June 22, 1861: Chief Ross plays a deep game

John Ross, chief of the Cherokee
John Ross, Chief of the Cherokee

John Ross, it appears, was doing a very good job of playing both sides against each other. The Unionists thought he was Union; the Confederate general McCulloch, as evidenced by his dispatch below, was convinced he was Confederate; and he himself, as McCulloch’s enclosure shows, held that he intended to keep the Cherokees neutral.

From the OR Ser 1 Vol 3 p.595-597:

Fort Smith, Ark., June 22, 1861.

Honorable L. P. WALKER, Secretary of War:

SIR: I have the honor to transmit the inclosed copy of a communication from John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Under all the circumstances of the case I do not think it advisable to march into the Cherokee country at this time unless there is some urgent necessity for it. If the views expressed in my communication to you of the 14th instant are carried out, it will, I am satisfied, force the conviction on the Cherokees that they have put one course to pursue-that is, to join the Confederacy. The Choctaw and Chickasaw regiment will be kept on the south of them; Arkansas will be to the east; and with my force on the western border of Missouri no force will be able to march into the Cherokee Nation, and surrounded as they will be by Southern troops, they will have but one alternative at all events. From my position to the north of them, in any event, I will have a controlling power over them. I am satisfied from my interview with John Ross and from his communication that he is only waiting for some favorable opportunity to put himself with the North. His neutrally is only a pretext to await the issue of events.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Park Hill, June 17, 1861.

Brigadier General BEN. McCULLOCH,
Commanding Troops of Confederate States, Fort Smith, Ark.:

SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge by the first return mail the receipt of your communication, dated at Fort Smith, Ark., the 12th instant, informing me that you have been sent by the Government of the Confederate States of America to take command of the district embracing the Indian Territory, and to guard it from invasion by the people of the North. For the expression of your friendship be pleased to accept my heartfelt, thank, and the assurance that I cherish none other than a similar sentiment for yourself and people. I am also gratified to be informed that you will not interfere with any of our rights and wishes unless circumstances compel you to do so, nor violate or molest our neutrality without good cause.

In regard to the pending conflict between the United States and Confederate States, I have already signified my purpose to take no part in it whatever, and have admonished the Cherokee people to pursue the same course. The determination to adopt that course was the result of considerations of law and policy, and seeing no reasons to doubt its propriety, I shall adhere to it in good faith, and hope that the Cherokee people will not fail to follow my example. I have not been able to see any reason why the Cherokee Nation should take any other course, for it seems to me to be dictated by their treaties and sanctioned by wisdom and humanity. It ought not to give ground for complaint to either side, and should cause our rights to be respected by both. Our country and institutions are our own. However small the one and humble the others, they are as sacred and valuable to us as are those of your own populous and wealthy State to yourself and people. We have done nothing to bring about the conflict in which you are engaged with your own people, and I am unwilling that my people shall become its victims, and I am determined to do no act that shall furnish any pretext to either of the contending parties to overrun our country and destroy our rights. If we are destined to be overwhelmed, it shall not be through any agency of mine.

The United States are pledged not to disturb us in our rights, nor can we for a moment suppose that your Government will do it, as the approved principles upon which it is struggling for an acknowledged existence are the rights of the States and freedom from outside interference. The Cherokee people and Government have given every assurance in their power of their sympathy and friendship for the people of Arkansas and of other Confederate States, unless it be in voluntarily assuming an attitude of hostility towards the Government of the United States, with whom their treaties exist and from whom they are not experiencing any new burdens or exactions.

That I cannot advise them to do, and hope that their good faith adhering to the requirements of their treaties and of their friendship for all the whites will be manifested by strict observance of the neutrality enjoined.

Your demand that those of the nation who are in favor of joining the Confederacy be allowed to organize into military companies as Home Guards, for the purpose of defending themselves in case of invasion from the North, is most respectfully declined. I cannot give my consent to any such organization for very obvious reasons: First, it would be a palpable violation of my position as a neutral; second, it would place in our midst organized companies not authorized by our laws but in violation of treaty, and who would soon become efficient instruments in stirring up domestic strife and creating internal difficulties among the Cherokee people. As in this connection you have misapprehended a remark in conversation at our interview some eight or ten days ago, I hope you will allow me to repeat what I did say. I informed you that I had taken a neutral position, and would maintain it honestly, but that in case of a foregoing invasion, old as I am, I would assist in repelling it. I have not signified any purpose as to an invasion of our soil and an interference with our rights from the United or Confederate States, because I have apprehended none, and cannot give my consent to any.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,


Principal Chief Cherokee Nation.

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