in the front of the boat; she diverts her gaze from the Indians as she cradles an infant in her arms, creating an image reminiscent of the Madonna and child. A young boy leans into her arm as he peers out to view the action, and two older boys stand just behind their mother. One is assisting with rowing the boat while the other boy has pulled his ore from the water as he turns toward his father and points toward the Chickasaw encampment.
Born in Texas, Jack McMillen was working as an artist in New York when he received the commission to paint the mural, and he was most likely unfamiliar with the local history of Tuscumbia, Alabama. McMillen, like so many artists that receive commissions to paint murals for the Treasury Department’s art program, consulted with the townspeople of Tuscumbia who relayed to story of Tuscumbia and the Dickson’s to him. When we examine this painting today, it is easy to see that the emphasis then and now is on the establishment of the town of Tuscumbia, and, although, the Chickasaw were a vital part of this history, they are marginalized in the scene in favor of the arrival of a settler family, while the artist ignored addressing the realities of the hardships that the Chickasaw faced in this changing world.
By Patricia Jollie (Confederated Salish and Kootenai)
More on indigenous people of the area: https://www.chickasaw.net/Our-Nation.aspx
Kelly Kazek, “Alabama’s New Deal Post Office Art: How it got there, what survives,” http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2015/07/why_were_murals_hung_in_alabam.html, accessed August 3, 2016.
William L. McDonald, “Chief Tuscumbia, http://historicaltruth101.blogspot.com/2010/10/chief-tuscumbia.html, accessed August 3, 2016.
Richard Sheridan, “Tuscumbia Post Office Rich in History,” Times Daily, January 28, 1998, https://news.google.com/newspapers, accessed August 3, 2016.
“Post Office Mural – Tuscumbia, AL,” https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/old-post-office-mural-tuscumbia-al/, accessed August 3, 2016.
“Tuscumbia, Alabama History,” City of Tuscumbia, http://cityoftuscumbia.org/?page_id=16, accessed August 3, 2016.