In 1861, many Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles decided to join the Confederacy, in part because some of the tribes' members owned slaves. In return, the Confederate states agreed to pay all annuities that the U.S. government had provided and let the tribes send delegates to the Confederate Congress. A Cherokee chief, Stand Watie (1806-1871), served as a brigadier general for the Confederacy and did not surrender until a month after the war was over. The author of the following letter, Chief John Ross (1790-1866), joined the Confederacy early in the war, accepted a commission in the Confederate Army, and then switched sides when a federal army invaded the trans-Mississippi West.
After the war, these nations were severely punished for supporting the Confederacy. The Seminoles were required to sell their reservation at 15 cents an acre and buy new land from the Creeks at 50 cents an acre. The other tribes were required to give up half their territory in Oklahoma. This land would become reservations for the Arapahos, Caddos, Cheyennes, Commanches, Iowas, Kaws, Kickapoos, Pawnees, Potawatomis, Sauk and Foxes, and Shawnees. In addition, all these nations had to allow railroads to cut across their land.
In this letter, Ross, the Cherokee leader, assures President Lincoln of the Cherokees' support for the Union cause. A week and a half later, Lincoln responded in a cautious and lawyerly way, mindful of the fact that Ross had initially sided with the Confederacy. "I shall...cause a careful investigation...to be made," Lincoln wrote. "Meanwhile the Cherokee people remaining practically loyal to the federal Union will receive all the protection which can be given them consistently with the duty of the government of the whole country. I sincerely hope the Cherokee country may not again be over-run by the enemy; and I shall do all I consistently can to prevent it."
I...beg leave, very respectfully, to represent,
1st. That the relations which the Cherokee Nation sustains towards the United States have been defined by Treaties entered into between the Parties from time to time, and extending through a long series of years.
2nd. Those Treaties were Treaties of Friendship and Alliance. The Cherokee Nation as the weaker party placing itself under the Protection of the United States and no other Sovereign whatever, and the United States solemnly promising that Protection.
3rd. That the Cherokee Nation maintained in good faith her relations towards the United States up to a late period and subsequent to the occurrence of the war between the Government and the Southern States of the Union and the withdrawal of all protection whatever by the Government.
4th. That in consequences of...the overwhelming pressure brought to bear upon them the Cherokees were forced for the preservation of their Country and their existence to negotiate a Treaty with the "Confederate States"
5th. That no other alternative was left them surrounded by the Power & influences, that they were, and that they had no opportunity freely to express their views and assume their true position until the advance into their Country of the Indian Expedition during the last summer.
6th. That as soon as the Indian Expedition marched into the Country the great Mass of the Cherokee People rallied spontaneously around the authorities of the United States and a large majority of their warriors are now engaged in fighting under their flag....
The advance of the Indian Expedition gave the Cherokee People an opportunity to manifest their views by taking [as] far as possible a prompt and decided stand in favor of their relations with the U.S. Govt.
The withdrawal of that Expedition and the reabandonment of that People & Country to the forces of the Confederate States leaves them in a position frought with distress, danger and ruin! What the Cherokee People now desire is ample Military Protection for life and property; a recognition by the Govt. of the obligations of existing Treaties and a willingness and determination to carry out the policy indicated by your Excellency of enforcing the Laws and extending to those who are loyal all the protection in your power.