The Cherokee Nation and the Civil War

This is a guest post by Amira Dehmani, a student at Stanford University who worked with the Library’s education team as a 2022 Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Image of John Ross leaning against a table

John Ross, also known as Guwisguwi, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828-1866

The Indian Removal Act, legislation signed into law by Andrew Jackson, forcefully displaced thousands of Native Americans and divided the Cherokee Nation. Principal Chief John Ross refused to surrender Cherokee land and relocate to the “Indian Territory” of the West. Members of the newly formed Treaty Party, including Stand Watie, an opposition leader among the Cherokee, signed the Treaty of New Echota, selling their land for $5 million. Those remaining with Ross were forced to endure a grueling journey west of hundreds of miles, during which thousands of people died.

In the new land, a blood war began. On June 22, 1839, Watie’s brother, John Ridge; cousin, Elias Boudinot; and uncle, Major Ridge, were murdered. All three had signed the 1835 treaty to move the Cherokee to Indian Territory, and all three were killed under an 1829 Cherokee law that sentenced those who illegally sold Cherokee land to death. “[T]hey were but paying the penalty of a law which the Ridges, both father and son, had been instrumental in placing on the statute books ten years before and which Boudinot had been the first to put into print.” (Rachel Caroline Eaton,  John Ross and the Cherokee Indians, p. 133.) Many Cherokee people respected the deaths as lawful killings, but those related and in support of the Ridges and Boudinot sought revenge. The Richmond Enquirer wrote, “On Sunday, June 23rd, news spread among the people that Bell, one of the Ridge party, was collecting a company to kill John Ross and Edmund Gunter.”

Cover of the Report "The Cherokee Question"

The Cherokee question : report of the commissioner of Indian affairs to the president of the United States, June 15, 1866

These divisions persisted during the U.S. Civil War, during which Cherokee allegiance was divided. Chief Ross wanted to remain neutral, taking a position that the Cherokee Nation did not need any more difficulties with the federal government. But Watie joined the Confederacy and raised and led a unit of Cherokee Mounted Rifles. Ross attempted to garner support from the Union, but with few resources, he signed a treaty in October of 1861 with the Confederacy.

Though Watie remained loyal to the Confederacy, Ross worked to make his position clear. The U.S. government report The Cherokee Question notes that “the Cherokees claimed that they had signed the rebel treaty to avoid annihilation by the rebels, and that the same was null and void; that the majority of the nation had all the time been loyal to the United States, and only yielded to power they could not resist; but that as soon as they found a force sufficient to protect them, they joined the Union army.”

Teaching Activities

  • Ask students to read Chapter XV (pp. 126-135) of John Ross and the Cherokee Indians. What is the author’s tone? How does she view the killings of the Ridges and Boudinot?
  • How do students believe the Trail of Tears and Treaty of Echota affected the Cherokees involvement in the Civil War? What evidence can they identify in primary sources in this post to support their ideas?
  • Ask students to examine The Cherokee Question (pp. 3-5). What position does the report take on Ross’s and the other Cherokees people’s connection to the Confederacy?

What questions do your students have about the roles Native American nations played during the Civil War? Let us know in the comments.

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