Friday, September 15, 2017

The Indian Civil War, Part Two

Troy D. Smith

In my blog post last month, I set the stage for the “Five Civilized Tribes” to get involved in the American Civil War (you might want to re-read that one first!) Now, it is time to see how the war started in Indian Territory.

Each of the Five Tribes were divided between “modernists” who adopted white ways and views and “traditionalists” who had not been as eager to do so. Many of those modernists (though not all) were also mixed blood (with white fathers or grandfathers), and quite a few ran successful businesses or plantations (and owned black slaves). It was common for them, therefore, to identify culturally more with the Southern states than with Northern ones, and to sympathize with the Confederacy. 

Traditionalists, on the other hand, tended to view their tribes’ treaties with the United States as sacrosanct –their word given was their word kept (whether the other side did so or not). In addition, many (though not all) traditionalists either opposed slavery outright or viewed it more from a traditional native approach.

This divide was not the same among all five nations, it fell along a spectrum. At one end of that spectrum you found the Choctaws and Chickasaws, among whom support for slavery and sympathy for the Confederacy was by far a majority opinion. In the middle you found the Cherokees and Creeks, who were both pretty well evenly divided in their support –those divisions falling along the same lines as the previous divisions between pro-Treaty and anti-Removal factions, with those who had opposed Removal most likely to support the Union (but the federal government removed them! one might say… however, it was done at the behest of the Southern states. Those tribesmen most inclined to “take the deal” offered by Southern states during the Removal period were then more likely to support the Confederacy and the South). At the other end of the spectrum we’d find the Seminoles. They had a higher proportion of traditionalists, had violently resisted removal, had more readily accepted runaway slaves into their tribe, and still tended to treat their “slaves” as semi-autonomous.

The U.S. had established several forts in Indian Territory around the time of Removal, and part of the removal treaties was a promise to protect the Indians in their new homeland. Most folks don’t stop and think about this, but when the government removed tens of thousands of Indians from the South to Oklahoma, there were already indigenous people living there who didn’t appreciate their neighborhood becoming so crowded all of a sudden. This included, in the western part of the territory, Comanches and Kiowas (designated “wild Indians” at the time) who were prone to raid their new “civilized Indian” neighbors.

When war began between the U.S.A and the C.S.A., those federal forts were in a tenuous position, located so close to the Confederate states of Arkansas and Texas (and therefore so difficult to reinforce and re-supply if the Confederates attacked.) Federal forces abandoned the forts, therefore, and fell back north to Kansas. Many tribal members viewed this as a violation of the U.S. treaty obligations. Confederate troops moved in and occupied the forts.

Union forces may have retreated from Indian Territory, but the Confederacy looked upon it as a prize –for several reasons. First, there were a lot of valuable resources there, controlled by the Indians –including enough saltpeter mines, it was estimated, to manufacture gunpowder sufficient to supply the entire Confederate Army. There was also the matter of strategic location. The Confederacy had designs on the American Southwest, and if they controlled what is now known as Oklahoma they could cut that region off from the rest of the Union.

The Confederacy definitely wanted to negotiate with the Five Tribes, and gain them as allies.

They sent a diplomatic mission to Indian Territory, led by someone uniquely suited for the task: Albert Pike. Pike was born and raised in Massachusetts, but had spent most of his adult life in Arkansas. He was a newspaperman, a poet, and a lawyer. In that latter capacity he specialized in representing removed tribes in their financial claims against Washington to get full value for the lands they had been forced to cede. He worked, at various times, for the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations, and was respected and well-regarded by all of them. 

Pike’s military escort for this mission was led by legendary Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch, now a Confederate brigadier general.

(note: Pike was also a high-ranking Freemason, and is still honored as such. There is also evidence he was highly placed in the Ku Klux Klan after the war.)

Not limited to the Five Tribes, Pike negotiated with the “wild” Comanches and Kiowas. He got them to sign what was essentially a nonaggression pact; they would not be allies of the Confederacy, but would maintain a truce and not attack them. Pike had higher aspirations for the “civilized” tribes in the eastern half of the territory, though, and –meeting with the leadership of all five tribes –had some attractive offers for them.

First, he pointed out that the federals withdrawing from their forts in the region had been a treaty violation. Then, for those Indians who still had a sense of loyalty to the Union because of the treaties the tribes had signed, he argued that was well and good, but with secession the “Union” with which they had signed those treaties no longer technically existed (a point that a lawyer for the other side, had one been present, could have argued against). Then came the enticements. Ally with us, Pike said, and you will get the following:

                   We will take over the U.S. obligations to you, re: annuity payments for your lost lands.
                   We will recognize your sovereignty, and your own legal jurisdiction. That is, if for example someone from Texas comes to the Creek Nation and kills a tribal member, we will recognize your right to prosecute him under Creek law (this is something the U.S. NEVER did).
                                        If you agree to raise troops from your tribe for our cause, we will pay to arm and equip them.
                   We will guarantee that each of your tribes has a seat in the Confederate Congress.

These were, surprisingly, very good terms. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was equally surprised, as he had not authorized them and believed the Confederate Congress would never agree to them all. In the long run, it didn’t matter, since the Confederacy lost. In the short term –it worked. Pike was able to get the leaders of almost all the tribes to sign a treaty of alliance, even the Seminoles. There was only one holdout.

John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Ross, who had been in office 34 years, was a traditionalist. This was true even though he was, by blood, 7/8 Scottish, and was a slave-owner. He had been backed for chief in 1827 by the principal traditionalists of that time, and had resisted ceding his people’s homeland until the bitter end: his own wife perished on the Trail of Tears, dying of exposure after giving her blankets away to freezing children. While not a member of the traditionalist Keetowah Society (some of whom were abolitionists), he was strongly supported by them. His counterpart among the modernist Cherokees was his longtime opponent Stand Watie, who had been part of the pro-Treaty faction during the Removal period and had barely escaped an assassination attempt upon the nation’s arrival to Indian Territory.

Ross met with Pike and McCulloch, but stressed to them his determination to remain neutral in the coming conflict. There were many reasons for this: his people were divided on the subject; he was still making frequent trips to Washington to get the rest of the money owed to his people, and signing an alliance with the Confederacy would risk losing all claim; like many of his people, he preferred to honor his people’s treaties; and, most importantly, a point of geography. The Cherokee Nation was in the northeastern corner of Indian Territory, sharing a border with Kansas. If the Union Army decided to invade Indian Territory, his nation would be where it happened, and his people would take the heaviest brunt of the fighting. In contrast the Choctaws and Chickasaws, who were most eager to join the fight on the side of the Confederates, lay farther to the south.

The Confederate representatives were not pleased at all. Pike and McCulloch made a point of immediately having a meeting with Ross’s rival Stand Watie, whose pro-Confederate sympathies were well-known. The implication to Ross was clear: Just like in the lead-up to Removal, if you won’t sign our treaty we know Stand Watie will. This was probably primarily meant as a threat to Ross’s political standing among his own people, and he may have recognized it as such, but it also brought a new factor into the discussion for him.

After the Trail of Tears, the anti-Removal faction who supported John Ross and the pro-Treaty faction who had followed Stand Watie’s family fought bitterly for over a decade. It started with the assassinations of Watie’s brother Elias Boudinot, their cousin John Ridge, and their uncle (and leader) Major Ridge. After that, there was an ongoing bloody feud, tantamount to a civil war, in the newly located Cherokee Nation (other principal combatants included the Starr family, some of whom would be famous half-a-century later as Wild West outlaws). After much death on both sides, a peace had been negotiated, and all involved came together to form a unified Cherokee government, followed by a decade of relative peace and prosperity.

Pike’s threat of negotiating with Watie instead of Ross threatened to re-ignite the Cherokee civil war.

John Ross, therefore, agreed to a compromise. He would call for a national referendum of the Cherokee people, and allow them to vote on whether to ally with the Confederacy or not. The vote was held, and the pro-Confederates won. John Ross, reluctantly and against his own judgment yet with a desire to represent the will of his people and maintain tribal unity, signed the alliance treaty. While significant portions of each tribe opposed the alliance –including a minority even among the Choctaws and Chickasaws –the official tribal governments of all Five Tribes had joined themselves to the Confederate cause.

Ross’s longtime ally Opothleyahola, the traditionalist Creek chief, was deeply saddened that his old friend was casting his lot with the Confederacy, which Opothleyahola refused to do despite being in a similar situation (supported by traditionalists but outvoted). Opothleyahola and Ross had been on different sides in the Creek War of 1813-1814 (Ross fought among Andrew Jackson’s Cherokee allies against the Red Stick Creeks), but as fellow traditionalists had been on the same side since the Removal period. Opothleyahola had supported the death sentence carried out on William McIntosh, who was a Creek version of Major Ridge (having signed away the tribal lands).

Opothleyahola made it clear that he would not personally support the alliance his people had made with the Confederacy. Pro-Union people started streaming to his camp –at first the traditionalist Creeks, but then Seminoles, Chickasaws, and a few Choctaws… as well as free blacks and runaway slaves.

Meanwhile, the Native American Confederate army was being raised and quickly taking shape. Uniformed soldiers were equipped from all Five Nations. The two initial Cherokee regiments were commanded by Colonel John Drew (whose men were mostly full bloods loyal to John Ross) and Colonel Stand Watie (whose troops were mostly mixed-blood modernists loyal to Watie). The two initial Creek regiments were commanded by the sons of William McIntosh (Daniel and Chilly), whose father had died at Opothleyahola’s command. Albert Pike was commissioned brigadier general, a rank held later in the war by Stand Watie.

Opothleyahola and his motley collection of Unionists felt threatened by the Confederate forces coalescing around them. He sent a letter to President Lincoln, asking for sanctuary in Union Territory. Meanwhile, a Confederate brigade was being sent to give Opothleyahola’s group one last opportunity to change their minds, at gunpoint if necessary. It was commanded by Douglas Cooper, who had before the war been the U.S. Indian Agent to the Choctaws and Chickasaws. In addition to those two tribes, the brigade included three Texas regiments, John Drew’s Cherokee regiment… and the Creek regiment led by Daniel McIntosh.

The confrontation was about to begin.

Next time: the Flight of Opothleyahola

Troy D. Smith is a history professor at Tennessee Tech, where he teaches Native American History, Environmental History, and the U.S. West. As an author of western fiction, he is a past winner of the Peacemaker Award and two-time winner of the Spur Award. His award-winning novella Odell's Bones centers on the Civil War in Indian Territory; one Spur judge described it as "reading like a lost chapter of Lonesome Dove."  


  1. Troy, I always look forward to your posts, but these are especially interesting to me since I was born and raised here in Oklahoma and my mother's and father's families were both here since well before statehood. We do have Indian blood on both sides of the family, but it's been hard to research. Learning about the politics and beliefs of these tribal leaders has been very eye-opening, for sure. As you might imagine, NONE OF THIS was taught in public schools here (which I really find odd, in one way, but with so many tribes here, I suppose a teacher could get into hot water just by presenting the facts). Thanks so much for this series of yours. I'm enjoying it! And learning.

  2. Good stuff PROFESSOR! Read every word with interest. Some of that stuff gets very confusing. I understood this essay.

  3. Fascinating article, Troy. I first stumbled across the background to all this as a boy in England in the late 60s when I read a novel RIFLES FOR WATIE by HAROLD KEITH. I haven't read it since, but would dearly like to as I enjoyed it tremendously. Your excellent feature brought it all back.