Oklahoma Indian Territory

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Christopher Columbus, making one of the worst guesses in history, called the natives whom he encountered on October 12, 1492 Indians. These natives first welcomed the Europeans, then fought them, and finally were conquered by them. They gave the Europeans some of the world’s most valuable agricultural products, including maize, tobacco, the potato, cassava, and chocolate. They also taught their conquerors many valuable skills, such as how to survive in the wilderness and their method of clearing planting areas by ringing trees. The Europeans, on the other hand, re-introduced the horse to the Americas. This initial atmosphere of friendliness and cooperation evaporated, however, as the white population increased and as the various European powers struggled for footholds in the New World.

The size of the Indian population in North America when white settlers began arriving in the early 1600s in large numbers is largely conjecture. The latest scholarly estimates vary from nine hundred thousand to one and one half million in the present area of the United States and Canada, and three to four and one half million in Mexico. There were hundreds of tribes speaking more than one thousand different languages and dialects. Over time each tribe had adapted its way of life, and tribes that lived near each other usually had similar cultures. Anthropologists have identified and labeled eight major groups who lived in the present-day United States. They are: Eastern Woodland, Southeast, Plains, Southwest, Great Basin, Plateau, California and Northwest Coast.

The attitude of the colonies toward the Indians changed in the early 1700s. For decades it had been the common practice to occupy Indian tribal land on the frontier without any payment at all. The leaders of some of the largest and strongest Indian tribes, alarmed by the growing encroachment on their traditional hunting grounds, demanded compensation. The Indian conception of land values – at the time – was utterly different from that of the white man. In the white man’s view they were willing to sell enormous tracts of land for very little. The Indians, on the other had, did not understand that they were “selling” their land; they believed that the payment was to allow the newcomers to occupy and “use” the land. Nevertheless, this system seemed to work well – at first – but if another tribe's hunting grounds overlapped  that of the first tribe, or if the white settlers strayed, the confrontation could be, and often was, lethal.

At the time of the American Revolution, many Native American tribes had long-standing relationships with the British, but a less developed relationship with the American rebels. After the defeat of the British, the Americans twice invaded the Ohio Country and were twice repulsed. They finally defeated a Native American confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, and imposed the unfavorable Treaty of Greenville. It ceded most of what is now Ohio, part of what is Indiana, and the present day sites of Chicago and Detroit to the United States.

The rapidly expanding population of the United States early in the nineteenth century created tensions with American Indian tribes located within the borders of the various states, and efforts to maintain Indian reservations were generally unsuccessful. While state governments did not want independent Indian enclaves within their boundaries, Indian tribes did not want to relocate or to give up their distinct identities. But the growing pressure of white settlers for the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and the Seminole)  prompted the Federal Government to seek a "solution." 

The answer was the Indian Intercourse Act. It was passed by Congress in 1834 and set the general borders for the Oklahoma Indian Territory, an area set aside within the United States for the use of Native Americans ("Indians"). The Indian Territory served as the destination for the policy of Indian removal, a policy pursued intermittently by American presidents early in the nineteenth century, but aggressively pursued by President Andrew Jackson.

The Five Civilized Tribes in the south (a term used for five Native American Nations east of the Mississippi River; the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole) were the most prominent tribes targeted, but the largest group was the Cherokee Nation.  The Federal Government presented a treaty to them that gave up all the Cherokee land east of the Mississippi, and in turn the Cherokees would receive a payment of four and one half million dollars (among other considerations) to remove. The terms were rejected in October 1835 by the Cherokee Nation meeting in full council. Not a single elected tribal official signed the document. Despite protests by the Cherokee National Council that the document was a fraud, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836 by just one vote.

By the end of 1836 more than six thousand Cherokees had voluntarily moved west. However, about seventeen thousand remained, and the terms of the "treaty" allowed them two years to leave. On May 23, 1838, as the deadline for voluntary removal approached, President Van Buren assigned General Winfield Scott to head the forcible removal operation. He arrived with seven thousand soldiers and on May 26, 1838 began rounding up Cherokees in Georgia, and days later his soldiers began doing the same thing in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama.

About seventeen thousand Cherokees — along with their approximately two thousand black slaves — were removed at gunpoint from their homes over a three week period and gathered together in camps, often with only the clothes on their backs. They were then transferred to departure points. From there they were sent to the Indian Territory, mostly traveling on foot, or by some combination of horse, wagon, and boat, a distance of around twelve hundred miles along one of three routes. The trail ended in what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma. Most settled on the hills and little prairies near Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Their tragic removal is known as the Trail of Tears. The number of people who died during their forced march has been variously estimated. The official government count at the time was four hundred twenty-four, but a white civilian doctor who traveled with one party estimated two thousand deaths in the camps and another two thousand on the trail. His total of four thousand deaths remains the most cited figure.

The Cherokee had a highly Europeanized culture, with a written language, invented by their leader Sequoyah, and highly developed institutions. Many of the Cherokee, as slaveholders, ran their agricultural properties in the traditional Southern plantation pattern, while others were small farmers. The Five Civilized Tribes clashed briefly with the Plains Indians, particularly the Osage, but they were for a time free from white interference, and they were able to establish a civilization that strongly affected the whole history of the region. They set up towns such as Tulsa, Tahlequah, Muskogee, and others, which often became some of the largest in the state.

The troubles of the whites did not escape them for long, however, and the Civil War was a major disaster. They were divided as to which side of the war to support. Even within tribes, there were disagreements. The Cherokee fought a civil war within their tribe between those who supported the Union and those who supported the Confederacy. Although no major battle of the war was fought in present-day Oklahoma, there were numerous skirmishes. Most Native Americans allied themselves with the Confederacy, but the majority of the whites in the area were sympathetic to the Union cause, and individual violence was so prevalent that many Indian families fled, leaving their farms to desolation.

The Cherokees, as a result of their alliance with the Confederacy, were required to renegotiate their treaties. A new treaty, ratified on July 19, 1866, allowed the United States government to dispose of part of their land: "The United States may settle friendly Indians in any part of the Cherokee country west of 96° ... to be paid for to the Cherokee Nation ... after which their jurisdiction and right of possession to terminate forever..." This area was initially known as the “Cherokee Outlet, but was more popularly known as the “Cherokee Strip.” Thus the Five Civilized Tribes lost the western part of the Indian Territory, and the federal government began assigning lands there to such landless eastern tribes as the Delaware and the Shawnee, as well as to some nomadic Plains tribes.

The settlement of several tribes in the eastern part of the Cherokee Outlet closed it from the Cherokee Nation and left them unable to use it for grazing or hunting. After the Civil War Texans began driving their cattle across the Outlet to markets in Kansas and soon others began using the land for grazing. In the early 1880s, with the support of the Cherokees, the ranchers using the land organized and began fencing individual claims. The territory was plagued by lawlessness and served as a hideout for white outlaws. After the establishment of a federal court at Fort Smith, Isaac Parker became famous as the “hanging judge.”

The first railroad to cross Oklahoma was built between 1870 and 1872, and after that it was not possible to keep white settlers out. They came despite proscriptive laws and treaties with the Native Americans, and by the 1880s there was a strong presence of whites. In addition, ranches were developed that were nominally owned by Native Americans, but actually controlled by white cattlemen and their cowboys. The region quickly took on a tinge of the Old West of the cattle frontier, a tinge that it has never wholly lost.

In the 1880s land-hungry frontier farmers agitated to obtain the “unassigned” lands in the western section—the lands not given to any Native American tribe. The agitation succeeded, and a large strip was opened for settlement in 1889. Prospective settlers lined up on the territorial border, and at high noon they were allowed to cross on a “run” to compete in finding and claiming the best lands. Those who illegally entered ahead of the set time were the nicknamed the “sooners.” Later other strips of territory were opened, and settlers poured in from the Midwest and the South.

In 1889, Congress authorized a commission to persuade the Cherokees to cede their complete title to the land. After a great amount of pressure, and confirmed by a treaty Congress approved March 17, 1893, the Cherokees agreed, for "the sum of $8,595,736.12, over and above all other sums" to turn title over to the United States government. On September 16, 1893, the Cherokee Outlet was settled in the largest land run in the United States. The Cherokee Outlet, or Cherokee Strip, was located in what is now the state of Oklahoma. It was a sixty-mile wide strip of land south of the Oklahoma-Kansas border between the 96th and 100th meridians. It was about 225 miles long and in 1891 contained 8,144,682.91 acres.

The western section of what is now the state of Oklahoma became the Oklahoma Territory in 1890; it included the Panhandle, the narrow strip of territory that, taken from Texas by the Compromise of 1850, had become a no-man's-land where settlers came in undisturbed. In 1893 the Dawes Commission was appointed to implement a policy of dividing the tribal lands into individual holdings. The Native Americans resisted, but the policy was finally enforced in 1906. The wide lands of the Indian Territory were thus made available to whites.

The United States government had promised the Five Civilized Tribes that once they had been relocated to Indian Territory their lands would be free of white settlement. Almost at once some white settlers violated the agreement with impunity, and in 1893 the government opened up the "Cherokee Strip" to white settlement. As time passed the Indian Territory was gradually reduced to what is now Oklahoma and, with the organization of Oklahoma Territory, the eastern half of the state. The citizens of Indian Territory tried in 1905 to gain admission to the Union as the State of Sequoyah, but were rebuffed by Washington. The Civilized Tribes made the best of a poor bargain, and the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were united in 1907 to form the state of Oklahoma, with a constitution that included provision for initiative and referendum.

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The Trail of Tears refers to the forced removal of the Cherokee American Indian tribe by the U.S. federal government, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Cherokee Indians. In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nunna daul Tsuny — "the trail where they cried." The Cherokees were not the only Native Americans forcibly removed to the American West, and so the phrase "Trail of Tears" is sometimes used to refer to similar events endured by other Indian peoples, especially among the "Five Civilized Tribes."

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Margaret Mary Erwin, Laura Alice Erwin and Harriett Avarilla (Hattie) Erwin, all daughters of Thomas Johnston Erwin and Nancy Caroline Mathis, left Carroll County, Arkansas with their families sometime between 1895 and 1905. All settled in the Indian Territory near Tahlequah. It was thought previously that they moved as a group, but further research indicates that Margaret and her husband probably didn't arrive until about 1905.   

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