Category Archives: Indian Territory

The Cherokee Nation Joins the Union

February 26, 1863 – 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.

John Ross | Image Credit:

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 their land bordered the Indian Territory on three sides.

However, the Confederacy could do little to aid the Native Americans 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 them annuities 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 Indians 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); Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 265-66; Lause, Mark A., Race and Radicalism in the Union Army; Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 323

The Battle of Chustenahlah

December 26, 1861 – Confederate Texans and Native Americans defeated Unionists a second time this month in the Indian Territory.

Colonel Douglas Cooper | Image Credit:

Colonel Douglas Cooper | Image Credit:

Since the skirmish at Round Mountain in November, Unionist Creeks led by Chief Opothleyahola had withdrawn northeast into the Cherokee Nation to Chusto-Talasah (Bird Creek or Caving Banks), near Tulsey Town (present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma). Following them was a pro-Confederate force of about 1,100 Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and the 9th Texas led by Colonel Douglas Cooper.

As Cooper prepared to confront the Unionists, Colonel John Drew, commander of the 1st Cherokee Mounted (Confederate) Rifles and a nephew of Cherokee Chief John Ross, met with Opothleyahola to try brokering a peace agreement. The Chief agreed to send a messenger to Cooper seeking peace coexistence. Cooper replied that “we did not desire the shedding of blood among the Indians,” and proposed a conference to work out peace terms. However, by that time many Unionist Creeks had resolved to stop fleeing and fight, and they prevented Cooper’s envoy from meeting with Opothleyahola.

Meanwhile, Drew reported to Cooper that 500 of his Cherokees had deserted the ranks due to a “misconception of the character of the conflict between the Creeks, and from an indisposition to engage in strife with their immediate neighbors.” Some Cherokees went home, while others joined the Unionists. Drew and his remaining 28 men stayed with Cooper, who prepared to defend against an attack he thought would take place on the night of December 8. The Unionists did not attack, so Cooper deployed skirmishers to find their positions the next morning.

The Unionists drove the skirmishers back and advanced at a place the Cherokees called Chusto-Talasah. Cooper formed a line of battle to meet them, with the Choctaws and Chickasaws on the right, the Cherokees and Texans in the center, and the Creeks on the left. The line advanced as one; the Creeks engaged in vicious combat with their fellow Creeks, driving back the Unionists on that flank while the Choctaws and Chickasaws pushed back the opposite flank.

Pinned down near a house at a bend in Bird Creek, the Unionists knocked the attackers back with deadly fire. This gave the Unionists the chance to escape annihilation. The Confederates tried pursuing, but their movements were limited due to supply shortages. Nightfall ended the four-hour contest, with Cooper estimating that he inflicted 500 casualties while losing just 52 (15 killed and 37 wounded). The Unionists continued their withdrawal toward Kansas.

Col James McIntosh | Image Credit:

Col James McIntosh | Image Credit:

The lack of supplies and the fear of more Cherokee desertions prompted Cooper to plead with Colonel James McIntosh for reinforcements. McIntosh responded by leading a separate force in search of Opothleyahola’s Creeks on their way to linking with Cooper. On Christmas Day, McIntosh learned that Opothleyahola’s camp was at Chustenahlah, near the Kansas border. He planned to attack the next day without informing Cooper, whose forces remained near Chusto-Talasah.

McIntosh’s Confederates, though outnumbered 1,700 to 1,300, were better equipped and trained. The Unionist Creeks were camped along Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Verdigris River, when the enemy forces came upon them around noon. The Confederates launched three assaults on the Creeks’ right, center, and left. The Unionists gradually fell back to their camp, then broke and fled in the face of repeated charges. Some Confederates pursued the Unionists while others plundered their camp. McIntosh reported:

“We captured 160 women and children, 20 negroes, 30 wagons, 70 yoke of oxen, about 500 Indian horses, several hundred head of cattle, 100 sheep, and a great quantity of property of much value to the enemy. The stronghold of Opoth-lay-oho-la was completely broken up and his force scattered in every direction destitute of the simplest elements of subsistence.”

McIntosh stated that he lost just 40 men (eight killed and 32 wounded). Opothleyahola’s Creeks, who had been reluctant to leave their homes in the Indian Territory, now raced for sanctuary in Kansas, suffering severe hardships in the process.


References (multiple dates); Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 89; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 147-48, 151-52; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 266

Divisions in the Indian Territory

November 20, 1861 – The war threatened to divide the Native American tribes just as it divided North and South, with Unionist Natives fleeing toward Kansas and Confederate allies of the Five Civilized Tribes in pursuit.

The Indian Territory | Image Credit:

The Indian Territory | Image Credit:

By this month, Confederate agents had secured peace treaties from the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). However, Confederate Colonel Douglas H. Cooper, an agent to the Choctaws who had been adopted by the Chickasaws, received intelligence that a band of Creeks under Chief Opothleyahola officially broke with Chief John Ross to join the Unionists. Rumors abounded that the Cherokee were dividing as well.

Cooper raised a force of about 1,400 men that included Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and the 9th Texas Cavalry. After asserting that he could not resolve the dispute peacefully, Cooper announced that he would drive the Unionist “hostiles” out of the territory. Opothleyahola’s “hostiles” consisted of about 1,000 civilians, freed slaves, and a few Creek warriors, seeking to flee from their pro-Confederate tribes. They had few provisions.

Cooper discovered where they were camped and advanced up the Deep Fork of the Canadian River, where they briefly skirmished with the Creeks as they retreated north toward sanctuary in Kansas. Some Unionists taken prisoner informed Cooper that the band was building a fort on the Red Fork of the Arkansas River in case they received no support from Federal forces in Kansas.

The Confederates crossed the Red Fork at 4 p.m. on the 19th and saw the smoke of a camp in the distance. Cooper’s men charged, with the Unionist Creeks making a stand until the civilians could withdraw. Both sides traded fire into the night, until the Creeks returned to their camp. The clash continued the next day, with the Unionists gradually abandoning their camp to flee toward Kansas. The Confederates advanced and found the camp abandoned, as the Unionists crossed the Arkansas River that evening from the Creek Nation to the Cherokee Nation.

Although the Confederates controlled the Indian Territory for now, many Native allies deserted the ranks to protest this pursuit of Opothleyahola’s Creeks. Many of them had joined on the premise that they would be fighting white Federals, not their fellow Natives. The Confederates tried strengthening their grip on the region by appointing Brigadier General Albert Pike to command the new Department of the Indian Territory.


References (multiple dates); Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 381; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 83-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 142