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Setting the Stage


Not everyone who crossed the Mississippi River in the 19th century to establish a new home had moved west by choice. During the middle of the 1800s, for example, most of the people in what is today Oklahoma were Native Americans who were forced there by the federal and several state governments. Dominating the eastern part of the Indian Territory were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole known collectively by European Americans as the Five Civilized Tribes because they adopted many "white" cultural practices.

For centuries these tribes had controlled large sections of what became Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. However, their authority diminished rapidly in the first part of the 19th century because state and territorial governments rarely prevented settlers from encroaching on the land reserved for the tribes. After 1800, many Native Americans, frustrated by these violations, reluctantly left their lands and relocated across the Mississippi. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson's policy of Indian removal forced new treaties on tribal members still in the Southeast; these required the five nations to give up virtually all of their remaining holdings. Though some Native Americans moved elsewhere within the region, most unwillingly traveled west. These migrations led to much suffering and many deaths, most notably the Cherokee "Trail of Tears" during the winter of 1838-39.

By 1860 the five nations had created new lives in the Indian Territory. They had built towns, reestablished tribal governments, planted orchards and fields, and expanded their herds of beef. A small percentage continued to hold black slaves, a practice they had followed in their old homes. Available statistics indicate that by the start of the Civil War about one Native American in 50 in the Indian Territory owned slaves. The federal government assisted the tribes by providing annual payments and stationing troops who worked to keep the peace among tribes and to prevent encroachment on Native American lands. Travelers from the east occasionally appeared, passing through in search of fertile land elsewhere, driving cattle from Texas to Kansas or hiding out from the law in remote areas.

In the months following Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency, both the North and South increasingly courted tribal leaders. Each side recognized the Indian Territory's importance in controlling the Trans-Mississippi West and its role as a buffer between free state Kansas and slaveholding Texas. Southern leaders also wanted to be able to draw on the area's resources: food, minerals, and manpower. As the tribes received this attention, however, they also realized that this conflict might yet again disrupt their lives.

Setting the Stage was compiled from Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934); and R. Halliburton, Jr., Red Over Black: Black Slavery Among the Cherokee Indians (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977).

 

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