The Cherokee Civil War, 1845 to 1849

Following their removal in 1839 to what would later become Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation was divided into two basic factions: the Treaty Party made up of those who had moved from their homelands in the American southeast voluntarily, and the National Party made up of those who had been forced to endure the Trail of Tears. With the formation of a new national government, John Ross, the leader of the National Party, had become Principal Chief. In the period of 1845 to 1849 the animosities between the two factions continued to be violent.

In 18454, Tom Starr, Ellis Starr, Washington Starr, Suel Rider, and Ellis West, all members of the Treaty Party, invaded the home of R.J. Meigs, the son-in-law of John Ross. The invaders attempted to kill Meigs, but he escaped. They then looted and burned the house. Jane Meigs, the daughter of John Ross, was not home at the time, so the invaders threatened her slaves in an attempt to find out where she was. Before they left, they killed two other Cherokee full bloods who had witnessed the event.

Following the burning of the Meigs’ home the Cherokee Light Horse, described as a posse of concerned citizens, went to the home of James Starr where they killed him and wounded his two sons (Ellis and Washington). They then rode to the home of Suel Rider and killed him.

The Treaty Party responded in kind and 35 people were killed. Many Treaty Party members and their families fled from Cherokee territory.

Without ascertaining the facts, and nurturing a grudge against John Ross, the United States army ordered the Cherokee Light Horse disbanded and sent in a company of dragoons. The Cherokee Nation, as a sovereign entity, resented the attempts by the United States to invade its territory and to interfere with Cherokee domestic affairs.

A number of Cherokee who were a part of the Old Settlers (those who had removed prior to the 1830 Indian Removal Act) and Treaty Party factions decided that they could no longer live under a government dominated by John Ross. They left the Cherokee nation and settled in the small Cherokee town of Mount Clover, Mexico. Among those who leave are Joseph M. Lynch, J. L. Thompson, John Gunter, Charles Reece, John Harnage, Ezekiel Starr, and Tessee Guess (the son of Sequoyah),

In 1846, a group of Cherokee Old Settlers from Oklahoma asked President James Polk to divide the Cherokee nation, claiming that the Cherokees were unable live in peace. Polk agreed and sent a bill establishing two Cherokee nations to Congress. Cherokee principal chief John Ross disagreed with the action and expressed a willingness to compromise in order to preserve Cherokee unity. The bill failed to pass.

In 1849, John Rollin Ridge, the son of John Ridge, killed Cherokee Judge David Kell in a dispute over his father’s estate. Kell was a part of the John Ross faction that was responsible for killing John Ridge. Fearing that he would be unable get a fair trial in Cherokee country because of John Ross, Ridge fled to Missouri to avoid arrest. Ridge contended that he had killed Kell in self defense. As a result of this affair, John Rollin Ridge left his old life as a Cherokee behind and joined the thousands who went to California seeking their fortunes in the gold fields. In California, he gained fame as a writer and poet.

Smallpox on the Upper Missouri in 1837

Smallpox was a European disease which devastated many American Indian tribes. Many European Christians viewed the smallpox epidemics as evidence of their god’s grace for them and felt that god was clearing the way for their settlement of the continent by destroying Indians societies. The European invaders sometimes helped god’s destruction of the Indians by deliberately providing Indians with smallpox-infected goods under the guise of “helping” the Indians. The Indians, whose opinions about their history are seldom consulted, often feel that the many smallpox epidemics are evidence of biological warfare. One example of this can be seen in the great smallpox epidemic which swept across the Northern Plains (Montana and North Dakota) in 1837.

In 1832, Congress appropriated $12,000 to vaccinate Indians against smallpox. The Secretary of War was to be in charge of the vaccinations. It was estimated that the appropriated funds would be sufficient to vaccinate two-thirds of the country’s Indians.

The Secretary of War notified the Indian agent for the upper Missouri that no tribes upstream from the Arikara were to be vaccinated. There were some who feel that the Secretary of War’s prohibition on vaccinating tribes upstream from the Arikara was intended to annihilate the Blackfoot who were harassing American fur-trapping brigades.

Steamboat traffic to the fur and hide trading posts on the Upper Missouri began in 1832 with the American Fur Company’s Yellow Stone. In 1837, the American Fur Company steamboat St. Peters spread smallpox among the tribes of the Upper Missouri.

Many of the people on the St. Peters, both crew and passengers, were infected with smallpox. The captain, however, refused to quarantine those infected. Guided by what seems to have been greed rather than good judgment, the captain was more concerned about avoiding any delays in his schedule. Following his schedule, the captain continued steaming up the Missouri with no concern for potential consequences. Each time the river boat stopped at a trading post, the epidemic spread into the tribes who had come in to trade.

In North Dakota, one of the traders at Fort Union came down with smallpox after the St. Peters had stopped at the trading post. The clerk, Charles Larpenteur, understood that the disease would pose a great peril to the Assiniboine when they returned to trade in the fall. Therefore, all of the personnel at the post who had not had smallpox were inoculated. Using a medical book as a guide, they scraped pus from a ripened smallpox blister. They then made tiny cuts on the inoculees’ arms, dipped the tip of the lancet in the vial of pus, and rubbed a small amount of pus on the wound. Smallpox, however, still struck the Assiniboine and two-thirds died. Of the 250 lodges at Fort Union, only 30 survived.

In Montana, the trader from Fort McKenzie wondered why no Blackfoot had come to the post to trade. He set out to find his customers and encountered many buffalo, but no buffalo hunters. At Three Forks he found a Blackfoot camp of 60 lodges: there were only two old women alive. The rest had died from smallpox or from suicide to avoid smallpox. The old women had been infected by smallpox when they were younger and so they were immune to the disease.

The epidemic spread by the riverboat killed at least 17,000 Indian people. In North Dakota, 90 percent of the Mandan and 50 percent of the Hidatsa died. The epidemic spread west to the Blackfoot where it killed 50 percent of the southern portion of the tribe.

While traditional histories generally report that the spread of smallpox by the riverboat was unintentional, there are still many Indian people on the Northern Plains who feel that the epidemic was intentional. There are some who feel that this was another example of biological warfare against the Indians.

Chief Kitsap

Suqamish Chief Kitsap lived from about 1750 to about 1845. He was born and raised in Suquamish (in what is now Washington state). He was a friend and ally of Chief Sealth’s father. Kitsap had winter houses at Fort Madison and Pleasant Beach on Bainbridge Island. He was known as a brilliant war strategist and as an expert bow marksman. He often led intertribal forces from Puget Sound into battle against raiding tribes from the North. He was best known for leading a Suquamish raid to Vancouver Island to avenge an enemy tribe. For this, the Suquamish recognized Kitsap as a leader and historians have described him as  “the most powerful chief of all the Indians from Olympia to the Fraser River.”

He helped build the Old Man House communal dwelling that became one of the largest winter houses in the Northwest Coast. The Old Man House was the center of the Suquamish winter village on Agate Pass, located just south of the present-day town of Suquamish. The original name of the site was D’Suq’Wub which means “clear salt water.”

The site of D’Suq’Wub was occupied for at least 2,000 years according to the archaeological investigations at the site. While some sources indicate that the longhouse itself was built in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, archaeology seems to suggest that it was originally constructed earlier than this.

With regard to size, the Old Man House was between 200 and 300 meters (600 to 1,000 feet) in length.

In 1792, the British Captain George Vancouver arrived at the Strait of Juan de Fuca and took possession of the area for England, ignoring the fact that it had been occupied by American Indian nations for thousands of years. He named the area New Georgia after King George III. One of the Native leaders who met Vancouver’s party was Chief Kitsap. According to the Native accounts, Chief Kitsap helped guide the British through the area.

Vancouver noted that many of the Indians in the area had pock-marked faces, that many villages appeared to have been recently abandoned, and that there were many recent graves. This was probably an indication of smallpox. The Indians were not always friendly and the English found that they already had firearms and knew how to use them.

Around 1825, Chief Kitsap helped to organize a large intertribal coalition of the Indian nations of the Puget Sound area. Under his leadership, this coalition attacked the Cowichan, a group of tribes living on Vancouver Island who often raided against the Puget Sound tribes. Chief Kitsap’s coalition forces with about 200 canoes, however, were soundly defeated by the Cowichan.

The Cherokee Civil War, 1842 to 1843

After their removal to Oklahoma in 1838, the hostile rivalry between two Cherokee political factions—the National Party which had resisted removal and the Treaty Party which had favored removal—became violent. In 1842, James Foreman, a member of the National Party, and Stand Watie, a member of the Treaty Party, encountered each other in a grocery store. Watie accused Foreman of killing his uncle, Major Ridge. The argument quickly grew physical and Watie killed Foreman.

Following the incident, groups of armed men from both factions began to assemble. There were rumors that an outbreak of civil war within the Cherokee Nation was imminent and that Foreman’s death had been a part of a larger conspiracy in which others were marked for assassination. The American Indian agent met with the Cherokee near the grocery store. During the course of his investigation, the agent had found that the rumors of a conspiracy were without foundation. The agent urged Foreman’s friends and the members of the National Party to allow the law to take its course. Instead of seeking revenge, he urged them to allow Watie to face trial.

Stand Watie was concerned that he would be tried in a Cherokee Court. Since John Ross, the leader of the National Party, was the principal chief, and the Cherokee government seemed to be biased toward the National Party, Watie did not feel that a fair trial in a Cherokee court would be possible. However, since the incident occurred in Arkansas, outside of the Cherokee Nation, he was tried in Arkansas.

At the trial, James Foreman was described as a violent man. Witnesses testified that Foreman had come into the store expecting trouble while Watie had not. The jury debated for about five minutes and Watie was acquitted on a plea of self-defense. The attacks were seen as a renewal of a Cherokee feud and armed guards gathered for the protection of the National Party adherents. The killing of James Foreman and the acquittal of Stand Watie were seen by many as another step in the escalation of violence among the Cherokee.

The following year, the violence escalated when a group of Treaty Party men, under the leadership of George West, attacked and killed Isaac Bushyhead, a member of the National Party. The murderers then escaped into Arkansas where they would be out of reach of Cherokee tribal justice.

Violence against the National Party continued. In separate attacks, David Vann was attacked and beaten with clubs, but was carried off to safety by friends. Judge Elijah Hicks was forewarned about the attack and escaped. Many of the Treaty Party people, fearing retaliation, fled from the Cherokee nation, leaving most of their personal goods behind.

There were rumors that Chief John Ross was going to be assassinated and so the Cherokee General Council posted several dozen Cherokees around his home. While the warriors guarded his home for several weeks, there was no attempt on his life.

The animosity between the two factions continued to simmer, with occasional outbreaks of violence for another couple of decades.

A Cherokee Murder

Following the Trail of Tears in 1838, there were three groups of Cherokee living in Oklahoma: (1) The Old Settlers who had moved to the west prior to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, (2) the Treaty Party who had signed the removal treaty and had been moved in relative comfort, and (3) the National Party who had been forcibly removed by the military. In Oklahoma, the Cherokee came together under a new constitution. The first challenge to this new constitution came in 1840.

In 1840, Archilla Smith, a member of the Cherokee Treaty Party, got into a frivolous dispute with John MacIntosh. In his anger, Smith stabbed MacIntosh to death. Under the new Cherokee Constitution, Smith was arrested and tried for murder.

Stand Watie, another prominent member of the Treaty Party, was the counsel for the defense. Watie pointed out that there was no real evidence that Smith had actually done the killing. He argued that the government’s witnesses had been inconsistent in their testimony. In addition, Watie argues that if Smith had indeed killed MacIntosh, then the death should be considered self-defense rather than murder. He pointed out that MacIntosh had provoked Smith and, given the violence of the times, MacIntosh had been killed in self-defense. Watie asked the jury to find Smith not guilty.

Watie’s words did not convince the jury. Smith was found guilty and sentenced to be hung. A petition for pardon was presented to Chief John Ross with “a desire that peace and harmony prevail.” With the tensions among the various factions in Cherokee society at the time, the petitioners implied that hanging Smith would lead to more violence.

Ross did not respond to the request and Smith was hung. Later some people would claim that Ross had ignored the petition because of his animosity against Watie. Ross was the leader of the National Party and Watie was one of the leaders of the Treaty Party. Forced to defend his actions, or, rather non-action, Ross would claim that the Cherokee chief had no power to grant pardons which would undo the will of the court.

As a result of this trial, many members of the Treaty Party faction were skeptical about the impartiality of the Cherokee government and its courts.

A Chippewa Treaty

A treaty is an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Under the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution, Indian tribes are legally considered to be nations. During the nineteenth century, the United States government negotiated a number of treaties with Indian nations. While often called “peace treaties,” these treaties were not about ending wars and often they were negotiated with Indian nations considered American allies. While the treaties proclaimed eternal peace between the Indians and the United States, the real purpose of the treaties was to obtain land which could then be given to non-Indian settlers.

In negotiating Indian treaties, American negotiators usually showed great ignorance about American Indian governments and often failed to recognize what really constituted a sovereign nation and what did not.  Since they preferred to deal with fewer tribes, they arbitrarily grouped sovereign entities together and unilaterally declared them to be a single nation. They also preferred to deal with dictatorships rather than democracies and preferred to support and create dictatorships.

In 1837, some 1,200 Chippewa gathered for a treaty conference with the United States in Minnesota. Under the proposed treaty—proposed by the United States, not the Chippewa—the Chippewa were to give up their claim to the St. Croix Valley of Minnesota and their rights to much of northwestern Wisconsin.

The area in question had been over-hunted thus its value to the Chippewa had been reduced.  In addition, the ongoing war between the Chippewa and the Sioux, which had resulted in many Sioux bands migrating out into the Great Plains of the Dakotas, had made the area dangerous for Chippewa hunters.

In exchange for the ceded lands, the Chippewa were to receive annually for 20 years: $9,500 in cash, $19,000 in goods, $3,000 for a blacksmith, $1,000 for farmers, $2,000 in provisions, and $500 in tobacco. In addition, $70,000 was to be paid to traders to “liquidate certain claims against the Indians” and $100,000 to be paid to “the half-breeds of the Chippewa nation.” Chief Flat Mouth protested the payment to the traders arguing that many of the debtors had been killed by the Sioux while on excursions for the traders. He also pointed out that the Americans had taken fish from the lakes and streams and had harvested timber from the woods without paying the Indians. For the United States, however, corporate interests such as those of the trading companies also outweighed any concern for individual interests.

The Treaty with the Chippewa states:  “The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded, is guaranteed to the Indians, during the pleasure of the President of the United States.”

Chiefs Hole-in-the-Day and La Trappe expressed some concerns about their rights. La Trappe told the Americans: “We wish to hold on to a tree where we get our living, & to reserve the streams where we drink the waters that give us life”

In the treaty, there was no distinction between the various bands. The treaty ignored the political reality of the Chippewa – that they were not a single nation, but are several autonomous bands – and referred to them as a single nation.

Interference with Cherokee Government

In 1839, the Cherokee in Oklahoma had gathered to create a new government. They adopted the Act of Union which was to be their new constitution. Under this constitution, they then selected John Ross as Principal Chief. However, John Ross had been the leader of the Cherokee who had been force-marched from Georgia to Oklahoma and was known for his opposition to removal. The United States in its foreign policy—Indian tribes are designated as nations by the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court, thus fall under the realm of foreign policy—had traditionally opposed any democratically elected leader who has criticized U.S. policy. The U.S. response to this democracy is a blatant attempt to overthrow it, by force of arms if necessary.

In 1840, the Secretary of War directed the army to declare martial law among the Cherokee, to dissolve their government, and to call together all factions of the Cherokee to form a new government. Under the directive, neither John Ross nor William Shorey Coodey would be permitted any voice in the new government.

In Washington, D.C., the John Ross faction, commonly known as the National Party, prepared a memorial to Congress outlining the steps they had taken to re-establish their government in their new home and the difficulties created by the opposing parties and by the military. In response, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution calling for the Secretary of War to provide:   “copies of all orders and instructions issued from the department to any officer of the army, or to any agent of the Government, requiring his interference with the Cherokee Indians in the formation of a government for the regulation of their own internal affairs.”

Before the Secretary of War could respond to the request, the Cherokee opposing John Ross, known as the Treaty Party, filed their own memorial outlining the wrongs imposed upon them by the Ross faction and asking Congress to intervene.  While both President Martin Van Buren and the Secretary of War refused to see John Ross and William Shorey Coodey, they warmly welcomed Stand Watie, John Bell, and William Rogers, all members of the Treaty Party.

The U.S. House of Representatives sided with Ross and charged President Martin Van Buren and the War Department with unjustified interference in Cherokee affairs.

The Cherokee After Removal

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many prominent and influential Americans, particularly those from the southern states, had decided that the United States should not contain any Indians. Pretending that their primary concern was the “protection” of the Indians, they pressured Indians to move across the Mississippi River using open threats and harassment. In response some Cherokees began moving from their homelands in Georgia and Tennessee to the Southern Great Plains. When it became apparent that most Indians would not move voluntarily, the United States passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Under the legal authority of this Act, in 1838-1839, the United States military forcibly and brutally force-marched thousands of Cherokee to their new home in what would become Oklahoma.

Upon their arrival in Oklahoma in 1839, some 13,000 Cherokee immigrants were to be issued subsistence rations by a government contractor. The government contractor, however, had little interest in Cherokee welfare and focused instead on enhancing profits with the government contract. The flour and meal which was provided to the new arrivals following their forced march was infested with weevils. Realizing that no-one in the government cared about these Indians, the contractors seized the opportunity to get rid of cattle which would be otherwise unsalable while charging the government for prime beef. Cherokee chief John Ross called the meat “poor and unhealthy.” When his complaints received no response, he purchased rations for the people from another private contractor.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokees faced the task of forming a new government. Three different groups were involved: (1) the Treaty Party which had the support of the Old Settlers and the planters, (2) the National Party which had the loyalties of two-thirds of the Cherokee population and was loyal to principal chief John Ross, and (3) the Keetoowah Society which had been formed prior to removal to prevent removal and considered itself to be a sacred institution rather than a political institution. American officials generally worked to discredit John Ross and the National Party as they viewed the Treaty Party as true patriots. The American officials generally portrayed Chief John Ross as a villain and the recent arrivals as “savages.”

John Brown, the first chief of the Western Cherokee, declared that the Eastern Cherokee had accepted the hospitality of the Western Cherokee and therefore they should live under the Western Cherokee government. However, John Ross argued for the continuation of the eastern Cherokee government. The Cherokee Nation—that is, the eastern Cherokee—had a written constitution and they had a far more elaborate law code than the Western Cherokee. The eastern Cherokee also constituted a major of the Cherokees in Oklahoma.

A constitutional convention was held and was presided over by Sequoyah, an Old Settler. Sequoyah and Jesse Bushyhead (an eastern Cherokee Baptist minister) worked out a compromise. The convention passed an Act of Union which was intended to unify the nation. The Old Settlers were guaranteed one-third of the seats in the new legislative body.

In the formation of the new government, John Ross was selected as principal chief; Joseph Vann, an Old Settler, was selected as second chief; and Young Wolf, an Old Settler, was chosen as speaker of the National Council. The Act of Union established the laws by which the Cherokees could live in harmony among themselves and deal with the American government which was threatening not only their traditional way of life, but their very existence.

In the Act of Union, the Cherokees made reference to inalienable rights and stated that each Cherokee had specific God-given rights. Since the Cherokee had the same God as that of the United States, this meant that the Cherokees should have the same political standing as other Americans. However, President James Polk stated:

“The Cherokees have been regarded as among the most enlightened of the Indian tribes; but experience has proved that they have not yet advanced to such a state of civilization as to dispense with the guardian care and control of the government of the United States.”

While American officials attempted to oust John Ross from the government, the United States did recognize the Act of Union as the Cherokee constitution.

The Act of Union did not bring about harmony or union. The animosities that divided the Cherokees continued. A group of 100 to 150 Cherokees associated with the National Party met in secret to discuss what to do about the Treaty Party. They felt that the men who signed the Treaty of New Echota were traitors and should be executed. They drew up a list of those who were to be killed and then drew straws to determine who would do each killing. John Ross did not attend the meeting.

The first to be killed was Elias Boudinot, the first editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, as the law of blood revenge was revived. Two other leaders of the Treaty Party, Major Ridge and John Ridge, were also murdered. Stand Watie managed to escape assassination. As signers of the Treaty of New Echota, all of these leaders were in violation of Cherokee law and the penalty for this violation was death. In one day, the prominent leaders of the Treaty Party were eliminated. These actions increased the friction between the two main Cherokee groups as those who had committed the murders now became targets of revenge.

The Council of the Cherokee Nation met shortly after the murders and declared that the three men had been outlaws since they had signed the removal treaty. The Council thus decreed that the killings were legal executions.

Stand Watie, distraught over the murders of his brother, uncle, and cousin, vowed revenge and began to raise a militia to kill John Ross.

The Secretary of War (who was in charge of Indian Affairs at this time), after listening to members of the Treaty Party, declared that the legitimate government of the Old Settlers had been illegally overthrown by Ross and the National Party. The American government demanded the arrest of those who had murdered the Treaty Party leaders. The American government refused to pay Cherokee annuities to the Ross government.

The divisions among the Cherokees continued to disrupt the peace and harmony of the nation for more than a generation.