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John Ross and the Cherokee Indians
Chapter XXI - Reconstruction of the Cherokee Nation


The fugitive chief of the Cherokees, hastened to Washington and at once began trying to set himself and his nation right with the United States Government. In spite. of intriguing enemies, who, for reasons of their own, did not wish to see the Cherokee reinstated, he secured an interview with the President and stated his case. He claimed that, deserted by their natural protector, his nation had been compelled to seek an alliance with the Confederacy. As soon as the Federal troops came to their rescue the main body of the Cherokees had gladly returned to their allegiance. He believed that they were justified in the course they had pursued because they had been forced into it by the exigencies of the moment. Notwithstanding the fact that he had thrown the whole weight of his influence and the strength of his resources into the balance for the Confederacy for a few months, his heart, he naively assured the President, had always been in the Union. As a matter of fact his heart had never been in the Union nor in the Confederacy. It had never gone beyond the boundaries of the Indian Territory, scarcely beyond those of the Cherokee Nation. He had joined the Confederacy because he saw destruction ahead if he did not. He had tried to make the best of a bad situation. Likewise, his loyalty to the Union was actuated purely by motives of self-preservation. Why should it have been otherwise? Searching the history of the last thirty years one fails to find a reason except in the most abstract ethics.

The point of view and logic of the defense were not lost upon Lincoln. With his great breadth of mind and depth of sympathy he could not fail to appreciate, in a measure, the position of the Indian in the war. He was convinced that the chief had some show of justice on his side and promised a thorough examination of the case as soon as circumstances would permit. With the assurance that his nation would be fairly dealt with in due time, Mr. Ross was compelled to content himself for the present.

The promised investigation did not materialize, however, and the end of the war found the Cherokees on a precarious footing at Washington. If they had cherished any hope of escaping the rigors of reconstruction they were soon to be undeceived. Politicians were not slow to see the White Man's opportunity in the Red Man's extremity. It was a rare chance of securing valuable lands for nothing, and one not to be neglected. One of the first statements of this policy is to be found in the early summer of 1864 in a letter of Colonel W. A. Phillips, then Commandant at Fort Gibson. The occasion was a convention held by the Choctaws, at New Hope, the preceding March, with a view to profiting by the President's Amnesty Proclamation. They had appointed a provisional governor4 for their nation and sent a delegate to Washington. Colonel Phillips, upon hearing of this, forwarded a protest to the National Capital, stating that the tribe was still in a stale of rebellion and advising that no terms be made until a more secure basis had been reached. The illuminating suggestion was added, that the situation furnished a good excuse for reducing the great Indian domains to mere reserves, and for opening up land for settlement, an opportunity which the country could not afford to neglect.

A word to the wise was sufficient. The next year found the policy suggested by Colonel Phillips fairly well outlined by the Indian Department. Presently rumors reached Indian Territory that the treaty rights of the Indians were considered abrogated and in the renewal of friendly relations the tribes would be completely at the mercy of the United States in consequence of their part in the rebellion. The people of the Five Tribes, having much to lose in such a case, were particularly uneasy and desirous of renewing their treaty relations on the best terms obtainable. As a first step towards this end a grand council of all the Southern Indians was called to meet at Camp Napoleon, Chattahomha, May 24, 1865. Representatives of fifteen tribes are said to have been present. A solemn league of peace and friendship was errtered into, resolutions were drawn up expressing their purpose and wishes and delegates, representing each of the tribes, were appointed to go to Washington for the purpose of conferring with the Federal Government on the subject of new treaties. Hearing of this action of the Indians and thinking it wiser to arrange treaties with them in their own country, the President appointed a commission to meet their representatives at some place in the Indian Territory.

The Choctaws again took the initiative. Their chief, Peter Pytchlyn, a conservative, well educated man, who had never been a bitter partisan in the war,7 sent out a call for a general conference with the commissioners to be held at Armstrong Academy, September 1. His proclamation, after describing the existing conditions and urging all to send representatives to the conference, closes with the following significant sentences: "It therefore becomes us as a brave people to forget and lay aside our prejudices and prove ourselves equal to the occasion. Let reason obtain, now that the sway of passion has passed, and let us meet in council, with a proper spirit, to renew our former relations with the United States government.

The Grand Council which was convened at Fort Smith instead of at Armstrong Academy, to suit the convenience of the commissioners, proved to be a notable one indeed. The Federal Government was represented by Elijah Sells, Superintendent of the Southern Indians, Thomas Wister, a prominent Quaker of Pennsylvania, Major General W. S. Harvey of the United States Army, Colonel Ely S. Parker, an educated Iroquois Indian who had served as a member of General Grant's staff during the war, and D. N. Cooley, president of the commission. Milton W. Reynolds, who was present as a representative of the New York Tribune, declared that the delegates of the hidian tribes were no less brilliant and conspicuous than the representatives of the Federal Government, but if the truth were told, so far as power of expression, knowledge of Indian treaties and real oratory were concerned, they had a decided advantage. Governor Colbert of the Chickasaws, Colonel Pytchlyn of the Choctaws and Chief Ross of the Cherokees were regarded as men of ability, education and good breeding wherever they were known. But the most gifted and powerful in eloquence of all the Indian representatives was Colonel E. C. Boudinot, son of Elias Boudinot1 and nephew of Stand Watie, just out of the Confederate Congress at Richmond where he had served as a delegate of the Southern Cherokees. With his impassioned eloquence and distinguished appearance he was one of the most pronounced figures in the convention.' There was present also a large delegation from Kansas, composed of lawyers and lobbyists, who came for the purpose of insisting that room be made in Indian Territory for the Indians in Kansas whose reservations covered some of the best lands in the southern part of the state. In addition to all these was a multitude of men, women and children from the various tribes. Their picturesque camps on the outskirts of the town must have interested, even if their pathetic poverty failed to touch the sympathy of the most hardened war veteran present.

The council was called to order on September 8.12 After the blessings of the Great Spirit had been invoked upon the deliberations in an earnest prayer by Reverend Lewis Downing, second chief of the Cherokee Nation, the objects of the meeting were stated by the chairman, Commissioner Cooley, who informed the Indians that, since most of them had violated their treaty obligations to the United States by entering into diplomatic relations with the Confederacy, they had forfeited all annuities and interests in lands in Indian Territory. However, the long-suffering President was willing to hear his erring children in extenuation of their great crime, and to make treaties with such nations as were willing to be at peace among themselves and with the United States. There were certain general terms on which their relations might be restored; the opposing factions of each tribe must enter into a treaty of amity and peace among themselves, between each other as tribes, and with the United States; the tribes settled in the Indian country should bind themselves, at the call of the United States authorities, to assist in keeping peace among the wild tribes of the plains; slavery should be abolished and measures taken to incorporate the slaves into the several tribes on an equal footing with the original members, or they should otherwise suitably provide for them; slavery or involuntary servitude should never exist in any tribe or nation except in the punishment of crime; a part of the lands hitherto owned and occupied by the Indians must be set apart for the friendly Indians in Kansas and elsewhere, on such terms as might be agreed upon or fixed by the government.

Full delegations from some of the tribes had not yet arrived, but the next few days were taken up by those present in submitting credentials, discussing the limitations placed upon them by their instructions and in explaining how and why they had been induced to egn treaties with the Confederate Government.

According to the report of the chairman of the Council one of the most interesting of these explanations was a paper from the loyal Cherokees pleading "not guilty" to the charge of being rebels in consequence of the treaty concluded with the southern states. This brought forth a lengthy reply from Commissioner Cooley, in which he reviewed the history of the Cherokees in the Civil War, showing that they had been guilty of open defection from the Union, and fixing the blame upon a few bad men, chief of whom was John Ross. That the majority of the nation had been, and still were, loyal at heart he admitted. If they wished to remove the stigma and the disability placed upon them by a few wicked renegades they would be given an opportunity to do 80 by submitting to the terms proposed by the United States. All forfeitures and penalties against those who had not voluntarily aided the enemy would be remitted, even if they were found necessary in other cases.

After four days of preliminary discussion by delegations from several different tribes, a draft of a preliminary treaty, based upon the principles contained in the opening remarks of the commissioner, was presented to the convention. The loyal Cherokees expressed their willingness to sign the agreement if they did not acknowledge that they had forfeited their rights and annuities as set forth in the preamble, but their signatures must be made under the statement that "we, the loyal delegation, acknowledge the execution of the treaty of October 7, 1861, but we solemnly declare that the execution was procured by the coercion of the rebel army." The Southern Cherokees objected to the treaty on the ground that it would be neither for the benefit of the emancipated negro, nor for that of the Indian, to incorporate the former into the tribe on an equal footing with its original members. They also objected to consolidating all the tribes of Indian Territory under one government, because of the many incongruous and irreconcilable members which no power could bring into a semblance of assimilation. They further asked that there might be an equitable division of their country by the United States, as they believed that there was no way of restoring peace and harmony between the still warring factions.

Mr. Ross was still in the east when plans for the council were arranged. Realizing how desirable it was for him to be on hand to defend himself and his nation, he set out for the west as soon as he was able. The Cherokee National Council was in session when he reached Tahlequah the first of September, and. he lingered a few days before proceeding to Fort Smith. It was not until the thirteenth that he arrived at the camp.

The meeting had been in session several days and the factional differences between the loyal and the Southern Cherokees had been given time to show themselves. Added to the ancient feuds, which still rankled, was the confiscation act passed by the loyal Council of 1863, which prevented the southern part of the tribe, numbering about six thousand, from returning home. They were at this time living in great destitution upon the Red River and their representatives at Fort Smith were anxious to secure assurance from the loyal delegation that the law would be repealed and their people reinstated in their homes. This promise could not be secured, the delegation claiming that they did not have the power to bind their Council to any policy of action. Considerable disappointment and irritation naturally. The success of the Fort Smith Council from the point of view of all concerned was only partial, due to the 'fact that the terms offered by the United States were not altogether acceptable to the Indians, :and partly to the fact that several of the delegations, including the Cherokees, had not been notified that new treaties with them were desired by the government, and they had therefore not been properly authorized to make treaties relinquishing any of their lands 'for the use of friendly tribes in Kansas. The Cherokees refused to enter into any negotiation for such a treaty until their Council should appoint a commission with the proper authority for the purpose. The meeting therefore came to an end with nothing definite accomplished, so far -as the- Cherokees were concerned, except a preliminary treaty of peace and amity as a basis for futur action, and an agreement to send a delegation with proper authority to treat at Washington, probably the next December.

The winter of 1866 was a dreary one - indeed for the whole tribe. The condition of those on the Red River 'could not be expected to improve as long as they remained there. Those who returned to their -desolate nation fared little better. There were few churches, no schools, no cultivated fields, except here and there a little corn patch in some secluded place cultivated by women and children and the old men. The mills had been destroyed, so that the primitive mortar and pestle had to be depended upon for what little meal was used. ,Fortunate indeed were those who had all the boiled corn or hominy they wanted. Flour at forty dollars a barrel was prohibitive. Even salt, which before the war had been manufactured in considerable quantities on the Grand Saline, was at a premium, the salt works, which had been in use for over thirty years, having gone the way of other improvements. Hoes, plows, axes, all implements so necessary to an agricultural community, were sold at prohibitive rates, and the necessary price -of the, commonest necessities was very hard to get.

This was plainly no time for haggling and hair-splitting. Yet when itho delegations met in Washington at the beginning of the year their early discussions gave little promise of prompt adjustment of the difficulties by means of a treaty. Both sides had engaged strong legal counsel and the discussions were ably conducted. Draft after draft of a treaty was drawn up, only to be rejected by one or both parties. The Southern Cherokees, feeling that it would be unsafe to return home with the Ross party in full possession of the government and the confiscation laws in force, demanded, as the only hope for their peace and well-being, a division of the Cherokee lands and annuities in proportion to the numbers of each party. A prompt protest was filed by the National party which had always opposed any scheme which threatened their national integrity. They suggested instead that one district's of the nation be set aside for two years for the sole occupation of the Southern party, pending a final settlement of the controversy. Of course this plan was wholly unacceptable to the opposition because of the smallness of the district and for other very good reasons.

Weeks and months of bickering and wire-pulling followed, each party suspicious of the other, and both of the Federal Government, which, determined to secure land upon which to colonize Indian tribes in Kansas, was not blind to its opportunity of driving a keen bargain at the expense of the discordant factions. Despairing of arranging terms with the loyal Cherokees, the commissioners at last determined to treat with the Southern party. Finally, on June 19, a treaty was concluded with them providing that a certain part of the Cherokee Nation should be set apart for their exclusive use. They, in turn agreed to sell to the United States a part o4 the national domain. The treaty was not laid before the Senate but was held as a Rooseveltian big stick over the Nationals, who, after another month of discussion, themselves came to terms and signed a treaty on July 19. At best this treaty was a three-cornered compromise which pleased nobody, but was recognized by all as the best that could be obtained under the circumstances. The Federal Government, as usual, came out the greater gainer. The treaty provided for the repudiation of the alliance with the Confederacy; declared amnesty for all past offenses; repealed the confiscation laws; allowed 160 acres of land to every freedman; agreed to the establishment of a United States Court in the Indian Territory, and the settlement of friendly Indians on unoccupied lands of the Cherokees. These, with some articles of minor importance, constituted the treaty of 1866.

Chief Ross, though much broken in health, headed his delegation as he had done for almost forty years. Before the final draft of the treaty was arranged he became too ill to attend the deliberations of the delegation. Realizing that his end was near, the commissioners, at the suggestion of the Secretary of the Interior, repealed their decree of the previous year deposing him from the chieftainship of the Cherokees, on the ground that the reason which rendered that action necessary no longer existed. Just at sunset, on August first, he quietly and peacefully passed away, August 1, 1866.

When news of his death reached the Cherokee Nation, there was sincere mourning among a large portion of his people, both full-bloods and the mixed element who realized that they had lost in their venerable chief a warm friend and an able champion. By act of the National Council, his body was taken to Park Hill and interred with fitting ceremony in the cemetery near his own home. When the National Council convened in October it passed a resolution and placed upon the records a memorial in which his service to his people and their love and confidence toward him were ably expressed. It claims justly that his long career, passed in the constant service of his people, "furnishes an instance of confidence on their part and fidelity on his which had never been surpassed in history.

That there is another side to Mr. Ross's reputation those who have followed this story of his life need not be reminded. By his enemies he was regarded in a very different light from that in which he appeared to his friends. Fond of place and power, ambitious for his own immediate family, dishonest in the use of the Cherokee national funds, severe and partial in the administration of justice, crafty and unscrupulous, trimming his sails to every political breeze,—these are some of the charges brought against him.

Most of these charges were made by prejudiced persons not competent to judge the man fairly, and are therefore not to be considered seriously. Some of them are perhaps true in a sense. In the light of later events it is evident that he made mistakes in his policy of government. Yet they were not mistakes of a small man, but of a great one. If he erred it was on the side of zeal for a cause which he thought to be right. That he was a political trimmer is an accusation that needs stronger proof than has yet been brought to light, while the accusation itself can be easily accounted for without discredit to Mr. Ross. To understand him it must not be forgotten that he was first, last and always a Cherokee Indian, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation which was to him a sovereign, independent nation. His consuming desire and purpose were to serve and protect, to the best of his ability, this nation at whos6 head he stood so proudly and staunchly for many years. To him its welfare and its claims were paramount. He had no other patriotism, a fact which can be understood and appreciated fully, perhaps, only by those who have lived under conditions similar to those under which he lived, and have possessed sentiments and attachments akin to his.

The interests of the full-blood Indians were his first care. The Cherokees have had other chiefs who were patriotic and incorruptible, men of whom any group of people might justly be proud. But they have never had a chief who so guarded the interests of the helpless and gave them preference over the stronger, mixed-blood population. And who has needed a strong and sincere friend more than the full-blood? The Cherokees can boast of better educated men than John Ross, more eloquent orators, men of greater literary skill, of higher legal talent. But they have yet to produce a statesman of greater all-round ability, of more strength of character, of greater devotion to ;his tribe, than this Scotch Cherokee Christian gentleman whose long, dramatic career came to a close well-night half a century ago, marking the end of a most important period of Cherokee history.


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