The Cherokee Nation Wishes for a Confederate Alliance

Wednesday, August 21, 1861

The land that is, in modern times, known as “Oklahoma” was, at the time of the Civil War, known only as “Indian Territory.” It was to Indian Territory that the Trail of Tears led in the 1830s. The Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek) were forcibly relocated from the South to west of the Mississippi River. By 1861, the Nations, as they were known, were divided on how to react to the Civil War.

On one hand, it was the states in the South that lobbied for their forced relocation. On the other, many of the prominent chiefs of the Nations were slaveholders. Also, if the South was victorious, they thought, perhaps there was a chance to secede from the Union as well.

As per treaty obligations, the Federal Government was to make annuity payments to the Tribes, but had stopped in a supposed fear of the money falling into the pockets of the Confederates. For many natives, this was the last straw. The Choctaws and the Chickasaws threw in with the Confederacy. They even organized a regiment of dragoons to fight with the South. President Jefferson Davis agreed to take over the annuity payments, promised the Natives self-government within their borders, and even let the Nations send delegates to the Confederate Congress.

All was not as it seemed, however. Albert Pike, a newspaper editor sent by Davis to broker treaties in Indian Territory, had plans of his own. He wrote Davis of the territory’s good farming land, its natural resources and how the Confederacy could use them with or without the consent of the Indians. Pike saw the value of settling Indian Territory as a Confederate state with free whites and their slaves.

The Cherokees were divided on the matter. One faction, the more traditional, full-blooded and nonslave-holding Keetowahs were for remaining neutral. Countering them were the Knights of the Golden Circle, mostly made up of mixed-blood slaveholders, who wished to side with the South.

Representing the Keetowahs was John Ross, ironically a slaveholder who was only one-eighth Cherokee. The Knights were led by Stand Watie, a slave owner who was three-fourths Cherokee. Watie had already raised a mixed-blood cavalry regiment.

Ross was holding out for peace and neutrality as long as he could. “We do not wish to be brought into the feuds between yourselves and your Northern Brethren,” wrote Ross to the Confederacy’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “Our wish is for peace. Peace at home and Peace among you.”1

On this date, a Cherokee national conference was held at Tahlequah (sixty miles southeast of Tulsa). Four thousand Cherokees had assembled and John Ross, leader of the peaceful Keetowah faction, spoke.

Ross was nearly convinced that the South was about to win their independence. With victories at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, it was no wonder. In the past, said Ross, he was for neutrality. But now he was for unity within the Cherokee Nation.

“Union is strength; dissension is weakness, misery, ruin,” warned Ross. “In time of peace, enjoy peace together; in time of war, if war must come, fight together. As brothers live, as brothers die. While ready and willing to defend our firesides from the robber and murderer, let us not make war wantonly against the authority of the United or Confederate States, but avoid conflict with either, and remain strictly on our own soil.”

Ross, however, moved from his stance of neutrality to one of, what he viewed as, practicality. Indian Territory was bordered on three sides by the Confederacy, whose fate was linked to that of the Cherokee. “The time has now come,” concluded Ross, “when you should signify your consent for the authorities of the nation to adopt preliminary steps for an alliance with the Confederate States upon terms honorable and advantageous to the Cherokee Nation.”

The meeting at Tahlequah did not officially bind the Cherokee Nation with the Confederacy. In fact, the resolutions passed at the conference favored neutrality and friendship with people of all of the States, “particularly those on our immediate border.” Clearly, the Nation was paving a path that would soon lead them to an official alliance with the South.

Another of the resolutions addressed slavery. It was resolved: “That among the rights guaranteed by the constitution and laws we distinctly recognize that of property in negro slaves, and hereby publicly denounce as calumniators those who represent us to be abolitionists, and as a consequence hostile to the South, which is both the – land of our birth and the land of our homes.”

The meeting concluding by assuring that “the relations between the United and Confederate States of America… may render an alliance on our part with the latter States expedient and desirable.”((Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p673-675.))

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Two Generals Set Aright

Meanwhile, two Confederate generals were chastised by their respective commanders. In Missouri, General Polk admonished General Pillow for disobeying orders concerning the 4th Tennessee regiment. Polk wanted the 4th to occupy Island No. 10, but Pillow, who had no command over the Tennessee troops, ordered them to march north. As it was too late to recall them, Polk instead scolded Pillow for giving an order to a regiment not under his command and decided to report him to the War Department in Richmond.2

In Western Virginia, Generals Wise and Floyd were constantly bickering while marching towards the Federals at Gauley Bridge. All Floyd wanted was for Wise to hurry along and all Wise wanted was to keep his brigade, called Wise’s Legion, together. Intervening, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Wise, again explaining that since Floyd was the commanding officer, it was up to him where specific regiments were brigaded. Under Wise’s command were two Virginia regiments not in his Legion. Lee moved both to Floyd’s command, leaving Wise with only his Legion to head. Floyd was still in ful command of the Army of the Kanawha.3



  1. A People’s History of the Civil War by Davis Williams, The New Press, 2005. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p668. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p799-800. []
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2 thoughts on “The Cherokee Nation Wishes for a Confederate Alliance

  1. I’m of Cherokee and Southern descent. I’ve been following your sesquicentennial gazette. You present a very biased, skewed and even incorrect account of the Cherokee and Native Americans of the South. Tribes all across the Northern states were wiped out before, during and after the Civil War. The South, however, recognized sovereign national rights for multiple tribes with boundaries. The Cherokee decided to cash in on their lands in the 1830’s land deals with TN, AL and GA, of their own free will. Almost all, the vast majority, of Native Americans alive today are Southern Tribes. The South was always racially multi-ethnic, with Spanish, French, Indian, African, Carribbean, French, English, Irish and other ethnicities. The North was mostly Anglo-Saxon in ethnicity. These Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) people are the most racist people that ever walked the face of the earth. How dare they rewrite history to make out Southern people to be racist. The Cherokee were the last of the Confederation to fight and surrender. We chose the Confederacy over the blood-killing that the US Army brought to Native Americans. And they continued after the Civil War to come kill us. The war ended for the South, but it lasted another 30 years for us. Your articles are heavily biased to these Anglo-Germanic Northern killers … but don’t invent history about the Cherokee.

    1. Isn’t calling an entire race of people “the most racist people that ever walked the face of the earth” a racist statement?

      You say: “The Cherokee decided to cash in on their lands in the 1830′s land deals with TN, AL and GA, of their own free will.”

      Are you seriously telling me that the “Trail of Tears” simply didn’t exist? They went merrily, skipping and smiling from the lush green homes of their fathers to some baron desert? Could you provide a few references here, please?

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