Telling the Legend

Back when I was in high school, in some antediluvian age now best forgotten, in Mississippi history class, we were told of the legend of “The Singing River,” the Pascagoula. In much later life it occurs to me that we learned a lot of legends in that class, most of them not labelled as such. Sorting out the truth became our own responsibility. Most of us failed. Some of us are still working on it.

In that spirit I took a look at one of the few legends labelled as such, the story of the Singing River. The basic legend was simply this—there was once a peaceful tribe that lived on the river of the same name, though that wasn’t its name at the time. That the Pascagoula people actually existed is not in doubt. The name was probably derived from the Choctaw words meaning “bread people.” Early explorers like d’Iberville met them and wrote about them. They were indeed peaceful and not a very large tribe, perhaps 240 people spread among three villages when the first settlers came.

The story goes like this: The Pascagoula were allied with the Biloxi (Taneks) tribe, but had a falling out and the Biloxi planned to attack. Knowing they could not win, and rather than be killed or enslaved, the Pascagoula as a group joined hands and marched into the river singing their death song, so the Pascagoula  River was known thereafter as “Singing River.” Rather poetic and all, as legends should be. There’s also another account, by the historian Charles Gayarre, that a completely different tribe worshiped a river goddess in the form of a mermaid, singing and playing strange instruments in her honor. When they were approached by early missionaries their goddess appeared and summoned them all to join her in the river rather than be converted, so they did, where they still sing in her honor.

Sounds made up, doesn’t it? Especially that last one. In the case of the Pascagoula River, there’s another problem—the river was known to sing long before the Pascagoula tribe disappeared. Also according to Gayarré, the governor of Louisiana, accompanied by members of the Pascagoula tribe, heard the sound. Whether the river actually sings or not depends on who you ask, but there are people who claim to have heard it even today, and a report at the time described it as a low hum in the note of F.

So what did happen to the Pascagoula people? It’s not hard to sort out. Pressure from white settlers pushed them west. Some regrouped in Texas for a while, others assimilated into larger tribes (like the Biloxi) which in turn were pushed out, many following (not by choice) the trail of tears to Oklahoma. The Choctaw and Chickasaw were able to maintain their identity despite all this, but some smaller tribes like the Pascagoula could not, and passed from history. Most didn’t even get a legend. They’re just gone, surviving only as descendants in other tribes, or place names, or the names of rivers, or not at all.

Maybe that’s why our history books only told the legend.