Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 18, No. 1
March, 1940


Page 35

Montfort Stokes was born near Petersburg, Virginia, on March 12, 1762. His family for four generations had been prominent in the social and political affairs of the colony. Both his paternal and maternal ancestry have been traced back to prominent families in England. In the Revolution he probably served as a privateer, although no official record of this service has been found. From his thirteenth to his seventieth year he lived in North Carolina, in the towns of Halifax, Salisbury, and Wilkesboro.1

Stokes held political appointments in North Carolina for forty-three years. He was clerk of Rowan County and the state senate for thirty years. He was major-general in the state militia for a number of years but did not see active service in the War of 1812. He served on commissions that settled the state's boundary disputes with South Carolina and Tennessee. He was prominent in Masonic circles, holding at one time the office of Deputy Grand Master for the Grand Lodge of North Carolina. He was a slave owner and traded extensively in land. In 1816 he went down from his mountain retreat to spend six years and three months in the United States Senate. While never a crusader, he identified himself with the party known as the "War Hawks," "Young Republicans" and "Loose Constructionists." In the struggle over the extension of slavery he voted in favor of the Missouri Compromise. He was a moderate advocate of internal improvements. He was an ardent supporter of Thomas Jefferson and of Andrew Jackson, his boyhood friend.

In state politics from 1826 to 1832, Stokes served two years each in the senate, the house and the governorship. He gave only mild support to inflation in the state's finances, internal improvements, constitutional reform in the interest of fairer representation from the West, and public school education. He favored a low tariff but opposed South Carolina's plan to nullify a tariff act passed by Congress.

Much of Stokes' success was due to his social talents and his knowledge of practical politics. "He was of infinite wit and....and rarely lost a friend by his railery." He seldom missed a political convention. Politics was his life work. After his twenty-third year, there were only four years when he was not holding some

Page 36

public office. His official life covered fifty-three years. Thomas Ruffin said of him: "He is an old politician. That is a character that is seldom in a hurry to get home; or that exhibits any anxiety but for popular favor. And when at home, they are of little use and do little else than be served by their families."

Stokes resigned from the governorship on November 19, 1832, in order to accept an appointment by President Jackson as Chairman of a Federal Indian Commission charged with the responsibility of supervising the settling of the Indians of the Southeast in their new homes in Indian territory. He had made no study of the Indians, nor had he shown any special interest in them other than to favor their removal from North Carolina. Jackson wished to reward a friend and repay a political leader who had rendered potent service in his presidential campaigns of 1824, 1828, and 1832. "To the victor belong the spoils."

By an act of Congress on March 2, 1819, Arkansas Territory was established, embracing practically all that is now Oklahoma and Arkansas. The civil government was confined to Arkansas; west of Arkansas was the Indian country, later known as Indian Territory.2

The Indian Removal Bill, enacted by Congress on May 28, 1830,3 did not specifically order the removal of the Indians beyond the Mississippi River; but doubtless Congress thought they would be removed. Some of the Southeastern states had determined to acquire the lands of the Indians within their borders. Jackson was known to be sympathetic with these states when Congress gave him the power of dealing with the conflict between them and the Indians.

Jackson lost no time in putting the Removal Bill into effect. He made several treaties dealing with the removal of the Indians, or with the settlement of their boundary disputes.4

A large part of the Choctaws removed to Indian territory in 1831, 1832, and 1833; most of the remainder were removed by force in 1836. Some of the Cherokees moved as a result of the fraudulent treaty of 1835; others were forced out in 1838 and 1839. The re-

Page 37

moval of the Creeks to Indian territory was completed in 1836 and 1837. A few of the Seminoles migrated in 1833 and others followed later; but it was not until 1856 that the government considered its work of removal finished. By 1840, sixty thousand of the five civilized tribes had arrived in Indian territory.5

The request for a Federal Indian Commission came from the Creeks in Indian territory. They stated that they were far removed from Washington and found it difficult to adjust themselves to the newly arrived Cherokees and other Indian nations. They wished a strong commission on the ground in order that their problems might be quickly solved.6

President Jackson asked for authority to appoint a Commission and for an appropriation of $20,000 for salaries and expenses. This request was granted by Act of Congress of July 14, 1832. On the same day commissions and instructions were mailed to Governor Montfort Stokes, Governor William Carroll of Tennessee and Robert Vaux of Pennsylvania.7 Carroll and Vaux declined the appointments, but Stokes promptly accepted. At seventy years, an age when most men retire, he was ready for the largest task of his life in the rough life of the wilderness. He requested time in which to prepare for the meeting of the North Carolina legislature, instead of reaching Fort Gibson on October 1 as instructed.8 Reverend John J. Schermerhorm of Utica, New York, and Henry L. Ellsworth of Hartford, Connecticut, agreed to fill the other places on the Commission. S.C. Stambaugh was appointed secretary.

The instructions given the Commission outlined the type of work to be done. They were to examine the new home of the Indians, adjust difficulties arising over boundaries, report on methods used in removing the Indians and recommend changes, And suggest a plan of government for the Indian country. The term of the Commission was to expire on July 14, 1834. They were instructed to work in close harmony with Colonel A.P. Chouteau who had served as a wise councilor for years in the new territory.

Page 38

They were to have the protection of four companies of rangers under the command of Captain Jesse Bean. When stationed at one place, they were to receive eight dollars per day; when travelling, they were to receive eight dollars for each twenty miles covered.9

Ellsworth arrived at Fort Gibson on October 8, 1832. On the journey to the West he was accompanied by Washington, Irving. Irving accepted his invitation to visit Fort Gibson and to tour the prairies accompanied by the rangers: from this experience was gathered much of the materials of Irving's book, A Tour of the Prairies. In December, Schermerhorn and Stambaugh arrived. On February 4, 1833, Stokes arrived on an Arkansas River steamboat.l0 Fort Gibson was erected by the War Department in 1824 near the present site of Muskogee, Oklahoma, on the Grand River not far from its confluence with the Arkansas River. Like Irving, Stokes probably noted the "tolerably clear stream, neat look of white fortifications, block-house...the culprits in pillory and riding the wooden horse."11

The first task of the Commission was that of adjusting the boundaries between the Creeks and the Cherokees. The government erred in its treaty of 1828 in giving to the Cherokees some of the land it had already given to the Creeks. The Creeks had built their homes and established farms on this land and naturally resented the encroachment of the Cherokees. Ten days after Stokes arrived, treaties were concluded with these nations on February 14, 1833. The boundary agreed upon was surveyed by Captain Nathan Boone, a son of Daniel Boone.12

The next problem concerned the Osage nation. The Osages had already given their oral agreement to move from their homes in Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas to the barren lands of what is now the state of Kansas; the Commission was instructed to get them to sign such an agreement in a formal treaty. The first con-

12C. J. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties (Washington, 1903, 3 vols.), II, 283, 285, quoted in Foreman, Pioneer Days, 210. (Afterwards referred to in this work as Kappler, C. J., Treaties).

Page 39

ference was held forty miles up. the Grand River at the home of Colonel Chouteau. When the hungry Indians had consumed all the food on hand, the conference moved to Fort Gibson. The appearance of six thousand half-starved Osages moved the heart of Stokes to pity and probably laid the basis for much of his subsequent attitude toward the Indians. The Commission hoped that the influence of Chouteau would bring the Osages to terms; but their leader replied that since the United States had not kept its former treaties, they would not sign a new one. The Commission made another effort; the Osages were told that if they would move to Kansas and adopt agriculture as a mode of living the government would supply $43,000 for the purchase of the proper tools. A minority of the nation blocked the acceptance of this offer. The conference broke up in hopeless disagreement on the second of April. The Osages showed their contempt for the authority of the government by killing a hundred Kiowas.13

The Commission reported to the government that they were able to bring a large delegation into conference because the Indians were hungry; they had failed in making a treaty due to the fact that a third of the nation, under the leadership of Chief Clermont, made such impossible demands that it was thought best not to force a treaty upon them in their divided state.14

Later in the year, Stokes assisted a special commission composed of Major F. W. Armstrong, General Arbuckle, General Dodge and Colonel Chouteau in making a treaty with the Osage nation. Five years later Stokes said that this treaty would have preserved "that nation from ruin...President Jackson rejected that treaty; but in the very sentence of rejection, he says that something shall shortly be done for them.—Nothing has been done."15

During the conferences with the Osage nation, a delegation from the Seminoles arrived front Florida to investigate their proposed home. On March 28 the Commission persuaded the delegation to sign a statement to the effect that they were satisfied with the new country; this document was used by the government in its pressing demands for a treaty of removal on the part of the whole nation. This action brought on the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842.16

Stokes and Stambaugh were opposed to the removal of the Osage nation to worthless lands. Schermerhorn and Ellsworth were not very sympathetic towards this nation. The result was

16Kappler, C. J., Treaties, II, 290, quoted in Foreman, Pioneer Days, 211.

Page 40

friction amoung the commissioners. Cholera was widespread in the region south of Fort Gibson and several at the fort had died of this disease. Because of the friction within the Commission and the presence of cholera or for some other reason, Schermerhorn, Ellsworth, and Stambaugh returned to their homes in April and May. Stokes was left in charge of the work of the Commission.17

In the summer of 1833, Stokes and Ellsworth had been instructed to visit the St. Louis office of General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and make a report of the type of work he was doing. While waiting for Ellsworth to reach St. Louis, Stokes made an individual report. He complimented Clark upon the condition of his records. He said: "The office may be termed a bureau of information, not only relative to Indian affairs, but of much that pertains to the history of this Western country." He then turned aside to a consideration of the work of the Commission. He had been busy and had not kept close watch on the funds appropriated for the work; a rent check revealed that they had in one year spent more than the $20,000 appropriated for the two year term. He said that: "I find a large portion of my own expenses unpaid...I deserve no indulgence on this behalf...but there are very many objects of public interest that must be provided for."18

On August 15, 1833, in another report from St. Louis to Cass, Secretary of War, Stokes rejoiced to see in the papers that the attempts of the government to persuade the Cherokees in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to sign a treaty of removal had failed. He thought that such a treaty would fail unless the Cherokees already in Indian territory were consulted in advance. The wild Indians of the West could not trust paper treaties as do the civilized nations; therefore, the government was urged to spend more money on presents in trying to bring them to terms. "Whenever the Indians receive a gratuity from Government...they immediately evince a respect for that Government...To tell them that it is to their interest to be at peace is to persuade them to give up a portion of their income obtained by plunder."19

Stokes was delayed in St. Louis by his customary summer illness, some sort of stomach trouble. As the cholera was spreading in the city, Ellsworth became impatient and started toward Leavenworth where they had been instructed to make treaties with the wild Indians. Stokes finally began the journey. Learning that Ellsworth had left Leavenworth and had gone farther into the West, he turned back to Fort Gibson. That autumn Ellsworth endeavored to take some of the chiefs of the Pawnees and Comanches to Fort Gibson

Page 41

for a conference. Stokes said that "he might as well attempt to collect last year's clouds as to collect the Pawnees and Comanchees at this time...They are on the fall hunt; they are at war with the Delaware, the Shawnee, the Osage." Cass had suggested that mounted troops might be sent into the wilderness to quell the Arab Indians, the Comanches and Pawnees; Stokes advised against it on the ground that they would be unable to find them.20

It is evident that the government appreciated the work Stokes was doing in 1833. Cass wrote him that "I feel confidence in your views and intentions...I take deep interest in the labors of your Commission, and look to the results as the ground work of all our improvements in the condition of the Indians west of the Mississippi."21

In the autumn of 1833, Stokes gave the federal government his suggestions for a plan of government for the Indians. He advised that the Indians west of the Mississippi be divided into a northern and a southern group; such a division would make it possible for representatives of all the Indian nations to attend an annual conference. His suggestions were entitled "A Plan for the Government of the Indians South of the Missouri River." He thought the government should appoint a citizen as governor, with headquarters at the military post. The governor and the commander of the post, as "Sub-Dictators," would have absolute power in emergencies; this plan would prevent a powerful Indian nation from crushing a weak one before the government could intervene. According to this plan of government, each year the nations would send representatives to a national assembly; in this meeting all intertribal activities and all the relations of the Indians to the United States would be handled. At these annual assemblies the government would pay the Indians all their annuities. Stokes felt that this plan would prevent graft by government officials and criticism from the Indians. When the national assembly was not in session, a supreme court composed of three neutral chiefs would handle disputes between the nations. All the internal affairs of each nation would be handled by its own government.

The purpose of the plan was to help the Indians. He said:

During the seven years I was in the Senate of the United States, whenever an Indian treaty was presented for confirmation, the first inquiry was, how much land have we acquired? What did it cost? and what is it worth?

In the future he hoped that Senators would ask, "For whose benefit was it purchased? The answer to this question must be—We purchased it for the benefit and comfort of our red brethren: we have given it to them without money and without price." He add-

Page 42

ed the hope that for years to come the government would furnish the Indians with the tools of agriculture.22

For several years the soldiers at Fort Gibson had complained of the climate and the loneliness of their situation. There was frequent appeal to the government to remove the garrison to Fort Smith in Arkansas. Schermerhorn and Ellsworth recommended that the petition be granted. Stokes filed a minority report, opposing removal on the grounds that Fort Gibson was situated at the head of steamboat navigation and at the point where the militia was needed to control the Indians. Stokes' recommendation was accepted by the government. The fort was torn down and a new one built on the old site. In 1857 the garrison was finally removed to Fort Smith.23

The term of the Commission expired on July 14, 1834; but Stokes remained on the ground. In September General Leavenworth took a detachment of five hundred dragoons into the far Southwest in order to impress the wild Indians. Although Stokes was seventy-two years old, he accompanied the expedition and returned in good health; many of the soldiers and a few of the Indians died from fever and General Leavenworth died from an accident.24 One of the Indians offered as an explanation of the numerous fatalities that he had seen poison issuing from the glasses of the old man, Governor Stokes.25 As a result of this expedition, approximately one hundred and fifty leaders of the wild Indians were brought back to Port Gibson for a conference. As an unofficial participant, Stokes gave many presents to the Indians and offered the benefit of his experience. Major Armstrong, Commissioner of Indian Affairs for Indian territory, who presided at the conference told the Indians that he had no authority to conclude a treaty, but that he would advise the President to make a treaty with them the following summer.

In 1835 Stokes wasp appointed chairman of a new Federal Indian Commission. General Arbuckle and Major Armstrong were the other members. Stokes had merited the praise of the government and shown his interest by remaining on the ground; he probably was assisted by influential friends in the East who wrote in his behalf to the secretary of war.26 The Commission was in-

Page 43

structed to promote amicable relationships between the Comanche, Kiowa and "other wandering tribes west of the state of Missouri and the Territory of Arkansas and other predatory tribes roaming along our western border and the United States and between these tribes and other nations of Indians in that region."

In May of 1835, an attempt was made to hold a conference with the Arab Indians at Fort Gibson; but as most of the Indians were engaged in hunting excursions, this effort was a failure. Colonel Dodge previously had promised the Comanches that the conference would be held in their territory; to appease this nation the Commission agreed to meet the Indians at Camp Holmes lodge situated on the Canadian River near the present location of Lexington. Oklahoma. Armstrong died at his home before the conference met. On August 6, Stokes and Arbuckle began the long trip of one hundred and fifty miles. Reports were brought back to the fort that Stokes was at the point of death in a camp erected along the way. But this seventy-three year old man presided over the conference, acted as secretary, did most of the work, and made the one hundred and fifty mile return trip in good health. At Camp Holmes leaders of the Creeks, Cherokees and other civilized nations met those from the Arab peoples. A treaty was made which was of great help to the white traders and hunters as well as to the Indians. The Indians guaranteed safety to the Americans travelling to and from Santa Fe; the civilized Indians were allowed to hunt as far as the jurisdiction of the United States extended. This was the first treaty in which the wild Indians recognized the authority of the United States. Unfortunately some of the wild tribes left before the conference was over and had to be dealt with later.27

According to Stokes' report the government was at times careless of its financial obligations to its agents. On July 14, 1835, he wrote the Secretary of War that he had received no pay for the past year; he said that he was drawing a draft on the Department for $1,000 of his salary and expressed the hope that it would be honored.

In the summer of 1836 C.A. Harris was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affiars, in the place of Herring. Stokes congratulated himself and the Indians upon the change. He wrote Harris that "Matters may be better but they cannot possibly be worse. I have learned not to complain." He then referred to his illness and complained of numerous grievances.28 He later wrote Harris that the things he said were not to be laid to "any intention to offend any officer of the government, but a temper soured by

Page 44

sickness and disappointment." He referred to his enormous amount of work and the difficult requirements made of him. He had no clerical help. The government required him to have certain papers witnessed before a Justice of the Peace or a Court of Record, a requirement which called for a trip of fifty miles into Arkansas. He added,

Gentlemen, I tell you that many of your requirements are not suited to the conditions of the Indian country; and you may dismiss me; but in twenty successors you will not find one who will say otherwise...I throw myself on your mercy and forebearance and implore your advice and assistance.

He described his office which was also his bedroom; it was fourteen by sixteen feet in size. He had one small letter-case. The papers of the four Indian nations were piled high in four corners of the room.29

Major Chouteau spent the winter of 1835-1836 in rounding up the wild Indians who had left before the treaty of 1835 at Camp Holmes had been signed. They promised to meet Stokes and Arbuckle in conference at Fort Gibson in the spring of 1836, but they broke this promise. The Comanche chief was angry because the treaty of Camp Holmes allowed the Osages, Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, and other nations to hunt on Comanche land. Another source of difficulty was the strife between Texas and Mexico; each side was trying to win the support of the Southwestern Indians, with the result that lage groups of the Indians were in a continuous state of excitement.30

In the summer of 1836, Stokes was requested by the government to appraise the property of the abandoned stations of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in the territory of the Cherokees. Both these stations, "Unity" and "Harmony," had been abandoned sixteen years before this. In the treaty of 1833 the government had promised that these properties should be purchased and turned over to the Cherokees. Stokes, although ill at the time, complied with this request. He expected that the government would make some sort of additional remuneration. When this request was denied, he urged Arbuckle to use his influence with the government; but that official said that he was powerless to help.31

From 1836 to 1837, while still chairman of the Federal Indian Commission, Stokes was also sub-agent for a group of nations, the Cherokees, Senecas, Shawnees, Quapaws, Osages and the mixed

Page 45

group of Seneca-Shawnee peoples. His salary was only $750. His bedroom continued to be used as an office. In March and April of 1837 he travelled a total of six hundred miles in order to deliver the annuities to these Indians. He was ill on the trip and said that pit was a "disagreeable and disgusting business and such a one as I hope never again to be called upon to repeat." He complained of having to live six miles from the fort and of having to visit the fort three times some days to confer with the officials. He said that he had to "dance attendance" upon a second lieutenant in charge of disbursements and that as a result he lost face with the Indians.32

Stokes' agitation finally bore fruit. In 1837 he was appointed full agent to the Cherokees for a term of four years at a salary of $1500. He was instructed to occupy the agency quarters ten miles east of Fort Gibson. He presented to the government plans for quarters fifty-two by twenty feet in size, but the money was denied him. Instead, he borrowed $2,200 and purchased a log house. This building contained two rooms twelve by sixteen feet; also a kitchen and smoke-house.33

The Cherokees left in Stokes' possession their wills, deeds, bills of sale and guardian's bonds. He said that he was the sole guardian of written evidence of property amounting to over one hundred thousand dollars in value. This property belonged to "widows and orphans and other legatees; who but for this precaution might and would have their papers destroyed and the evidence of ownership left to the uncertain recollection of individuals as formerly."34

The Kiowa, Kataka, Wichita, and Tawakoni Indians were among the groups who were not represented in the 1835 conference of Camp Holmes. In 1837 Major Chouteau finally brought representatives of these nations to Fort Gibson for a conference. Arbuckle had gone East. Stokes and Chouteau persuaded these nations to sign a treaty similar to that made at Camp Holmes; they made an additional agreement to indemnify the white traders for robberies they had committed. This treaty brought nearly all the Prairie Indians into harmonious relations with themselves, with the civilized Indians, and with the citizens of the United States.35 Having completed its task, the Commission was dissolved.

Page 46

In 1836 and 1837 the United States transported 10,000 Creeks and 5,400 Chickasaws from the southeast to Indian territory. Contracts for supplying these nations with food were left with dealers in New Orleans and Cincinnati. Boatloads of provisions were unloaded at Camp Coffee and Fort Gibson in such large amounts that they began to spoil. The War Department was in a quandary and asked Stokes to persuade the Cherokees to accept part of this food in lieu of the annuities due them. The Cherokees refused to comply with this request. Stokes reported to Captain Armstrong, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, the attitude of the Cherokees. Believing that Stokes had only half-heartedly attempted to persuade the Indians, Armstrong forwarded Stokes' letter to Commissioner Harris of the Indian office. Harris criticized Stokes vigorously, stating that he was in the "habit of disrespect towards his superiors." Stokes answered this criticism by reminding Harris of his support of Presidents Jackson and Van Buren. He humbly wrote that he had meant no disrespect; as soon as he had written to Armstrong he had visited the Cherokees and endeavored to persuade them to accept the food. He thought it was his duty to inform the authorities of the situation in the West; it appeared that the government preferred to get its information from the outside. The only superior to whom he had shown disrespect was Herring, and he thought that this was justifiable. He added that,

Sir, I have spent more than forty-five years in the service of the United States and in that of the state of North Carolina in higher stations than I now have. . . This is the first mark of disapprobation...If I am dismissed, you will have gotten rid of a veteran of the American Revolution whose public acts you will have been the first to censure...You will pardon me for speaking freely upon this as upon all other subjects. —I am of great age and it matters little to myself or the Government what becomes of me but I will say in respect of my public employments that my heart shall never reproach me as long as I live. I may never [not always] do right, but I will never wilfully do wrong.36

At the request of the Indian office Stokes called together representatives of the Cherokees, Senecas and Quapaws at the home of Chief Jolli and endeavored to help them work out more peaceful relationships with each other; but his efforts met with failure.37

During 1838 the Cherokees were arriving in large numbers; Stokes wrote the Indian office that he felt under obligation to go beyond his instructions in serving them. He asserted that

I have written over two hundred powers of attorney in the past three weeks claiming arrearages for lost property...I know it is not my business to write all these. However as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs does not seem to be satisfied with my conduct, I am determined that the other party, the Indians, shall have no cause to complain.

Page 47

He also reminded his superiors that in securing the annuities for the Indians he was compelled to make frequent round trips of twenty miles to Fort Gibson.38

In 1838 trouble arose between the merchants of Arkansas and the American traders at Fort Gibson. The paper money in circulation in the cities was less sound than the silver which circulated freely in Indian territory. Hence these traders came to trade with the Indians at the agency and with the garrison at Fort Gibson. Stokes reported that this trade conflicted with that of the merchants across the line in Arkansas. The merchants complained to Washington, and the War Department issued an order forbidding the traders from dealing with the Indians or the citizens at Fort Gibson. In this controversy, Stokes and the Indians supported the traders.

In the summer of 1838 Stokes made a report to the government which gives us a page out of his life story at this time. He was suffering from his customary "summer bowel complaint" but kept busy even when in bed. He wrote of appointing blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wagon makers, and interpreters and of his regret that the delay in sending the school funds had closed the Cherokee schools.39

The Cherokees, as the most aggressive nation among the Indians, requested Stokes to call ten other nations to meet them in conference in order "to renew the friendship of the fathers." The citizens at Fort Gibson became unduly alarmed. Colonel Mason ordered out the troups from Jefferson barracks and from Fort Leavenworth and warned the governors of Tennessee and Arkansas to be ready for an "insurrection of the Indians." Stokes wrote the government that he was present at the conference, that there was no cause for the alarm, and that Colonel Mason had ignored him and had wounded the feelings of the Cherokees.40

In November, 1838, the United States Minister to Texas reported to the Secretary of State that the Cherokees and other Indians were planning to attack Texas. Stokes was asked by the government to check the report. He replied that "There is not a word of truth in the statement." He said that if Texas would care for its own Indians it need not fear those of the United States.41

In 1839 two-thirds of the Cherokees were arriving in their new homes in the West. Under the leadership of Stokes, they held

Page 48

a conference with the one-third of the nation who were already on the ground. The larger group endeavored to merge with the smaller group. The minority refused to merge, and the majority drew up its own constitution and form of government. Illness prevented Stokes from attending all the conferences held by the two groups.42

On March 7, 1840, Stokes was removed from office as Cherokee Agent. General Arbuckle was instructed to place the Indian country under martial law and take over the Cherokee Agency. In September, Stokes asked for the names of his accusers and for a list of the charges made against him.43 After losing his office, he planned to build a log house under the walls of Fort Gibson and make his living as, a trader or merchant.44 These plans were interrupted by his being restored to his office as agent for the Cherokees. The authorities at Washington later complained that he had failed to make his reports for several quarters. He apologized for his negligence, saying that his records had become disarranged while he was out of office.45

At the end of Stokes' term as Cherokee agent, he was superseded by Governor Pierce M. Butler of South Carolina. In the same mail which brought Stokes the news that he would not be reappointed to the Cherokee agency, there was a commission appointing him Register in the Land Office at Fayetteville, Arkansas. Stokes replied that he was not familiar with the duties of the new office and asked to be allowed to continue in his former office. He wrote that:

I know that no man ought to address a public functionary on the score of friendship or former acquaintance, and to expect thereby to obtain a favorable consideration of his claims for redrefs of what he may consider as grievances. But I know of no other mode of making my pretensions understood, but by referring to transactions in which I have had a conspicuous share. I was in the public service, either in the land or sea service, during the whole of the Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783, and am among the last of those that remain of that clafs. After the close of the War in 1783, I remained in North Carolina, in various public appointments, until December, 1816, when I took my seat in the Senate of the United States for seven sessions, (one Short session to fill a vacancy and six years under a new Election)...After retiring from Congress, I was occasionally in the Legislature of North Carolina, and President of the Board of visitors at West Point, until 1831, when I was elected Governor of North Carolina and served 1831 and 1832.—I was then appointed at the head of the Commifsion of Indian Affairs West...After having trespafsed so long on your patience, I have now come to the object of this letter. —Some time ago I received a letter from the War Office notifying me that Pierce M. Butler was appointed Cherokee Agent,

Page 49

and directing me to deliver the Cherokee Books, papers and property to him. By the same mail I received a Commission as Register of the Land office at Fayetteville, Washington County, Arkansas. Now it is not my wish to be in the way of any man; but as Mr. Butler has not yet come, and may decline the office, I beg leave to submit my humble Claim to the office of the Agency, with the duties of which I am acquainted, in preference to accepting the office of Register of the Land Office, to the duties of which I am a stranger. I am perfectly satisfied that my removal had not been sought by either the Treaty or Ridge party; the old party, of first settlers; or the new Emigrants, or Rofs party.—My most influential friends are among them all, and I have seen them all a few weeks ago, as most of them called on me in going or returning from the annual Council in October last.—If it should not be deemed inconsistent with the views and interests of the Government to continue an old Revolutionary Veteran in his former office for a short time, I shall be thankful; in as much as my long stay in the Cherokee Nation has caused me businefs which it will take me some time to settle to my satisfaction. I now again beg pardon for trefspafsing on your valuable time on matters relating to myself.46

Spencer wrote Stokes that his letter had been presented to President John Tyler. President Tyler sent word that he wished Stokes "comfort in your declining age, after long and valuable active service"; but he thought it wise to have a "more active man" in so difficult a position. He had given Stokes a place "not less honorable" than he had formerly filled; and Governor Butler had already arrived in Indian territory.47

In evaluating Stokes' work in Indian territory justice requires that the complexity of the problems faced and the inefficiency of the government be taken into account. To act as father and peacemaker to five civilized nations of Indians who had been forced to migrate to a new land inhabited by savage peoples was no small task; to bring the savage nations into relations of peace with each other, with the civilized Indians and with the American citizens was harder yet.

John Quincy Adams accused President Jackson of brutality and dishonesty in his dealings with the Indians.48 Others criticized Van Buren and Tyler on the same grounds. In response to public opinion the government finally appointed Major-General Ethan Allen Hitchcock as investigator, with instructions to report on what he found in the way of cruelty and fraud in the removal of

Page 50

the Indians. Hitchcock visited Indian territory in 1841. He filed with the secretary of war a report to which were attached a hundred exhibits. Congressional committees sought access to this report as a basis for remedial and punitive measures; these requests were refused on the ground that too many friends of the administration were involved. The report is missing from the files of the Office of Indian Affairs; the presumption is that it was destroyed. The destruction of this report probably justifies some of Stokes' criticisms of the government. He probably was acting as a wise statesman in suggesting that the annuities be paid publicly in the presence of the chiefs of all the Indian nations and in asking for regulations that would "fit the Indian country."

No one has accused Stokes of neglecting the Indians. He was looked upon as the leading authority on Indian affairs in the Southwest, being made chairman of each commission on which he served. Neither illness nor fear of smallpox or cholera drove him from his duty. In his old age he forsook what comforts were available in his lodgings and took to the saddle in rain and sun. His motives were not mercenary; his annual salary ranged from $750 to $2,400.00 the average being nearer the smaller sum. In 1835 the government allowed the Commission $10,000 for expenses and presents for the Arab Indians. After the conference, $420 remained; it was possibly on the advice of Armstrong and Arbuckle that Stokes kept this sum, hoping that the government would let it apply on his expense while doing other tasks for the government. When criticized for this action, he did not make a fight to keep the money until his account with the government was adjusted, but suggested that it might be withheld from his salary.

In 1841 he reported to the Office of Indian Affairs that while agent for the Cherokees he did nearly all the work and often went without pay. He added, "Since I am dismissed from my station and need everything which is just (and I asked no more) will you be good enough to let me know if I have anything to expect." While out of office, he could have gone East to the comforts of his home; instead he kept his face set toward the Southwest.

It is doubtless true that during the last two years of his life he was inefficient, due to illness and old age. When he was finally retired in favor of Governor Butler, his papers were still disarranged; an additional year in office had not brought order gut of chaos. It was probably with mingled feelings of sympathy and reproof that a younger official took Stokes' papers from his deserted quarters to Fort Gibson and attempted to set them in order.

With the exception of these last two years Stokes seemed alert to his opportunities and duties. He wrote hundreds of pages in reporting to the Indian office; he did not hesitate to go beyond the Indian office and appeal at times directly to the Secretary of War,

Page 51

a course of action which brought him into conflict with his superiors. The recommendations of the Commission, which served from 1832 to 1834, were made the basis of many bills introduced into Congress before Stokes' death, none of which was passed; but his personal reports, and in particular his "Plan for the Government of the Indians South of the Missouri River," had some influence in the later government of the Indian country.

During his first eight years in Indian territory, Stokes performed the most efficient service of his life. The Indians appreciated him fully. If he was moved too much by sympathy, the government erred more deeply in permitting fraud and cruelty towards a weaker people. He may have been careless in the handling of appropriations; but if the government had given the support he deserved, the solution of the Indian question would have been advanced by a generation. The public school forces of Oklahoma correctly pay him tribute when they show the school children his monument at Fort Gibson.

Stokes' work was really finished in 1841, when he declined to accept the appointment to the Land Office in Arkansas. On September 8,1842, he was appointed sub-agent for the Senecas, Shawnees and Quapaws. He was too frail to travel to his new post and died on November 4, 1842. The obituary notice stated that, "Although far from any kindred, he received during his last illness all the kind attention that children would bestow upon a father. His last hours were soothed by the presence of many of his friends and his exit was without a struggle." The place of his death is uncertain; the best evidence available shows that it was probably at the Cherokee agency on Bayou Menard.49

Neither religious nor Masonic ritual was mentioned in connection with his funeral. On November 6, a company of dragoons, under the command of Captain Nathan Boone, gave him a military interment. Colonel Arbuckle also participated in the service. The place of interment is unknown. He was probably buried in the grounds of the Cherokee Agency or in the military post burying ground a quarter of a mile east of Fort Gibson.50

Following the interment, the citizens of the vicinity held a meeting at Fort Gibson and drew up resolutions of respect. A copy was sent to the family and another was published in the Arkansas Gazette on December 7.

Page 52

The Muskogee Territory Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, on March 23, 1925, dedicated to Stokes a striking monument, situated on a hill overlooking his first office in the log fort at Fort Gibson, his headquarters for so many years.51

A movement has been started by prominent citizens in Oklahoma to name a government-owned lake in honor of Governor Stokes as a fitting memorial to one of the state's constructive pioneers.52

Return to top

Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site