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.
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
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”
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
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
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
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
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."