Historians estimate that more than a million Irish people died between 1845 and 1851, either from starvation or hunger-related disease—one-eighth of the population. Another million people left Ireland, mostly to England, Canada and the United States. The vessels that carried the disease-ridden and malnourished Irish refugees were known as “coffin ships.”
That’s the picture of the Great Famine we have today. The account provided 176 years ago by Armstrong—an Irish American friendly to the Choctaw, despite being a government official—communicated that mass starvation and land evictions were taking place, and the Irish people needed help.
The Choctaw were deeply moved. Some reportedly wept. Despite their own impoverished circumstances and the recent dispossession of their homelands, they raised either $174 or $710 (the number is disputed), the latter the equivalent of more than $5,000 today, to help with famine relief efforts.
At the time of their donation, little more than a decade had passed since the U.S. government’s brutal removal of the Choctaw from their homeland in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama and relocation to what is now Oklahoma—part of the forced mass migration of Native Americans that would be remembered as the Trail of Tears. On their new land, many Choctaw members were living in poverty, with inadequate housing and little access to food. In Skullyville, at the time of the Irish famine donation, several hundred Choctaw were camped around the government agency, hungry and destitute and dying of illness, which only makes the tribe’s generosity all the more astonishing. In the words of historian Anelise Hanson Shrout, writing in the Journal of the Early Republic, “It is difficult to imagine a people less well-positioned to act philanthropically.”
The money collected in Indian Territory that day in 1847 went to Memphis and then New York City, where organizers wrote it had been “contributed by the children of the forest … the Choctaw nation.” It was likely used to buy grain and other foodstuffs that were shipped across the Atlantic. Seven Irish newspapers published accounts of the generous Choctaw. Quakers, who played a key role in relief efforts, could have distributed the materials to the Irish.
Then, for nearly a century and half, the gift was almost entirely forgotten.