Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 3
THE CIVIL WAR IN THE INDIAN TERRITORY
For many years preceding the Civil War it had been the policy of the Government, by successive purchases of Indian lands, to remove the native tribes from the eastern states to the country west of the Mississippi. Into what is now the state of Kansas were transplanted various small tribes from the Old Northwest; while to the south, in the Indian Territory, later to become the state of Oklahoma, were settled the Five Civilized Tribes: the Creeks from Georgia and Alabama, the Choctaws and Chickasaws from Alabama and Mississippi, the Cherokees from Tennessee and Georgia, and the Seminoles from Florida. Of these numerous tribes only the southern Indians figured prominently in the stirring events that commenced in the fateful winter of 1860-61. Their numbers, their comparatively advanced stage of civilization, and, above all, their strategic location, made their alliance desirable and, in a sense, imperative to the Southern Confederacy.
The Cotton States began their revolt by the simple expedient of voting themselves out of the Union. Several of the states, notably Alabama and Mississippi, sent commissioners to the capitals of the border slave-holding states to advise with their brethren as to ways and means of meeting the "impending crisis." As these outlying states had "a common interest in the institution of slavery, and must be common sufferers in its overthrow,"1 it was thought they should be consulted. In December, 1860, commissioners from Alabama visited Missouri and Arkansas.
The Texas convention, after adopting an ordinance of secession on February 1, 1861, appointed commissioners to the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations to "invite their prompt co-operation in the formation of a Southern Confederacy."2
Early in the preceding January, David Hubbard, commissioner to Arkansas, had reported to the governor of Alabama that the western counties of Arkansas, bordering on the Indian nations,
"would hesitate greatly to vote for secession, and leave those tribes still under the influence of the Government at Washington, from which they receive such large stipends and annuities. These Indians are at a spot very important, in my opinion, in this great sectional controversy, and must be assured that the South will do as well as the North before they could be induced to change their alliances and dependence."3
Time was to sustain Hubbard's judgment, and the failure of the Texas mission may be laid to an inability to make such assurance to the Indian nations.4
The Texas commissioners5 crossed the Red River late in February, 1861, and entered the Chickasaw Nation about thirty miles southwest of Fort Washita, At that time the southern half of the Indian Territory, lying between the Canadian and Arkansas rivers on the north and the Red River on the south, was divided into three large Indian reserves. The Chickasaws were in the middle, with the Comanches and other plains Indians in the Leased District to the west, and the Choctaws to the east, adjoining the state of Arkansas.
The Texans interviewed Governor Cyrus Harris and other distinguished men of the Chickasaw Nation, and on March 12 Commissioner James E. Harrison addressed a convention of the Choctaws and Chickasaws at Boggy Depot. A "crowded auditory" listened to Harrison's moving tale of wrongs suffered, but the quarrel between the North and the South was not their quarrel—at least, not yet. The Indians were "embarrassed. . . by the absence of their agents and commissioners at Washington... seeking a final settlement with that Government."6 Important treaty relations, involving large sums of money, were at stake. Harrison's appeal proved ineffectual. Self-preservation was a first law of Indian nature.
Already that law had impelled the Chickasaws and Choctaws to put out "feelers." On January 5, 1861, the Chickasaw Legislature proposed a convention of the five Indian nations, at a time and place to be designated by the chief of the Creek Nation,
"for the purpose of entering into some compact . . . for the future security and protection of the rights and Citizens of said nations, in the event of a change in the United States. . . "7
A month later the Choctaw Council resolved:
"That in the event a permanent dissolution of the American Union takes place . . . we shall be left to follow the natural affections . . . which indissolubly bind us . . . to the destiny of . . . the Southern States, upon whom we are confident we can rely for the preservation of our rights of life, liberty, and property, and the continuation of many acts of friendship, general counsel, and material support."8
The general convention proposed by the Chickasaws met at the Creek council ground, at the junction of the North Fork and Canadian, on February 17. For reasons yet unknown neither the Chickasaws nor the Choctaws attended. The Cherokee delegation was under instructions from Chief John Ross to
"guard against any premature movement . . . Should any action of the Council be thought desirable, a resolution might be adopted, to the effect, that we will in all contingencies rest our interests on the pledged faith of the United States, for the fulfillment of their obligations."9
The upshot was that the Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee delegates determined "simply to do nothing, to keep quiet and to comply with our treaties."10
The Texas commissioners journeyed north to the Creek Agency on the Arkansas River. There they met the McIntoshes and other prominent men of the Creek Nation, and through them induced Governor Motey Kinnard, (Kinnaird) of the Creeks, to call a convention of the five nations to meet at North Fork on the 8th of April.
The Texans entered the Cherokee Nation, "calling on their principal men and citizens" and "conversing with them freely." Near Tahlequah they met with Chief John Ross and
"were received with courtesy, but not with cordiality . . He was very diplomatic and cautious. His position is the same as that held by Mr. Lincoln in his inaugural; declares the Union not dissolved; ignores the Southern Government."11
Returning to the Creek Nation, the Texas commissioners resumed their visits with the "principal men." At the convention on April 8 the Choctaws and Chickasaws were again absent, prevented by high waters from attending, the rivers and creeks being full and impassable. Commissioner Harrison addressed the assembled Creeks, Cherokees, and Seminoles, and his views were "cordially received." The commissioners returned to Texas convinced that the "Creeks are Southern and sound to a man, and when desired will show their devotion to our cause by acts."12 However, no Indian nation had yet joined the Confederacy.
In their report on April 23 to the governor of Texas the commissioners stated that
"The Administration of the North is concentrating his forces at Fort Washita, about twenty-four miles from the Texas line, and within the limits of the Chickasaw Nation."13
A week and a day previously President Lincoln had issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 militia to suppress "combinations and
to cause the laws to be duly executed."14 North and South were now at war.
In the spring of 1861 there were but three garrisoned military posts in the Indian Territory. Fort Washita, an old-established post, was in the southeastern corner of the Chickasaw Nation, on the left bank of the Washita River, twenty-two miles above its mouth. Companies C and I of the First Cavalry were stationed there. Fort Arbuckle, also in the Chickasaw Nation, was about sixty miles northwest of Fort Washita, near the right bank of Wild Horse Creek, five miles from its mouth on the Washita River. It was garrisoned by Companies A and B, First Cavalry, and Company E, First Infantry.
The third post, Fort Cobb, was about 160 miles northwest of Fort Washita, at the junction of Pond Creek and the Washita River. In camp were four companies—B, C, D, and F—of the First Infantry. The site of Fort Cobb was
"on a portion of the Choctaw country, leased as a reserve for several detached bands of Comanche and other Indians, which were moved there from points within the limits of Texas. This arrangement was made for the convenience of the State of Texas, and Fort Cobb was designed for the double purpose of protecting these friendly bands against incursions from the hostiles of their own tribes and to restrain the latter in their descents upon Texas."15
The post was established October 1, 1859, by Maj. William H. Emory of the First Cavalry.
Two new regiments of cavalry had been added to the Army in the spring of 1855. Ben McCulloch, of Texas, was appointed major of the First Cavalry and Captain Emory major of the Second. McCulloch, aggrieved because he did not receive the command of one of the regiments, refused to accept the appointment, and Emory was transferred to the First Cavalry.16 He was stationed at Fort Arbuckle in 1858-59 and at Fort Cobb after its establishment in the fall of 1859. On leave of absence and special duty throughout the following year, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in January, 1861. During the Civil War he reached the rank of major general. He served under General Sheridan in the Valley campaign in 1864, and the great cavalry leader wrote of him: "General Emory was a veteran, having graduated at the Military Academy in 1831, the year I was born."17
Colonel Emory, then in Washington, D. C., was ordered on March 13, 1861, to return to Fort Cobb. Before his departure, however, a report reached Washington from the commanding officer
at Fort Washita retailing rumors of a threatened attack by Texans. Emory's orders were revised, and he was directed to "repair without delay" to Fort Washita. A dispatch was forwarded by express from St. Louis ordering the infantry company at Fort Arbuckle to "forthwith proceed" to Fort Washita and the troops at Fort Cobb to be held "in readiness for a prompt movement."18
Emory was given discretionary power. He was to concentrate his troops at Fort Washita unless in his judgment
"the safety of the troops and the interests of the United States demand a different disposition. The interests of the United States are paramount to those of the friendly Indians on the reservation near Fort Cobb."19
A few days later Emory was informed that, in deference to the opinion of Senator Mitchell, of Arkansas, "a company may be kept at Fort Cobb."20
On his journey west, traveling by way of Memphis, Emory was detained several days by low water in the Arkansas River. To hasten the concentration of troops he sent orders ahead directing the commanding officer at Fort Arbuckle "to commence the movement upon Fort Washita, and, in the event of the latter place being threatened, to march to its support with his whole force."21
On April 6, shortly after his arrival at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and before he had become fully acquainted with the situation in the Indian Territory, Colonel Emory ordered the commander at Fort Cobb to march two of his companies to Fort Washita, the other two to remain at the post until further orders. Such Indians as desired could retire "within the protection of the camp at Washita."22
The permission given the Fort Cobb Indians to move with the troops was vigorously objected to by the Indian agents at Fort Smith, headquarters of the Southern Superintendency. Emory was informed by Superintendent Rector that it would "give great dissatisfaction" to the Choctaws and Chickasaws to bring the Fort Cobb Indians within their territory. Furthermore, they wert "hutted and planting and without means" to move even if permitted. Matthew Leeper, agent of the Leased District, journeyed to Fort Smith to protest against the removal of his wards. Emory bowed to the storm and rescinded the invitation.23
But he was adamant to "earnest appeals" by Army officers at Fort Smith "not to abandon Arbuckle." To the War Department at Washington he wrote: "I have forwarded these appeals and
dissented from them."24 The concluding paragraph of that dispatch, dated April 13, 1861, is a pathetic reminder of the predicament confronting many Army officers at that time.
"Owing to the turn affairs have recently taken,25 the position of an officer from a Southern State out here on duty has become extremely embarrassing; so much so as to impair his efficiency,"
continued Colonel Emory, requesting that he be allowed to turn over his command to another officer and to return to Washington to explain
"my reasons for the step. If these reasons should prove unsatisfactory, I am prepared to resign my commission. I respectfully suggest it has never been the policy of any government to employ officers to operate against their own section of country."
Emory was born in Maryland. Without waiting for a reply he set out for Fort Washita.
The turn of affairs made the position of the Federal troops in the Indian Territory untenable. At such a distance from their base they could no longer be supported nor supplied.26 It became necessary at Washington to again revise Colonel Emory's orders. The dispatches were entrusted to William W. Averell, a young lieutenant who had been severely wounded several years before in an Indian attack in New Mexico and had just reported for duty from an unexpired sick leave. He left Washington by train on April 17, dressed in citizen's clothing. In the thousands of pages that make up the 130 volumes of the Official Records of the Civil War there is no narrative more thrilling than Lieutenant Averell's report of that journey.27 At Rolla, Missouri, the end of the railroad, he took the stage coach for Fort Smith "through towns wild with secession excitement and rumors of war." He found Fort Smith in the hands of the secessionists. Captain Sturgis, with Companies D and E, First Cavalry, had evacuated the fort several days before, "and the post quartermaster, on whom I had an order for tranportation, was a prisoner in the guardhouse."
After cautious inquiries Averell exchanged his gold watch and "a little money" for a horse, saddle, and bridle, and started for Fort Arbuckle, 260 miles away.28 The horse was unbroken to the saddle, but the young lieutenant mastered and swam it across the Poteau River, which was bank full, losing his overcoat in the struggle. Twenty miles west of Fort Smith, where the road forked,
he noticed, by the deep trail, that Sturgis had taken the Washita road. Following on that route, Averell was pursued by secessionists. He took to the woods. "Realizing that I could make a trail faster than they could find it, my course was taken directly across the mountains (San Bois) and my escape made good"—after leading his horse in the night "through howling packs of wolves."
Regaining the Arbuckle road, Averell was again pursued, and again he eluded his would-be, captors. At Cochrane's ranch, forty miles from Fort Arbuckle, he was told that the troops had left Arbuckle for Fort Washita, forty miles southward. He procured a fresh horse and an Indian guide. But in a blinding storm of wind and rain "the Indian lost the way and I lost the Indian." After swimming the Big Blue River, Averell unsaddled and "tied my new horse to one stirrup, and running my arm through the other lay down and slept till morning." Luckily, the Indian found him and informed him that they were near the road from Washita to Arbuckle, and about ten miles from the former place. Reaching the road, they found a "deep double trail made in the mud of the previous evening." They followed the trail about six miles and came upon the First Cavalry and First Infantry breaking camp. "Riding to Colonel Emory, who was already mounted, I delivered the dispatches."
Under the orders handed to him Emory was directed to abandon the "Indian country west of Arkansas" and march with all his troops to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.29 These instructions had been partly anticipated, as Emory's troops were then two days' march from Fort Washinta. The post had been occupied the day before by a regiment of Texas State militia under Col. William C. Young.30
Five miles from Fort. Arbuckle Emory was met by troops from that post and the two Cobb infantry companies he had ordered a month before to Washita. The flag was lowered with military honors at Fort Arbuckle on May 4, and the troops marched toward Fort Cobb, taking the prarie road to the north of the Washita River so as to render the cavalry available. Two Indian guides, Possum and Old Beaver, accompanied them.31
The Texans followed close behind and on the 5th occupied Fort Arbuckle. That same day their advance guard pushed up onto the heels of the retreating column and were taken prisoners by Captain Sturgis and his company. They were released the following morning and retraced their steps, Emory and his troops continuing their march unmolested. On the 9th the two remaining Cobb infantry companies were overtaken about thirty-five miles northeast of that post. The united command—eleven companies—turned north. The course they followed was later used by Jesse Chisholm and became famous as the Chisholm trail.32
They arrived at Fort Leavenworth on the last day of the month. "Not a man, an animal, an arm, or wagon has been lost except two deserters," reported Colonel Emory.33
Colonel Young, with his regiment, occupied the abandoned forts for several months and shared with the Indians the property left behind by the retreating Federals.34
During the early months of 1861, while North and South were slowly drifting apart, Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation was essaying the difficult role of a neutral. Despite the fact that he later abandoned this position and chose sides in the struggle that ensued, there is little doubt that Ross was personally opposed to secession and dismemberment of the Union. Unfortunately, he had behind him a divided nation. The situation was outlined in May, 1861, by Albert Pike, a competent observer, in a letter to the Confederate Secretary of State:
"Since 1835 there have always been two parties in the Cherokee Nation, bitterly hostile to each other. The treaty of that year was made by unauthorized persons, against the will of the large majority of the nation and against that of the chief, Mr. Ross. Several years ago  Ridge, Boudinot, and others, principal men of the treaty party, were killed . . . and the feud is today as bitter as it was twenty years ago. The full-blooded Indians are mostly adherents of Ross, and many of them . . . are on the side of the North . . . The half-breeds or white Indians (as they call themselves) are to a man with us."35
Hampered by internal dissension, Chief Ross policy was complicated by pressure from without the nation. The Cherokee territory, like that of the Choctaws to the south, lay adjacent to the state of Arkansas, covering its western border north of the Arkansas River. As reported by Commissioner Hubbard, this contiguity of territory became a matter of vital concern to the western counties of Arkansas. Seeking an understanding with the Cherokees, the governor of Arkansas addressed a letter to Ross on January 29, 1861.
Governor Henry M. Rector was a cousin of Elias Rector, the
Indian superintendent at Fort Smith, and an avowed secessionist. Citing the action of the Cotton States, he declared- "Arkansas . . . will probably pursue the same course by the 4th of March next."36 He urged the Cherokees to "co-operate with the South in defense of her institutions, her honor, and her firesides . . . " As a warning, Rector added:
"It is well established that the Indian country west of Arkansas is looked to by the incoming administration of Mr. Lincoln as fruitful fields ripe for the harvest of abolitionism, free-soilers, and northern mountebanks."
The communication was entrusted to Lieut. Col. J. J. Gaines, aide-de-camp, who was instructed to confer "confidentially" with Ross and report back to the governor. At Fort Smith Gaines was given a letter of introduction to Ross by Superintendent Rector, who fully approved "of the object the governor has in view."37
In the meantime, information of Gaines' mission reached A. B. Greenwood, United States commissioner of Indian affairs, in Washington. As this intermeddling was in violation of the intercourse laws, Greenwood telegraphed the Cherokee agent, Robert J. Cowart, for a report on Gaines' movements and object. Cowart was himself a secessionist, and his reply was evasive, though he denied, in Gaines' own words, that the colonel was acting as a commissioner for the governor of Arkansas.38 However, Gaines delivered the letter to Ross39 and extended his journey to attend the abortive conventive convention of the Indian tribes at North Fork on February 17.40
On Washington's birthday Chief Ross replied to Governor Rector's communication. In measured yet temperate words he deplored the separation of the states, trusted the Divine power "to overrule the discordant elements for good," recalled the treaty stipulations that mutually bound the Cherokee people and the Federal Government, and denied that "the contiguity of our territory to your state" should be a bar to friendship. He was "surprised" at Rector's warning.
"As I am sure that the laborers will be greatly disappointed if they shall expect in the Cherokee country 'fruitful fields ripe for the harvest of abolitionism,' & c., you may rest assured that the Cherokee people will never tolerate the propogation of any such obnoxious fruit upon their soil."41
Throughout the South the abolitionist was the bogy man of the day, and his designs on the "peculiar institution" were appealed to time and again in arguments with the wavering border slaveholding states and Indian nations. Slavery had existed for many
years among the southern Indians, and Chief Ross was himself a wealthy slave owner: Albert Richardson, the New York Tribune correspondent, was told in Fort Smith in 1859 that Ross had "over a hundred,"42 but that seems to have been an exaggeration, as the census of 1860 reported the largest proprietor among the Cherokees as holding 57 negro slaves. There were 2,504 in the nation, held by 384 owners. Among the other nations the Choctaws held 2,297 slaves; the Creeks, 1,651; the Chickasaws, 917; and the Seminoles, none.43 Richardson learned that the negroes had an easy life. "The Cherokees and Choctaws don't govern them; in fact, the niggers are masters and do about as they please."44
In spite of Ross' disclaimer, there is evidence that for a number of years some sort of abolition movement had been on foot among the Cherokees. The Office of Indian Affairs had taken official notice of it early in June, 1860, when Commissioner Greenwood reported to the Secretary of the Interior "that a secret organization has been formed in the Cherokee Nation," and asked that the Secretary of War be requested to detail troops to assist in breaking it up.45 In a letter to Superintendent Rector, written on the same day, Greenwood revealed the source of his information as an article in the Fort Smith Times, which pointed
"to the Jones' as being the leaders in this movement . . It is believed that the ultimate object of this organization is to interfere with the institutions, [i. e., slavery] of that people. . . "46
The Joneses were Evan Jones and his son, John B. Jones, for many years Baptist missionaries to the Cherokees.47 The secret organization was the Keetoowah (Night-hawk) Society,48 the members of which, in contemporary literature, are more often called the Pin Indians.
Nothing seems to have been done about Greenwood's request, and the secret society continued to flourish. The Texans commissioners, after their visit among the Cherokees in March, 1861, reported:
"The fact is not to be denied or disguised that among the common Indians of the Cherokees there exists a considerable abolition influence, created and sustained by one Jones, a Northern missionary of education and
ability, who has been among them for many years, and who is said to exert no small influence with John Ross himself."49
After the war Albert Pike wrote that he learned in 1861 that the Pin organization
"was established by Evan Jones, a missionary, and at the service of Mr. John Ross, for the purpose of abolitionizing the Cherokees and putting out of the way all who sympathized with the Southern States."
Pike added that he later learned "with certainty" that
"the secret organization in question, whose members for a time used as a mark of their membership, a pin in the front of the hunting-shirt, was really established for the purpose of depriving the half-breeds of all political power. . ."50
The half-breeds themselves belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle, "a society whose sole object is to increase and defend slavery."51
Except for the visit of the Texas commissioners in March, Chief Ross had a breathing spell of more than two months. Arkansas did not secede on March 4 as predicted by Governor Rector. That object was not attained until May 6. As a gesture of friendship to the Indian nations, the Arkansas convention on May 9 resolved that no money in the hands of the Indian superintendent or any Indian agent shall be seized.52 Superintendent Rector and his Indian agents shortly afterward went over to the Confederacy.
With Arkansas out of the Union, Chief Ross again became a target for the secessionists. First, some citizens of Boonsboro, a border village in Washington County, Arkansas, asked him to define "his political status in this present contest." They wished a frank answer, "as we prefer an open enemy to a doubtful friend."53
This communication was followed on May 15 by a letter from J. R. Kannady, lieutenant colonel, commanding at Fort Smith. He had been informed that "Senator Lane, of Kansas, is now in that state raising troops to operate on the western borders of Missouri and Arkansas." As one "intrusted with the defense of the western frontier of this state," he too wished Ross to define his position, bluntly asking him
"if it is your intention to adhere to the United States Government during the pending conflict or if you mean to support the Government of the Southern Confederacy; and also whether in your opinion the Cherokee people will resist or will aid the Southern troops in resisting any such attempt to invade the soil of Arkansas, or if, on the other hand, you think there is any probability of their aiding the United States forces in executing their hostile design."54
Two days later Chief Ross answered Kannady and the citizens of Boonsboro. They were addressed separately, but copies of all the correspondence were enclosed in each letter.55 In his reply to Kannady, Ross again recalled the treaty relations that existed between the Cherokees and the Federal Government. "Those relations still exist." He hoped the Cherokees would
"not be called upon to participate in the threatened fratricidal war between the 'United' and the 'Confederate' States. . . If the pending conflict were with a foreign foe the Cherokees, as they have done in times past, would not hesitate to lend their humble co-operation. . . Our interests all center in peace."
But if war should not be averted—and here he came to the second part of Kannady's question—
"my own position will be to take no part in it whatever, and to urge the like course upon the Cherokee people. . . We hope that all military movements, whether from the North or the South, will be outside of our limits. . . "56
To the citizens of Boonsboro he wrote as a neighbor of "more than twenty years." He hoped the Cherokees would not be regarded as enemies, even if they could not be classed "as active friends." He still looked for peace; that the difficulties might be settled by "compromise or peaceful separation." He thought that
"War is more prospective than real. It has not been declared by the United or Confederate States. It may not be. I most devoutly hope it might not be."
The position of the Cherokees was one of strict neutrality. "That position I shall endeavor honestly to maintain."57
Prompted no doubt by a desire to forestall such interrogatories in the future, Chief Ross issued that same day, May 17, his memorable proclamation of neutrality. Addressing his own people, he reminded them of the obligations arising under the treaties with the United States and urged their faithful observance. He earnestly impressed upon them the propriety of attending to their ordinary avocations and abstaining from unprofitable discussion of events transpiring in the states; of cultivating harmony among themselves and observing in good faith strict neutrality between themselves and the states threatening civil war.
"By these means alone can the Cherokee people hope to maintain their rights unimpaired and to have their own soil and firesides spared from the baleful effects of a devastating war."
He admonished the Cherokees to be prudent and avoid any act or policy calculated to destroy or endanger their rights. By honest adherence to this course no just cause for aggression would be given, and in the final adjustment between the states the nation would be
in a situation to claim and retain their rights. He impressed upon the Cherokee people the importance of non-interference and trusted
"that God will not only keep from our own borders the desolations of war, but that He will in infinite mercy and power stay its ravages among the brotherhood of States."58
If Chief John Ross thought the Cherokees would be allowed to remain onlookers while the North and the South struggled for supremacy, he was mistaken. If he was simply playing for time, he gained a few more months.59