Civil War historians focus their attention primarily on battles and events that occurred east of the Mississippi River. Occasional mention is made of clashes at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri or Pea Ridge in Arkansas, but those in the east that resulted in huge numbers of casualties, such as Gettysburg (40,638) or Antietam (23,381), receive much more attention.
Even events that are reported leading to the war essentially ignore what was happening on the western front. Interestingly, it was a combination of issues that initiated the war in Cherokee Indian Territory, issues that had been smoldering for decades.
Full blood Cherokees and mixed bloods, those who had intermarried with white settlers, were frequently at odds over tradition long before the eventual removal to the west. The final schism came with the signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 by a committee composed primarily of mixed bloods, In essence, this treaty dissolved the old Cherokee Nation and set the wheels for removal to the west in motion.
After that, not forgotten nor forgiven, was the horrendous suffering, after first being “rounded up,” then force marched on the Trail of Tears in 1838-39. There also was the divisive issue of slavery which was contrary to ancient Cherokee beliefs. To escalate that division, most of the slave owners were mixed bloods and, after removal, not only had the numbers of slaves increased dramatically, but so had the numbers of mixed bloods.
The anti-slavery fires were also stoked by Baptist missionaries because it was contrary to their doctrine. Following their arrival in the Cherokee Nation during the early 1800s, preachers had become quite influential, particularly among the full bloods.
The Baptists engaged in camp meetings and revivals somewhat similar to traditional Cherokee practices. The missionaries had learned the language, taught schools and generally become integrated into the society. But, while the missionaries preached against it, slavery had become such a volatile issue in the east, that even their own church split in 1845. This event that spawned the new Southern Baptist Convention included mixed bloods who favored slavery.
So in 1859, alarmed by the growth of slavery in this new territory and the lack of influence by full bloods, John Jones, a Baptist Missionary and fervent abolitionist, promoted the revival of an ancient traditional society, the Keetoowah’s. This reorganization attracted the conservative element, a large segment of the full bloods who were wedded to the old customs and way of life. Soon the Keetoowahs, called “Pins” because of the crossed pins on their coat or shirt, would play a prominent role in the conflict to come.
As events developed in the east, culminating in the capture of Fort Sumter by the Confederates, the pro slavery and abolitionist forces became increasingly active in Indian Territory. Stand Watie, a pro-slavery treaty signer, organized a chapter of fellow advocates called the Knights of the Golden Circle.
The purpose of the Knights, a secret society organized in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854, was to expand slavery in a golden circle of territories throughout Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Although Watie’s organization was short lived because the war soon began, it proved to be the nucleus of men who became the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles, a Confederate unit under his command.
The stage was now set for the carnage that would follow. Watie and his “Knights” joined the Confederate cause and the “Pins” fought for the Union, but unlike their eastern counterparts, both sides brought other issues to the conflict. The phrase “brother against brother,” a phrase describing differences in the east took on new significance in the west.
Cherokee would battle Cherokee, as opponents in war, now with a legitimate “license to kill.” And, like the issues, the rules for this war were different. In the east, traditional rules such as taking captives, paroling some, or honored truces, were observed. But the war in the west became one of total retribution…no holds barred. To further compound the carnage, bushwhackers led by infamous despots like “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill, made their own rules.
Opposing soldiers were slaughtered and civilians who favored one side or the other were hunted down and murdered. Freed slaves were targeted. Homes, businesses, and schools that held no military significance for either side were senselessly burned. Since neither side could guarantee their safety, defenseless civilians, fled to Texas or Kansas.
Historians marvel at the destruction wrought by Sherman’s march to the sea, a sixty mile wide swath from Atlanta to Savannah. The destruction of the Cherokee Nation was from border to border.
Unfortunately, the devastation wrought by the war was followed by an era of unequaled lawlessness that followed in Indian Territory. Not until the firm judicial hand of “Hangin” Judge Parker regained control, did the carnage cease and not until then was the “License to Kill” revoked.