Like most wars it ended with a whimper but ironically the Civil War concluded where it started, at Wilmer McLean’s house. McLean witnessed the first battle of the war on his farm at Manassas in July of 1861. Shortly thereafter, to remove his family from harm’s way, he moved to the community of Appomattox Court House and now, April 9, 1865 he witnessed the end of the tragedy in his own living room as Grant and Lee discussed terms. And, although there were no further skirmishes of note, it wouldn’t be until June 25th that Stand Watie conceded defeat in the Trans-Mississippi, the last Confederate general to surrender. His Cherokee Nation had been divided from the beginning, it has been estimated approximately 10,500 citizens were loyal to the Union while 6,500 supported the South. Now, even though the war was officially over, most of those Southern sympathizers, fearful of returning, would remain in the vicinity of the Red River for another year.
Almost immediately after Watie’s surrender federal government officials, intent on taking land for reparations, pressed to enter negotiations with the five Indian Nations. This was despite the fact Union sympathizers endured considerable property loss and the Cherokee Nation alone had provided over 3,500 soldiers for their cause. The first meeting was held at Fort Smith in September, and although reparations were the major objective of federal negotiators, the meeting ended with only the signing of a formal peace treaty. Consequently, a second meeting was scheduled for January of 1866 in Washington. The Cherokee, divided and still at war with themselves, sent two delegations representing sentiments of both the North and South. John Ross led representatives of the North and Stand Watie, assisted by Elias C. Boudinet, represented the South. To set the stage for their demands, federal commissioners took the position that all the Indian Nations were traitors for joining the Confederacy, therefore all previous treaties were void and new treaties must include land concessions. Also, in addition to abolishing slavery, the Indian Nations were to include freed slaves as citizens, whereas southern states were only required to give slaves their freedom. There were other demands. First, the Five Tribes must agree to assist the federal government in forcing the “wild” plains Indians to stop fighting among themselves and against white settlers. Second, they must accept and absorb any tribes presently located in Kansas, a Union state. Finally, the commissioners also promoted the concept of the Five Tribes joining with other regions in preparation for forming a future state. The senate had already passed a bill authorizing the organization of Indian Territory into a state.
Since the Cherokee delegation was divided in their representation, federal commissioners openly attacked the aging and very ill John Ross who argued for unification of the Cherokee Nation and against relocating other tribes in it. In fact, Ross was so ill he would die August 1, ten days before the final treaty was signed. On the other hand, Watie and Boudinet mostly agreed to the terms with the exception of slaves becoming citizens and the concept of combining all five nations under one government.
The conditions of the peace treaty initially had little impact on the lives of Cherokee citizens, now refugees in their own land. The war might have been officially over but there was total devastation. The landscape was dotted with chimneys of burned homes, livestock was non-existent, either dead or stolen, and fields had grown to weeds and brambles. Data would reveal that one third of the women were widows and one fourth of the children orphans…and crime ran rampant.
To further compound circumstances, John Ross, the only chief anyone under the age of 38 had ever known, was dead. Although opinions were divided on his leadership while in the Nation, no one disputed the significance of his political skills in Washington. His was a void that would remain unfilled. Although the Cherokee Council met in November of 1866 and selected his nephew William Ross as successor, the Ross mystic had run its course and he was soundly defeated by Lewis Downing during the regular election the next year. Virtually penniless, the government would struggle until, under terms of the peace treaty, the Neutral lands and the Cherokee Strip were sold. And, everyone had stories of personal tragedies, even the most well known were affected. For example, Stand Watie who seemingly was personally indestructible, surviving assassination attempts and successfully leading troops into countless battles, lost a young son to disease during the war and two shortly after. Once a prosperous farmer and land owner, he failed at several business ventures, dying in 1871 at the age of 65.
The Cherokee Nation, in fact all of the Indian Nations, never regained the pre-war sovereignty they had known and instead became a destination for migrating white settlers. Crime ran rampant for the next 25 years because of a discrepancy in the law that did not allow Indian courts to adjudicate white settlers. Railroads brought commerce to Indian Territory but they also brought crime, prostitution and more whites. In the meantime, the United States Congress was methodically moving toward the goal established by the Senate in 1866, statehood!
Reflecting on the sequence of events following the Civil War it is evident that, despite all efforts and exercises of the Cherokee to re-establish the Nation as it was, the federal government was intent on systematically absorbing it into being part of the family of states. There never again would be a sovereign Cherokee Nation like the one established in 1839. That too was over!
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.