Following the removal of the Cherokee in 1839 and amid years of unrest, over time Stand Watie and John Ross became less than subtle opponents, each supported by a portion of a divided Nation.
Even during the Nation’s “golden years” of the 1850s, prior to the American Civil War, an uneasy truce prevailed between the two. Ross, whose first wife Quatie died during the journey to the new Nation, had married a second time to 18 year old Philadelphia socialite, Mary Stapler in 1844.
The couple returned to the recently constructed Rose Cottage in Park Hill where Ross resumed governing and entertaining, supported primarily by the full blood members of the tribe.
In this respect, the two men were somewhat alike. Stand Watie also had remarried, this time to Sarah Bell and, although his home on Spavinaw Creek was not as sumptuous, it soon became a central gathering place for mixed bloods.
So, without the formality of an election, 44 year old Stand Watie became the de facto leader of a large and wealthy faction within the Nation.
Any hope that this division of leadership might have resolved itself was shattered by two events, formation of the Keetoowah Society and the American Civil War.
While the Cherokee government was moving forward, particularly in developing an education system and improving judicial reform, a Baptist minister, Evan Jones lit the first fire of divisiveness.
By 1850, Jones, who gained prominence when he led one division of Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, was now focusing his attention upon the evils created by the sale and consumption of alcohol within the Nation.
His fiery sermons and dedication to abstinence were particularly appealing to Cherokee full bloods and as a result he developed an even larger following. Encouraged, he also extolled the traditions of the tribe and in 1859, was instrumental in resurrecting the Keetoowah Society, an ancient tribal organization.
Because of those types of traditionalist values, Jones and his followers also favored abolition of slavery and aligned themselves to the government of John Ross.
By 1860 the issue of slavery and its expansion had reached critical proportions within the American government. The Cherokee Nation included an estimated 4,500 slaves, nearly all possessed by mixed bloods.
It had become clear to Stand Watie that, if war resulted, his followers favored slavery thus leading him to become affiliated with the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights, based in Columbus, Ohio advocated expansion, not only in the United States but surrounding countries as well.
On July 29, 1860, declaring his allegiance to the Knight’s, Watie met with followers at Fort Wayne and organized the First Cherokee Rifles. Tacitly, Watie’s war had begun.
When hostilities between the North and South did occur the following April of 1861, the Cherokee government of John Ross was conflicted. If they joined the South, treaties with the Federal government would be nullified, however the Union made no effort to contact them.
On the other hand, overtures from the South borne by Confederate representative Albert Pike promised them all they wished. So, while Ross and his followers pondered this dilemma, Watie made his move.
The war in the east was underway and an initial Confederate victory at Manassas, Virginia on July 21 gave impetus to his decision.
While John Ross was deliberating, that same month and without any government authorization, Watie led his First Cherokee Rifles to Cowskin Prairie east of present day Grove. There they participated in training exercises with the troops of Confederate General Sterling “Pap” Price.
The objective was to stop Union forces that were sweeping across southern Missouri and, on August 10, 1861, sixty nine miles to the northeast, they achieved that goal at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. With that victory, the Confederates had now defeated Union forces in major conflicts twice in less than two months!
On August 21, buoyed by these events the Ross government agreed to join the Confederate cause, although the treaty wasn’t formally confirmed until October. Included in the agreement was a clause prohibiting the Nation’s troops from fighting outside the Cherokee Nation.
In the meantime and during the previous month, Stand Watie, whose troops had already fought in Missouri and now were in Arkansas, was awarded the rank of Colonel in the Confederate Army.
So, while Ross was initiating a command to be led by John Drew, whom he also designated as colonel, Watie had already led his troops into one battle in one state and received a Confederate commission in Arkansas.
Unfortunately for the cause, these were not the only events that soon set Watie’s war apart from the Cherokee government.
Within a year, John Ross fled the Nation, most of Drew’s troops declared allegiance to the Union and none of the items of the Confederate Treaty were fulfilled. There were no payments, no supplies and very little military assistance.
Probably best remembered for being the last Confederate general to surrender following the Civil War, Watie, or troops in his command participated in eighteen battles and several major skirmishes with Union troops.
The two greatest victories were the capture of the federal steamboat J.R. Williams and the Second battle of Cabin Creek where his troops seized $1.5 million worth of supplies.
Because of his guerilla style tactics throughout four years of war, Watie tied down thousands of Federal troops that were badly needed in the east. From start to finish, this was Stand Watie’s war…to win or to lose.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.