For over seven months in 1861, the tension was palpable within the Cherokee Tribal Council. While there was an elected Principal Chief, the position was not autocratic and was only one of about twenty Tribal leaders. On one side of the debates, Chief John Ross urged caution, and believed the Cherokee Nation could avoid conflict by remaining neutral in the “White Man’s War” that had just started. On the other side, Stand Watie, another respected leader, spoke of a new beginning for his people as he urged alignment with the Confederate States of America; although he knew that came with the risk of battle against forces of the United States. Watie argued that, after what would surely be a quick victory over the northern states, the Confederate government would recognize the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty and provide representation in the new country’s Congress. John Ross countered that the vast resources of the North would prevent an early victory by the South. There was one additional key argument by some Cherokees who urged siding with the Confederate government; a common interest in protecting slavery. Those tribal members wanted retain the nearly 3,000 black slaves they owned, which represented their largest “asset” and most of the Native Nation’s wealth.
The discussions went on for months, and the divisions within the Nation were clear. Again!
The Cherokee Nation had been divided before. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1835, Ross and Watie led opposing factions when White merchants in Georgia persuaded the Federal Government to permit confiscation of tribal lands which held valuable gold deposits, salt mines, timber and other resources. All of the Cherokee leaders realized that they could not win a military battle against Federal forces empowered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830; and other nearby tribes had already agreed to relocation, including Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. The question was not whether they would lose some or all of their lands, but rather which leader could negotiate the best settlement with the United States Government. Chief Ross, who headed the Union Party, believed he could negotiate an agreement for compensation, in return for giving up a large portion of their land; but would allow the Cherokee to retain some of their property and stay in Georgia. On the other hand, Watie and other Cherokee leaders, including brothers John and Major Ridge, were convinced that Federal forces, joined by Georgia militia, would willingly and readily annihilate the Cherokee to gain all of their land. Watie’s group formed an opposition party, initially called the Ridge Party, but later known as the Treaty Party, specifically to negotiate a treaty with the United States which would avoid war and obtain reasonable compensation for their Georgia lands; but would require relocation to western Indian Territory. Watie and his co-founders of the Treaty Party claimed to represent the majority of Cherokee and signed the Treaty of New Echota with the United States; which called for removal from Georgia to Indian Territory by 1838, in return for promised financial support. John Ross did not sign the treaty and argued in the U.S. Congress and in State and Federal Courts for the next three years that the document was not valid; but he was ultimately unsuccessful. In a rare instance of political violence among the Cherokee, several founding members of the Treaty Party were found murdered, including the two Ridge brothers; but, whether by design or by luck, Watie was not attacked and no one was ever charged with the crimes.
However, the outcome for the Cherokee people was already set in motion; and, in 1838, nearly 20,000 were removed from their homes by the U.S. Army and Georgia militia and forced to march westward nearly a thousand miles to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The government did not bother to keep accurate records, but at least 3,000 thousand Cherokee died on the journey; which became known as “The Trail of Tears” to many Americans, but “The Trail Where They Cried” among their own people. Over time the survivors settled into the Indian Territory and re-built a functioning society; although most relocated Cherokee were now dependent on government assistance, unlike their earlier self-sustaining culture in Georgia.
Even Principal Chief John Ross had to adapt to life in Indian Territory. Born in 1790 to a Cherokee mother and a Scottish father, he was comfortable in both Native and White cultures. He served in the War of 1812, and then began a career as a merchant and lawyer in Tennessee. Ross became interested in Cherokee politics and relocated to Georgia to participate in the Tribal Council; and, because he was bright, bi-lingual, and energetic, he soon became an influential leader within the Cherokee Nation. John Ross was first elected to his position as Principal Chief in 1828, over thirty years before the Civil War, and continued as Chief until 1866, the year following the end of the War. While he had responsibility for management of the Cherokee Nation’s affairs, he was only one voice in their representative system.
Ross had been deeply affected by the “relocation” to Indian Territory in 1838. His large farm had been confiscated and he lost his prosperous legal practice; but to him, the worst blow of all came when his wife died during the forced march. Despite his contention that the United States had colluded with Georgians to remove the Cherokee Nation from their homeland, he had no trust that the new Confederate Government (of which Georgia was a part) would be any better for his people. So, Chief Ross had argued for the Nation to remain neutral, and, for a few months, he seemed to be holding the Cherokee Nation together. At one point, he was so confident that he notified U.S. Indian Agents in their territory that the Cherokee would not choose sides in the looming civil conflict. Ross knew better than most that the war would not be easily won by either North or South and, as a pragmatist, he wanted to keep his options open. But, he also was simply tired of conflict. He was over 70 years old, had been the Chief of the tribe for thirty years, and he did not want to see the new generation of young men further decimated by war. Some historians claim his arguments for neutrality were staged and that he really supported the Confederacy because he owned slaves; however, Ross had already granted them “freedman” status. But, because the former slaves were the second or third generations connected to the Ross family with whom they had lived and worked their entire lives, they chose to remain with Ross.
Chief Ross’s primary opponent, both in the 1835 relocation debates and now in the Civil War debates, was Stand Watie who argued for the Cherokee to align with the new Confederate government. Like Ross, Watie had lived among White society in Georgia and was educated as a lawyer; but the confiscation of the Cherokee lands and re-settlement to Indian Territory caused him to despise and distrust the United States government. Although he was an astute businessman and became one of most wealthy Cherokee in Indian Territory, Watie blamed the Federal government for numerous broken promises in violation of the New Echota treaty of 1835, which he had supported; and that certainly influenced his support for a treaty with the new Confederate government. But Watie was indifferent to the “States’ Rights” position of the Southerners, or their other political and economic grievances with the United States. He had more fundamental goals in mind! He believed that, after a quick Southern victory over the North, the Cherokee Nation would be rewarded for their loyalty with civil equality and representation in the Confederate Congress, and, at least, a possibility that they might regain some of their ancestral lands in Georgia. Equally important at the time, he fully expected that a Southern government would continue to protect the rights of Cherokee slave owners.
Although a state of War existed between the United States and the Confederate States after the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, not much happened for the next few months. Then, after the decisive Confederate victory at First Manassas (Bull Run) in July, the mood within the Cherokee Nation changed as more of their people became convinced that the Confederates would win the war.
The debates intensified and every participant understood that the stakes were high. Those outsiders who knew about the earlier murders of the members of the Treaty Party, might have expected confrontation, perhaps even violence, between the differing sides; but the Cherokee were respectful people who listened to others and gave open counsel.
And, then, on August 21, 1861, they decided.
The Cherokee Nation agreed to join forces with the new Confederate States of America. As difficult as it must have been for him, Chief Ross accepted the majority’s decision and represented the Cherokee in negotiations with the Confederacy; and then he signed the new treaties. Those agreements ended any obligations between the Cherokee Nation and the United States, and established Confederate obligations to the Cherokee for more rations, farm implements, and defined borders (within Indian Territory which was basically Oklahoma). Further, an amalgamation of Tribes would be given representation in the Confederate Congress; something the United states had discussed but never formalized. In return, the Cherokee agreed to form several Confederate military units to provide protection within their lands, but they were not to be deployed to fight U.S. forces elsewhere. Each Cherokee unit was led by a Native officer, appointed by the Confederate Army. Stand Watie was designated a Colonel and agreed to form, and lead, a unit of at least 1,000 Cherokee Cavalrymen.
In the summer of 1862, Chief John Ross was captured by U.S. Army troops and taken to Washington DC, where, in exchange for a pardon and the promise of future financial considerations for his Nation, he agreed to support the Union cause. Three of his sons even joined the Union Army and one died in a Confederate prison. He came to know President Abraham Lincoln and believed that his willingness to lead those Cherokees he represented to pledge allegiance to the Union would gain favor for his Nation when the war ended. His pledge was not a hollow gesture because he was still considered to be the Principal Chief by many Cherokees and led the largest contingent of the fractured Native Nation.
However, in Ross’s absence, Stand Watie was named a separate Principal Chief. So, the Cherokee Nation was now truly divided; just like the rest of the Country.
Watie immediately called a draft of every Cherokee male from 18-50 years of age into military units of the Confederate Army. Watie was already a strong leader before the war, but his new rank of Colonel and a few early successes against Union forces within the Indian territories, also cemented his reputation as a military commander. In 1864 he was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of a newly formed large unit, named the Indian Cavalry Brigade, which included men from other tribes such as Creek, Osage and Seminole. General Watie then moved out of Indian Territory into Arkansas (a Confederate state under constant attack and occupation by Union Forces), where he led his troops to several victories over the U.S. Army. General Watie was so dedicated to the Confederacy that he and his Cherokee soldiers continued skirmishes with Union troops until June 23, 1865; over two months after Generals Lee and Johnston had surrendered the two largest Confederate armies.
The Civil War divided the United States as a nation and split many families. The War also divided the Cherokee Nation and created familial chasms that would take a century to heal.
At the end of the war, John Ross resumed his duties as the Principal Chief of all Cherokee and began to negotiate with the United States for a new “reconstruction treaty” for his people. He tried for nearly a year to gain some concessions that would lead the Cherokee out of the consistent poverty which they had experienced in Indian Territory since 1838. However, with Abraham Lincoln gone and replaced by a new President, Andrew Johnson, who considered Indian matters less important than others he faced, Chief Ross made little progress. Exacerbating his dilemma, many Union Congressional leaders considered the whole Cherokee Nation traitorous because of the Confederate service by the followers of Stand Watie. Finally, in late 1865, Ross was able to meet with President Johnson, whose administration then recognized Chief Ross as the official spokesman for the Cherokee Nation and granted some assurances for financial aid and the promise of gradual return of control over Native affairs. In August 1866, John Ross was still in Washington trying to negotiate a new treaty for Native Sovereignty when, following another day of meetings with the Federal bureaucracy, he died. He was seventy-six years old.
After the War, Stand Watie formed a mercantile company (primarily trading in tobacco) within the Cherokee portion of Indian Territory. When the Federal government levied excise taxes on his business, he refused to pay believing that the U.S. Government could not tax Native businesses on Indian land. He lost his case, and his business, in Federal Court. He died penniless in 1871.
The Cherokee Nation had divided over whether the United States of America or the Confederate States of America would most likely honor treaties and give them fair consideration after the Civil War. Neither choice, as events unfolded, would prove to be good for the Cherokee.
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