Preparing the Cherokee for Removal

Since its founding, the United States, and particularly the states that compose it, has been uncomfortable with having Indians nations within its boundaries. Motivated by a combination of greed, racism, and religion, non-Indians debated two basic solutions to the Indian “problem”: removing Indian nations from the United States by relocating them west of the Mississippi River, and/or genocide. These solutions began with law in 1830 with the passage of the Indian Removal Act.

In 1835, American settlers invaded Cherokee territory and filed lawsuits against the Indians. The Indians, under state law, were not able to testify against the Americans so the Indians always lost. Some Americans stripped Indian men and women and flogged them. When General Ellis Wool attempted to protect the Cherokee, the state of Alabama accused him of disturbing the peace and interfering with the rights of Alabama citizens.

In 1835, the United States presented the Cherokee with a new treaty. The offer which the United States presented to the Cherokee was simple: if the tribe signed the treaty, the Cherokee would surrender their ancient homelands and move to the west. If the Cherokee did not sign, then the United States military would herd them at bayonet point from their homes and move them to the west.

Seeing no realistic alternative, some Cherokee leaders – primarily Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, Andrew Ross, James Starr, Stand Watie, James Rogers, Thomas Watie, Archilla Smith, John A. Bell, Charles Foreman, George W. Adair, and others of the Treaty Party – signed the Treaty of New Echota.  None of those signing the treaty had been authorized by the Cherokee Nation to sign it. In signing the treaty, all realized that they had violated Cherokee law, a law with a death penalty.

Under the terms of this treaty, the Cherokee were to give up all of their lands east of the Mississippi and to move to what is now Oklahoma and Arkansas. Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross repudiated the treaty because it had been signed by a minority of the Cherokee leaders. The United States, however, contended that they had informed the Cherokee that all leaders who did not attend the treaty conference would be considered to have approved any document signed by the negotiators.

In 1836, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross met with President Andrew Jackson in a courtesy visit. Jackson brought up the issue of removal, indicating he would be unable to protect the tribe as long as they lived among non-Indians.

That same year, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross addressed the U.S. Senate, providing them with an outline of the abuse and injustice done to the Cherokee. He presented them with two protest resolutions – one signed by 3,250 North Carolina Cherokee and one representing more than 12,000 Cherokee – asking that the Treaty of New Echota not be ratified.  While the government claimed that the Cherokee General Council had approved the treaty and that 500 Cherokee were present when it was adopted, neither was true. It had been signed by a few dozen Cherokee, many of whom had already agreed to emigrate. The Senate, by a margin of one vote, ratified the treaty.

As soon as the new treaty was ratified by the Senate, President Andrew Jackson issued a proclamation that the United States no longer recognized the existence of any government among the Cherokee in the Southeast. Furthermore, the Cherokee were warned that any resistance to removal would be met by force through the army.

In 1836, General Ellis Wool forwarded Cherokee protests over removal to Washington, D.C. He explained:  “It is, however, vain to talk to a people almost universally opposed to the treaty and who maintain that they never made such a treaty.”  He also reported:  “Many have said they will die before they will leave the country.”

In response, President Jackson rebuked the General for forwarding the Cherokee protests, declaring them to be disrespectful of the President, the Senate, and the American people.

In 1836, Major W.M. Davis, appointed to enroll the Cherokee for removal, reported that the removal treaty  “is no treaty at all, because it is not sanctioned by the great body of the Cherokee and made without their participation or assent. I solemnly declare to you that upon its reference to the Cherokee people it would be instantly rejected by nine-tenths of them, and I believe by nineteen-twentieths of them.”

In 1936, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross visited the Western Cherokee. He conferred with the chiefs and visited relatives. The Indian agents in the area had been ordered to arrest him and so Western Cherokee Chief John Jolly met with Ross in private to avoid any possible legal trouble.

In 1837, Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross was denied a meeting with President Martin Van Buren. He found that the new President was intent on retaining President Andrew Jackson’s policies regarding Cherokee removal.

The Cherokee National Council sent a delegation which included John Ross, Elijah Hicks, Situwakee, and Whitepath to Washington, D.C. in 1838 to present Congress with a petition signed by 15,665 people protesting their removal treaty. However, the governor of Georgia has informed the President that any delay in Cherokee removal would be a violation of the rights of the state. President Martin Van Buren refused to grant the Cherokee request for a delayed removal. With this the stage for a rapid removal of the Cherokee to the west was set. The event which would become known as the trail of tears would follow.

The Choctaw Removal

By 1830, non-Indians in Mississippi, motivated by greed and racism, were strongly advocating the removal of the Choctaw from the state. According to the citizens of Mississippi (Indians could not be citizens at this time), the reasons for the Choctaw removal included:

(1) Mississippi needed more land to attract immigrants from the east

(2) The Choctaw imposed a heavy financial burden on the state because they did not pay taxes

(3) The Choctaw harbored runaway slaves and non-Indian criminals

(4) They were hunters, not farmers, and hence not devoted to cultivating their fields

(5) They were inferior human beings, incapable of being civilized and therefore Mississippi must remove them as one removes a cancer

(6) Their lands were all within state boundaries and therefore the land belonged to Mississippi

Choctaw Background:

In general, the Indian nations that occupied what is now the American South were skilled farmers. For more than a thousand years, they had been raising corn, beans, squash, and other plants and their surplus agricultural products had allowed the unskilled non-Indians to survive when they first invaded.

Among the Choctaw, it is estimated that corn provided about two-thirds of their diet. In addition to corn and beans, the Choctaw also grew squash, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, and tobacco.

Unlike the Europeans, the Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands did not view land as private property. Land was held in common with individuals and families having use rights. These farming rights were held as long as they continued to use the land. Use rights were generally respected and an individual or family would not seek access to a piece of land until it had been abandoned.

The Choctaw, at the time of European contact, were a loosely organized confederacy composed of three distinctly different divisions: Okla Falaya (Long People), Okla Tannap (People of the Opposite Side), and Okla Hannalia (Sixtown People). The people were living in more than 100 autonomous villages. Chiefs were selected from the senior matrilineal clan in the district. While there was a mingo (leader) for each district, there was no single overall mingo.

The Americans:

Beginning with the creation of the United States, its citizens and political leaders had discussed the idea that no Indians should be allowed in the new country. At the beginning of the nineteenth century this idea took root in the idea of removal. First promoted by Thomas Jefferson, the idea was simple: Indians should be removed west of the Mississippi River so that their lands could be developed. In order to promote this idea, it was necessary to ignore the fact that Indians had been farmers who had developed their lands for thousands of years and promote the idea of Indians as wandering hunters. With the purchase of the right to govern the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the U.S. had a place for Indian removal.

In 1803, President Jefferson told a Choctaw delegation:

“It is hereby announced and declared, by the authority of the United States, that all lands belonging to you, lying within the territory of the United States shall be and remain the property of your Nation forever, unless you shall voluntarily relinquish or dispose of the same.”

In that same year, Jefferson sent agents to the Choctaw to obtain lands from them. When the Choctaw leaders refused to discuss the matter of land cession, the United States officials then presented them with the overdue bills from Panton, Leslie and Company (a British trading company) and demanded immediate payment. As a result, the Choctaw chiefs signed the Treaty of Hoe Buckintoopa which ceded 853,760 acres of land to the United States. Two years later, the Americans used the same tactic to coerce the Choctaw leaders into signing another treaty in which they ceded four million acres of land in order to pay off debts to the trading company.  

In 1817, Mississippi became a state and thus put more pressure on the Choctaw to give up their lands so that non-Indians could develop cotton plantations. In this same year, President James Monroe tells Congress:

“The hunter state can exist only in the vast uncultivated desert. It yields to the more dense and compact form and great force of civilized population; and of right it ought to yield, for the earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable, and no tribe of people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.”

In 1818, the United States sent a delegation to meet with the Choctaw leaders and present them with a proposal to move to the west. The Choctaw leaders refused to discuss the matter. The non-Indians in Mississippi were not pleased with the failure of the negotiations and brought pressure for a “get tough” policy regarding the Choctaw.

The following year, the Secretary of War sent a new delegation, one led by Andrew Jackson, to meet with the Choctaw to discuss removal. For three days, Jackson lectured the Choctaw, threatened them, and cajoled them. Choctaw leader Pushmataha bluntly replied:

“We wish to remain here…and do not wish to be transplanted into another soil.”

Pushmataha also pointed out that the land west of the Mississippi was very poor and that the government was trying to cheat them by asking them to give up good farm lands for poor farm lands.

In 1820, the Mississippi state legislature proposed that the United States purchase Choctaw lands for “a small consideration.” Newspapers reported that the governor, the legislature, and the people of Mississippi (meaning Euroamericans) were greatly annoyed with the Choctaw and felt that Choctaw land ownership was a great detriment to the state.

In the same year, Andrew Jackson once again led a delegation to discuss removal with the Choctaw. The council was held at Doak Stand and the Americans provided each Indian with a daily ration of 1.5 pounds of beef, a pint of corn, and free access to alcohol. While most of the Choctaw drew the rations, the followers of Puckshunubbee refused as they did not want to accept American hospitality under false pretenses. At the council, the Choctaw leaders were told that if they did not cede their land to the United States, the government would stop protecting the Choctaw from non-Indian settlers and from the territorial designs of the states and that state government would simply assume control over Choctaw affairs and take the land anyway.

Under intense pressure from the U.S. government, the Choctaw leaders signed the Treaty of Doak’s Stand giving 6 million acres of land in Mississippi to the United States. In exchange, the United States was to give the Choctaw a similar piece of land west of the Mississippi River and to support all Choctaw migrants to this land for one year. In what was left of the Choctaw territory east of the Mississippi River, the Choctaw are to be allowed to live undisturbed and to eventually become American citizens. Each man who migrated to the west was to be given a blanket, kettle, rifle, bullet molds, powder, and enough corn to last his family for a year.

While non-Indians in Mississippi were pleased with this treaty, those in Arkansas, where the Choctaw were to be removed, were not. People in Mississippi told them that they should accept the “burden” of the Indians until they obtained statehood and then they could force the Indians to move farther west. The editor of the Mississippi Gazette wrote:

“In the course of time, the territory of Arkansas, will also claim a state of independence, the Indians must be removed from her soil-and she will set but little importance upon the arguments now volunteered for her, against the treaty which may effect it.”

In 1824, a ten-member Choctaw delegation under the leadership of Pushmataha traveled to Washington, D.C. to protest the fact that their western allotments in Oklahoma and Arkansas are already occupied by non-Indians. In Washington, the Secretary of War provided the delegation with a whiskey allowance of $3 per day per delegate, but this proved to be inadequate. Over a period of three months, each Indian averaged $8.21 per day for whiskey.

In 1825, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) met with the Choctaw and Chickasaw to convince them to move west. The tribal leaders tell him in no uncertain terms that they are not interested. The non-Indian citizens of Mississippi were outraged at this refusal and some demanded that the Indians be driven out by force.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. In making the case for Indian removal, Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War, wrote in the North American Review:

“A barbarous people, depending for subsistence upon the scanty and precarious supplies furnished by the chase, cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”

President Andrew Jackson stated:

“It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy; and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

Dancing Rabbit Creek:

In 1830 the Secretary of War (who is in charge of Indian affairs in the United States at this time) called the Choctaw leaders together at Dancing Rabbit Creek to negotiate a removal treaty. The United States ordered all missionaries to stay away from the council grounds under the pretext that their presence would be improper as the meeting was not a religious service, but a treaty negotiations session. The American negotiators feared that the missionaries would speak out against the treaty and convince the Choctaw, many of whom were Christian, that it was a bad deal. The missionaries complained bitterly about this decision, but to no avail.

According to the proposal which the Americans submitted to the Choctaw leadership, in removing to the west each Choctaw tribal member would receive money, farm and household equipment, subsistence for a full year, and they would be paid for all improvements made to their Mississippi lands. While the American negotiators were confident that the Choctaw would accept the treaty, the Choctaw council voted unanimously to reject it. They gave two reasons for the rejections: (1) they wanted a perpetual guarantee that the United States would never try to possess their new lands in the west, and (2) they were dissatisfied with the lands which had been offered to them in Indian territory.

In response to the Choctaw rejection of the treaty, the Americans informed the Choctaw that they must either move west or be placed under Mississippi law. Under Mississippi law they would lose their lands, receiving nothing for them. If they resisted, the Americans told them, then the American armed forces would destroy them. As a result of these threats, the Choctaw leaders and the American negotiators reached an agreement in which the Choctaw got a perpetual guarantee of their new home. Under the treaty, non-Indians were not to be allowed to enter the Choctaw nation without the consent of tribal government. The exception to this is the Indian agent who was to be appointed by the President every four years.

The removal of the Choctaw from Mississippi was to take place over a period of three years, with one group (supposedly one-third of the nation) moving west each year. By 1833, according to the treaty, the Choctaw nation would no longer be in Mississippi.

Recognizing that not all tribal members might want to move, the treaty allowed for some to remain in Mississippi. Chiefs who remained were to receive four sections of land and an annual payment of $250;  adults were to receive 640 acres; children over 10, 160 acres. Indians failing to register within 6 months would be barred from registering.

In response to the treaty, Chief David Folsom said:

“Our doom is sealed. There is no other course for us but to turn our faces to our new homes toward the setting sun.”

The Removals:

In December of 1830, 400 individuals left for the west. This initial group was composed of Choctaw captains and high-ranking warriors who felt that they could sell their lands for a handsome price at this time and feared that if they delayed the land values would decrease.

A second group of about 4,000 left in 1831. They were transported by steamboat as far as possible up the Arkansas and Ouachita Rivers. They arrived at their new homes after a five month journey. Many of them were sick and all of them were exhausted and discouraged.

In 1832, the removal of the remaining Mississippi Choctaw was turned over to the army. Under orders to economize, rations were decreased and transportation was provided only for the very young and those who were very sick. Nine thousand Choctaw were removed, most of whom walked all the way to their new homes. They had no time to prepare for the trip and were told that the American government would provide all supplies. They were issued one blanket per family (there were an average of six people per family). They were forced by the government to leave during the winter and en route they encountered a snow storm. Ice flows prevented them from crossing the Mississippi River and they huddled in the freezing rain for several days. Many died of starvation and exposure. During the 350 mile forced march, in which many did not have shoes to wear, it was estimated that 2,500 died. The Choctaw were not allowed to care for the bodies of the dead in their traditional way. Instead, the Americans forced them to bury the dead in a European fashion.

Staying Behind:

Those Choctaw who wanted to remain in Mississippi under the terms of their treaty found it difficult to do so. The Indian agent was strongly opposed to having any Choctaw remain, so he simply put off registering them as long as he could. He pretended to be sick, and sometimes went into hiding. He was determined to deny the Choctaw their treaty rights. Reluctantly, he registered a few-69-so he could show at least token compliance with the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.

The Removal of the Chickasaw Indians

President Andrew Jackson informed a delegation of Chickasaw in 1830 that they had only two choices: either move west or submit to the laws of the state of Mississippi. The Chickasaw felt that the Great Spirit had given them their land and that it was the land where the bones of their ancestors lay. They did not wish to move west across the Mississippi River to a new land. On the other hand, the alternative of assimilation under the laws of the state of Mississippi did not seem realistic and so they agreed to move. Each of the Chickasaw chiefs at the conference-Levi Colbert, Samuel Sealey, George Colbert, and William McGilvery-was given four sections of land.  

One of the conditions of the treaty was that the Chickasaw would be provided a home in the west on the lands of the Choctaw. While the Americans saw little difference between the Choctaw and the Chickasaw, the Chickasaw were opposed to sharing the western domain, particularly when the Choctaw outnumbered them three to one. The treaty was not ratified by the Senate.  

In 1832, the United States increased the pressure on the Chickasaw to remove. At Pontotoc, the capital of the Chickasaw nation, the United States threatened to leave the Chickasaw to the mercy of Mississippi state law if they did not move west. They offered a special deal to the mixed-blood planters and merchants which would provide them with private reservations in the east. This was an attempt to divide the Chickasaw nation. In order to preserve their political freedom as a nation, the Chickasaw agreed to the treaty. Under this new treaty the tribe ceded outright all of its land to the United States. This land was then to be put on the market and sold as public lands. The proceeds of the land sale were to be held by the government for the Indians. The treaty also provided that while the Chickasaw looked for a new home in the west their homes and lands were not be disturbed.

Levi Colbert held a conference in his home after the treaty was signed but before it is ratified by the Senate. The Chickasaw leaders at the conference then sent a long and bitter memorial to the President protesting the terms of the treaty and the manner in which it had been obtained.

In the west, the Choctaw refused to sell any of their western land to the Chickasaw, but were willing to incorporate them into a fourth district of the Choctaw nation. The Chickasaw refused this proposal.

The next year, the Chickasaw sent an exploring party to look at lands west of the Mississippi River for potential relocation. Included in the party are Levi Colbert, Pitman Colbert, Henry Love, and William McGilvery.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw met with the Choctaw chiefs. Again, the Choctaw refused to sell any land to the Chickasaw but they did offer to make a home for them within the Choctaw nation.  The Chickasaw said they would move on the land only if they could buy and own it.

In 1835, the Chickasaw negotiated another removal treaty with the United States. This treaty divided Chickasaw lands into allotments to be sold by individual Chickasaw tribal members. A commission was formed to validate the sales and to manage Chickasaw finances, to distribute treaty annuities, find a western homeland, and speak for the nation. Ishtehotopa and several district chiefs, all men with planter or merchant backgrounds, made up this commission.

The Commission sent another exploring party to Oklahoma to try to find land. The party included Martin Colbert, Pitman Colbert, Thomas Colbert, and others. The group held another council with the Choctaw in Oklahoma but failed to obtain any land. The following year, the Chickasaw sent out still another exploring party to obtain land. The party included George Colbert, James Colbert, Henry Love, Benjamin Love, and other chiefs. Once again they met with the Choctaw and again failed to obtain land.

In 1837 the end had come. The American government, impatient to obtain Chickasaw lands and to rid the country of Indians, forced the Chickasaw to leave their ancestral lands. Government agents selected the removal routes and then threatened the use of military force and the withdrawal of all rations if the Indians deviated from the selected routes. It should be pointed out that the cost of the removal efforts were not being paid by the United States, but by the Chickasaw nation.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw, unable to find a new homeland, agreed to become Choctaw citizens, to submit to the laws and political organization of the Choctaw Nation, and to become a fourth district in the Choctaw Nation. Under the terms of the Treaty of Doaksville, the Chickasaw surrendered their sovereignty in order to obtain a home for their people. The Chickasaw paid the Choctaw $530,000 in order to be able to move in with them.

About 4,000 Chickasaw were brought to Memphis to be removed to Oklahoma via water. However, they heard about the sinking of the Monmouth in which 311 Creek men, women, and children had drowned and many refused to board the boats which have been assembled for them. Many prefered to cross the Mississippi and then go overland to their new home.

Kin-hi-cha led one group of 175 men, women, and children known as the Cleanhouse Indians who traveled with 206 horses and oxen. They boarded the steamer Itaska and were transported to the Arkansas Post. They then traveled overland to Little Rock and then to Oklahoma.

Once the Chickasaw were in Oklahoma, things did not go well. Chickasaw leaders James Colbert, Isaac Alberson, Sloan Love, Greenwood, George Colbert, and James Perry petitioned the federal government for help: “Many of our people have died and the general drought through the Indian country has been particularly felt through ours; for these reasons together with the fact that many of our people arrived too late to make a crop, makes it our duty to apply for further subsistence.”

The Removal of the Ponca Indians

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1877 the United States government informed the Ponca that they were going to be removed from their traditional homelands in Nebraska and reassigned to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Ponca, a nation which had been at peace with the United States and was considered friendly, were to be moved from their reservation on the Nebraska-Dakota border to Oklahoma because their reservation had been given to their traditional enemies, the Sioux, in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The Ponca first heard about their proposed removal a year earlier. At this time, the chiefs called a great council to discuss the matter. Speaking to the representatives from the American government who attended the council, Standing Bear said:

“This land is ours, we have never sold it. We have our houses and our homes here. Our fathers and some of our children are buried here. Here we wish to live and die.”

The representatives from the American government simply told the Ponca that Indian Territory was a better country.

In 1877, the Ponca were informed of their impending relocation during a Christian church service. During the service, the Indian agent addressed the Ponca and painted a glowing picture of their new lands in Oklahoma. Standing Bear responded to the announcement by pointing out to the agent that they had never sold their land nor had they ever asked to go to Indian Territory. He also reminded the agent that the Ponca had kept their treaty with the United States and that they had harmed no one.

Standing Bear, White Eagle, Standing Buffalo, Big Elk, Little Picker, Sitting Bear, Little Chief, Smoke Maker, Lone Chief, and White Swan were then taken to Oklahoma to see their new lands. For the journey south, the government purchased “civilized clothing” (primarily shirts and vests) for the chiefs. Once in Oklahoma, the Ponca chiefs found that the land did not suit them. They felt that this was not a land where corn and potatoes would easily grow. The land did not compare favorably with their lush green homeland in Nebraska. At this point, the Ponca chiefs realized that once again the Indian agent had lied to them.

The Ponca leaders informed the government that the heat, humidity, and poor soil conditions did not suit them. The Indian agent told them that they were to select land in Indian Territory or starve. The government then refused to take them back north. The chiefs were stunned to find that they were going to be stranded in a strange land because they disagreed with the government. They had visions of dying here without ever seeing their families again.

They had only $8 between them and only the clothes on their backs, They had almost no understanding of English. In spite of this, the chiefs made the 500 mile walk back to Nebraska where the Indian agent had them arrested.

The Ponca chiefs met with Omaha chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his daughter Bright Eyes wrote out a statement from the chiefs which tells of their ordeal. She then wrote a telegram to the President.  

In response to their complaints, an inspector from the Indian Office and the Indian agent called for a council with the Ponca. Before the inspector could address the council, Standing Bear came to his feet. Pulling his red council blanket around his shoulders, he asked why the Indian Affairs men had come to the Ponca reservation when they had not been invited. He concluded by telling the Indian Office men to leave at once.

Standing Bear and his brother Big Snake were then arrested, placed in chains, and jailed for resisting the removal order. The other Ponca chiefs, however, defiantly told the Americans that they would not be removed. The Indian Office inspector simply informed the council that they could move of their own volition or the Americans would use force against them.

At sunrise, army troops-four detachments of cavalry and one of infantry-surrounded the Ponca village. The troops dragged men, women, and children from their cabins. There was no discussion, no negotiation, and no toleration of resistance. The Ponca left behind their homes, their farms, and their farm equipment.

The Ponca were marched south under escort. They were deluged with rain and two Ponca children soon died from exposure. The army showed them no mercy, forcing the wet, cold people to travel along mud-clogged byways and across swollen rivers. When a tornado struck the camp, destroying tents, damaging wagons, and injuring several people, the army simply ordered the march to continue with no delay, except for burying the dead.

It took the Ponca 50 days to reach their destination. They were informed that they were now prisoners and they would be punished if they attempted to leave the reservation. The Ponca disliked their new home, and the chiefs petitioned the authorities in Washington to return to their ancestral lands.

Nearly one-fourth of the Ponca died during their first year in Indian Territory.

A delegation traveled to Washington, D.C. where four Ponca chiefs met President Rutherford Hayes. Each of the chiefs expressed dissatisfaction with their land in Oklahoma and their desire to return to their homeland. Standing Bear reverently, respectfully told the story of how his people had been wronged. He pointed out that they were now in a bad place, and that he hoped the President would do something for them. President Hayes was astonished at the story of their forced march and told the chiefs that this is the first he has heard of it.

At a meeting in the Department of the Interior, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs informed the Ponca chiefs that there was no way that their request to be returned to the north could be honored without Congressional action. At a second meeting with President Hayes, who had now been briefed by the Department of the Interior, the President told them that the Ponca must stay in Indian Territory. He assured them that they would be treated well.

Chief Standing Bear is shown below:

Standing Bear

The Removal of the Flathead Indians

( – promoted by navajo)

During the nineteenth century the United States pursued a policy toward American Indian nations which mandated their removal from their homelands if these homelands were desired by non-Indians. It was not uncommon for this removal to be accomplished through military force and for men, women, children, and elders to be force-marched for hundreds of miles without adequate provisions. Sometimes, the American government forced removal on a single nation several times.

While the most famous removal was the Cherokee Trail of Tears, many other Indians-ranging from the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek in the southeast to the Ponca and Cheyenne on the Plains to the Navajo in the Southwest-also went through an often brutal removal process. Often the Indian nations which were removed were friendly toward the United States and had served as American allies. One of the least known removals involves an Indian nation known as the Flathead or Bitterroot Salish of Western Montana.  

In 1855, territorial governor Isaac Stevens met in treaty council with the Bitterroot Salish (Flathead), Pend d’Oreilles, and Kootenai in western Montana. Governor Stevens considered these tribes to be unimportant but wanted to consolidate them, together with other tribes, on a single reservation. While the Flathead and the Pend d’Oreilles were both Salish-speaking tribes with a great deal of cultural similarity, the Kootenai speak an unrelated language and did not have a peaceful relationship with the Flathead. Stevens and the other Americans were unaware, or unconcerned, that the Kootenai were not related to the other tribes.

All of the tribes were friendly with the United States and had not committed any acts of violence against the Americans who intruded into their country. Big Canoe, a Pend d’Oreilles, pointed out that his people had offered the hand of friendship to the Americans since first contact. He questioned why there was a need for a treaty, saying that treaties were used to settle differences between enemies. While he still offered friendship, he felt that the Americans did not have the right to come into his territory and take away his lands.

The Treaty of Hellgate established a reservation for the three tribes, as well as others, in the Jocko Valley. This included the homeland for the Pend d’Oreilles and part of the homeland for one Kootenai band. The homeland for the Flathead, however, was in the Bitterroot Valley, about 100 miles to the south. In the treaty council, the Flathead made it very clear that they did not want to leave their homeland and consequently the treaty closed the Bitterroot Valley to non-Indian settlement.

When Flathead Chief Victor refused to sign the treaty until it included provisions for a separate reservation for his people in the Bitterroot Valley,  Governor Stevens called him an old woman and a dog. Victor replied: “I sit quiet and before me you give my land away.” Governor Stevens ambiguously promised them two reservations, a promise he knew he could not keep.

The treaty promised the tribes that the United States would provide them with provisions as part of the payment for the lands which they ceded. However, it was not uncommon for these provisions to arrive late or not arrive at all.

Following the Civil War, many non-Indians began to invade the Bitterroot Valley and establish farms in spite of the fact that this was prohibited by the 1855 treaty and they did not have title to the land. Soon the squatters began to resent the Flathead farmers and to covet their lands as well. The government refused to honor the treaty and soon took a position that the rights of the recently arrived squatters were superior to those of the Indians who have lived in the valley for thousands of years.

In 1866, the Indian agent for Western Montana called a council with the Flathead to discuss the non-Indian encroachment on their lands. The agent discussed with Chief Victor and about 100 other tribal members the possibility of their removal to the Jocko Reservation about 100 miles to the north. While no solutions were attained, the agent considered the council to be successful.

In 1868, the non-Indian squatters in the Bitterroot Valley met and drew up a petition requesting that the government remove the Flathead from the area. In response, the Flathead met in council to discuss the matter. Chief Ambrose recommended removal. On the other hand, Chief Adolphe reminded the people that Governor Stephens had promised that the Flathead could remain unmolested in the Bitterroot Valley.  

In the meantime, the Indian agents for the Flathead in the Bitterroot Valley reported to the Indian Office on the agricultural potential of the area. They noted that American settlers were moving into the area and recommended to the government that the Flathead be removed.

In 1869, Flathead Chief Victor dictated a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in which he discussed the problems facing the Flathead in the Bitterroot Valley. He asked for justice for his people.

At the same time that Chief Victor was asking for justice, the petition of the non-Indian settlers in the Bitterroot Valley requesting the removal of the Flathead was forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior. The petition simply argued that it would cost less to remove the Indians than to move the non-Indian squatters out of the area. The squatters, who had settled the land illegally, would have to be paid for their improvements, while the Indians could simply be removed with no concern regarding any improvements or rights to the land.

In response to government concerns, General Alfred Sully, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana Territory, negotiated a new treaty with the Flathead. While Sully favored the removal of the Flathead from the Bitterroot Valley, the Flathead were determined to remain in their homeland. The new treaty, however, permitted both Indians and non-Indians to live in the Bitterroot. The non-Indians objected to the treaty as it allowed the Indians to remain in the Valley. Influential Montana citizens complained, stating that each Indian family should get a farm and all other land be turned over to non-Indian settlers.

Under the new treaty, the Flathead were to have a reduced reservation. The treaty allowed non-Indian squatters to remain in the valley, but required that any new settlers obtain permission from the chiefs and the Indian agent. The treaty also promised each Indian family a wooden house and a farm wagon for every two families. The Flathead retained their right to hunt, fish, and gather in any reservation area not fenced. The treaty was signed by chiefs Victor, Arlee, and Joseph.

Non-Indians throughout Montana condemned the treaty. The prevailing attitude among non-Indians was that no land should be retained by Indians. As a result, the treaty was not ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In 1870, the non-Indian settlers ignored the treaty with the Flathead and asked the government to evict the Flathead. There were now more than a thousand Americans in the Bitterroot. Chief Charlo insisted that the Flathead had never relinquished their rights to the valley.

At this time most of the Flathead in the Bitterroot Valley were engaged in agriculture. Their farms produced 5,000 bushels of wheat, 650 bushels of potatoes, and 60 bushels of corn. With regard to livestock, they had 600 head of cattle, 100 hogs, and about 1,100 horses. They were seen as more agricultural than other tribes.

In 1871, seven Flathead chiefs met with Father Jerome D’Aste and dictated a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant concerning the situation in the Bitterroot Valley. The chiefs were concerned about non-Indian settlement as well as the growing liquor trade which the non-Indians promoted.

In response to the concerns regarding the non-Indian settlement in the Bitterroot Valley,  President Grant authorized the eviction of the Flathead from their homeland. James A. Garfield was then sent to persuade Chief Charlo to move to the reservation. Grant’s action was based on reports that only a handful of Indians-some reports cited only three Indian farms in the valley-were holding up the development of a fertile valley.

The following year, Congressman (and later President) James A. Garfield visited the Bitterroot Valley to negotiate the withdrawal of the Flathead from the valley and their resettlement on the Jocko (Flathead) Reservation. The Flathead were reluctant to enter into a new agreement since none of the provisions of their 1855 Treaty of Hellgate had been carried out by the government.

Two sub-chiefs, Arlee and Adolph, signed the agreement, but Chief Charlo refused to sign. Everyone  who was at the council witnessed his refusal. His signature is not on the original on file in the Department of the Interior; neither did it appear on the duplicate left with the Indians.

Somehow, as if by magic, Charlo’s mark appeared on the document. When Charlo complained about the blatant forgery, the United States simply appointed Arlee as the head chief, ignoring the fact that Arlee was not Flathead, but Nez Perce. When confronted with the evidence of the blatant forgery, Garfield claimed that he had reported the document signed because he thought that Charlo would agree and sign it once he saw that his people were actually being moved. The Flathead Culture Committee would later report:

“This apparent fraud caused the Chieftain (Charlo) to become further embittered against the whiteman who had taken his country and was making a strange life for him.”

The two sub-chiefs selected the Jocko Valley as the future home of the Flathead. This location was not particularly favorable for agriculture, but it offered other advantages which seemed more important to the Indians. These advantages included good pasture, running streams and an abundance of timber.

In 1873, a report on the Flathead in the Bitterroot Valley found that most of the non-Indian settlers in the area advocated the removal of the Indians to the Flathead Reservation. However, the report found little evidence of any crimes committed by the Flathead against the non-Indians.

In 1877, the Flathead friendship with the Americans was reaffirmed. During the Nez Perce War, Chief Looking Glass led his people into the Bitterroot Valley seeking refuge from the American army with their old friends and allies. When Looking Glass met with Flathead Chief Charlo, he extended his hand in friendship, but Charlo refused it. Charlo told him:  

“Why should I shake hands with men whose hands are bloody? My hands are clean of blood.”

The Flathead refused to assist the Nez Perce and cast their lot with the Americans.  Flathead Chief Charlo told the Nez Perce: ”

“If you kill any of my people or the white people, or disturb any of the property belonging to my people or the white people in my country, I will fight you.”

Chief Charlo visited Washington, D.C. in 1883. Charlo refused the gifts of the government which wanted his band to move from their ancient home in the Bitterroot to the Jocko (Flathead) Reservation. Finally, the Secretary of the Interior told him that his people could continue to live in the Valley as long as they lived in peace with the American settlers.

After meeting with Charlo, Senator George Vest concluded:

“In any event, deeply as we sympathize with these people, and deplore the manner in which Charlo has been treated, we are satisfied that the welfare of both the whites and the Indians in the Bitterroot Valley absolutely demands the removal of the latter to the Jocko reservation. Their presence in the valley is a continued source of danger and disgust.”

The following year, the Flathead make another attempt to get the federal government to listen to their side of the controversy. A delegation of Flathead chiefs-Charlo, Antoine Moise, John Hill, Abel-traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with government officials about their removal from the Bitterroot Valley. Charlo indicated that his people were free to move if they so desired.

In 1884, a group of 18 families from Moiese’s Bitterroot Salish (Flathead) band moved to the Jocko Reservation where they were given houses.

In 1889, a drought wiped out the farms of the Flathead and their non-Indian neighbors in the Bitterroot Valley. With this disaster, Chief Charlo agreed to move his Flathead band to the reservation in the Jocko Valley.

“I will go. I and my children. My young men are becoming bad. They have no place to hunt. My women are hungry. For their sake I will go.”

To support their decision to move, the government promised to provide the Flathead with food. The government’s promised supplies did not arrive and starvation set in.

In 1891, Charlo’s band of Flathead are finally moved from the Bitterroot Valley to the reservation in the Jocko Valley. Charlo had been told that if he did not give up his lands and move that the soldiers would come for him. Finally, Charlo called his people together. They prayed together and then he announced that they would go. Several days later following an all night feast, the Salish assembled at dawn, loaded horses and wagons and started for the Jocko Reservation.

The Salish were well-received by the other Indians on the reservation. However, the government failed to provide the promised houses for those who made the move.