Cherokee General Hails from old Cass County

By Terry Sloope

Many Americans have heard of the horrors of the “Trail of Tears” – the inhumane removal of the most of the Cherokee tribe from its homeland in the southeastern United States in the late 1830s.[1]  Thousands of Cherokees died on the forced march to the new Cherokee territory west of the Mississippi, most of which was located in what is now northeast Oklahoma. Modern sensibilities view with contempt the policies and actions of the federal government, as well as those of the state of Georgia, that led to this tragedy. Many people do not realize, however, that the question of the tribe’s removal to the west led to a dramatic split within the Cherokee tribe itself in the years leading up their relocation; that split ultimately led to an internal civil war punctuated with acts of despicable violence that would plague the Cherokee nation for years after their relocation to the west. Stand Watie, along with several close family members, played a critical role in these events; and put his life in grave danger, not from the white population seeking to push the Cherokees out of northwest Georgia, but from members of his own tribe who blamed him and other members of his family for the loss of their homeland. Watie was lucky; he survived the internecine violence that plagued the Cherokee Nation in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of his relatives did not. Watie would become a venerated leader of the Cherokees who supported his actions during these troubled times, and he would distinguish himself further as a skilled military tactician in his role as a commander of Cherokee troops in the Southern army during the Civil War.

Stand Watie was born on December 12, 1806[2] in the small Cherokee Nation village of Oothcalooga, in what would later be the northern extremes of the original footprint of Cass County,[3] Georgia. His father was Oo-wa-tie (“the ancient one”) while his mother, Susanna Reese, was a half-blooded Cherokee. Stand was originally given the tribal name Degadoga[4] (“he stands”). He had one older brother, Kilakeena (“Buck”), three younger brothers and four younger sisters. Stand’s brother Buck, their uncle Major Ridge and their cousin, John Ridge, would become influential leaders of a segment of the Cherokee population that later stood in opposition to the tribe’s principal Chief John Ross.[5]

When Degadoga was a young child, his parents joined the Moravian Church at Springplace, an area about 60 miles north of Oothcalooga and just south of the Tennesee state line. They adopted Christianity as a result of this experience; Stand’s father took the name David. He also dropped the “Oo” from his tribal name and combined the other two parts into “Watie,” adopting that surname for himself and his children. Although Degadoga was given the name Isaac, at some early point he took the name “Stand,” derived from the interpretation of his tribal name.

Stand and Buck were both educated at the Moravian Mission School in Springplace. The school emphasized traditional subjects such as writing and arithmetic along with a healthy dose of instruction in matters of spiritual and moral values. Among members of the Cherokee tribe, Stand was considered to be well educated. His brother Buck would further his education at the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions School in Cornwall, Connecticut. While there, he adopted the name of his sponsor, Elias Boudinot, as his own. Upon his return the Cherokee Nation, Elias would become the publisher/editor of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper.

Meanwhile, Stand Watie’s reputation among his tribe was growing as the 1820s progressed. He helped out on his father’s farm and other business ventures while quietly pursuing other opportunities of his own as well. His rising reputation among his tribe allowed to secure an appointment as Clerk of the Cherokee Supreme Court in 1828, and his experience in that post eventually allowed him to receive a license to practice law in the Cherokee Nation.

By the late 1820s, however, the living conditions in the Cherokee Nation were becoming more bleak for many Cherokees. The most serious threat to their well-being was the increasing encroachment upon their lands by white settlers moving into the region. White Georgians looked at the development of the Cherokee culture in in north Georgia over the years and believed “…(those) efforts to establish a government and constitution on par with the American federal government and recognized by federal authorities signaled the permanent presence of the Cherokee Nation in Georgia and its attempts to entrench itself legally within the state…”[6] which was quite unacceptable to Georgia’s white leaders and citizens. The invaders often used threatening tactics to scare the Cherokee population and dispossess them of their land and businesses, often with the explicit approval of Georgia state officials. The Watie family was not immune from these violations. Beginning in 1825, David Watie operated a very lucrative ferry on the Hightower River under an exclusive license granted by the Cherokee Nation. In 1831, however, the state of Georgia issued a permit to a white Georgian, John Miller, to operate a ferry across this same river, despite objections from the Watie family and the Cherokee Nation that the state had no authority to issue a license for such an operation within their territory. Miller established his ferry just upriver from the Watie ferry and made improvements to the roads connecting to the main travel arteries between southeast Tennessee, northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama, thus drawing business away from the Watie operation and eventually putting it out of business.

There was little hope for an end to these types of violations; in 1829 the Jackson administration announced its intention to relocate members of the numerous Native American tribes in the southeast United States to other unsettled lands west of the Mississippi. It was only a matter of time before the Cherokees would lose all control over their tribal homelands. Most Cherokees continued to resent and resist such a fate. Around this time, Watie’s brother Elias Boudinot wrote to his wife’s sister and her husband “…Trouble upon trouble, vexation upon vexation. I allude to the Georgia affair. The war is becoming hotter and hotter every day….Why do our friends at the north appear to be so careless? Do they not know that a piece of great wickedness is in a course of perpetration? The last right and some respects, the most important right of the Cherokees, is to be fought and contended for – their right to the land. It is true we have been abused persecuted and oppressed beyond measure – our rights have been outrageously wrested from us, yet we are on our lands – we have possession. Our enemies cannot complete their designs until they get the land – they intend to get it by force….Now will the people of the U. States permit such an outrage upon the property of the defenceless?…the Georgians propose in the next Legislature to survey and draw for our lands….One thing is for certain there is a crisis approaching both in the history of the Cherokees & the United States.”[7]

 The Cherokees held a number of public meetings in 1831, with Stand Watie serving as secretary, the result of which was a petition to be the submitted the Jackson administration protesting the treatment of the Cherokees. The resolution noted that previous treaties with the U.S., certain legislative acts and Supreme Court decisions had created an understanding that the Cherokee Nation was to be treated as a separate, sovereign entity with the right of self-government, just like Georgia or any other state in the Union. They asked the Jackson administration to protect the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation from violations by the state of Georgia and the renegade white settlers. Jackson summarily refused to accept the claims contained in the resolution and took no action. Soon afterwards, in the fall of 1832, the Georgia Land Lottery was held to formally distribute Cherokee lands among white Georgia citizens desiring to relocate to the area. Later compensation claims associated with the removal of the Cherokees indicated that Stand Watie lost an extensive homestead located near the confluence of the Coosawatie and Conausauga Rivers[8] to four different white settlers.

By this time, a significant schism was occurring within the Cherokee tribe. A faction of the Cherokees (often referred to as the “treaty party”) led by Stand’s brother Elias Boudinot, their uncle, Major Ridge and cousin John Ridge had come to the conclusion that removal of the Cherokees was inevitable, a view which Stand Watie shared. They knew the government had already begun relocating the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes to new homes in the west. The treaty party leaders rejected any remaining hope that the Cherokees could somehow co-exist peacefully in their homeland with the invading whites and still preserve Cherokee sovereignty and culture. In their opinion, relocation to a new homeland in the west was the only way to accomplish these goals. Their beliefs put them in direct opposition to Chief John Ross and a sizeable majority of the Cherokee Nation. The schism between the two sides would become increasingly bitter as the federal government began the process of trying to reach a formal agreement with the Cherokees for their relocation. The ill feelings between the two groups would smolder for more than a decade and ultimately lead to a wave of violence that cost many of the treaty party leaders their lives.

Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot issued a call for a meeting of the Cherokees at Running Waters in November 1834, which was attended by a relatively small group of treaty sympathizers. Chief Ross’s loyalists refused to participate in the meeting. The result of the meeting was another petition outlining the poor treatment of the Cherokees and concluding that the only course of action that would preserve their culture was to accede to the relocation of the tribe to the west. Presenting a false claim that a majority of Cherokees favored relocation, the petition asked for an agreement that would recognized Cherokee sovereignty in their new lands; annual annuity payments to the tribe (similar to those being paid to other tribes that had been relocated); payments to individual Cherokees for properties, including capital improvements, that had been wrongfully confiscated and distributed to white settlers; and payments to individual Cherokees for expenses related to relocation to the west. Stand Watie was among the leaders who signed the petition;  Elias Boudinot and John Ridge led a delegation to Washington to present their desires to the government.

These efforts were vehemently opposed by Chief Ross and his followers; at this point, Chief Ross became concerned about the opposition faction entering into talks with representatives of the Jackson administration. Chief Ross made his own proposal to the government – which he may have known would be a non-starter – in which he said he would accept 20 million dollars for the Cherokee homeland and removal to suitable lands in the West. The administration rejected Ross’s proposal and let it be known that they would pay no more than $4.5 million dollars for the Cherokee’s land. While the Boudinot-Ridge delegation was in Washington during the winter of 1835 outlining their proposal, and at Elias Boudinot’s urging, Stand Watie was able to take possession of the printing press (which had been seized by Chief Ross’s sympathizers) used to print the Cherokee Phoenix and printed flyers encouraging the Cherokees to reject Chief Ross’s proposal and support the proposal of the treaty party.

The pro-treaty delegation returned home in the spring of 1835, and the Jackson administration appointed Commissioners who were authorized to travel to the Cherokee Nation to negotiate a formal treaty. Back home, the Ridge-Boudinot faction attempted to hold more meetings in order to explain the differences between the two proposals, but few people attended these meetings. The acrimony between the two sides was becoming more pronounced, and the pro-treaty party became quite fearful of violent reactions from the Ross faction.

The two sides finally agreed to a meeting at Running Waters in August 1835. Some 4,000 tribal members attended the meeting. Discussions outlining the positions of the two sides were held; ultimately Chief Ross’s loyalists easily carried the day, winning a formal vote in favor of defying removal by an overwhelming margin. No formal action was taken as a result of the meeting, however.

The leaders of the treaty party engaged in discussions with the federal commissioner, but Chief Ross refused to recognize his authority to enter into treaty negotiations. Instead, the Chief called for another meeting of the tribe to be held at Red Clay, Tennessee in October 1835. Chief Ross pushed through a resolution rejecting the Jackson administration’s proposals for relocation and appointed a delegation to travel to Washington to negotiate a new deal directly with members of the Jackson administration. Eliot Boudinot and John Ridge were included as members of the delegation; Boudinot, wanting to keep an eye on further developments at home, bowed out and Stand Watie was appointed to take his place. This move thrust Watie into the upper echelons of the pro-treaty leadership.

As Watie and the Red Clay delegation travelled to Washington in late December 1835, the federal Commissioner, John Schermerhorn, was determined to complete the job he had been sent to do. The fact that the pro-treaty party enjoyed the support of a relatively small minority of Cherokees was probably irrelevant to him at this point. Schermerhorn encouraged Boudinot and other pro-treaty leaders to call for another meeting. They agreed to do so; that meeting was held at New Echota, the Cherokee capital, on December 21, just after the Red Clay delegation left for Washington. The meeting was boycotted by the Ross faction; the small crowd that assembled there was overwhelmingly pro-treaty. Terms of a treaty were quickly agreed to and ratified by a vote of the attendees at the meeting. A delegation was then appointed to travel to Washington and obtain the support of the members of the Red Clay delegation and conclude the treaty negotiations with the Jackson administration and Congress.

Meanwhile, the Red Clay delegation met with Secretary of State Lewis Cass in early January 1836. They were informed that the federal government would pay them no more than $5 million for their lands; individual Cherokees would not be allowed to take personal ownership of plots of land in the new territories, and all monies would be paid to individual members of the tribe and not to the general tribal treasury.

The Red Clay delegation had no idea of what had transpired at New Echota shortly after they left home for Washington until just a few days before the New Echota delegation arrived. In their confused state, members of the Red Clay delegation registered their disapproval of the new treaty proposal without full knowledge of its contents. Once the New Echota delegation arrived, however, and explained what had happened and what the treaty included, the pro-treaty members of the Red Clay delegation, including Watie, fell in line in support of the new proposals. The New Echota delegation, including Watie and Ridge, immediately set out to paint Chief Ross as an ineffective leader who only had his own interests in mind. He had done nothing to prevent the encroachment of whites settlers into Cherokee lands, and they argued that should the federal government deposit payments associated with the treaty directly into the Cherokee treasury, Chief Ross would use those funds to his own benefit and reward his most loyal supporters at the expense of most members of the tribe, and certainly he would use those funds as a weapon against the treaty party.

There arguments were effective enough to secure ratification of the treaty by the U.S. Senate by just one vote on May 23, 1836, over the strong objections of Chief Ross, who protested to Congress “…an instrument purporting to be a treaty with the Cherokee people, recently made public by the President of the United States, is fraudulent and false, and made by unauthorized individuals, against the wishes of a great body of the Cherokee people.”[9]


Among other things, the treaty provided that the Cherokees would surrender their lands for a payment of 5 million dollars; they would be relocated to an area west of the Mississippi covering some 7 million acres west of the states of Arkansas and Missouri; individual members of the tribe would be able to submit claims for individual compensation for properties lost as a result of the removal, pending Senate approval. If the Senate refused to provide for such claims, a lump sum of $350,000 would be set aside for apportionment among the population based on those claims. Most importantly to the Cherokees, the new lands provided for them would not fall under the future jurisdictions of any state or territory, seemingly promising them the sovereignty they had been longing for. The U.S. government pledged to protect the Cherokees from attack by foreign entities, and would ensure domestic tranquility (a pledge that was almost immediately ignored.)  The U.S. would provide transportation to their new homeland and compensate individuals for relocation expenses. In addition, the federal government would provide subsistence for the Cherokees during the first year of their habitation in their new lands. Finally, the Cherokees were given two years to move to their new homes.


Upon his return the Cherokee Nation, Watie learned that his wife, Elizabeth,[10] had died during childbirth in late April and, sadly, the child died as well. Meanwhile, the members of the pro-treaty party were vociferously attacked by Ross supporters as traitors, just as they knew they would be. They had warned federal officials that they would be the targets of violent retribution by Chief Ross’s followers. These fears led them to begin preparations to relocate that summer. Word went out among pro-treaty supporters to begin disposing of any property they had. Records indicate that Watie received slightly over $5,000 in payments arising out of various provisions in the treaty, and his other family members, including his new wife Isabella, received considerable sums as well. Meanwhile, Chief Ross instructed his followers to ignore the provisions of the treaty and to remain in their homelands. The vast majority of his followers did just that.

The relocation of the treaty party and their followers began on March 3, 1837. Most of the journey was by boat, although high water during heavy rains required a brief jaunt by train early in their travels. The boats were overcrowded and most of the travelers were exposed to the elements while on the boats. There were periods of cold wind and heavy rain; severe colds and congestion were quite common among the Cherokees, including Stand Watie. There was an outbreak of measles along the way as well, among other maladies. They traveled down the Tennessee to the Ohio River near Paducah, then down the Mississippi past Memphis and then up the Arkansas River. They proceeded up the Arkansas River until they reached Fort Smith, on Arkansas’ western border with the new Cherokee Territory, on March 27. Watie and his family proceeded northward to the area of Honey Creek on the east bank of the Grand River in the northeast corner of the territory (the northeast corner of the state of Oklahoma today), just west of the joint border with Arkansas and Missouri. He was joined in that area by the families of Elias Boudinot and John Ridge.

By the spring of 1838, federal authorities were losing their patience with the far larger contingent of Cherokees loyal to Chief John Ross who remained in lands of the Cherokee Nation in the southeast U.S.[11]  The 1836 Treaty of New Echota required all of the Cherokees – including those who opposed the treaty from the beginning – to leave the area within two years. By the spring of 1938, the Cherokees under the domain of Chief Ross had made little, if any effort, to prepare for their relocation to the Cherokee Territory in the west. Federal troops began detaining the members of Ross’s faction throughout the spring and summer of that year until they could organize their relocation. Finally, in the fall of 1838 federal troops began the forced march of their Cherokee detainees to the west. The conditions on this march were horrendous and cruel. It is estimated that some 4,000 Cherokees died along the way[12]. Over time, the forced diaspora became more commonly known as the infamous “Trail of Tears.”  Ross’s followers blamed the members of the treaty party who, they felt, had sold out the tribal homelands to their oppressors. The arrival of Chief Ross and his followers in the Cherokee Territory in the spring of 1939 exacerbated the ill feelings between the factions and would lead to years of bloody violence.

The members of the Treaty party were not the first Cherokees to settle in the new western homelands. Twice in the twenty years prior to the Treat of New Echota, smaller groups of Cherokees from other parts of the Cherokee Nation had migrated to the territory west of the Mississippi. These earlier Cherokees became known as the “Old Settlers” and they adopted their own leadership structure that encouraged inclusiveness in their governance. The treaty party arrivals readily accepted the Old Settlers form of government upon their arrival in the territory. When Chief Ross arrived in 1939, however, he moved to replace the Old Settlers governing structure with the same system that existed in the original Cherokee Nation, a system that he and his supporters were able to dominate. The factions quickly clashed over the Chief’s plans. A meeting was called in June 1839 to try to unify the various factions, but the threats towards the treaty party faction from the Ross followers were so intense that the treaty party attendees had to flee the meeting for their own safety. Chief Ross called for another meeting to be held in July, but events before then made that proposition moot.

After the failed meeting in June, a group of Ross’s followers met in secret, supposedly without the knowledge of Chief Ross, and swore vengeance on the treaty party leaders. On June 22, Major Ridge, his son John, and Elias Boudinot were all murdered by Ross’s followers. A witness to Boudinot’s murder warned Watie about what had happened to his relatives, and he was able to escape. The killings set off a civil war in the new Cherokee territory.

Watie and a band of his followers fled to Fort Gibson (near present-day Muskogee in the southern part of the Cherokee Territory) and sought the intervention of federal authorities to assure the safety of the remaining treaty party settlers and serve justice against the killers of the Ridges and Boudinot. The military authorities at Fort Gibson spent the rest of 1839 trying to convince the two factions to meet and work out their differences to prevent further bloodshed;  neither party would agree to the other party’s conditions for those meetings. Ross and his followers held their own convention at which they took control of the Cherokee General Council and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Old Settlers’ government. Watie and other members of his party travelled to Washington to confer with federal authorities and to try and convince them that Chief Ross was intent on destroying the members of their faction, pleading for federal protection. Later that fall, federal authorities made it known that they would not allow the Ross faction to run roughshod over members of the treaty party. Ross, anxious to keep the federal authorities out of tribal matters, led his own delegation to Washington and told the authorities that the conflict was an issue of internal governance among tribal members and thus was not subject to federal intervention. Late in the year, another meeting of the tribe was called by Chief Ross; the Old Settlers and the treaty party faction did not participate in the meeting an any meaningful way. The pro-Ross attendees re-affirmed the actions of the previous meeting adopting their preferred from of government, and federal authorities now recognized this new leadership structure as the legitimate governing body of the Cherokees.

These developments only heightened the fears of Watie and his followers. They now focused on trying to convince the federal authorities that because Ross would never treat their faction fairly and their lives would be in constant danger, the new Cherokee territory should be divided among the factions, with each faction having the right to govern themselves within their own areas. Apparently, the authorities gave this idea some degree of serious thought; Chief Ross feared the loss of control over a significant portion of the territory that would result from such an action and ultimately made some concessions that would allow for the participation of the opposing faction in the governance of the tribe and provide for the security of all members of the tribe. The factions signed an Act of Union on January 26, 1840. The agreement did not go very far in relieving the tensions between the two sides.

Over the course of the next few years, the violence and killings continued, if at a somewhat diminished level. Stand Watie became directly involved in the inter-faction violence in May 1842. While travelling in Arkansas, Stand was involved in an altercation with one James Foreman, a Ross follower who was believed to have been involved in the murder of Major Ridge. Foreman confronted Watie in a store where Watie was having a drink (evidently general stores served several purposes back then); words were exchanged and a fight broke out. The fight continued outside and Watie stabbed Foreman. When Foreman moved on Watie again after being stabbed, Watie pulled a pistol and shot him. Foreman staggered away but died a few minutes later. Watie fled to Van Buren, Arkansas to hide from a posse of Ross’s followers who were looking for him. Watie did not want to be arrested by Cherokee authorities because he feared for his own life. Besides, the killing had occurred in Arkansas, so that state had jurisdiction over the crime. He turned himself in to Arkansas authorities a week later. His trial was delayed until the spring of 1843, and Watie was released pending trial. In the interim, he married Sarah Bell on September 18, 1842. They would have five children together. Later that year, Watie’s father, David, died.

Watie’s trial began on May 15, 1843. The defense argued that Watie had lived in a state of extreme fear for his life during the three years that had elapsed since his family members were killed. His defense did a credible job of painting Foreman as the aggressor in the fight, and established the fact that Foreman was part of a posse that was actively looking for Watie. Watie was acquitted of the murder on the basis of self-defense.

Watie travelled to Washington again in late 1843 as part of a treaty party delegation to present more claims against Chief Ross. They protested Chief Ross’s autocratic control over Cherokee affairs and accused him of misappropriating the annuity monies being paid to the tribe by the federal government. Again they asked the federal authorities to consider a partition of the Cheorkee territory. The government took took no direct action on this request, although it did send investigators to the Cherokee territory to investigate the charges of misappropriation. Chief Ross once again was able to deflect any attempts to partition the territory, however. Meanwhile, the killings continued. Watie’s brother, Thomas was killed by Ross’ men on November 14, 1845, just one of several treaty party members murdered around that time.

Stand Watie was in Washington again in the spring of 1846 when the Mexican War broke out. He offered to raise a regiment of Cherokee calvary, but his offer was declined. Some headway was being made that spring, however, in the efforts to bring the waring factions together. The result was the Cherokee Treaty of 1846, signed on August 17 by President Polk.. A number of treaty party’s concerns were addressed; most importantly, the federal authorities would provide payments directly to individual Cherokees, including Watie’s supporters who were suffering under the biased governance under Chief Ross. A level of peace came to the Cherokees that had not been seen for many years. Watie was appointed to the pro-treaty commission that was to decide on the claims made by his followers. That work was finished by February 1847.

Watie returned to his home at Honey Creek after the Treaty of 1846. After serving on the claims commission, he served as an interpreter for federal authorities who had ordered a census of the Cherokees in the territory. He began to withdraw from the forefront of Cherokee politics and focused instead on his businesses and homelife. The period between 1847-1861 was one of the few extended tranquil periods of his entire adult life. He continued to serve as Clerk of the Cherokee Supreme Court and he eventually received a license to practice law in the Cherokee courts, a profession in which he prospered. He also continued to operate a general store in Millwood, and had significant farming interests. He entered into a partnership to purchase a sawmill in the mid-1850s, and by 1860 had become sole owner of that operation. By 1860 he had amassed significant wealth from these various activities.

He did not completely remove himself from tribal politics, however. He was elected to the Cherokee National Council in 1853, and was re-elected in 1855, serving as Speaker. He continued in that office until the outbreak of the Civil War, although his duties took up only a small amount of his time. While in office, the most critical issue Watie and the Cherokees had to address was the movement to bring an end to slavery. Political, economic, and cultural issues coming to the forefront at that time were leading to a growing sense of sectionalism across the United States. The country was moving inextricably towards civil war, and the issue of abolition was becoming an increasingly divisive, hot-button topic. The Cherokees, including Stand Watie, were slaveholders. The National Council issued a strongly worded resolution condemning the abolitionist movement; abolitionist sympathizers were banned from teaching in Cherokee schools, and anyone encouraging slaves in the Cherokee territory to take actions detrimental to their owners were subject to fines and expulsion from the territory.

The Cherokees were not united as a group on the practical issues surrounding abolition and the impending Civil War. Although the Cherokees shared several common values with white southerners, particularly their reliance on an agricultural economic base and slave ownership[13], Chief Ross and most of his followers preferred to take a neutral stance on the issue of abolition and the impending war. Ross was approached by representatives of the Confederate government early in 1861 in an attempt to bring the Cherokees into the Southern fold. Ross refused their advances at that time, however. Stand Watie and his followers were ardent anti-abolitionists, however, and were more receptive to approaches from the government in Richmond asking for their help. On July 12, 1861, Watie was commissioned as Colonel in the Confederate army and was authorized to raise a force to protect the Indian Territory from federal encroachment. He put together a force of approximately 300 calvary to help in this endeavor. Meanwhile, the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes reached agreements that summer to support the Confederacy. Confederate victories at First Bull Run in August and, closer to home, at Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Missouri encouraged more Cherokees to align with the Southern cause. Some of Watie’s sympathizers had fought at Wilson’s Creek, and even though he wasn’t present at the battle, Watie received much praise from the southern press, significantly boosting his reputation among the Cherokees. Chief Ross, alarmed at Watie’s growing influence, reached an agreement with the Southern government on October 17 to provide armed support in the Cherokee territory. The Cherokees would provide ten companies of mounted calvary, while the Confederate government was given permission to construct military establishments on Cherokee lands. Slavery was protected; Cherokee troops would not be used outside of the Cherokee territory without permission; and monetary awards were to be provided to Watie’s supporters. Chief Ross raised an army of 1,200 calvary and placed them under the command of John Drew. These troops became the 1st Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles. Watie’s forces were named the Cherokee Mounted Volunteers.

During the course of the war, troops under Watie engaged in a number of smaller engagements designed to stop federal troops, and Cherokee Indians that remained loyal to the north, from encroaching into Cherokee territory. These efforts met with varying levels of success, although Watie’s troops and his leadership received generally high marks for their performance. His forces engaged a somewhat larger force of federal Indians near the Kansas border in December 1861 and routed their opponents without incurring any casualties. Watie’s forces faced several impediments these endeavors, however. One of which was the often confused and ineffective leadership of Confederate officers serving in the west; Watie’s troops often engaged the enemy with little or no support from the main Confederate armies in the region. Another problem was the growing defection of Cherokee forces under John Drew to the northern side. Many of Chief Ross’s followers were never fully committed to the Southern cause; individual members from Drew’s command started defecting to the other side almost as soon as they entered the war. These defections continued and increased over time, making it hard for Watie’s troops to secure their areas of operation. Luckily, the Confederacy and Watie’s troops benefited from the fact that the federal armies operating in the region early in the war often failed to take advantage of the Cherokee’s weakened condition and limited resources.

Watie’s troops did participate in the Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern), in northwest Arkansas, in early March 1862. Watie’s troops joined Southern troops under the command of Major General Earl Van Dorn and halted the advance of northern troops under Brigadier General Samuel Curtis on March 7,  capturing several northern artillery pieces. Curtis counterattacked the next day, and the southern armies were forced to retreat, partly due to a lack of supplies. Watie took his troops back into the Cherokee Territory, where they engaged in more skirmishes with federal troops over the next several months. In early June 1862, federal troops began a campaign into Cherokee territory from Kansas and surprised Watie’s troops south of the Grand River. Watie escaped and moved his troops south to Fort Smith. Instead of advancing, the federals retreated back into Kansas, and then staged another campaign, led by Colonel William Weer, into the territory in late June. Watie’s troops attacked the advance units of the federal army at Spavinaw Creek but were forced to retreat. A contingent of southern troops, under the command of Colonel James Clarkson, were encamped at Locust Grove, north of Tahlequah. Clarkson was surprised by Weer’s troops on July 3 and forced to retreat to Tahlequah.

At this point, many of the remaining Cherokees under John Drew defected to the north. Chief Ross was given the opportunity to switch allegiances, but he declined for unknown reasons. Ross was soon detained by northern troops, and moved north with them when they retreated back into Kansas in late July. Ross then travelled to Washington, stopping over to confer with President Lincoln and his advisors, and then continued on to Philadelphia, where he lived for the rest of the war. His defection only exacerbated the split between the remaining forces under John Drew and Watie’s troops. As a result of the defections of Ross’s supporters, the Cherokee troops were reorganized under Watie and renamed the First Cherokee Regiment.

With Chief Ross gone, southern Cherokees met at Tahlequah on August 21, 1862 and elected Stand Watie as Principal Chief. With the retreat of the northern troops and their sympathetic Cherokees back into Kansas, pro-Watie Cherokees who had fled the hostilities early in the war were encouraged to move back into the Cherokee territory and reclaim their homes. This effort was short-lived, however, as federal troops moved to attack their southern counterparts near Old Fort Wayne on October 22. Watie’s calvary was covering the southern troops’ flank, and were the first to encounter the federal invaders. Discovering that they were greatly outnumbered, Watie and the southern troops retreated south and were attacked repeatedly along the way. The result was a significant northern victory; the southern troops were forced south of the Arkansas River, leaving most of the Cherokee territory to northern forces and their Cherokee allies. Watie would move his troops east to Fort Smith where they spent the rest of the year engaging in minor skirmishes and raids on supply trains in northwestern Arkansas. In late December, Watie withdrew his troops back to Webber Falls, south of the Arkansas River, some forty miles west of Fort Smith.

Watie and the Confederate forces were unable to launch any major offensive activity as 1863 unfolded. The weather that winter was harsh, and Watie’s troops suffered severe shortages of basic supplies including food, clothing and military necessities. There was some dissatisfaction among the troops, but they remained loyal to their leader. Watie’s troops were not the only ones suffering from a lack of supplies; a broader catastrophe was unfolding as pro-Southern Cherokee non-combatants fled the tribal territories and relocated to the southern part of the Indian territory and northern Texas. There was little food, housing and clothing available for the refugees; starvation and exposure to the elements became everyday concerns. Watie’s own family -with the exception of his oldest son Saladin, who was serving as an aide to his father while still a teenager – moved to the southern border and then to Burk, Texas where they lived with Sarah’s sister. This didn’t mean they lived in luxury; Sarah’s sister was very sick and there was little money available to provide basic necessities. To make matters worse, Watie’s third son, Cumisky, died that spring. The family’s hardships were a constant theme in the many letters Sarah would send Stand over the next two years.

Meanwhile in February 1863 the northern Cherokees who had repopulated most of the Cherokee territory formally renounced their affiliation with the Confederacy and abolished slavery in the territory.

Watie moved his forces back to Fort Smith in April and then to Webber Falls. On the morning of April 25, northern forces surprised Watie’s troops and forced them to withdraw south. In early June, Watie led a sortie near Tahlequah and Grand River. Federal forces soon took up the pursuit. The two sides met at Greenleaf Prairie on June 16. A series of attacks and counterattacks proved of little benefit to either side; the federals could claim at least a nominal victory as Watie left the field that evening and retreated southward back across the Arkansas River. Returning to northern part of the Cherokee territory later that summer, Watie’s forces attempted to intercept a federal wagon train being sent to resupply Union troops at Fort Gibson. In a two-day engagement at Cabin Creek July 1-2, Watie’s forces were forced to flee after federal artillery came to the support of the northern troops on the second day, resulting in a chaotic retreat by the southern Cherokees. In the biggest engagement of the war in Indian territory, federal troops under Major General James Blunt decisively defeated southern troops at Honey Springs on July 17. While some of Watie’s troops were engaged in that battle, Stand himself was not present, being away on a scouting assignment at the time.

The federals attacked Watie’s forces at Perryville in the Choctaw Nation, pushing the southern Cherokees out of that area. The federal troops then moved on to capture Scullyville before taking Fort Smith on September 1.

Watie led raids near Tahlequah again in October 1863. During those raids, Watie troops went to Park Hill, just south of Tahlequah, and burned Rose Hill, the abandoned home of their nemesis Chief John Ross. Later in the year, Watie’s troops participated in a coordinated movement on Fort Smith but that effort was abandoned after they ran into early resistance. They then tried to attack Fort Gibson in mid-December, but again were forced to retreat without inflicting any meaningful damage. A few days later, Watie was attacked by the North Indian Home Guard under the command of Captain Alexander Spilman. The southern troops were routed and forced to retreat. Watie’s last action in 1863 took place on December 20 when he attacked federal forces at Cane Hill, Arkansas. The attack was repelled.

By late 1863, Watie was becoming disillusioned at the apparent lack of commitment on the part of the Confederate government to driving federal troops and the northern Cherokees out of the Cherokee territory, believing the south could rid the territory of the federals if the southern government would make a good-faith effort along those lines. He also expressed his frustration at the failure of the Richmond government to adequately supply not only his own troops but the Cherokee civilian refugees spread out across the southern territories and Texas. In response, the Confederate government tried to help, but several practical problems exacerbated the supply problems. One problem had plagued Watie’s army throughout the war: many of the supplies earmarked for Watie’s troops never made it to his army; they were pinched by other Southern commanders for their own use before making it to the Cherokees. More immediately, with the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863 the North took complete control of the Mississippi River, effectively splitting the South into two separate regions. Moving supplies from the eastern theater to the trans-Mississippi theater became next to impossible. Finally, the financial assistance proffered by the Confederate Congress was virtually worthless due to the astronomically high levels of inflation that had hit the southern states over the course of the war. Watie concluded that the South would never provide the military force necessary to drive their opponents out. Watie called on members of each of the Five Nations to band together and organize a sizeable army of their own to drive the federals out. Although efforts were made to recruit more troops from within the Five Nations in the upcoming year, the outcome was insufficient to meet Watie’s needs.

Although there was some talk by southern commanders about launching larger coordinated attacks in the Cherokee territory in 1864, few efforts were made to bring such attacks to fruition. Watie was, for all practical purposes, left on his own to deal with his enemies in the territory. The supply shortages that had been plaguing Watie’s troops all throughout the war were particularly troublesome in the winter of 1863-1864. He would not be able to take any actions until late spring of 1864. On May 10, 1864 the Confederate Congress ratified Watie’s promotion to Brigadier General; he thus became the only Native American in the southern army to attain the rank of general, and one of only three Confederate Generals from Bartow County.[14]  The southern Cherokee troops were reorganized and Watie was given the command of the First Indian Brigades, which now included several units organized by other tribes. The rigors of four years of war were wearing on Watie’s health, and as the year went by he was deluged by increasingly despondent letters from his wife describing the family’s hardships and begging him to leave the army and return to her and his children.

Watie’s activities in 1964 included a number of small raids into Cherokee territory, but the year was highlighted by two significant engagements that illustrated Watie’s impressive tactical skills. On June 15, Watie’s troops ambushed a federal supply boat on the Arkansas River near Webber Falls. Bound for Fort Gibson from Fort Smith, the boat was carrying a vast quantity of supplies. Watie’s artillery was able to disable the vessel, which was a feat in and of itself. They confiscated the badly needed supplies, but from that point on Watie was unable to capitalize on his victory. Watie did not have sufficient wagons on hand to carry the supplies away. A number of his troops helped themselves to whatever they could carry and then scattered into the countryside. The rest of the supplies were stacked on the bank of the river while Watie waited for the arrival of the needed transportation. Before the wagons arrived, however, high waters carried most of the supplies downriver, and Watie could only burn what supplies were left and skedaddle before federal forces arrived from Fort Smith.

Later that summer, Watie engaged in an operation with troops under Brigadier General Richard Gano in the northern reaches of the Cherokee territory. Once again he engaged federal forces near Cabin Creek in an effort to intercept another federal supply train. Launching a night attack on September 15 that carried over into the next day, the southern forces were able to scatter the northern armies and capture the wagon train and a huge store of supplies. One of his biggest victories, Watie was widely hailed among his own people and across the south. Even his enemies in the north had to admit that he was a most worthy opponent.

While 1864 was generally a good year for Watie’s forces, the overall impact of their efforts was minimal at best. At the end of the year, the federals still occupied virtually all of the Cherokee territory, and there was no hope that the situation would change. It was becoming more and more obvious that the southern cause was collapsing.

On February 14, 1865, Stand Watie was appointed Commander of the Indian Division of Indian Territory. Although the appointment represented the extremely high level of respect Watie enjoyed among southern officials, it had no meaningful impact on military activities in the territories. Watie was in no position to launch any offensives due to the continued lack of supplies. That March, he was told to prepare for a federal attack that seemed to be imminent; that attack never came, presumably as a result of events unfolding in the eastern theater. In May, members of the Five Nations met to discuss plans for normalizing relations with the United States. On May 26, General Kirby Smith, Commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department for the southern government, surrendered his command to northern authorities. Finally, on June 25, 1865 near Doaksville in the Indian Territory, almost three months after Lee surrendered at Appommatox, Stand Watie surrendered his troops. He was the last southern general in the war to do so.

Immediately upon their surrender, the southern Cherokees were told they could return to their homes. Both factions still harbored great hostilities toward each other, however. The northern Cherokees who controlled the territory offered amnesty to those who had fought against them, although Watie and other southern Cherokee leaders evidently were not included in that offer. The federal government convened a meeting at Fort Smith in mid-September where an outline of the terms of reunification was provided to delegates from each of the Five Nations. A unified governmental structure encompassing all of the tribes would be created; slavery was abolished; and the tribes would have to cede some of their lands to the federal government. Delegates from all of the tribes had their misgivings, but eventually signed the document.

In early 1866, Watie travelled to Washington as a Cherokee delegate in negotiations to work out specific details of the new treaty agreement. Many of the same old issues were discussed; the southern Cherokees were still worried about their safety in the territory; they quibbled over the nature of future annuity payments, again displaying great distrust of the pro-Ross faction, and made a last attempt to convince the federal government that the Cherokee territory should be divided between the two groups so that the Watie faction would feel safe. Watie left for home in May before the treaty was finalized later that August. He was returning home to concentrate on his family and restore his wealth, which had been completely destroyed as a result of the war.

Waite’s family moved first to Brushy Depot on the Red River in the Choctaw Nation (near present day town of Atoka). In late 1867 they would move back to the area of Webber Falls on the Arkansas River. Sometime later, Watie would return to the area of Honey Creek on the Grand River and begin building a new home on the land where he and his family first settled in 1837.

Waite became involved in a number of business ventures after the war and was able to restore some level of economic security, although there were setbacks. He started with a farming operation, and in 1868 he and his nephew, Elias C. Boudinot, established the Boudinot and Watie Tobacco Company near Webber Falls. That venture prospered in a relatively short period of time and provided some income, although after Boudinot took over the company a couple of years later it was confiscated by the government because of unpaid taxes. Watie bought a barge operation on the Arkansas River which was profitable, and apparently he was able to take possession of his old sawmill near his old homestead, although it was eventually shut down when he couldn’t find a competent manager. He also entered into a partnership in a flour mill in early 1870. He also farmed cotton, which was another decent source of income.

Watie’s family life after the war was initially quite happy, although great tragedy struck before long. Sarah Watie’s health improved significantly after the war, although Stand was beginning to show the effects of a trying life. He concentrated on providing his younger children a good education, sending them to boarding schools, which ate into his savings. Sadly, their oldest son, Saladin, who had served as an aide-de-camp for his father during the war while still a teenager, died unexpectedly in February 1868. Saladin had provided great assistance and support to his parents after the war, and his death was a severe blow. Their hopes for the future then turned to their lone surviving son, Watica, who was still in school and eager to help his parents once his education was completed. He tragically died from pneumonia in April 1869, however, leaving the Watie’s with only their two youngest daughters to care for them.

Stand Watie’s health continued to deteriorate as the decade closed. He died on September 8, 1871 at Honey Creek. He was buried in the Old Ridge Cemetery[15] in Delaware County near his original homestead in Honey Creek. His family never got to relocate to the new home he was working on at the time of his death. Both of his daughters died in 1875; daughter Ninnie may have had a child who died in infancy around the same time in 1875 as Ninnie. Thus, Stand Watie was left with no known direct descendants.[16] Sarah Watie died in 1883.

Fifty years after his death, the United Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled monuments dedicated to Stand Watie in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah and at his gravesite, and the Oklahoma Historical Society erected a larger marker to the Cherokee leader at the entrance to Polson Cemetery in 1971. Prior to the ceremonies in 1921, James Keys, who served under Watie during the Civil War, paid homage to his former commander:  “Stand Watie was one of the most remarkable men I have ever known….He was well educated, a lawyer of ability, a man of strong will, undaunted courage, and a born leader of men.”[17]


[1] Many people associate the Trail of Tears with the removal of the Cherokees to the west, but the Creek, Choctaw, Chicasaw and Seminole tribes had all been removed from their homes in the southeast under similarly harsh conditions prior to the Cherokees. The removal of the Cherokees should be thought of as the denouement of the Trail of Tears.

[2] “Interesting History of General Stand Watie,” Democratic Leader, Tahlequah, OK., June 2, 1921, p1.

[3] Cass County’s northern border would eventually move farther south in order to create Gordon County. Cass County’s name was changed to Bartow County in 1861.

[4] Sources differ on the spelling of his first name. Kenny Franks’ Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation presents his name as “Degadoga,” while Frank Cunningham in General Stand Watie’s Cherokee Indians uses “De-gata-ga.” Other variations have been seen as well. Variations on this father’s name are common as well, most notable “Oo-wa-tee”.

[5] Much of the discussion of Watie’s early life is adapted from Frank Cunningham’s Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians and Kenny Franks’  Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation.

[6] Fay Yarbrough, Race and the Cherokee Nation, pp15-17.

[7] Theresa Gaul,, To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriet Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839, pp175-176  Letter dated July 1, 1831. Spelling and punctation reflect that in the original document.

[8] This location is southeast of present-day Resaca, Georgia, in the general vicinity of the current day New Echota State Historic site.

[9] Weekly Chronicle and Farmers’ Register, Salem NC, Sept. 10, 1836 p2.


[10] Franks (1979) claims that Watie married three times while living in the eastern Cherokee Nation. According to him, in addition to Elizabeth (Fields), Watie was married at some point to one Elanor Looney and, at the time of his departure for the west, one Isabel Hicks, who had a son of her own at the time of the marriage. Cunningham (1959) does not acknowledge a marriage to Looney, and claims that Watie and Isabell separated shortly after their relocation west. Whether he was married two or three times while living in the east, he apparently had no surviving children with any of these women.

[11] Estimates of the number of Cherokees included in the two factions varies depending on the source. The best estimate is that approximately 2,000 Cherokees relocated to the west prior to the forced march in the fall of 1938. Somewhere between 15,000 – 20,000 Cherokees were removed to the west during the forced march.

[12] Russell Thornton places the death toll at more than 10,00 when taking into account the long-term consequences of the forced march and the difficult living conditions in the new territory immediately after the relocation.

[13] See Fay Yarbrough’s Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century, p23.

[14] William H. Wofford and Pierce Young were the other two; Young was not born in Cass/Bartow County, however; his family moved to Cass County when he was a very young child.

[15] Later renamed the Polson Cemetery, which is located near Grove, Oklahoma. See Feen “Stand Watie Was Man of Courage and Action: Not Everyone Agrees on Final Resting Place,” Miami Daily News-Record, Miami (OK), June 3, 1956, p24.

[16] Individuals posting to a Facebook page belonging to ‘Stand Watie Descendants” claim to be directly descended from Stand Watie through a relationship he had with a slave. While this is not at all implausible, at least one of these people claims that DNA evidence has proved she is a great-great granddaughter of Watie. It is unclear how DNA testing could determine this when his acknowledged children had no surviving descendants of their own; thus there could be no DNA samples available for a comparison test. No specific evidence is offered, and no one has posted on this page in several years.

[17] “Interesting History of General Stand Watie,” Democratic Leader, Tahlequah, OK., June 2, 1921, p1