Friday, August 18, 2017

The Indian Civil War, Part One

Troy D. Smith

The Civil War in the American West does not get a lot of attention compared to the events east of the Mississippi, even though a lot of very significant things happened out there. I would argue that even less is known by the average American about a specific part of the West: what we now know as Oklahoma, and at that time was Indian Territory. In fact, the average person (though this does not hold true for many of those reading this post) is surprised to learn that there were American Indians fighting in that war. In organized military units, and in uniform.

When those interested in Western history do think about Indians during that conflict, they think of more “traditional” circumstances: the U.S. Army (and sometimes the Confederate Army) fighting Apaches and Navajos in the Southwest, Comanches in Texas, Cheyenne and Arapaho in Colorado, Sioux in Minnesota. Those things happened, but I’m talking about North vs. South.

Roughly a quarter-century before the war, the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the American South (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles), along with some smaller groups, had been removed west of the Mississippi, many of them against their will. There they re-established themselves, setting up governments and working to repair the rifts that had grown within their tribes by the experience. Among all five tribes –but especially the Cherokees and the Creeks –there had been bitter division during the removal period, with one faction in each tribe wanting to remain in their ancestral homeland and a second faction accepting the government’s deal for land and signing the treaties that led to the whole tribes’ removal. Those in the first group often viewed those in the second group as sell-outs, even traitors, and in both tribes some of the individuals who signed the treaties were killed by members of their own nations. Among the Cherokees, famously, these two factions were the Ross Party (loyal to Principal Chief John Ross, and unwilling to leave their homes) and the Ridge Party, also known as the Treaty Party (led by Major Ridge, his son John, and his nephews Elias Boudinot and Stand Watie). For several years after removal, the Cherokees engaged in an unofficial civil war of their own, with a lot of bloodshed, until finally the two factions –and a third faction which had accepted the government’s terms much earlier and come West –came together again as a unified Cherokee Nation.

A lot of folks also don’t know that the Five Tribes had, by the 19th century, adopted the American-style plantation slavery, also called chattel slavery, buying black slaves in large numbers. Many of those who made the brutal winter trek known as the Trail of Tears had been the black slaves of the Cherokees.

The two factions of each tribe, one acquiescing to removal and the other resisting it, can be classified along other lines, as well. Those who were willing to “take the deal” also tended to be what I call “Modernists,” individuals who were willing to adopt (white) American ways of doing things in order to adapt to their new reality. These Indians often dressed and spoke like their white neighbors, and many operated small businesses. They also were usually the ones who used chattel slaves.

The other faction of each tribe, which had resisted removal for as long as possible, were what I shall refer to as “Traditionalists.” While they may have made some changes, such as no longer wearing the old top-knot hairstyles, they had held on to as many traditional ways as possible, and often spoke little or no English. They tended to live up in the hills, surviving by hunting and subsistence farming. When they had slaves, they did not treat them as chattel (non-human property) but rather in the kinship slavery manner that was traditional for most North American tribes. This meant they were treated as members of the household with less status, and were often eventually adopted into the tribe. Among the Cherokees in particular, however, Traditionalists were often abolitionists as they considered “modern” American-style slavery as a violation of their traditional views.   

In most cases the Modernists were biracial “mixed bloods”, the offspring of Indian mothers and white fathers who had married into the tribe and taught their children European ways, whereas the Traditionalists were usually “full bloods” (“half-breed” was not considered an acceptable term by them then or now). This was not always the case, however. Major Ridge, leader of the Modernists (until soon after removal, when he was killed), had spoken hardly any English. John Ross, leader of the Traditionalists (and of the Nation), was 1/8 Cherokee and spoke hardly any Cherokee. Nevertheless, Ross was backed by the Traditionalists, and –his suit and tie notwithstanding –he backed them.

I mentioned that Major Ridge was killed. So was his son John and his nephew Elias Boudinot (the first Cherokee newspaper editor). Boudinot’s brother Stand Watie was the only leader of the Treaty Party to remain, surviving the assassination attempt on him. John Rollin “Yellow Bird” Ridge, son of John Ridge and grandson of Major Ridge, later moved to California and became the first Native American novelist (and also the first California one), writing a book in 1854 about the adventures of Mexican bandit Joaquin Murieta (I suppose in a way this also made him a Western Fictioneer.)

In the years just before the Civil War, Traditionalist Cherokees formed a somewhat secret society to try to keep their old ways alive, and to resist efforts by both whites and Modernists to make them change. They called it the Keetowah Society. Keetowah, also spelled Kituwa, was the Cherokee town in North Carolina (near the present day home of the Eastern Band) that Cherokees considered their “mother town,” the first Cherokee community from which the others had spread. The Cherokee, or Tsalagi, people also had in the past sometimes referred to themselves as Ani-Kituwa, “people of Kituwa.” The very usage of that town’s name, therefore, implied a strong connection to tradition. They were also called “Pin Indians,” from their practice of wearing two crossed pins on their lapel as a marker. Keetowah Society members, it should be noted, tended to be bitterly opposed to slavery.

Some of the Modernists had a secret society of their own. Stand Watie had organized a Cherokee chapter of the Knights of the Golden Circle, which was a sort of pre-war version of the Ku Klux Klan that had chapters throughout the South. They were dedicated to the spread of slavery to new territories.  The “Golden Circle” of their name referred to the area around the Caribbean, so conducive to sugar plantations and other enterprises, which many Southerners wanted to grab and claim for the U.S. as they had done with the territory taken from Mexico. Southerners –including Jefferson Davis –had financed filibuster attempts to take Cuba and some Central and South American countries.

Thus, even though the Cherokees and other tribes had technically settled their internal differences, leading to the 1850s being a prosperous “Golden Decade” in Indian Territory, old  scores had not really been completely forgotten and the stage was set for America’s coming national conflict to also become an Indian Territory civil war.

In next month’s entry, we will begin the hostilities.


  1. Troy, as always, sooo interesting! I love your posts and this is no exception. Growing up in Oklahoma, we lived in the town of Seminole from the time I turned 6 years old. We were the Seminole Chieftains. Of course, back then, we learned more "local" history than they teach now. We had to learn the 5 Civilized Tribes from an early age. We had a cheer that we learned from grade school (football team at that age was called Tiny Chiefs, then older kids were Braves, and high school team was the Chieftains)that went like this: "Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole Chieftains can't be beat!" (easy way to learn)LOL Thanks for the excellent history lesson! I look forward to your next blog!

  2. I do so enjoy the history behind the history. I have the feeling some people wondered why some fought for the south and others the north. Knowing backgrounds helps one understand more clearly why some would make one choice over another. Thank you again for sharing your vast knowledge with the rest of us. I for one, enjoy and look forward to it. Doris

  3. A fascinating and well researched article. I enjoyed it and learned a lot.

  4. I echo the above sentiments. Thanks, Troy.