Oklahoma Indian Territory

  • Civil War Engagements
    -Battle of Round Mountain,
    November 19, 1861
    – Raid on Opothleyahola’s camp, December 26, 1861
    – Battle of Cabin Creek, July 1, 1863
    – Battle of Honey Springs, July 17, 1863

War Department’s Map of The States of Kansas and Texas and Indian Territory, 1867 Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

During westward expansion, many Native American tribes were pushed out of their traditional territories and into “Indian Territory,” which comprised most of modern-day Oklahoma. The “five civilized tribes”—the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek—comprised most of the population that was moved into the area. The Cherokee were moved into Indian Territory in the late 1830s, following the hard march from their traditional lands in the Southeast which became known as the Trail of Tears. Other tribes in the area included the Wichita, Caddo, Quapaw, Seneca, Shawnee, and Osage.

After arriving in Indian Territory, life was not easy for the Native Americans. Many tribes that had been traditional enemies were now forced to live next to each other. Tribes struggled for power amongst themselves, with the Cherokee Nation usually the most powerful. They also had to learn to live in a Western way. They were no longer allowed to carry on their traditional subsistence activities, and tried to learn how to farm. In the two decades before the Civil War, the Native American tribes managed to make a suitable living for themselves. However, they were nowhere near as prosperous as they were in their traditional lands and were still impoverished.

When the Civil War began in 1861, most of the Native Americans in Indian Territory supported the Confederacy. The reasons for their support of the Confederacy are numerous. Several of the Native Americans were slave owners themselves. However, most of the Confederate Support stemmed from the fact that the Native American Tribes deeply mistrusted the Federal government. The Federal government had given the tribes no reason to support them, as they had been almost completely disenfranchised at the government’s hands. The Union also did nothing to regain Native American support when the war began. On April 1, 1861, all Union troops were commanded to leave Indian Territory in Confederate control. Finally, most of the federally appointed Indian agents to the tribes were from the Southern states and exerted a strong southern influence on them.

Sensing an opportunity, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent Albert Pike and General Ben McCulloch to Indian Territory in May, 1861 to negotiate treaties with the Native Americans and recruit them for the Confederate Army. The Confederate commanders wanted Indian Territory as a base to drive Union troops out of Arkansas. Pike successfully negotiated a treaty with the Creek on July 10, the Choctaw and Chickasaw on July 12, the Seminole on August 1, and the Wichita, Caddo, and others on August 12. The Cherokee hoped to remain neutral in the war, wishing to take no part. However, after the decisive Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek in August in Greene County, Missouri, they agreed to a treaty. They signed this treaty, together with the Quapaw, Seneca, Shawnee, and Osage, on October 7.

Native Americans in Indian Territory fought in several Confederate regiments. These included: The 1st Regiment Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles under Colonel Douglas H. Cooper, the 1st Creek Regiment under Colonel Daniel N. McIntosh, the 1st Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles under Colonel John Drew, and the 2nd Regiment, Cherokee Mounted Rifles, under Colonel (later Brigadier-General) Stand Watie, a Cherokee man.

Despite the majority Confederate support, there were a large number of Native Americans that supported the Union or simply remained neutral. The tribes were split into Northern and Southern factions. A prominent Creek leader, Opothleyahola, was an outspoken Union Supporter and lead a group of over 4,000 members of several tribes to Kansas to escape the growing Confederate sentiments in Indian Territory. Confederate troops—the Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment under Colonel Douglas H. Cooper—chased the group and a battle between the two factions ensued on November 19, 1861 at Round Mountain. Opothleyahola’s group was able to escape, but was attacked again in December by Col. Cooper at Bird Creek. This time Cooper had the assistance of the Cherokee Mounted Rifles under Colonel John Drew, but Opothleyahola’s group proved victorious again. After this battle Colonel Drew’s Cherokee Mounted Rifles deserted and joined Opothleyahola. However, on December 26, 1861, Colonel Cooper’s troops and the Creek Regiment under Colonel McIntosh attacked the group, destroying all of their supplies and scattering them in different directions. Many of this group died during the winter, as they had no supplies or food. Opothleyahola was among the dead.

Native American regiments were important to the Confederate Army. Stand Watie’s Cherokee Mounted Rifles were played an integral part in the Battle of Pea Ridge in Benton County, Arkansas. The other Native American regiments did not arrive in time to take part in the battle, but they were able to cover the other Confederate forces during their retreat. After the Battle of Pea Ridge, General Pike, the commander in charge of all of the Native American regiments, confronted the Colonels of the regiments. He was concerned that the Native Americans were not being treated fairly. His concern cost him his post, as he was quickly replaced by General (formerly Colonel) Cooper.

The Union Army became involved with Native Americans from Indian Territory in 1862. They realized the strategic importance of the area and launched the “Indian Expedition” in June of that year. Aside from wanting to take control of the territory, the Union army also wanted to help those members of Opothleyahola’s group that had made it to Kansas return to Oklahoma. The Union army felt that they would be better provided for there, as there were few supplies the Union army bases could give them. The Indian Expedition consisted of two brigades from Kansas, one from Wisconsin, and one from Ohio, and was under the command of Colonel William Weer of Kansas. The expedition was a failure, and quickly returned to Kansas. However, the Union army continued attempts to seize Indian Territory throughout the rest of the war.

The Cherokee chief, John Ross, was taken into protective custody by the Union Army as they returned to Kansas. A group of supporters followed him. In Indian Territory, Stand Watie was elected chief. The group under Ross refused to recognize Watie’s election, and officially abolished slavery for the Cherokee Nation.

By October, 1862, Union Troops had succeeded in gaining control of Fort Gibson and Tahlequah in Indian Territory. General Blunt, a union commander, led federal troops against General Cooper at the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17, 1863. This resulted in a Union victory. The Union army was also victorious at the Battle of Perryville in September, 1863, when General Blunt again defeated General Cooper. This victory allowed the Union army to take control of Fort Smith.

After the fall of 1863, few major military actions took place in Indian Territory. General Stand Watie, however, led frequent raids on Union supporters throughout the Territory. He was so committed to the cause that he continued this activity until June, 1865, even though the Confederacy surrendered in April.

The Native Americans in Indian Territory suffered terribly during the Civil War. Some estimates state that over 25% of the population in the territory died during the war from starvation, disease, and battle. In addition, because they had served in the Confederate army, most of these Native Americans were not afforded any veteran’s benefits. It was a long struggle for these tribes to rebuild and to solve the divisions among the tribes that the war had caused.

White settlement began in this area after the war, as well as several mining operations. Oklahoma was officially admitted into the Union in 1907. The counties bordering the Ozarks area, Craig, Ottawa, Delaware, Mayes, Cherokee, and Adair, were formed during the same year. Craig County was named after Granville Craig, a prominent Cherokee, and the county seat was named Vinita. Ottawa County was named after the Ottawa Tribe, and the county seat was named Miami, after the Miami tribe. Delaware County was named for the Delaware district in the Cherokee Nation before white settlement in the area. The County seat was named Grove. Mayes County was named after Samuel Houston Mayes, a Cherokee Chief, and the county seat was named Pryor. Cherokee County was named after the Cherokee Tribe. The county seat was named Tahlequah because it had formerly been the Tahlequah district of the Cherokee Nation before white settlement.

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