Tahlequah Daily Press

November 9, 2012

Fate of Five Tribes turned on Civil War

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Political infighting and a history of traditional Southern values may have been the downfall of the Five Civilized Tribes at the onset of the Civil War.

Northeastern State University History Professor Dr. Bill Corbett presented “Courting Disaster: The Five Civilized Tribes and the Civil War,” as the Tahlequah Friends of the Library Program Sandwiched In Thursday.

During the 1830s the five civilized tribes – Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminoles – were forcibly removed from their homelands in the south to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

According to Corbett, many tribal leaders hoped that in the new territory, the tribes would be protected from future intrusion by the federal government, because the property had been promised “in perpetuity.”

“The Civil War ended that protection” said Corbett. “The conflict reduced the Indian population as much as 25 percent, and provided the foundation to undermine the tribes’ sovereignty.”

Corbett said the tribes courted disaster in Indian Territory, as slavery was a common institution. As the tribes recovered from removal, commerce was established, and many Indians attained a high degree of economic success.

“All the tribes were well on their way to recovering from removal just prior to the Civil War,” said Corbett. “Towns were emerging, schools were established, governments were developed. They also opened local and interstate markets and agricultural services.”

Corbett said that soon after the Confederacy was formed, military leaders from both the Union and Confederacy realized the tactical importance of Indian Territory.

“Indian Territory had established roads running from Union Kansas to Confederate Texas, commerce and trade was developed, and they saw a military purpose for being located in the area,” said Corbett.

A number of tribes supported the South, for a number of reasons. Many tribal leaders were disappointed in the treaty failures by the federal government, as payments to tribes – particularly the Cherokees – were not being made. Slave ownership was also prevalent, and the abolishment of slavery threatened the social, cultural and political structure of some tribes. The role of Indian nations was supported heavily by Southern Democrats, and many tribal leaders had been appointed by Democrat presidents.

“Also, federal troops had completely withdrawn from Indian Territory, as they were needed back East,” said Corbett. “These circumstances all attributed to the tribes’ position in the Civil War. Albert S. Pike was dispatched by the Confederacy to Indian Territory to gain treaties of alliance from the Five Civilized Tribes.”

According to Corbett, the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes signed treaties with Pike, but the Creek, Seminole and Cherokees resisted, which created internal strife among the people.

“Originally, Cherokee Chief John Ross sided with the federal government and turned Pike away, but Cherokee Stand Watie raised troops for the Confederacy. What happened here is Pike and his agents and Watie threatened Ross’ position. Ross then called a meeting, right here on the courthouse square, and 4,000 Cherokee attended. Ross then endorsed a treaty with the Confederacy.”

As the war waged on, tribal members fought bitterly against one another throughout Northeast Oklahoma. According to Corbett, over 110 battles and skirmishes were fought in Indian Territory, with the majority going on from Fort Gibson north to the Kansas border.

“Those who survived were sent to refugee camps in Kansas,” said Corbett. “What this does is those who escaped from Indian Territory supported the Union. Eventually they created the Indian Home Guard, which included three regiments and was funded and supplied by the federal government.”

The first attempt to reassert federal authority in Indian Territory occurred in 1862, and was called the Indian Expedition. Its purpose was to secure Tahlequah and Fort Gibson for the Union. The first  battle took place in Locust Grove, and the federal government won and slowly moved into Tahlequah and eventually Fort Gibson.

“Eventually the expedition unraveled due to guerilla attacks and the troops withdrew in September 1862,” said Corbett. “At that time, John Ross met with federal leaders, rejoined the Union and moved his family north to Kansas, and eventually Washington, where he fought against the Cherokees’ involvement with the Confederacy.”

Corbett said during the latter years, guerilla warfare ensued, with many innocent people being killed.

“Lawlessness prevailed, and most people fled their homes,” said Corbett. “After the war, the peace agreements created more problems for the tribes. The federal government accused the Five Civilized Tribes of treason due to tribal involvement with the Confederacy, paving the way for the Reconstruction Treaty of 1866.”

The treaty abolished slavery and granted tribal citizenship to former slaves, provided right-of-way easements for the railroad to move into Indian Territory, and prescribed to principals of a unified government, paving the way for future statehood.

“Tribal states were dismantled to create room for the relocation of other tribes, including the Cheyenne/Arapaho and others,” said Corbett. “This was the beginning of the end of tribal sovereignty, and it undermined the tribes’ capacity to protect their domain.”