“A good man and patriot,” that could be the epitaph of many pioneers from Northeastern Oklahoma, but it also described the life of Charles Thompson, sixth Principal Chief of the new Cherokee Nation. Although Thompson eventually became a chief, his life typifies that of most who were forced from their homeland by circumstances beyond their control. Recorded history tends to focus on a minority, the unusual or exceptional, instead of the average, the majority. Thompson’s life story reflects that majority.
Thought to have been born in North Carolina around 1821, Thompson or Oochalata his Cherokee name, was of mixed blood. His father was a full blood Cherokee, his mother a European /American. Records indicate she was kidnapped by the tribe at a young age, raised by an Indian family and adhered to their traditions. Little is known of Oochalata’s early life or what happened to his father, but in 1838 he and his mother are listed as being assigned to the eighth detachment of tribesman bound for Indian Territory.
Slated to leave from Mouse Creek Camp in eastern Tennessee, Oochelata now 17, and his mother experienced some drama before departure when John Ross fired one of the detachment leaders, James Wofford for public drunkenness. Wofford’s situation reflected a common situation because alcoholism had become a major problem within the Nation. Hopelessness and desperation resulting from their final years in Georgia, found many escaping their problems by drinking. The detachment eventually reorganized and left the Nation October 27, 1838. Like others on the Trail of Tears, Oochelata and his mother faced the constant prospect of death. Of 1,150 who began the journey with the detachment, 970 survived the 162 day ordeal, arriving at Old Fort Wayne on March 1, 1839.
There is good reason to believe that Oochalata and his mother resided in eastern Adair County for some time before eventually moving west to Eucha. He attended the Baptist Mission school operated by Reverend Evan Jones and Jones’s influence is apparent. The Welshman was not only a Baptist missionary, but became heavily involved in Cherokee politics prior to the Civil War. Reverend Jones was a fervent abolitionist and, in 1859, was instrumental in organizing the Cherokee Keetoowah Society whose members were both anti-slavery and strong supporters of John Ross. They comprised most of Colonel John Drew’s Regiment of Pin Indian Confederates. Young Oochalata not only became a member of the Baptist Church, after the Keetoowah Society was organized, he joined and when war was declared he enlisted in their regiment and fought at the battle of Pea Ridge.
Returning to Park Hill, the regiment was called upon to protect John Ross at his home after Union Colonel William Weer’s troops invaded the Nation during June of 1862 and defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Locust Grove. Oochalata must have been stunned, as were many in Drew’s regiment when Union Captain Harry Greeno and a company of troops approached the Ross residence a month later and was received by Chief Ross. Shortly thereafter, Ross negotiated his safe passage from the Nation to Fort Leavenworth. The disillusioned and demoralized regiment dissolved, some fleeing to the safety of Confederate friends, others including Oochalata, going to Flat Rock Creek and enlisting with their former enemy, the Union’s Third Indian Home Guard commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Downing. Oochalata’s change of allegiance did not shelter him from the war. His new unit fought a minor skirmish in November at Cane Hill, Arkansas, just across the border from his boyhood home. Then they were involved in a major battle at Prairie Grove in December, the last Civil War battle between the Union and the Confederacy in the west.
Following the war, Oochalata and his mother moved to Eucha. He was employed in a law office, probably in one of the larger communities, possibly Tahlequah, studied for the entrance exam and became a lawyer. It was also during this time he became interested in politics and evidently was popular. He was elected to the Cherokee National Senate in 1867, serving one term until 1873. It was then that he took the name of Charles Thompson honoring Dr. Jeter Lynch Thompson his predecessor in the Senate who died in 1869. Thompson, a Cherokee, was the first medical doctor to practice in Indian Territory.
In 1875 Charles Thompson was elected Principal Chief of the Nation, a difficult period in its history because of the Nation’s previous affiliation with the Confederacy. After his term in office he retired to his home in Eucha, Thompson renewed his involvement in the Baptist religion as an ordained minister and died in 1891. His epitaph, printed in the Coffeyville Weekly Journal typified his life and those of countless pioneers. “Ex-Chief Charles Thompson, a good man and patriot, has gone to his reward. Oochalata will be missed by his neighbors for he ministered to their wants almost as a father. He leaves a large estate. His people all over the Nation will mourn his death.” The next year, Ochelata, located in present day Washington County, was founded, named in his honor.
Author's Note: 1806, Settling the Cherokee Nation is now available on Amazon.com. and BARNESAND NOBLE.com
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.