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How The American Civil Changed the Choctaw Nation (1861-1865)

Back east, their home had been ravaged by the forces of Civil War. Ragtag armies of both Federal and Confederate soldiers had marched through their fields, had destroyed their crops, and had left nothing but wasteland behind them. He couldn't help but think about all that he had lost during those years.

They left earlier in the year. After arriving at Fort Smith, they stopped for a while to gather supplies and get some good rest before venturing into Indian Territory. It had been a long journey, but his spirits were excited with the promise of cheap land and a new start. His wagon had only been bogged down twice, and the trails were relatively well kept for this time of year. Now, as Cavanal Hill loomed in the distance, he surveyed his new land. It wasn't much - large trees and dense brush covered the areas where the rocks didn't - but it was his.

For him and his family, the future looked bright. Maybe he could make a go of logging, or try his hand at cultivating corn. He knew it would be hard work but as he gazed off towards the surrounding mountains, he knew he was home.

For the Choctaw, this was the beginning of the end of the nation as they knew it.

US Geological Survey in Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory

US Geological Survey in Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory

The American Civil War took more American lives than any other war in history. It so divided the people of the United States that in some families’, brother fought against brother. In Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, the four years that the United States was embroiled in Civil War were chaotic times for the Native Americans.

Because of the number of slaveholders among its leadership, the Choctaw people were the most strongly committed of the Indian Territory's nations to the Southern cause. Soon after the war started, the Choctaw Nation signed a treaty with the Confederate government in 1861. Ultimately, this, along with the white western migration, would lead to the collapse of the Choctaw Nation.

On February 7, 1861, the Choctaw nation announced its loyalty to the Confederacy. An agreement among the Choctaw Leaders was reached at their tribal council in Doaksville:

“That we view with deep regret and great solicitude the present unhappy political disagreement between the Northern and Southern states of the American Union, tending to a permanent dissolution of the Union and the disturbance of the various important relations existing with that government by treaty stipulations and international laws, and portending much injury to the Choctaw government and people. …

“That in the event a permanent dissolution of the American Union takes place, our many relations with the general government must cease, and we shall be left to follow the natural affections, education, institutions and interests of our people, which indissolubly bind us in every way to the destiny of our neighbors and brethren of the Southern states.”

This event marked the true beginning of the Civil War in the Indian Territory.

Skullyville - The Choctaw Agency building - The Tom Ainsworth family when he owned the building in the 1880's

Skullyville - The Choctaw Agency building - The Tom Ainsworth family when he owned the building in the 1880's

While the Union and Confederate forces clashed in the east, the Choctaw, along with the Chickasaw, clashed with the Union supporting Creeks and Cherokees. This formed a kind of civil war within a civil war.

This was due in part to the Confederate forces capture of Fort Smith. The capture of Fort Smith led to the union withdraws from Indian Territory. After the Native Americans were settled in Indian Territory, the U.S. Government created several forts in order to help keep the peace between the tribes. After the war started, and after the capture of Fort Smith, the forts in Indian Territory were abandoned in order to supply more troops to the main battlegrounds.

The Choctaw’s also sympathized more strongly with southern sentiment than the Cherokees. Prior to the Civil War, The Choctaws led an agricultural existence, relying on slaves to do the hard labor. This way of life was being threatened, and they had no choice other than to side with the Confederates.

The Choctaw soldiers were poorly clothed, poorly fed, unpaid, and arms and ammunition was scarce. They were untrained and undisciplined. Under these conditions, the Choctaw people quickly became demoralized throughout the war. Because of this, many soldiers, along with civilians not involved with the war, took refuge in a camp on top of Winding Stair Mountain.

The Choctaw Nation Light horsemen, which helped preserve the laws throughout the nation, similar to how the U.S. Marshal did during that time.

The Choctaw Nation Light horsemen, which helped preserve the laws throughout the nation, similar to how the U.S. Marshal did during that time.

During the Civil War, Indian Territory was plunged into chaos. Even though the devastation was not as significant as it was further east, many homes and lives were still ruined by the effects of war.

One of the most significant impacts on the Choctaw economy was that of cattle theft. Prior to the Civil War, great numbers of cattle were herded from Texas, across Oklahoma, and into Kansas or Missouri. Known as the Great Cattle Drives, this was a significant source of income for many who were located along the cattle trails, as well as those Choctaws who raised livestock in the area.

During the Civil War, well-organized bands of thieves stealing cattle and horses practically stripped the county of livestock under pretext of army use. A yoke of oxen was worth $50.00, cows $10, and horses were worth $20 each. Cattle thieves would steal the cattle and then drive them to the border of Kansas. Once in Kansas, the livestock would be sold with fake bills of sale. They were also taken to Texas to be sold. This continued until the close of the war when the Indian chiefs took drastic steps to stop this.

Captain James Reynolds and his wife, Felicity. Captain Reynolds was a civil war hero and veteran who moved to Cameron shortly after the civil war and established his home there. the captain's castle, as his home is called, is one of the best known landmarks of the area.

On June 19, 1865, Peter Pitchlyn, who was the Choctaw Chief, surrendered the last of the Choctaw Troops who were stationed at Doaksville. On April 28, 1866, a peace treaty was signed in Washington. Once the war was over, the Choctaws were slow in returning to their lands.

The Confederacy's fall meant that the Five Tribes were forced to negotiate new treaties with the U.S. government. As defeated nations, they were forced to cede territory and to comply with the United States' demands for expanded railroad rights-of-way across Indian lands. The federal government also forced them to sell their western lands. It was during the negotiations of these treaties that Choctaw chief Allen Wright suggested the name "Oklahoma" for the western territory that the tribe was forced to relinquish for the settlement of western tribes.

The result of the Civil War was to undermine tribal governments. The conflict opened Indian Territory to exploitation by railroads and non-Indian ranchers, coal miners, and commercial entrepreneurs. It set up the Dawes Commission to register Indian families and parcel out individual plots of land. In 1889, the Oklahoma Territory was opened to white settlement.

Although the Choctaw Nation had tried to regulate the activities of non-Indians by imposing fees and licenses, and in the 1870s to regulate marriage between tribal citizens and non-Indians, the nation was quickly overwhelmed by non-citizens. They had suffered thefts, violent crimes and murders at the hands of whites and other tribal members. In the decades that followed, the Choctaw Nation essentially became a non-entity as more whites settled on land formerly owned by the tribe.

Sources

The Birth of Poteau

The Chronicles of Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Pioneer Papers


© 2020 Eric Standridge

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 02, 2020:

You have given us an account of how the Choctaw Nation fared during the Civil War. I never learned this in history lessons when I was in school, so thanks for filling in some of this information. I am certain that others will find this informative as well.

Eric Standridge (author) from Wister, Oklahoma on September 01, 2020:

Mr. Happy, essentially, you're right.

"the Choctaw Nation essentially became a non-entity" - this is in reference to the period around reconstruction. The Choctaw Nation saw their rights being removed and an influx of white settlers. They still had sovereignty, but it was seriously undermined throughout that time. From the treaty of 1866 until Statehood, it was a hard battle for the Choctaw. They managed to survive, and then thrive, but for awhile following the Civil War and the expansion of white settlements into the nation, they essentially became a non-entity, not in a legal stance, but in the context that they were taken advantage of during reconstruction.

Hopefully that clarifies that statement a little.

JEREMIAH MWANIKI KILUNDA from Nairobi on September 01, 2020:

A very captivating writing.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 01, 2020:

Well compiled.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on August 31, 2020:

Interesting piece of writing. Thanks for putting it together.

I did not know much about what role the Native people played in the American Civil War. They also do not teach much about Native people in schools. Not even in university and I was a History Major.

"the Choctaw Nation essentially became a non-entity" - This part struck me as a little odd because I knew some things about the Choctaw Nation. That is why I clicked on the article to begin with.

Wikipedia states that The Choctaw Nation has a "tribal jurisdictional area and reservation comprising 10.5 counties in Southeastern Oklahoma". That's not exactly a "non-entity".

Some tribes have indeed been wiped-out in the Americas by the Europeans but many also survived and still exist to this day. The genocide did not work as well as it might have been intended.

Thanks again and here's the website for the Choctaw nation: https://www.choctawnation.com/