The Civil War in Indian Territory/Oklahoma - The Story in Brief
The Removal of the Cherokees had brought about a bitter quarrel within that tribe. When the Treaty of New Echota was made in 1835, the Ridges and the Boudinots had not waited until the three years allowed for removal had expired, but had come to live among the Cherokee Nation West, or "Old Settlers" as they came to be called. The remainder of the Cherokees in the East had come over the Trail of Tears in 1838 and also had established themselves in Indian Territory/Oklahoma. These later comers brought with them their new constitution; the entire tribe now voted to accept it and to live under it as the final law.
While the Old Settlers were doubtless glad to have their friends and kindred join them, it soon became plain that the Eastern Cherokees were much more numerous than the Western Cherokees, and that they could easily elect all officers of the nation, thus managing the government to suit themselves. This they did, and the Cherokees West objected very much. They had been living in Indian Territory/Arkansas for ten years before Ross and the main body of the nation came, and felt that they, as pioneers in this new country, should have more share in making the laws and managing the government than should the larger group of newcomers. The Ridges and Boudinots promptly joined forces with these Old Settlers, and the nation became divided into two parties, each bitterly hostile to the other.
The feeling was so strong as to result at last in disorder and bloodshed. In 1839 Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot were all murdered on the same day. Armed men came to the home of John Ridge and killed him, by stabbing him to death, and disfiguring his face in the presence of his wife and children. Boudinot was killed under similar circumstances, and Major Ridge, who was out riding with his grandson, was attacked and murdered on the road. His grandson never recovered from this act of violence.
The fact that all these murders occurred on the same day and at places far away from one another led many people to believe that these men were all victims of a plot, and that its leader was John Ross. This is still widely held today because these and subsequent murdered men were all members of the Treaty Party, though Chief Ross always denied any knowledge of these murders.
The death of these men left Stand Watie, who was marked for death, but was warned and escaped, as the chief leader of the Treaty Party. Both John Ridge and Elias Boudinot left sons, who were later to become prominent. They were only children, and as their mothers feared that the boys also might be killed, they hastened to send them out of the Indian Territory to be educated in the States. Ridge's son, John Rollin Ridge, later went to California where he worked as a writer and newspaper man until his death, soon after the Civil War. He wrote a volume of beautiful poems, and California still honors his memory as that of one of her most gifted poets. I will write more of Boudinot's son, Elias Cornelius Boudinot, later in this essay. He became a lawyer, was representive of the Cherokee Nation in the Confederate Congress at Richmond, and throughout a long and busy life was a prominent figure In Oklahoma history.
For years after the murders of 1839 and thereafter, there was bad blood and bitter enmity between the two factions of the Cherokees. Ross had the majority with him, and so was able to keep himself in power and to hold the office of principal chief. Stand Watie and his friends and relatives were always against him, however, and at times there was almost war between the two parties.
Among the Creeks and the Seminoles there was also a division. In the Creek Nation the friends and relatives of Colonel William McIntosh formed one group. Those who had disliked him and had opposed removal formed the other. The Seminoles were also divided owing to the quarrels that had arisen over removal. Of the Five "Civilized" Tribes, only the Choctaws and the Chickasaws seemed fairly united. At this time the only other Indians in Oklahoma besides the tribes named were small bands, mostly Quapaws, in the northeastern part of the state, and a few Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches who occupied the western part of the Leased District.
As the years went by, the bad feeling among the people of the Cherokee and Creek Nations seemed to grow worse instead of better, because of differences over the subject of slavery. Slaves were held in every one of the nations of the Five "Civilized" Tribes, and some Indians owned a considerable number. Just about the time of the removal of these tribes to Oklahoma, the question of slavery in the United States was fast becoming a burning issue. William Lloyd Garrison had founded his paper, "The Liberator", which was dedicated to freedom. Wendell Phillips was giving orations on the subject. John G. Whittier was writing antislavery poems, and many others were adding their voices in the general protest.
The Indian country quite naturally could not escape the general tumult. Many mixed-bloods in particular were well educated, read the newspapers and other periodicals, and thought about and talked over what they had read.
Several missionaries and teachers who had been with the Indians a long time in the East had come with them on their journey on the Trail of Tears in order to continue their labors in the west. Others came from the north or east to join them in establishing schools and churches. Some of these missionaries were violently opposed to slavery, but the Indian agents and other government officials, many of whom were from the south, believed in slavery very strongly.
The Cherokees formed a secret society called "Kee-too-wah" or "The Pins", because each member wore two common pins in the form of a cross on the coat or hunting shirt. "The Pins" were mostly full-bloods, and the society was organized mainly to encourage the people in keeping up the old tribal customs and to prevent their taking up the ways of the whites. Few of the full-bloods owned slaves, though some did, and consequently "The Pins" were usually opposed to slavery, though not always. The Indians had large herds of cattle that would furnish beef for the Confederate armies west of the Mississippi. It was hoped also to enlist many Indians soldiers. The entire population of the Indian Territory was at this time nearly sixty-five thousand, of whom all but about twenty-five hundred belonged to the Five "Civilized" Tribes, whose citizens, it was felt, would make splendid soldiers. All of these Indians were included in what was called the Southern Superintendency, with headquarters at Fort Smith. Here the superintendent, Elias Rector, lived and directed the work of the Indian Agents of the United States Government. There was usually one agent for each tribe. As soon as war began, Rector and all the Indian agents under his charge resigned and joined the Confederacy. The Confederate Government also determined to send a commissioner to the Five Civilized Tribes to try to make treaties of alliance with them. The man chosen for this mission was Albert Pike. He was a citizen of Arkansas at this time, although he had been born in New England.
Pike was a poet, a well-known lawyer, and a prominent Mason. He had served in the Mexican War and had risen to the rank of captain. He was very much interested in the Indians, and apparently he was well known and will liked by them. He set out from Little Rock for Fort Smith late in May, 1861. From here he proceeded at once to the Cherokee country.
Everything seemed to favor Pike in his mission. Early in 1861 it was decided at Washington not to send the money due the Indians from their annuities for fear it might fall into the hands of agents of the Confederacy, or so it was claimed, when in fact there had been no treaties ever kept with any of the Indian Nations by the government of the United States. At that same time the northern troops in or near the Indian Territory were withdrawn to Fort Leavenworth, so the Indians were not only left without the money due to them, but also without protection. It is small wonder that they felt that Washington had abandoned them, once again.
The south had appointed General Ben McCulloch as commander of the southern troops in Indian Territory, and had ordered him to guard it against invasion from the north. McCulloch joined Pike, and the two proceeded from Fort Smith to Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation. From there they went to Park Hill to see John Ross. The Cherokee Chief received them courteously, but said that he thought the Cherokees had nothing to do with the quarrel between north and south and that they meant to remain entirely neutral. As a matter of fact he had issued a proclamation to this effect some days before; the Cherokee executive council soon met and approved the position taken by the chief.
Pike was very disappointed. He urged Ross to make a treaty and join the south, but Ross was firm in his refusal. Accordingly, Pike decided to go on to meet the other tribes and to return to the Cherokee country later. He hoped that in the meantime Ross and his people might change their minds concerning the question of neutrality.
At North Fork Village he met the chiefs and the headmen of the Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws. With them he easily signed treaties of alliance with the south. As a matter of fact the Chickasaws and Choctaws had met several days earlier and had voted to do this. These Indians were nearly all in favor of it. The Creeks were more divided, however, though it seems that a majority of the tribe favored the treaty made with Pike.
From North Fork Village the Confederate commissioner proceeded to the council house of the Seminoles, and there he signed a treaty with the headmen and chiefs of that tribe. As was true of the Creeks, these Indians were also divided. Pike then went to the Wichita agency in the western part of the Leased District, where he made treaties with the bands of Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches in that region.
Meantime, Pike had kept up a correspondence with the Cherokees. Many of that tribe, including the Waties, Boudinots, Adairs and other treaty signers and their descendents, wished to join the south; with them. These men were mostly slave owners. The Ross faction under the leadership of John Ross, hoped to keep entirely out of the war, though Ross himself, was a slave owner. Ross watched his people closely. In spite of his efforts many young men left their homes and joined General McCulloch's army, while others, in every possible way, urged the wisdom of joining the Confederacy.
All of this had it's effect. At last a great mass meeting of the Cherokee Nation was held, and it was agreed that, since the other tribes had joined the Confederacy, the Cherokees should do the same. Accordingly Pike returned to Park Hill about the first of October and there he signed not only a treaty with the Cherokees, but also with some small bands of Senecas, Quapaws, Osages, and Shawnees.
All of these treaties which Pike signed with the Indians were very much alike. The Indians agreed to join the south and the Confederacy agreed to take the position toward the Indians that the United States had held. It agreed to pay them for their annuities, to guarantee to them their lands, to furnish them with arms and to protect them against attack by the north. The Indians were to have delegates in the Confederate Congress, and they were encouraged to believe that eventually they might become a state of the Confederacy. This coupled with the facts that Washington had broken all treaties with the Indians, and steadily removed them from their homes in the east, made the Indians believe that joining the southern cause was more beneficial than joining the northern cause. From the time they were relocated to the Indian Territory, they dreamed of remaining unmolested in a state of their own, far removed from the whites who had repeatedly demanded that they give up their homelands. The southern movement towards states rights seemed like the more plausible route to this end, even though the Southerners had been the instigators of their final removal.
Once the treaties were signed, Pike hastened back to the Confederate capital to report his success. It seemed that the Indians were firmly joined to the cause of the south, but such was not entirely the case. The Creeks were divided on the question of the war, and the same was true of the Cherokees and the Seminoles.
Soon after the Creek treaty was signed, that part of the tribe which favored the north held a meeting at which they declared that they did not intend to be bound by the action of those who had signed the treaty. The result was that the Creeks at once became divided into two groups, and civil war soon broke out between them. At first the northern Creeks were successful. However, on December 26, 1861, they were utterly defeated by the southern part of the tribe, and most of those who were defeated fled northward through the snow to Kansas, taking their women and children with them. After terrible suffering they at last reached the camp of General Hunter, who was in command of the northern troops. He gave them food from his army stores for a time.
Here the Creeks, to the number of six or seven thousand, encamped all winter. They suffered terribly from cold, hunger and disease. Some Cherokees and Seminoles, fleeing from the southern Indians, also came north and spent the winter in refugee camps. In the camps their situation was pitiable. They had little clothing and bedding, almost no shelter, and the army officers had little food to spare them. The carcasses of their ponies laid in the nearby creek beds, having died also from cold and starvation. Indian agents were sent out from Washington to do what they could for them, but again the powers that be in Washington failed to come through for the despairing Indians who had entrusted them. The Creek agent reported that two thousand in his camp were barefoot, and that two hundred forty had died of starvation and exposure in one month, but it fell on deaf ears. Finally spring came to relieve their sufferings, though even in warm weather their condition was bad, and there was still little food.
When General Pike reached the east he was sent back almost immediately to Indian Territory to take command of the troops there. He had very few white troops. Some regiments of Indians had been raised and Pike established himself not far from Fort Gibson, where he built a new fort called Fort Davis. Meantime Indian Territory was attached to a large military district, which was under the command of General Earl Van Dorn. His main army was near the border of Arkansas and Missouri, and he at once ordered General Pike to join him there with his Indians.
Pike hastened to obey. He arrived in time to take part in the great battle known as the Battle of Pea Ridge. Here the Indians fought with bow and arrow and tomahawk in their own fashion. They proved of little value, however. After this defeat Pike fell back rapidly to the Indian Territory; there he built a fort near Red River, which he named Fort McCulloch. Stand Watie, with a considerable force, mainly of cavalry, remained in the field with Colonel Drew and others. Pike complained bitterly that the Confederacy was not keeping its treaties with the Indians, making him the only commander on either side to take up their cause, besides Col. Stand Watie and his Confederate Mounted Cherokee commanders. It was almost impossible for him to secure arms for them, and he saw little chance to give them the promised protection if the north should decide to invade their county.
In fact this was just what the north decided to do. As soon as warm weather came the Indians in the refugee camps in Kansas were very eager to return to their homes. Since there were many other Indians in Kansas who wished to join the northern army, it was agreed to enlist two regiments of Indians and to join them with two regiments of white troops for an invasion of the Indian Territory. Late in June the expedition was ready; it crossed the line into Indian Territory near Baxter Springs. These troops were under the command of Colonel William Weer. Confederate forces under Stand Watie fell slowly back before them, and the Confederate Indians fearing the vengeance of their northern kinsmen, fled from their homes. Tahlequah was captured. Park Hill also was taken and Chief John Ross was made a prisoner. He was soon released on parole, however, and allowed to remain at home. Soon after this Ross left the Indian Territory and went to Philadelphia; there he lived during the remainder of the war, in self imposed exile, leaving his people without a leader.
It would seem that with the southern troops driven back and the Cherokee capital held by the north, the entire Indian country might easily have been conquered. Just at this time, however, trouble arose among the leaders of the invading expedition. Colonel Frederick Salomon, the second in command, claimed that Colonel Weer was insane or plotting treason. He placed his superior office under arrest and took command of the Indian expedition. He at once ordered a retreat and fell back to Kansas with the white troops, leaving the two Indian regiments to their own devices. There the two regiments remained for a short time, but fearing the rapidly gathering forces of southern Indians, they too soon retreated. This left the Cherokee country once more under the control of the south. The Indian families, who had followed the little army because they had hoped to occupy their homes again, came straggling back to Kansas. They spent another winter in refugee camps, suffering almost as much from cold, hunger, and disease as they had suffered during the preceding winter.
The south was left in possession of the Indian country. Conditions there were bad. Ross complained bitterly that the Confederacy had failed to keep its promise to protect and to defend the Indian Territory. Pike also was disgruntled. He had received no money to pay his troops. They had little clothing, little food, and few tents. The white troops, which he had raised to help his Indians, had been taken away from him to serve elsewhere.
Late in 1862, the Confederate Government had placed General William Steele in command in Indian Territory. Early in 1863, the north had given Colonel W. A. Phillips command of the northern troops who were to attack this region.By this time, the Cherokees were very dissatisfied with their alliance with the south. Early in February, 1863, the Cherokee National Council, which had agreed to join the Confederate States, met in camp on Cowskin Prairie. Here they voted to give up this alliance and once more to join the north. This council passed an act freeing all slaves, and one removing from office those officials of the nation who were serving in the southern army. This act proved not to matter in the end, when the United States Government forced them to give up large portions of their land to other tribes and former slaves. Stand Watie and the other Indians who strongly favored the south paid no attention to these acts. From this time on to the close of the war, there were really two Cherokee nations. There was a northern nation, whose chief, John Ross, was still in self imposed exile in Philadelphia, and a southern nation, whose chief, Stand Watie, was with his troops in the field.
In the spring Colonel Phillips again invaded the Cherokee country. He captured Fort Gibson, and from there sent out many scouting expeditions. The forces were pushed south almost to Red River, and Fort Smith was also captured by the north. The families of the southern Indians in the northern part of Indian Territory were forced to flee south to Texas. They spent the winter of 1863-1864 in refugee camps where they endured the same horrors of starvation, cold, and disease that their northern kinsmen had suffered during the two preceding winters. The capture of Vicksburg and the opening of the Mississippi prevented supplies from the east from coming into the territory west of that river. The victory at Gettysburg had greatly encouraged the north, and had released a number of soldiers for service west of the Mississippi. From this time on the fortunes of the south grew more and more desperate. General Steele, worn out by his struggle against superior odds, asked to be relieved. General S. B. Maxey was put in his place.
It was too late, however, to hope to gain much by a change of commanders. The north held Fort Gibson and Fort Smith. From these forts many small expeditions were sent out on raids through the Indian country. Nearly every able-bodied Indian in the Territory was in the army on one side or the other. The women and children of the southern wings of the Cherokee and Creek Nations were scattered in refugee champs along the Red River or in Texas. They suffered greatly from hunger, cold and disease. It was estimated that six thousand Cherokees were among this number.
Early in 1864, Colonel Phillips invaded the Indian Territory again. He proceeded from Fort Gibson, and he encountered very little resistance. During the summer of that year both sides sent small bands of raiders throughout the Indian country. These bands burned most of the few homes then standing; they carried off the household goods, and killed or drove away the cattle.
The southern Indians were very discouraged by this time, and if reasonable terms of peace had been offered it seems certain that they would have accepted them. Politics had, however, entered into the struggle by this time. The north thought that the war would have to end soon. Politicians and leading public men in Kansas and other states urged that, when this took place, the Indians of the Indian Territory should be compelled to give up a part of their lands to furnish homes for other tribes. Kansas had many small tribes of Indians living within its borders. It was just as eager to be rid of them as Georgia had been to get rid of the Creeks and Cherokees forty years before, Therefore, no terms of peace were offered to the southern Indians, as their alliance to the south would give the Federal Government leverage against them, and the many Indians of all tribes who had changed allegiance to the northern cause were just forgotten. And the war dragged on. Ultimately, the Indians would again be the overall losers.
It could not last much longer. Early in 1865, General Maxey was removed from the command of the southern troops in Indian Territory, and General Douglas H. Cooper was put in his place. Nothing could be gained by this change. The south, worn out by four long and weary years of warfare, was tottering to its fall. On April 9, General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. Six weeks later, on May 20, General E. Kirby Smith, who commanded the Confederate forces west of the Mississippi River, surrendered that entire region with all its troops, forts and supplies to General E. R. Canby.
General Stand Watie, still in the field with his little force, did not hear of this surrender until three weeks after it occurred. On June 23 he also surrendered, the last Confederate General to stop fighting. During the entire war Stand Watie had been one of the ablest and most daring southern officers, earning first the rank of Colonel, then the rank of General. In the summer of 1864, by a bold dash, he had captured a great wagon train from the north loaded with supplies for Fort Gibson. From this he had fed and clothed his hungry, ragged, little army, and he had even sent some supplies to the refugees, making him the only officer and Cherokee Chief to stand by his starving people. During the entire war his son, Saladin, served with him as one of his most trusted officers, and although a mere boy, he gained the rank of captain before the war closed. Mrs. Watie and the younger children, during the latter part of the war, were refugees in Texas. Stand Watie's brother-in-law, Colonel J. M. Bell, was also one of his most trusted officers, along with Colonel William Penn Adair, and Dr. Walter Thompson Adair, a surgeon at Pea Ridge. All had stayed with him through the hard times of both the treaty signing and the war. His nephew (son of his brother Elias Boudinot who was one of those murdered for signing the treaty), Elias Cornelius Boudinot, a major in his uncles regiment, later resigned to serve as delegate from the Cherokee Nation to the Confederate Congress of Richmond.
At the close of the war the Indian Territory was in a state of ruin. The Cherokee country is described as "one vast scene of desolation where only ashes and chimney monuments mark the sites of once happy homes". (Many of these chimneys can still be seen.) Conditions in other parts of the Territory were little better. Raided and pillaged by armed bands from both sides, but mainly by the Pins, the entire region had been the "No Man's Land" between the north and the great southern state of Texas. Homes and barns had been burned, all movable property had been carried away or destroyed, the cattle had been killed or stolen, even the orchards had died out and the fields were grown up in weeds and bushes. The people themselves had been terribly reduced in numbers by war, hunger, cold, and disease. Moreover, the Cherokees and the Creeks were divided into two bitterly hostile camps, the members of which hated one another with an unreasoning hatred. It would seem that surely the Indians had suffered enough. After all, they were justified in joining the south when the north had withdrawn its troops and left them without protection. In the Cherokee Nation even their chief had abandoned them. Already they had paid dearly for taking sides with a losing cause. Their homes and their property had been swept away, they were left with nothing which they could call their own save their land, and they were now told that part of this land would have to be given up to furnish homes for the Indians, and the former slaves, who were without homes, wanted by neither the south that had once owned them, nor the north who had fought, after a time, for their freedom.
Again the Indian people were about to be robbed of their beloved land. By the very government who had attested, so many times, to be their friend.
This information has been gathered from research done in several areas. Source information is available on the bibliography page. This page has been designed and put together by Ann Maloney, Bartlesville, OK. If you would like to add anything, please contact me at the address below.