Tahlequah, capitol of the Cherokee Nation and incorporated as a town in 1843 has had a complicated history.
Founded September 6, 1839, the town grew slowly around a government complex of log and frame buildings that saw considerable debate between the 16,000 Eastern Cherokee, most of who recently arrived on the Trail of Tears and the “Old Settlers.”
The Old Settlers, Western Cherokee who relocated to Indian Territory in 1828 as a result of the most recent treaty regarding lands in Arkansas, resented and were slow in accepting the ideas of government proposed by the new comers.
The Old Settlers had already established their seat of government, a Council House and Community Center at Tahlontesskee, a site honoring their old chief near present day Gore. And, under the leadership of John Jolly, the brother of their old chief, they had devised their own system of governance and, in fact, in 1831 lobbied Washington for modifications of the earlier Removal Treaty.
Never-the-less, the weight of numbers prevailed and soon Tahlequah, the Cherokee word for grain or rice, the site chosen because of the location of abundant spring water and the proximity to forests for timber and prairies for hay, became the seat of government.
By 1842 the town included four stores and the following year 160 acres was surveyed for its site. In 1843, the capitol took on additional significance when a general convention attended by 18 Indian tribes met for a month to unify their demands involving the federal government.
That also was the year the Cherokee Advocate, the Nation’s newspaper was founded to inform what now was a population of over 18,000.
Construction moved rapidly after that, in 1844 the Cherokee Supreme Court building, currently the oldest public building in Oklahoma, was built. The next year a school opened and in 1847 the town acquired a post office.
The bustling community became the center of what has been termed “the golden years,” of the Cherokee Nation. This was enhanced by several advances in the Nation’s government, for example the development of numerous laws benefitting the citizens and the first school system west of the Mississippi. By 1851 that system included male and female seminaries for older students.
In addition to being the seat of Cherokee government, an unrelated but significant incident occurred in Tahlequah in November of 1855. The United States Army Second Cavalry bound for Fort Belknap, Texas arrived in town to spend the night.
What made the incident significant was that the mounted troops were lead by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, with Colonel Robert E. Lee as second in command and other officers of note including J.E.B. Stuart, Edmund Kirby Smith, John B. Hood and George H. Thomas.
Within six years most would constitute the core of leadership of the Confederate Army. Lee became its commanding general. Stuart, Lee’s “eyes and ears” would fall in 1864 at the battle of Yellow Tavern, a battle that also involved a young Union cavalry officer named George Armstrong Custer. Smith would eventually command the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, finally surrendering at Galveston, Texas in May of 1865.
Only George Thomas, became a Union general and he later defeated a badly maimed John Hood at the Battle of Nashville in December of 1864. Hood had to be strapped into his saddle because of the loss of his left arm and right leg in previous battles.
Residents would have welcomed the Second Cavalry a few years later because the Civil War devastated Tahlequah. The Cherokee Nation was divided in its loyalties between the North and the South and, as a result both sides wreaked havoc on the town.
The federal government closed Fort Gibson in 1857 after determining it was no longer useful in defending an expanding westward frontier, so when the war began, Confederate sympathizers occupied it. During July of 1862 Union troops entered Tahlequah and, at Park Hill, Chief John Ross defected to the Union along with 1,500 troops.
This caused many residents to flee leaving the town exposed to vandalism. The following year, Stand Waite’s troops burned government buildings and looted the town at will. So, between 1861 and 1865 most of the town was destroyed either by Union or Confederate forces.
But, despite the carnage, after the war residents returned and began rebuilding. In 1870 a brick capitol was constructed. Years later, in 1886 the first telephone system was established and in 1889, the Female Seminary, burned earlier, was rebuilt at Tahlequah and remains the oldest building on today’s Northeastern State University campus.
In 1895, residents were set back once more when a disastrous fire gutted downtown, but once again the community rebounded. Founded in turbulent times, the scene of countless debates over the future of the Cherokee Nation, frequently destroyed and rebuilt, because of its resilience Oklahoma’s original capitol city can justify its motto “City of Firsts.”
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.