1860s: The Civil War in Indian Territory, Part One

The time between Indian Removal in the 1830s and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 was a comparatively peaceful – almost prosperous – era for the Five Civilized Tribes. Then again, when you have a century of horrors on either side, the bar for “Golden Age” isn’t particularly high. And it didn’t last long.

Tribal Diversity 

Chief John RossIt’s convenient in retrospect to speak of the Five Civilized Tribes in the 19th century as a single entity, particularly when addressing their interactions with the white world. In reality, they were different tribes with different cultures and different dynamics. Within each tribe there were mixed-bloods and full-bloods, progressives and conservatives, slave-owners and not. There were those resistant to change and those who embraced it; those who were outspoken and those who simply wished to be left alone. People are complicated, and the Tribes were, it seems, made up of people.

The full-bloods tended to be conservative and completely uninterested in large-scale agriculture. They had little interest in owning slaves. The mixed-bloods tended to speak more English and were more likely to participate in the larger economy. They were much more likely to own slaves, although many did not.

There were notable exceptions, of course. John Ross, the Principle Chief of the Cherokee, was a mixed-blood conservative who had been educated in white schools, spoke perfect English, and was equally comfortable in federal courtrooms or tribal ceremonies. His most adamant supporters were older, full-blood members of the tribe. Others pushed a more progressive agenda. It’s how things go.

Divided Removal

It wasn’t until Indian Removal, though, that intratribal schisms grew bitter and – for some – violent. Despite the best efforts of negotiators representing the United States, Ross refused to sign any treaty agreeing to expunge his people to Indian Territory. The U.S. eventually settled for the signatures of Elias Boudinot, Stand Watie, Major Ridge, and other influential tribal members, and declared the Treaty of New Echota (1835) to be a great success for both sides, despite full awareness the signatories had no legal authority to act on behalf of the whole.

A few thousand Cherokee, including those who’d signed the treaty, moved west more or less voluntarily before the New Echota deadline of May 1838. They were welcomed by the “Old Settlers,” Cherokee who’d moved in 1817 to western Arkansas. Collectively, these “early removal” groups became known as the “Western Cherokee.” Those arriving on “Trail of Tears” several years later felt betrayed on the deepest level by those who’d signed the treaties trading away their homelands. Several “Treaty Party” leaders had been assassinated in response.

They were not good times.

The Creek experienced a similar split, aggravating issues predating removal. They emigrated to I.T. in waves, beginning with supporters of William McIntosh – another leader executed for his compromises. The Choctaw and Chickasaw had their own struggles with removal, but they stayed largely united during the experience. And the Seminole…

The Seminole are just always hard to pin down in regards to anything. They fought removal and never actually lost, even though many moved. They had “slaves” that weren’t quite actually “slaves” – just… not quite new additions to the tribe. And then, it’s… they…

We generally skim over the Seminole.

In any case, the Tribes largely rebuilt their worlds in the generation after removal. They established new schools, churches, communities, and in some cases even printed their own newspapers. What would later be named “Oklahoma” was, for a generation, truly a “Land of the Red Man,” although it was largely a “Land of the Black Man” as well. Slavery among the Tribes was still slavery, but it was rarely as brutal or dehumanizing asit was in the South. In some cases it was essentially independent living in exchange for a share of whatever they’d grown or produced.

And then the white people got into a war. With themselves.

Bringing I.T. Into the War

By and large, the Five Tribes were more than happy to learn that white people were shooting at one another. This was a win-win for them. They weren’t in a geographically essential location – that was part of the reason it was chosen, after all – and had little interest in involving themselves in the white man’s war, at least at first.

Albert PikeUntil Albert Pike arrived.

Pike was a Hagrid-looking character, a southerner who’d been born and raised in the north. He began his professional life as a reporter in Arkansas, then a lawyer, and had from there become a strong advocate for the southeastern tribes over the years – minus time in the military fighting in the Mexican-American war. A staunch defender of slavery, he was a naturally loyal Confederate when sides had to be chosen.

Pike was an ideal choice of ambassador to I.T. He was familiar and trusted, and he made compelling arguments why they should support the South in this presumably brief war. 

The Choctaw and Chickasaw signed up with little debate. They were already more like the American South than the remaining tribes, more agricultural and owning more slaves than the rest. The remaining tribes split over the issue – often along lines lingering from previous disputes. While officially all Five of the “Civilized Tribes” joined the Confederacy, substantial minorities of the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole fought for the Union. That whole “brother against brother” thing was brutal for everyone involved, but in some ways it hurt these Tribes the most.

At first gander, the preponderance of support for the South seems surprising – they’d been ejected from the south, after all, and harassed by southern states prior to that. But that’s not how most viewed the situation. It’s almost certainly not how Pike framed it.

Promises of the South

So why join the Confederacy?

First and foremost, the Tribes owned slaves. Most individuals did not, but that was true of the American South as well. The culture supported it, and the same folks who tended to be fiscally ambitious enough to need slaves tended to be politically active as well. Leaders who weren’t slave-owners weren’t exactly abolitionists either, so there was little in the way of “balancing viewpoints.” There were pro-slavery voices, and there were those who didn’t care much one way or the other. 

Second, Indian Removal was remembered as a betrayal of the “Great White Father” in Washington, D.C. – not so much as a conflict with individual states. Their treaties had been made with federal entities, and either enforced or broken by federal soldiers taking federal orders. It didn’t help that the same federal government wasn’t particularly consistent following through with promised supplies and other resources.

Third, the Union soldiers who’d been stationed in and around I.T. as part of the Tribes’ latest treaties had been pulled and reassigned as soon as it became clear war was coming. It’s not that the Tribes were such great buddies with the soldiers, but plenty of Plains Indians who hadn’t earned the sobriquet “Civilized” were still active in the region, and the U.S. military provided a decent buffer against their brutality.

Fourth, the Five Tribes had more in common with Americans in the south than they did those in the north. Friends or not, many Amerindians practiced agriculture – none owned factories. Many lived on farms or in what white culture would see as ‘semi-rural’ settings – none lived in tenements. Many relied on themselves and their traditions to guide them – few saw value in reform movements, technological progress, or “Great Awakenings.” While the federal government had let them down repeatedly, the largely sympathetic “Indian Agents” with whom they dealt and through whom they processed white realities were mostly from the south.

Finally, with no way to predict the outcome of the conflict, the South offered them a better deal. The North – in the form of the federal government – had already lost whatever credibility they might have had, while the South promised the Tribes more protections, greater autonomy, and all those “states’ rights” kinds of things used to justify their cause. The South also promised to assume commitments made under previous treaties with the U.S., including the annuities the North had ceased as soon as distracted by the current conflict with the South. The North and their President Lincoln, meanwhile, were aggressively promoting westward expansion. If you don’t see an immediate problem for the tribes in that, look at any map.

So, despite the splits described previously, the Confederacy it was.

It wasn’t going to work out as well as they’d hoped...

Confederate Indians

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