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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 15, No. 3
September, 1937
THE PRINCIPAL CHIEFS OF THE CHEROKEE NATION

By Gaston L. Litton

Page 253

From 1800 to 1866, at one time or another, there were no less than six distinct groups of Cherokees, each with its own governmental organization, its chiefs, its council and laws.1 With the ratification of the treaty of 1866,2 however, all but one of the separate branches of the tribe were united in Indian Territory and for forty years the Cherokee people lived as one body politic and social.

The Arkansas Cherokees

At the time of the American Independence the Cherokee Indians were a united people living in the Appalachian South—in the valley of the Tennessee river and in the highlands of Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Dissension arose within the tribe and, in 1782, a group of Cherokees petitioned the governor of Louisiana for permission to settle on lands west of the Mississippi.3 Authority was granted and, as a consequence, there was considerable emigration of Cherokees to the present state of Arkansas. Settling on the White and Arkansas rivers, the Indians set up a political







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organization independent of their eastern brothers and called their group "The Cherokee Nation 'West.' "4

The governmental organization of the Arkansas Cherokees prior to 1824 was simple. For many years the tribal affairs were guided by The Bowl or Captain Bowles, as he was also known. In 1813 The Bowl was succeeded by Takatoka who headed the group until 1818 when, for a brief interim, the chieftaincy passed to Tahlontiskee. The latter was succeeded as principal chief by John Jolly.5

On the 11th of September 1824 delegates of the four districts of the Cherokee Nation "West" met in council on Piney Creek and formally organized their government along democratic lines. In a resolution passed on that day the executive power of the tribe was delegated to three officers—a first or principal chief, a second or assistant chief, and a third or minor chief.6 The term of office was limited to four years and the salaries, as fixed by this act, were as follows: first and second chiefs, one hundred dollars annually; third chief, sixty dollars annually.

Eleven years after the creation of the executive office, the powers and duties of the chiefs and their relationship with the national council were further defined. By an act7 adopted on October 29, 1835 the chiefs were required to sign all documents and resolutions passed by the national council to give them validity as law. The chiefs were further empowered to veto any resolutions of the council. Attendance of the chiefs was required at the meetings of the council. For failure to perform the duties and obligations of the office, charges of impeachment could be brought









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against the chief and he could be removed from office. Provision was made at this time for succession to the office of chiefs in the event of vacancies.8

John Jolly, the incumbent, was re-elected to the office of principal chief under the new law.9 To serve with him as second chief was Black Coat. The latter died in the spring of 1835 and was succeeded by Joseph Vann.10

Walter Webber was elected third chief and served until his death on July 16, 1834. By an act of the council,11 Thomas Chisholm was appointed to fill the office but he lived to serve only a few months, dying on November 12, 1834. Another act of the council, passed on June 4, 1835, placed James Rogers in the office of third chief.12

In 1828 and 1829, during the administration of John Jolly, the Arkansas Cherokees removed to Indian Territory. On their arrival they reestablished their government, locating their capital at Tahlontiskee on Deep Creek.13 John Jolly continued as principal chief until his death in 1838.14 In December of that year John Looney took office as principal chief and was to have served untill October 1839; but with the arrival of the Eastern Cherokees in Indian Territory, however, the Old Settler and Arkansas Cherokees decided to strengthen their organization. And a new election was held on April 22, 1839, at which time John Brown became principal chief, with John Looney and John Rogers as second and third chiefs.15 John Brown served for only a few months in the spring of 1839,16 for the failure of Chiefs Brown and Rogers



















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to yield to a compromise with the Ross party led the Old Settlers to call a convention and depose Brown and Rogers, electing in their stead John Looney principal chief.

Looney signed the articles of union and the Eastern and Old Settler Cherokees were then united under a constitution framed in September. The Rogers faction, refusing to recognize the deposition from office, met in council and elected on October 10, 1839 a new group of officers which included John Rogers as first chief, John Smith as second chief and Dutch third chief.17 Lacking support, the new government was not successful; and the history of the Cherokee Nation "West" ended.

The Texas Cherokees

The origin of the Texas branch of the Cherokee tribe may be traced to the dissatisfaction with the delay of the United States government to fulfill the obligations of the treaty of 1817.18 In the winter of 1819-1820 The Bowl, with sixty of his men and their families, left Arkansas and emigrated to the Province of Texas where they settled on the Angelina, Trinity and Neches rivers.19

Smaller in number than the Arkansas group, the Texas Cherokees seem not to have had a formal government. The leadership of the band was in the hands of Richard Fields until his death in 1827. The Bowl succeeded Fields and served until his death twelve years later.20

The Cherokees remained in the Province of Texas, through successive changes in its administration, until their dispersion in 1839 when most of them crossed the Red River and united with the main tribe that had just removed to Indian Territory.21











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The Eastern Cherokees22

The great body of Cherokees remained in the ancestral lands east of the Mississippi until after the removal treaty of 1835, when they were forcibly ejected from their homes and driven to Indian Territory whence the Arkansas branch had gone a few years earlier.

The governmental organization of the eastern band of Cherokees precedes the date of their removal to the West and presupposes the great advancement in self-rule made by the tribe.23 As early as 1817 the Cherokees had established their national council which, in 1819, elected John Ross as president.24 Ten years later, on June 1, the Cherokee people held an election of delegates to a convention which met at New Echota to form, on July 26, 1827, a republican constitution.25 This able document, patterned after our own federal constitution, divided the power of the government into three distinct departments—the legislative, the executive and the judicial. The executive authority was vested in a principal chief, chosen by the general council for a term of four years.

The powers and duties of the principal chief, as defined by this constitution,26 were several; but since they closely resemble the powers of the executive as outlined in the later constitution of 1839, a discussion of the office will be deferred until later in this paper. The rulers and principal chiefs of the Cherokee Nation











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prior to the removal of the tribe to Indian Territory (as nearly as can be determined) are listed by Emmet Starr as follows:27

Moytog ------------------------------------------- April 3, 1730-1760
Attacullaculla ------------------------------------------- 1760-1775
Oconostota ------------------------------------------- 1775-1780
Hanging Maw ------------------------------------------- 1780-1892
Little Turkey ------------------------------------------- 1792-1801
Black Fox (or Enoli) ------------------------------------------- 1801-1811
Pathkiller ------------------------------------------- 1811-1827
Charles R. Hicks ------------------------------------------- 1827
William Hicks ------------------------------------------- 1827
John Ross ------------------------------------------- 1828-removal

Whether known as headmen or principal chiefs, these men were unquestionably the leaders of their tribe.

The transfer of the great body of Cherokees to Indian Territory, which began in 1838 and continued into the spring of 1839, closed the history of this branch of the tribe.28

The North Carolina Cherokees

At the time of the general removal of the Cherokees to Indian Territory, in 1838, a considerable number of the tribe fled into the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina and refused to emigrate. It was not until 1842 that the government recognized the presence of these Cherokees and agreed to let them remain in their mountain retreats.29

The leadership of this group of Cherokees, prior to 1839, was in the hands of Big Bear (Yanegwa) and Drowning Bear (Yona-







Page 259

guska). Upon the death of the latter in 1839, the chieftaincy succeeded to William Holland Thomas, an adopted Cherokee who had been a white trader among them for many years. And for a quarter of a century this white man guided the destinies of the Eastern Cherokees.30

The first attempt of the North Carolina Cherokees to organize a tribal government came in December 1868, when they met at Cheowa31 and adopted a declaration which provided that a council be called to elect a chief.32 After a series of delays this council met on November 26, 1870 at Qualla Town.33 On the following December 1, under a constitution adopted on that day, a first and second chief were elected whose power and right of governing were to extend over the whole land of the Eastern Cherokees for a term of not exceeding two years. Elected to the new offices were Flying Squirrel (Call-lee-high) principal chief and John Jackson (Oo-wah-ben-tee) second chief.34 These men served until 1875. On October 13 of that year, at the Cheowa Council Ground, amendments to the constitution of the North Carolina band of Cherokee Indians were adopted and the duties and powers of the principal and second chiefs were further defined.35 To be eligible to either office, each candidate must have attained the age of thirty-five years and be not less than one-fourth Cherokee. The chief, whose term of office was fixed at four years, was empowered to call the general council in extraordinary session; he was obligated to furnish the legislators with information on the condition of the nation and to recommend measures for the promotion of the tribal welfare. He was required to visit the different towns and settlements at least once in two years. Impeachment charges could













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be brought against the chief and, for failure to discharge his duties, he could be removed from office. Provision was made at this time for succession to the office, in case of vacancy.

The succession of chiefs, elected after the adoption of these amendments, is as follows:36

Lloyd R. Welch ----------------------------------- 1875-1880
Nimrod Jarret Smith ----------------------------------- 1880-1891
Stilwell Saunooke ----------------------------------- 1891-1895
Andy Standingdeer ----------------------------------- 1895-1899
Jesse Reed ----------------------------------- 1899-1903
Bird Saloloneeta ----------------------------------- 1903-1907
John G. Welch ----------------------------------- 1907-1911
Joseph A. Saunooke ----------------------------------- 1911-1915
David Blythe ----------------------------------- 1915-1919
Joseph A. Saunooke ----------------------------------- 1919-1923
Sampson Owl ----------------------------------- 1923-1927
John A. Tahquette ----------------------------------- 1927-1931
Jarrett Blythe ----------------------------------- 1931-1935
Jarrett Blythe ----------------------------------- 1935-37

Unlike their Indian Territory brothers who relinquished their tribal organization when Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907, the North Carolina Cherokees have retained their tribal government until the present. The legislative body of the North Carolina Cherokees is composed of two members elected from each of the five townships on the reservation. According to the provision of their constitution, the annual or grand council meets the first Monday in October each year and at such other times as it may be called together by the principal chief. The principal chief does not deliver an annual message to the council (as was the Custom among the Indian Territory Cherokee chiefs), but he does





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make to that body a report giving an account of his stewardship for the past year.38

The Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory39

The arrival of the main body of the Cherokee tribe in Indian Territory in 1839 presented a peculiar and difficult problem, for here were two factions of the same Nation living in the same territory under separate chiefs and government. Neither group expected to abandon his laws and chiefs for those of another.

Negotiations for uniting the Old Settlers and Eastern Cherokees were begun shortly after the arrival of the latter group. And at length, after a series of conferences, a compromise was effected in the act of union drafted at Illinois Camp Ground on July 12, 1839.40 The amalgamation of the two groups of Cherokees was furthered the following September with the adoption of a constitution.41 Under its provisions courts were established, elections were held, and the new government was soon in full operation.

The office of principal chief under the new constitution was filled by John Ross. To serve with him as assistant chief was elected Joseph Vann, who for many years had been one of the chiefs of the Western Cherokees.42

Political differences for a time seemed to be settled. But soon the ominous rumblings of the Civil War were heard and the Nation was again rent into halves along the lines of its former disturbances. And from 1862 till the negotiation of the Treaty of 1866, at the close of the war, there were two Cherokee Nations in Indian Territory—one, headed by John Ross, which was pro-











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Union during most of the war; the other, headed by Stand Watie, which was distinctly Southern in its sympathies.

Shortly after the beginning of the War between the States, efforts were made to secure for the Confederacy the alliance of the tribes of Indian Territory.43 With that as his objective, Albert Pike was sent as agent to the Indian tribes west of Arkansas; but on his arrival in the Cherokee Nation in June 1861, Chief Ross refused to deal with him. While Pike was in the West, however, the Confederates won the Battle of Wilson's Creek and the Union army in Missouri withdrew as far as Springfield. After this decisive victory, a Confederate success seemed to the Cherokees inevitable. And Stand Watie and his men, who guarded the northern border of the Cherokee Nation against the raids of the "jayhawkers," after this Confederate success espoused the Southern side. Chief Ross, probably fearing that Pike might male a treaty with Stand Watie and recognize him as head of the Cherokee government,44 consented to a renewal of negotiations for a treaty with the Confederates. On August 24, three days after a pro-Southern mass meeting at Tahlequah, Ross saw Pike and the first steps were taken towards a treaty between the Cherokees and the Confederacy that was to be signed on October 7, 1861.

In June 1862 the Confederates were badly defeated at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, and the Indian Country was invaded by the "Indian Expedition" which took Fort Gibson and Tahlequah. The return of the Union forces was welcomed by Chief Ross, a Union sympathizer.45 The Union victory and occupation were short-lived, however, for mutiny broke out within the regiment and the growing strength of the Confederate forces made it necessary for the Union Brigade to retreat to Kansas. After the withdrawal of the Indian Expedition, some two thousand Union Cherokees sought







Page 263

refuge in the ceded lands in Kansas. Chief Ross was arrested and allowed to go overland to the East.46

The Secessionist Cherokees returned and took possession of Tahlequah. A convention was called, Ross was deposed and Stand Watie was chosen principal chief of the Southern Cherokees, which position he was to hold until the close of the war.47 This was probably in August or early September 1862.48

During the year 1863 the Union forces regained and reoccupied the country as far south as Fort Smith, and the Union Cherokees of the Ross party reestablished themselves in the Cherokee country. Pursuant to a proclamation issued on January 31, 1863 by Thomas Pegg, assistant and acting principal chief in John Ross' absence, the Union Cherokee legislature met in council on Cowskin Prairie. In February, the council in session repudiated the Pike Treaty and deposed all Cherokee officials who had been disloyal to the United States government.49 From May 1863 to October 1865, the seat of the Union Cherokee government was located at Kee-too-whah.50 By October 31 of that year, the government had moved to Tahlequah where it was maintained henceforth. Thomas Pegg served as acting and assistant principal chief until sometime in 1863. Late in that year Smith Christie succeeded











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to the office and served for several months. The office then passed to Lewis Downing who continued as acting and assistant chief until the death of John Ross on August 1, 1866.

With the return of the Union forces to the Cherokee Nation in 1862, the Confederate branch of the tribe sought refuge in the Choctaw country and in the Red River counties of Texas, where they remained until the close of the war. The government of the Confederate Cherokees likewise was moved to the Choctaw Country and there Stand Watie established the executive offices of principal chief.51

At the close of the war, the relationship of the Northern and Southern factions of Cherokees became the question of the hour. The first overture to settle the differences was made by the Southern Cherokees. On June 28, 1865 a group of six delegates appointed by Stand Watie, chief and general of the Confederate Cherokees, was instructed to go to Fort Gibson. The delegates put in an appearance at that place on the 8th of July. Lewis Downing, acting principal chief of the Northern Cherokees in the absence of John Ross, assembled the council at Tahlequah to deliberate as to the advisability of giving the delegation an audience. In the end amnesty was resolved upon and on July 14, 1865, elaborately proclaimed.52 This document was unacceptable to the Southern Cherokees, however, and the conference ended in dis-





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appointment. Later, in September, a peace council was held at Fort Smith, but the two groups of Cherokees were hardly more willing to settle their differences than they had been at Fort Gibson and, after a round of conferences, the council adjourned accomplishing little more than the establishment of a formal peace between the government at Washington and the several nations in Indian Territory.

Negotiations were resumed later in Washington and eventually a satisfactory agreement was reached between the two bands of Cherokees and the representatives of the federal government.53 The government of the Union Cherokees was recognized as the legitimate one, the government of the Confederate Cherokees formally ceased to exist, and the relations of the United States with the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory were readjusted.

The period that followed the Civil War was one of great advancement in the Cherokee Nation. The war was over; reconstruction began; and the factional differences that had marked the previous history of the tribe were gradually disappearing. John Ross, who had served as chief of the Cherokees and leader of his party since 1828, died in Washington on August 1, 1866, ere the peace negotiations had ended.54 General Stand Watie, chief of the Confederate Cherokees and leader of the Treaty Party, survived Ross only a few years; he died on September 9, 1871.55







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Elections were soon to take on a comparative calm and the office of principal chief was to be filled by men who exhibited zeal and ability in the performance of their official duties. The men who were to serve the Cherokee Nation as principal chief in the last forty years of its existence are as follows:56

Lewis Downing --------------- August 1, 1866 to October 18, 186657
William P. Ross --------------- October 19, 1866-186758
Lewis Downing --------------- 1867-November 9, 187259
William P. Ross --------------- November 11, 1872-1875









Page 267

Charles Thompson ------------------------- 1875-187960
D. W. Bushyhead ------------------------- 1879-188761
Joel B. Mayes ------------------------- 1887-189162
C. J. Harris ------------------------- December 23, 1891-189563
S. H. Mayes ------------------------- 1895-189964
T. M. Buffington ------------------------- 1899-190365













Page 268

W. C. Rogers ------------------------- 1903-November 8, 191766

The office of the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation was, in many respects, much like the office of governor of the several states and the presidency of the United States.67 The chief was elected by the qualified voters of the Nation at the time of the general election on the first Monday in August, every four years. He took office the following November at the convening of the national council. No person except a natural born citizen was eligible to the office and he must have attained the age of thirty-five years. The term of office was for four years and there was no provision in the constitution limiting the number of terms a chief might serve.68


66The last regularly-elected chief was William C. Rogers, who was born December 13, 1849 near Pryor Creek. His public life began with his appointment as deputy sheriff of Cooweescoowee district. Rogers was three times elected to the lower house and was a member of the Cherokee senate for two terms. His election to the office of principal chief came in 1903.

Under the provisions of the United States-Cherokee agreement made at Muskogee on July 1, 1902, the tribal government was not to continue longer than March 4, 1906. In the summer of 1905 as the regular election time approached, Chief Rogers (realizing that the tribal government had only a few months longer to run) failed to issue a proclamation calling for an election of the national council. An election was held, however, against the wishes of Chief Rogers; and on November 11, 1905 the council convened. The chief refused to recognize the honorable bodies. The council adjourned, and both the chiefs and the representatives of the "rump" council went to Muskogee and presented their claims to Indian Inspector Wright who refused to take a part in the matter. The council reconvened and, on November 17, impeachment charges were brought against Rogers. The chief left for Washington to confer with Department of the Interior officials. The council impeached Chief Rogers, declared the office vacant and elected Frank J. Boudinot principal chief. Boudinot was sworn in on November 21, but the assistant chief under Rogers, D. M. Faulkner, refused to recognize Boudinot and turn over to him the records and seal of the office. Both factions appealed to Secretary of the Interior Hitchcock who decided in favor of Rogers. The latter continued in office until his death in 1917. Tahlequah Cherokee Advocate, November 30, 1906; Muskogee Phoenix, November 12, 18 and 22, 1905; Vinita Leader, November 23, and December 14, 1905, and January 4, 1906; Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians, 263.





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The powers of the principal chief were several. He issued writs of election, offered rewards, honored requisitions from executives of other nations. He could convene the national council in extraordinary session; he could fill, during the recess of the national council, any vacated offices which the council filled while in session.

The duties of the principal chief were numerous. He was obligated to recommend to the council such measures as he deemed expedient and worthy of legislative action. He was required to visit the different districts of the nation at least once in two years to inform himself of the general condition of the country. In cases of disagreement between the two branches of the national council with respect to the time of adjournment, the chief had the power of adjourning the honorable bodies at such time as he deemed proper. The principal chief was required to maintain official residence at the seat of the government only during the session of the national council.

The salary of the principal chief was fixed by act of the council and varied from time to time. It was fixed by action of the council as follows: in 1839, $500; in 1859, $900; in 1875, $2000; in 1892, $1500.69

To assist the principal chief in his official duties was an assistant chief whose election and term of office were identical with that of the principal chief.70




70The assistant chiefs who served the Cherokee Nation after the adoption of the constitution of 1839, are (as nearly as can be determined) as follows:
    Joseph Vann..........September 9, 1839-June 26, 1840
    Anderson Vann..............................June 26, 1840-1843
    George Lowrey.............................................1843-1851
    Richard Taylor...............................................1851-1855
    John Spear.....................................................1855-1859
    Joseph Vann..................................................1859-1862
                         Civil War Period, 1862-1866
    1]  Union Cherokee
              Thomas Pegg......................................1862-1863
              Smith Christie...............................................1863
              Lewis Downing....................................1864-1866
    2]  Confederate Cherokee
              John Spear
              Samuel McDaniel Taylor
    Joseph Vann..................................................1867-1871
    Robert Buffington Daniel........1871-January 16, 1872
    James Vann...........................November 23, 1872-1875
    David Rowe....................................................1875-1879
    William P. Adair..........................1879-0ctober 21, 1880
    Rabbit Bunch..........................1880-November 5, 1887
    Samuel Smith.................................................1887-1891
    Henry Chambers......November and December, 1891
    Stephen Teehee..................December 23, 1891-1895
    George Washington Swimmer.....................1895-1903
    David M. Faulkner........August 3, 1903-June 30, 1904
Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians, 264; Vinita Daily Chieftain, June 14, 1904.

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With the admission of Oklahoma to the Union as the forty-sixth state, the work of the Cherokee government in Indian Territory was completed and one of the strongest and proudest of Indian Nations gave itself and its heritage to the formation of another American commonwealth.71



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