The Cherokee Nation Joins the Union

The National Council of Cherokee Indians approved resolutions repealing its ordinance of secession, renouncing its support for the Confederacy, declaring new support for the U.S., and abolishing slavery in the Cherokee Nation. The council’s decision to change course was difficult because many Cherokee slaveholders sympathized with the Confederacy, and many who did not own slaves wanted to stay neutral. Prominent Cherokee leader John Ross had urged allying with the Confederates after their victories at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek in 1861, arguing that they would likely win the war, and that Confederate land bordered the Indian Territory on three sides.

John Ross | Image Credit:

However, the Confederacy could do little to aid the Natives in the Indian Territory, leading to widespread poverty, famine, and death. Indians serving the Confederacy had not been paid for months, and the government commandeered their horses. As long as the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, the U.S. government would not pay their annuities as had been promised in prior treaties.

Finally, Unionist Indian forces serving in the Federal Army of the Frontier were dispatched under Colonel William A. Phillips to protect not only the suffering Natives in the Indian Territory, but the refugees who had fled to Missouri and Kansas as well. Phillips and Brigadier-General James G. Blunt provided $12,000 worth of supplies for relief.

During this time, Colonel Stand Watie, a Cherokee serving the Confederacy, led his force back into the Indian Territory to prevent the Cherokee Nation from assembling the Council and voting to support the U.S. The Council assembled under Phillips’s protection, without John Ross and others who supported the Confederacy.

On the 26th, the Council approved “an act revoking the alliance with the Confederate States and re-asserting allegiance to the United States.” The Council also approved “an act emancipating slaves throughout the Cherokee Nation.” This included granting citizenship to all freed male slaves. Thus, the Cherokee Nation became the first government to voluntarily end slavery in America.


  • Abel, Annie Heloise, The American Indian in the Civil War. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
  • Cunningham, Frank, General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  • Lause, Mark A., Race and Radicalism in the Union Army.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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