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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 17, No. 4
December, 1939

By Dean Trickett

Page 401

Efforts by the Federal Government to counteract the propaganda of the southern states among the Indian nations proved futile. In fact, after the withdrawal of the Federal troops in May, 1861, communication between the Indian Territory and the North "almost entirely ceased." Indian agents newly appointed from the northern states were unable to reach their posts; those appointed from the southern states soon went over to the Confederacy.

After the inauguration of President Lincoln, William P. Dole succeeded A. B. Greenwood as commissioner of Indian affairs. The Southern Superintendency, with headquarters at Fort Smith, Arkansas, was offered to Samuel L. Griffith, of that city, a member of the Arkansas convention on the Union side, who accepted on April 9 but resigned on the 20th, saying that "under the circumstances" he could not hold office. He was replaced by a northern man—William G. Coffin, of Indiana.1 Griffith shortly afterward became a candidate for the corresponding position in the Confederacy.2

Similar defections occurred among the agency appointees. William Quesenbury, of Fayetteville, Arkansas, appointed to succeed William H. Garrett as agent for the Creeks, sided with the Confederacy; as did also John Crawford, of the same city, appointed to supplant Robert J. Cowart as agent for the Cherokees.3

William P. Davis, of Indiana, was given the Seminole Agency, to replace Samuel M. Rutherford, but was unable to reach his post and later entered the Union Army.4 John J. Humphreys, of Tennessee, was offered the Wichita Agency, in the Leased District, to succeed Matthew Leeper, but he too never reached his post.5 Rutherford and Leeper became Indian agents under the Confederacy.

Page 402

Peter P. Elder, of Kansas, re]placed Andrew J. Doran, long in charge of the Neosho River Agency, to which belonged the Seneca, Seneca and Shawnee, and Quapaw reserves in northeastern Indian Territory and the Osage reserve in southeastern Kansas.6 Doran, a native of Arkansas, also became an Indian agent for the Confederacy.

For the time being, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Agency seems to have been overlooked. The incumbent was Douglas H. Cooper, who was to reach high rank in the Confederate Army.

Information as to the course events were taking in the Indian Territory was slow in reaching Washington, and it was not until April 30 that Commissioner Dole reported to the Secretary of the Interior receipt of a letter from Superintendent Elias Rector,7 enclosing a communication addressed to Col. W. H. Emory by Matthew Leeper "having reference to the removal of the troops from Fort Cobb." In view of the fact that the Government was bound by treaty obligations to protect the Indians, Dole asked to be informed "if it is not its intention to keep in the country a sufficient force for the purpose."8 No satisfactory answer was given to Dole's inquiry. On that day Colonel Emory was abandoning Fort Washita and was to receive two days later, from the hand of Lieutenant Averell, orders from the Government to abandon the Indian Territory.

Still hopeful, Commissioner Dole addressed a circular letter on May 11 to the principal chiefs of the five great tribes. It was in substance a letter of introduction for the new superintendent of Indian affairs—William G. Coffin—who was made bearer of the communications. Dole, however, went on to assure the Indians that a part of the "well-settled policy" of President Lincoln's administration "is, that in no event, and under no circumstances, shall your domestic institutions be interfered with by any of its officers or employes." Further, the War Department had been requested to furnish troops and munitions "to protect your people against the depredations of all parties."9 Six months later, in his first annual report, Dole sadly confessed:

"It is doubtful if the assurances thus given (and from which I entertained strong hopes that at least the neutrality of those Indians would be secured) in every instance reached their intended destination; and I exceed-

Page 403

ingly regret that in consequence of unprecedented and imperative demands made in other and more important directions upon, the resources of the War Department, it was unable to furnish the troops and war munitions as suggested."10

Superintendent Coffin failed not only to deliver the messages but also to reach Fort Smith. On his journey west he stopped at his home in Indiana, and it was not until June 19 that he reached Crawford Seminary, headquarters of the Neosho River Agency, in the Quapaw Nation.11 That was the only contact he made with his Indian wards. He found it "unsafe for any person not known to be thoroughly identified with the rebellion under any pretence to visit them, or for any person at all suspected of entertaining Union sentiments to remain among them."12 The withdrawal of the Federal troops had turned the Indian Territory over to the Confederates. Coffin established temporary headquarters at Humboldt in southeastern Kansas.

The presence in the Chickasaw Nation of the Texas militia and the occupation of Fort Smith by Arkansas state troops bolstered the propaganda of the secessionists and effectively curbed Union sentiment. Although the Indian nations maintained an outward semblance of neutrality during the spring and early summer of 1861, the mask was quickly cast aside when the Confederate Government took over the direction of affairs in the Indian country. Heir to the experience gained in the earlier, but unsuccessful, attempts of the states of Texas and Arkansas to form alliances with the Indian tribes, the Confederate Government conducted its negotiations with tact and skill. To that end it had made careful preparation.

A bill to establish a War Department, passed on February 21 by the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States, sitting at Montgomery, Alabama, delegated to that department "all matters and things connected with . . . the Indian tribes within the limits of the Confederacy."13 A resolution offered by William P. Chilton, member from Alabama, which was adopted on the same day, directed the Committee on Indian Affairs to "inquire into the expediency . . for opening negotiations with the Indian tribes of the West . . . "14 Four days later, Edward Sparrow, of Louisiana, proposed that the Indian Affairs committee, of which he was a member, "be instructed to inquire into the policy of

Page 404

providing for the appointment of agents to the different tribes of Indians occupying territory adjoining this Confederacy . . ."15

On Monday, March 4, while President Lincoln was being inaugurated at Washington, the Confederate Congress adopted a resolution of far-reaching consequence. Introduced by Robert Toombs, member from Georgia and serving at the same time as Secretary of State, it authorized the President "to send a suitable person as special agent of this Government to the Indian tribes west of the state of Arkansas."16

Albert Pike, of Arkansas, was selected by President Davis for that important mission.17 The appointment doubtless was made at the suggestion of Secretary Toombs, as he and Pike were friends and fellow Masons; and for a time Pike seems to have acted under the direction of the State Department. He carried on a correspondence with the secretary in regard to Indian relations and as late as July was reporting to Toombs the progress of his mission.18

In the meantime, the Provisional Congress on March 15 set up a Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the control of the War Department; and President Davis on the following day appointed David Hubbard, ex-commissioner from Alabama to Arkansas, to be commissioner of Indian affairs.19

The general policy of the Confederate Government in regard to Indian relations was outlined in "An act for the protection of certain Indian tribes," passed by the Provisional Congress on the 17th of May.20 So far as known, no copy of that important measure is in existence today; but President Davis sent a copy of the act to Pike to serve as his instructions in the negotiations with the Indian tribes.21

Another timely action of the Provisional Congress was the confirmation on May 11 of the appointment of Ben McCulloch, of Texas, to be brigadier general.22 Two days later he was "assigned to the command of the district embracing the Indian Territory lying west of Arkansas and south of Kansas."23

Page 405

Stopping a few days at Little Rock, Arkansas, on his journey west, General McCulloch arrived at Fort Smith on May 25. Under orders of the Secretary of War he was instructed to guard the Indian Territory "against invasion from Kansas and elsewhere." To accomplish that purpose, two regiments of "mounted men" from Texas and Arkansas and one regiment of "foot" from Louisiana were to be placed at his disposal. In addition, he was to engage, if possible, the service of any of the Indian tribes "in numbers equal to two regiments." Further, he was instructed to capture "with the least practicable delay" the Federal troops believed to be at Fort Washita.24 At Little Rock, however, he learned that Colonel Emory had already evacuated the Indian Territory and was then nearing Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.25

McCulloch, with boundless energy, set about the task of organizing his department. On investigation he learned, "from the best information," that the Choctaws and Chickasaws were anxious to join the Confederacy and that the Creek Nation "will also come in." About the Cherokees, however, the news was less encouraging, owing to the dissension within the nation. Furthermore, in looking for a military position for his command in the Indian Territory, McCulloch found "no point suitable for such a position except in the Cherokee country." It became necessary to interview Chief Ross.26

For that purpose McCulloch joined forces with Albert Pike, special agent to the Indian tribes, who had come to Fort Smith from Little Rock about the time McCulloch took command. Before going to Park Hill, in the Cherokee Nation, where Chief Ross resided, McCulloch and Pike were approached by "five or six Cherokees" anxious to "organize and take up arms for the South," but fearing the vengeance of "Mr. Ross and the Pin indians." They were assured of the protection of the Confederate Government, and Pike made arrangements to meet other members of the anti-Ross party at the Creek Agency a few days later. He "did not expect to effect any arrangement with Mr. Ross," and his "intention was to treat with the heads of the southern party —Stand Watie and others."27

In a letter written after the war, Pike described the meeting with Chief Ross:

"When we met Mr. Ross at Park Hill, he refused to enter into any arrangement with the Confederate States. He said it was his intention to maintain the neutrality of his people; that they were a small and weak

Page 406

people, and would be ruined and destroyed if they engaged in the war; that it would be a cruel thing if we were to engage them in our quarrel .... We told him that the Cherokees could not be neutral. We used every argument in our power to change his determination, but in vain, and, finally, General McCulloch informed him that he would respect the neutrality of the Cherokees, and would not enter their country with troops, or place troops in it, unless it should become necessary in order to expel a Federal force, or to protect the southern Cherokees.

"So we separated. General McCulloch kept his word, and no Confederate troops ever were stationed in, or marched into the Cherokee country, until after Federal troops invaded it."28

General McCulloch, in reporting the interview to Secretary Walker, of the War Department, stated that Ross "has assured me that in the event of an invasion from the North he will put himself at the head of his people and march to repel it."29 Some ten days after the meeting, McCulloch wrote a letter to Ross confirming the agreement reached and adding

"In the meantime, those of your people who are in favor of joining the Confederacy must be allowed to organize into military companies as Home Guards, for the purpose of defending themselves in case of invasion from the North. This, of course, will be in accordance with the views you expressed to me, that in case of an invasion from the North you would lead your men yourself to repel it."30

Chief Ross, on June 17, "most respectfully declined" to allow the organization of military companies in the Cherokee nation. Moreover, General McCulloch had misunderstood his remark.

"I informed you that I had taken a neutral position, and would maintain it honestly, but that in case of a foreign invasion, old as I am, I would assist in repelling it. I have not signified any purpose as to an invasion of our soil and an interference with our rights from the United or Confederate States, because I have apprehended none, and cannot give my consent to any."31

As was apparently his custom, Chief Ross on the same day proceeded to clean up his correspondence by answering a letter addressed to him by David Hubbard, commissioner of Indian affairs for the Confederacy. Hubbard had come west to assist in the negotiations with the Indian tribes, but an attack of pneumonia at Little Rock kept him in bed for ten days, and further delay by low water and the sinking of a steamboat prevented him from reaching Fort Smith until the first week in June. From a sick bed he wrote to Ross on June 12. He strove to convince the chief that the North had designs not only on the slaves of the Cherokees but also on their land.

"Go North among the once powerful tribes of that country and see if you can find Indians living and enjoying power and property and liberty

Page 407

as do your people and the neighboring tribes from the South. If you can, then say I am a liar, and the northern states have been better to the Indians than the southern states."32

To that farrago of specious argument and distorted fact, Chief Ross replied temperately and sanely. In the main, he relied implicitly on the treaties hitherto made by the Cherokees with the Federal Government, and he again affirmed his policy of neutrality. Beyond that he had nothing to say.

"A comparison of northern and southern philanthrophy, as illustrated in their dealings toward the Indians within their respective limits, would not affect the merits of the question now under consideration, which is simply one of duty under existing circumstances. I therefore pass it over, merely remarking that the 'settled policy' of former years was a favorite one with both sections when extended to the acquisition of Indian lands, and that but few Indians now press their feet upon the banks of either the Ohio or the Tennessee."33

Few men were a match for Chief Ross in the art of conducting diplomatic negotiations by correspondence. Hubbard retired after his one effort, and General McCulloch, heeding a call for aid from Governor Jackson, of Missouri, was henceforth occupied with the defense of northwestern Arkansas until his death in battle at Pea Ridge nine months later. Pike carried on alone.

The Confederate Government was fortunate in its choice of agent to conduct negotiations with the Indian tribes. By training and nature Albert Pike was superbly fitted for the task at hand. He was born in Massachusetts in 1809; went west in 1831 with an expedition toward Mexico, but turned back and began teaching school at Fort Smith. Later he moved to Little Rock, edited a newspaper, and began the practice of law, becoming in time "the first lawyer of the Southwest."34 He was a captain in the Mexican War and a poet of genuine merit, and his devotion to Masonry led him in later life to become "the greatest Mason of his time."35 Add to this a magnificent physical presence, and the influence he exerted over the Indian tribes becomes intelligible. In the summer of 1862 a young captain of artillery witnessed a council of wild plains Indians summoned by Pike, then a general, and afterwards wrote

"It was a wonderful thing to see them as they sat in a semi-circle in front of General Pike's large office tent all day long, gazing at his striking and majestic person, as he sat writing, or reading and smoking. They seemed to reverence him like a god."36

Page 408

Soon after his arrival in Fort Smith late in May, Pike "formally requested" Superintendent Rector and the Indian agents then in service or newly appointed from the southern states to continue in service under the Confederacy.37 Agent Cooper had been empowered earlier in the month by the Confederate Secretary of War to raise a mounted regiment among the Choctaws and Chickasaws, to be commanded by himself.38

Within about four months Pike negotiated nine Indian treaties of alliance. The first was with the Creek Nation on July 10.39 In signing that treaty Pike afterwards claimed he thwarted Chief Ross, who

"had persuaded Opothleyoholo, the Creek leader, not to join the southern states, and had sent delegates to meet the northern and other Indians in council near the Antelope Hills, where they all agreed to be neutral. The purpose was to take advantage of the war between the states, and form a great independent Indian confederation. I defeated all that by treating with the Creeks at the very time that their delegates were at the Antelope Hills in council."40

Two days later Pike signed a treaty with the Choctaws and Chickasaws.41 The Chickasaw Legislature, on May 25, had declared the nation "independent, the people thereof free to form such alliances . . . as may to them seem best";42 and like action had been taken by the General Council of the Choctaw Nation on June 10.43 Pike was on especially intimate terms with the Choctaws, as he had acted as attorney for the nation at Washington for a number of years in prosecuting claims arising under the treaty of 1830.44

During the first half of August, Pike concluded treaties with the Seminoles at their agency45 and with the Reserve Indians46 and prairie Comanches47 at the Wichita Agency, near Fort Cobb. Turning back, by way of Fort Arbuckle, he received surprising news. Before reaching the fort he

"met a nephew of Mr. Ross and a Captain Fields, on the prairie, bearing a letter to me from Mr. Ross and his council, with a copy of the resolutions of the council and an invitation, in pressing terms, to repair to the Cherokee country and enter into a treaty."48

Page 409

At Park Hill three months before, when McCulloch and Pike interviewed Chief Ross, the chief promised Pike that he would call the executive council of the Cherokees together "for the purpose of conferring with them on the subject." Meeting late in June, the council indorsed the policy of neutrality.49 Dissension between the two factions in the nation increased, however, during July; whereupon the council, on August 1,50 called a general meeting to give "the Cherokee people an opportunity to express their opinions in relation to subjects of deep interest in themselves as individuals and as a nation."51

That meeting, held on the 21st of August at Tahlequah, capital of the nation, and attended by about 4,000 Cherokees, "almost exclusively adult males," reversed the policy Chief Ross had steadfastly maintained during the preceding six months and allied the Cherokee Nation with the Confederacy.

Opening the meeting with a short address, Ross defended the position he had assumed heretofore, "too often proclaimed to be misunderstood, however much it may be misrepresented." But "the permanent disruption of the United States" seemed now probable. Arkansas and the surrounding Indian nations had joined the Confederacy. It was not desirable that the Cherokees stand alone.

"And in view of all the circumstances of our situation, I do say to you frankly that in my opinion the time has now come when you should signify your consent for the authorities of the nation to adopt preliminary steps for an alliance with the Confederate States upon terms honorable and advantageous to the Cherokee Nation."52

Consent was given in resolutions "carried by acclamation."53

A copy of the proceedings of the meeting was forwarded to General McCulloch, and he was informed that Col. John Drew would raise and tender for service a regiment of mounted men to protect the northern border of the nation from invasion.54 In reply, McCulloch revealed that for some time he had been protecting the border with a force Col. Stand Watie had raised under his authorization and which was then on the Cherokee neutral lands in Kansas, outside the nation proper.55

On receiving the invitation from the Cherokees, Albert Pike fixed a day for the meeting and returned through the Creek country to Fort Gibson. Of his second visit with the Cherokees, Pike afterwards wrote:

Page 410

"From Fort Gibson eight or nine companies of Colonel Drew's regiment of Cherokees, chiefly full-bloods and Pins, escorted me to Park Hill. . .

"I encamped with my little party near the residence of the chief, unprotected even by a guard, and with the Confederate flag flying. The terms of the treaty were fully discussed, and the Cherokee authorities dealt with me on equal terms . . . .

"After the treaties were signed I presented Colonel Drew's regiment a flag, and the chief in a speech exhorted them to be true to it, and afterwards, at his request, I wrote the Cherokee declaration of independence . . ."56

The treaty with the Cherokees was negotiated at Tahlequah and signed on the 7th of October.57 Meanwhile, Pike concluded three other treaties at Park Hill—one with four bands of the Great Osages on October 2;58 another with the Quapaws, October 4;59 and the third, on the same day, with the Senecas and the Shawnees of the mixed bands of Senecas and Shawnees.60

In December President Davis submitted the Pike treaties to the Provisional Congress, then sitting at Richmond, Virginia. Under the able management of Robert W. Johnson, of Arkansas, chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, they were debated and, after some amendment, ratified. President Davis, in his letter of transmittal, said:

"The general provisions of all the treaties are similar, and in each the Confederate States assume the guardianship over the tribe and become responsible for all the obligations to the Indians imposed by former treaties on the Government of the United States."61

Chief Ross, in laying the Cherokee treaty before the National Council, declared it "the most important ever negotiated on behalf of the Cherokee Nation," marking "a new era in its history." The future looked bright.

"The Cherokee people stand upon new ground. Let us hope that the clouds which overspread the land will be dispersed and that we shall prosper as we have never before done."62

On the other hand, the Federal superintendent of Indian affairs, William G. Coffin, reported to Commissioner Dole that he had learned the treaty was "far from being satisfactory to the Cherokee full-bloods" and charged that it had been brought about by the "most scandalous frauds, misrepresentations, and corruptions."63

Page 411

Evan Jones, Baptist missionary to the Cherokees, who had left the nation, was "perfectly astounded at the announcement of the defection of John Ross and the Cherokees." From Lawrence, Kansas, he wrote to Commissioner Dole:

"I have no doubt the unfortunate affair was brought about under stress of threatened force, which the Cherokees were by no means able to resist."64

He believed, as did Superintendent Coffin, that if a sufficient military force were sent into the nation a large majority of the Cherokees would be found loyal to the Federal Government.

Other reasons were given to explain the action of the Cherokees. General McCulloch, with pardonable pride in the victory won by the Confederate Army under his command, thought it "was brought about by the battle of Oak Hills" [Wilson's Creek];65 as apparently did also Albert Pike: "The battle of Oak Hills had, however, a great effect, especially with the Cherokees."66

Chief Ross himself, on three public occasions, discussed the alliance: at the general meeting on August 21,67 in his message to the National Council on October 9,68 and before Drew's regiment on December 21.69 The last named effort, sketchy and vague, is the least satisfactory of the three. On the second occasion, however, he outlined briefly, yet clearly, his past and present policy:

"At the beginning of the conflict I felt that the interests of the Cherokee people would be best maintained by remaining quiet and not involving themselves in it prematurely. Our relations had long existed with the United States Government and bound us to observe amity and peace alike with all the states. Neutrality was proper and wise so long as there remained a reasonble probability that the difficulty between the two sections of the Union would be settled, as a different course would have placed all our rights in jeopardy and might have led to the sacrifice of the people. But when there was no longer any reason to believe that the union of the states would be continued there was no cause to hesitate as to the course the Cherokee Nation should pursue. Our geographical position and domestic institutions allied us to the South, while the developments daily made in our vicinity and as to the purposes of the war waged against the Confederate States clearly pointed out the path of interest."70

John Ross was born in 1790 near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. His father, David Ross, was a Scotchman, and his mother,

Page 412

Mary (McDonald) Ross, was Scotch but of one-quarter Cherokee blood. He was elected principal chief of the eastern Cherokees in 1828, and became leader of the Cherokee party opposed to westward removal; but after his efforts failed, he led his people in 1838-1839 to their new home in the Indian Territory. He was chosen principal chief of the united western and eastern Cherokees in 1839 and had served continuously since.71

He had lived to see the early strife, which had rent and nearly dismembered the nation, give way to a decade of comparative peace, only to be revived by a war that again split the nation into the factions of former animosity.

At three score and ten Chief Ross once more took up the task of harmonizing the discordant elements in the nation. That he was an opportunist is doubtless true. In his letter to Hubbard he intimated he saw his duty in the light of "existing circumstances." That he did not see clearly was a fault of the times; few men did. The day before the general meeting, he was asked "if the arrangement was to be a permanent one." He replied:

"We are in the position of a man standing alone upon a low, naked spot of ground, with the water rising rapidly all around him. He sees the danger but does not know what to do. If he remains where he is, his only alternative is to be swept away and perish. The tide carries by him, in its mad course, a drifting log; it, perchance, comes within reach of him. By refusing it he is a doomed man. By seizing hold of it he has a chance for his life. He can but perish in the effort, and may be able to keep his head above water until rescued, or drift where he can help himself."72

(To be continued)

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