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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XIX - The Civil War


Before the Cherokees had fairly entered upon the high road to progress and national unity, mutterings of the approaching Civil War began to be heard even in this remote region. The excitement and bitterness involved in the issues of the presidential election of 1860 ran like an electric current throughout the length and breadth of Indian Territory arousing the keenest interest among the entire population within its boundaries, but particularly among the citizens of the five great civilized tribes, the Choctaws, Chckasaws, Creeks, Semnoles and Cherokees. They had all been removed from the southeast under circumstances similar to those under which the Cherokees had been removed. All of them had just emerged from the economic and political chaos into which they had been thrown by removal, and begun to acquire, in the face of the greatest difficulties, many of the arts and much of the science of civilization. They were fairly prosperous, contented and on good terms with the Federal Government whose treaties bound it to protect them from any foreign aggression.

All of the tribes were slaveholders and had borrowed many of their other institutions, both domestic and social, from south of Mason and Dixon's line. Many of their citizens, too, were bound to the South by ties of blood and marriage. All of these influences tended to strengthen the sympathy of the Indians for the South and their interest in the cause of slavery.

Indian superintendents and agents in the Indian Territory had almost all been southern and proslavery. Firmly believing in the institution as of divine origin, and as an economic blessing to both master and slave, they were intolerant of abolition sentiments to the point of forbidding the teaching of them among the Indians. Missionaries and school teachers who were especially zealous in the dissemination of antislavery doctrines were summarily sent from the country. One of them, Reverend John B. Jones, a Baptist missionary, who had devoted much of his life to work among the Indians, was warned by the agent in September, 1860, to leave the country within three weeks because of an article published in a northern paper stating that he was engaged in promulgating antislavery doctrines among his flock. Others were also compelled to leave, and the excitement aroused by these incidents continued to increase until the outbreak of the war and the beginning of actual hostilities.

In the excitement and confusion in Washington during the early months of the struggle the importance to the Union of holding the loyalty of Indian Territory seems to have been underestimated, while the government showed a strange lack of conscience towards its treaty obligations to the Indians. With the South it was a different story. From the very outset of the trouble, even before the organization of the Confederacy, preliminary steps were taken to secure the sympathy and cooperation of the tribes of the southwest. Federal agents of the Five Tribes and Elias Rector, the head of the Southern Superintendency, began in the early winter to take an active part in fortifying the minds of the Indians against the incoming administration and arousing sympathy for the southern cause. Douglas M. Cooper, agent of the Choctaws and Chickasaws and an appointee of Buchanan, took advantage of the remoteness of his situation to work openly for secession.

As a result the Chickasaw legislature, on January 5, went so far to call an intertribal council should a political separation between the North and the South take place. The suggestion met with favor from all the Five Tribes except the Cherokees. Chief Ross objected to the plan on the ground that the controversy between thg North and South was strictly a white man's quarrel and no concern of the Indians. He was overruled, however, and a council was called for February 17. The Choctaw Council, influenced by Cooper, without waiting to see what its neighbors would do, came out boldly on February 7 for the Confederacy on the ground that their national affections, education and interests bound them indissolubly in every way to the destiny of their neighbors of the South.

When the intertribal council met ten days later at the Creek Agency neither the Choctaws nor Chickasaws were represented. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole delegations discussed the situation at length and arrived at the conclusion to simply do nothing; to keep quiet and comply with their treaty obligations. Mutual expressions of good feeling were given and promises exchanged that whatever exigencies of the future might arise, bound by a common destiny, they would act in concert for the greatest good to all.

This action of the Indian tribes was watched with the keenest interest by Arkansas, no part of the South being more vitally concerned in their attitude at this crisis. The Cherokee and Choctaw Nations hemmed in her whole western border, even encroaching, in the opinion of the state, upon her rightful domain. The action of the Choctaws had been gratifying. Cooperation of the Cherokees must be secured at all hazards.

More than three months before the state seceded, Governor Rector wrote Chief Ross a very ingratiating letter, calling attention to the fact that the Cherokees, in their institutions, productions, latitude and natural sympathies, were allied to the common brotherhood of slaveholding states, and assuring him that it was an established fact that the Indian country was looked upon by the incoming administration "as a fruitful field ripe for the harvest of Abolitionists, freesoilers and northern mountebanks." He promised to give the Cherokees protection in their exposed condition and to assume the monetary obligations of the Federal Government to them if they would join the South in the defense of her firesides, her honor, and her institutions.

Mr. Ross replied in a masterly letter expressing the regret and the solicitude of the Cherokees for the unhappy relations existing between the two sections of the country and hoping for the restoration of peace and harmony, at the same time declaring, in no uncertain terms, the loyalty of his people to the Federal Government. The Cherokees, he reasoned, had placed themselves under the protection of the United States and were bound to enter into no treaty with any foreign power, neither with any individual nor citizen of any state. The faith of the United States was solemnly pledged to protect them in their land titles and all their individual rights and interests of person and property. The Cherokees were inviolably allied with the United States in war and were friends in peace. While their institutions, locality and natural sympathy were unequivocally with the slaveholding states, and the social and commercial intercourse between the Cherokee Nation and Arkansas were of great importance to his people, these interests must be subordinated to the higher one of his nation's honor.

Not satisfied with this reply, citizens of western Arkansas and the commandant at Fort Smith brought strong pressure to bear upon the chief, demanding to know on what ground he stood, as they preferred an open enemy to a doubtful friend.7 To them he replied that the Cherokees would take no part in the trouble. Weak, defenseless and scattered over a large section of country in the pursuit of agricultural life, without hostility to any state, and with friendly feeling to all, they hoped to be allowed to remain neutral; for persons so gallantly tenacious of their own rights would respect those of others. Being fully aware of the defenseless condition of the Cherokees, their friends would surely not expect them to destroy their national and individual rights and bring around their hearthstones the horrors and desolation of a civil war prematurely and unnecessarily. "I am—the Cherokees are your friends" he assured them, "but we do not wish to be brought into the feud between yourselves and your northern brethren. Our wish is for peace—peace with you and peace at home"8 But the old chief was crying "peace, peace!" when there was no peace.

The Confederate Provisional Congress, doubtless urged on by Arkansas and Texas, and appreciating the strategic position of Indian Territory in relation to Colorado and Kansas, and its importance as a source of food supply, created a Bureau of Indian Affairs as early as the middle of March, with an appropriation of $5,000 for its support, and attached it to the War Department. David L. Hubbard, of Alabama, was placed at the head with instruction to repair immediately to the Indian country where he would make known to all the tribes the desire of the Confederate states to protect and defend them against the rapacious and avaricious designs of their common enemy whose real intention was to emancipate their slaves and rob them of their lands.

Illness prevented Mr. Hubbard from carrying out his intentions of going in person to the Indian Territory, but he wrote to Chief Ross and, in addition to his instructions, reminded him that nearly all the funds of the Cherokees, representing their annuities and school funds, were invested in southern securities, which debts were already forfeited unless the Cherokees joined the Confedracy.

To this, Chief Ross, replied in most dignified and courteous language, repeating his reasons for holding a position of neutrality, and assuring Mr. Hubbard that, if the institutions, locality and long years of neighborly deportment and intercourse did not suffice to assure him of the friendship of the Cherokees no instrument of mere parchment could do so. "We have no cause to doubt the entire good faith with which you would treat the Cherokee people, but neither have we any cause to make war against the United States, or to believe that our treaties will not be fulfilled and respected. At all events a decent regard to good faith demands that we should not be the first to violate them." It was not the business of the Cherokees, he thought, to determine the character of the conflict going on in the states. It was their duty to keep themselves free from entanglements, and afford no ground to either party to interfere with their rights. As to the question of whether the Cherokees would receive kinder treatment at the hands of. the South than could be expected from the North, he remarked significantly, that the settled policy of acquiring Indian lands had always been a favorite one with both sections, and but few Indians north or south pressed their feet upon the soil of their fathers.

Meanwhile two events had taken place destined to have important bearing upon Cherokee neutrality. In April all the Federal troops were withdrawn from Indian Territory and it was immediately occupied by the Confederacy and formed into the Military District of Indian Territory, with the brave Texas Ranger, Benjamin F. McCulloch, in command. With a regiment from each of the states, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, and with instructions to raise additional regiments among the Five Tribes to be attached to his command, he prepared to establish headquarters at some suitable place in the Cherokee Nation.

The Knights of the Golden Circle, in full sympathy with the plan, decided that the time was ripe for them to act by raising the rebel flag over the capitol at Tahlequah, guarding their intentions with the greatest secrecy.18 When they arrived on the appointed day however, they found the flinty streets of the little town filled with stonier faced full-bloods, gathered from all parts of the Cherokee Nation for the purpose of checkmating them. Baffled and outwitted and fearing violence from the determined Kituwahs, the Knights posted a messenger after Mr. Ross at Park Hill, who was ignorant of what was on foot five miles away. Accompanied by Mrs. Ross, a loyal Union sympathizer, he hastened to the scene of action. There the Knights plied him with arguments and persuasions, but all to no effect. The people presently dispersed quietly to their homes, but not to the waving of the "Stars and Bars," nor to the music of the "Bonnie Blue Flag."

Chief Ross, fearing the demoralizing effect of the plan for establishing Confederate headquarters in the Cherokee Nation, issued a proclamation, on May 17, counselling the people to cultivate peace and harmony among themselves and to observe, in good faith, strict neutrality towards the states threatening Civil War.

Finding his scheme firmly opposed by Chief Ross, whom he was as yet unwilling to antagonize, General McCulloch changed his plans and began mustering his forces at Fort Smith, just over the Arkansas line.14 Determined, however, that the Cherokees should eventually fight with the Confederacy, he was only biding his time.

It was at this period in the crisis that the picturesque figure of Albert Pike appeared upon the Indian horizon. He was a Bostonian by birth, had studied law at Harvard and taught school in New England. Responding to the call of the west in early manhood, he joined Bent's expedition to Santa Fe in 1832, and spent a few months in New Mexico. Returning by way of Fort Smith he determined to settle in Arkansas. Here he taught school, practiced law and engaged in literary pursuits. Acquaintance with the Indians aroused a genuine interest in the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of his own race, and he became the avowed friend and advocate of the Red Man. When the Civil War broke out he declared for secession and offered his services to the Confederacy in effecting alliances with the tribes of the southwest. The Confederacy promptly recognized that there were none better fitted for this task by commissioning him to negotiate 'treaties with the nations of Indian Territory.

As his mission was one that required promptness he set out at once, stopping on the way for an interview with General McCulloch at Fort Smith. Here a party of Cherokees representing the Knights of the Golden Circle called upon him to find out whether the Confederatei states would protect them against Mr. Ross and the Pin Indians if they should organize and take up arms for the South.18 He assured them of Confederate protection and arranged a meeting with them and their friends at the Creek Agency two days after a conference which he expected to have with Chief Ross and General McCulloch at Park Hill. Attended by a mounted escort in all the splendor of uniform and military trappings he then set out for Indian Territory. As the cavalcade swept down the line road to Evansville and on towards the Cherokee capital its magnificent appearance was well designed to impress the simple natives with the greatness of the government which it represented. There are men and women still living who remember the occasion as one of the most interesting and dramatic episodes of the war in that part of the country.

Arriving at Park Hill somewhat in advance of his attendants, General Pike was received by the Chief with his accustomed hospitality and irreproachable courtesy. Here General McCulloch presently joined him, and negotiations for a treaty of alliance were formally opened. Chief Ross took a firm stand, repeating his determination to remain neutral and his argument that it would be a cruel thing for the Confederacy to force a weak and defenseless people into a quarrel not their own. While frankly admitting that all their sentiments and feelings were on the side of the South, he declared that he could not permit his people to become involved in any way if he could prevent it. They were unable to shake the purpose of the old Chief by force of argument or diplomatic strategy, and the conference came to a close with the promise of General McCulloch to respect the neutrality of the Cherokees, and to refrain from placing troops in their nation, unless it became necessary in order to expel a Federal force or to protect the Southern Cherokees.

Doubtless General McCulloch made the promise in good faith. A few days later he wrote Mr. Ross again assuring him of his intention of respecting the agreement of neutrality, but now insisting that all Cherokees who were in favor of joining the Confederacy should be allowed to organize into military companies as Home Guards for the purpose of defending themselves in case of an invasion from the North.

Mr. Ross, too keen to be drawn into a scheme which would virtually commit him to the Confederacy without any of the advantages of a formal treaty, replied that he could not give his consent to such a plan. It would not only violate Cherokee neutrality but would place in their midst a band of organized and armed men not authorized by Cherokee laws and not amenable to them.

Out of patience with what he considered the irritating obstinancy of Mr. Ross, General McCulloch began collecting troops at Sculleyville, in the northern part of the Choctaw Nation near the Cherokee line, with the avowed purpose of intimidating the loyal Cherokees and forcing Chief Ross into abandoning his position of neutrality.

General Pike, on leaving Park Hill, pressed on to the west where he busied himself in arranging treaties with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations and with various bands of western Indians. The former, after signing treaties, availed themselves of the privilege of sending delegates to Richmond, and issued a proclamation to the neighboring nations urging them to form an alliance, offensive and defensive, against Lincoln's hordes of Kansas robbers. As the Confederate Commissioner made his way westward arranging treaties with the Indians, and as the marshaling of forces on the borders went forward with vigor, the position of the Cherokees grew daily more precarious. The Creeks and the majority of the Seminoles still remained faithful to their agreement of the previous winter, but the Federal Government showed no intention of sending them relief and protection.

Realizing that something must be done quickly, Chief Rosa, with the support of Hopothleyohola, leader of the loyal Creeks, sent out a call for an intertribal council to be held near Antelope Hills, in the extreme western part of Indian Territory. The purpose was to weld the western tribes into an independent Indian Confederacy with strength enough to command respectful attention from both sections before Geeral Pike could arrange treaties with them. The Council was held and the representatives entered willingly into the proposed compact, but the ultimate purpose of the plan was defeated by General Pike, who having received intimation of it, succeeded in securing an agreement with a faction of the Creeks while their representatives were in counci at Antelope Hills.

The failure of the Indian Confederacy, the neglect of the loyal Indians by the Federal Government and the concentration of Confederate forces on their border had caused the loyal Cherokees keen disappointment and alarm. Then came news of the Battle of Wilson Creek, with an exaggerated account of the discomfiture of Union forces. McCulloch's army was marched back to the borders of the Cherokee Nation and the Cherokees were compelled to decide promptly whether they would take up arms for the North or the South.

Faced with this situation Chief Ross summoned his Council together August 21, 1861, for the purpose of determining the most available method of procedure. A call was sent out, summoning everyone to a conference at Tahlequah. The situation was so critical and the tension of feeling so highly strung that a large per cent of the voting population responded. On the appointed day about four thousand Cherokee men were assembled on the capitol square. The southern party, seeing their opportunity, and encouraged by citizens of Arkansas, turned out in full force and full arms. Agent Crawford took a prominent part in the meeting, painting in glowing colors the advantages of secession to the tribe.

Chief Ross in his message to the Council, after having justified his previous policy of neutrality on the ground of good fath and expedency, declared that the Cherokees had at last come to the parting of the ways. Neutrality was no longer possible. Since they had been deserted by the Federal Government they owed no further allegiance to it. There was no longer any reason to doubt that the Union was dissolved: there was likewise no cause for hesitation as to the course the tribe should pursue: their geographical position and domestic institutions allied them, unquestionably, with the South.

The convention unanimously adopted a resolution to abandon their relations with the Federal Government and to form an alliance with the Confederacy if the latter would guarantee to them the payment of an amount equal to their invested funds.

A message was forthwith dispatched to General Pike to apprise him of the action of the Council and to invite him to return to the Cherokee Nation for the purpose of arranging a treaty with their government. He was met at Fort Gibson by Colonel Drew's regiment of home guards composed chiefly of full-bloods and Pins, which had been raised by order of the National Council, and conducted with some ceremony to Park Hill where a treaty was arranged.

By this treaty the Confederate states bound themselves to pay the Cherokees the sum of $250,000 on the ratification of the treaty, to continue the annuities they had formerly received from the United States and to indemnify them for all losses that they Might suffer as a result of abrogating their treaties with the United States. On the other hand, the Cherokees agreed to furnish all their able-bodied men to the Confederate States for military service against the United States, with the stipulation that their forces should not be required to march outside of their own country without their consent.

On the same day the Cherokee treaty was negotiated, representatives of the Osages, Senecas, Quapaws, and Shawnees, by invitation of Chief Ross, met General Pike at Park Hill, where they also arranged treaties of alliance with the Confederacy. Afterwards they held a conference with Mr. Ross at his residence, smoked the great peace pipe and renewed their agreements of eternal peace and friendship.

The Cherokees immediately began preparations to maintain their new alliance. The regiment of Home Guards under Colonel John Drew was now placed at the services of the Confederacy, and a second regiment recruited and placed under the command of Colonel Stand Watie. Chief Ross entered heartily and enthusiastically into the spirit of the preparations, entertaining high hopes that all factional differences would disappear and that his people would become united once more when they joined forces to repel a common enemy. Just after the signing of the Confederate treaty he had given his hand to Stand Watie as an expression of his desire to heal the old breach, and Watie had accepted it in all courtesy and good faith. No one realized more clearly than the old Chief and the brilliant young warrior that the cost of war would be dear to his people at any price. Yet, if the Cherokees could emerge from the smoke of battle a united nation, the struggle would not have been without its compensations.


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