In 1861, there were two principal groups of Cherokees in the United States: the Western Band with a population slightly over 20,000 and the smaller Eastern Band in North Carolina with a population of only about 2,000. Both sided with the Southern Confederacy, but the larger Western Band made a formal declaration of independence from the United States.
On August 21, 1861, the (Western) Cherokee Nation by a General Convention at Tahlequah (in Oklahoma) declared its common cause with the Confederate States against the Northern Union. A treaty was concluded on October 7th between the Confederate States and the Cherokee Nation, and on October 9th, John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation called into session the Cherokee National Committee and National Council to approve and implement that treaty and a future course of action.
The Western Cherokees had at first considerable consternation over the growing conflict and desired to remain neutral. They had much common economy and contact with their Confederate neighbors, but their treaties were with the government of the United States. The Northern conduct of the war against their neighbors, strong repression of Northern political dissent, and the roughshod trampling of the U.S. Constitution under the new regime in Washington soon changed their thinking.
The Cherokee were perhaps the best educated and literate of the American Indian Tribes. They were also among the most Christian. Learning and wisdom were highly esteemed. They revered the Declaration of Independence and the U, S Constitution as particularly important guarantors of their rights and freedoms. It is not surprising then that on October 28, 1861, the National Council (of the Western Cherokee) issued: “A Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled them to Unite Their Fortunes With Those of the Confederate States of America.”
The introductory words of this declaration strongly resembled the 1776 Declaration of Independence. In the next paragraphs of their declaration the (Western) Cherokee Council noted their faithful adherence to their treaties with the United States in the past and how they had faithfully attempted neutrality until the present. But the seventh paragraph begins to delineate their alarm with Northern aggression and sympathy with the South.
Comparing the relatively limited objectives and defensive nature of the Southern cause in contrast to the aggressive actions of the North, they remarked of the Confederate States:
“Disclaiming any intention to invade the Northern States, they sought only to repel the invaders from their own soil and to secure the right of governing themselves. They claimed only the privilege asserted in the Declaration of American Independence, and on which the right of Northern States themselves to self-government is formed, and altering their form of government when it became no longer tolerable and establishing new forms for the security of their liberties.”
The next paragraph noted the orderly and democratic process by which each of the Confederate States seceded. This was without violence or coercion and nowhere were liberties abridged or civilian courts and authorities made subordinate to the military. The ninth paragraph contrasted this with ruthless and totalitarian trends in the North:
“But in the Northern States the Cherokee people saw with alarm a violated Constitution, all civil liberty put in peril, and all rules of civilized warfare and the dictates of common humanity and decency unhesitatingly disregarded. In the states which still adhered to the Union, a military despotism had displaced civilian power and the laws became silent with arms. Free speech and almost free thought became a crime. The right of habeas corpus, guaranteed by the Constitution, disappeared at the nod of a Secretary of State or a general of the lowest grade. The mandate of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was at naught by the military power, and this outrage on common rights approved by a President sworn to support the Constitution. War on the largest scale was waged, and the immense bodies of troops called into the field in the absence of any warranting it under the pretense of suppressing unlawful combinations of men.”
The tenth paragraph indicted the conduct of the Union Armies and the Lincoln Administration’s destruction of essential civil liberties, freedom of speech, and the press.
“The humanities of war, which even barbarians respect, were no longer thought worthy to be observed. Foreign mercenaries and the scum of the cities and the inmates of prisons were enlisted and organized into brigades and sent into Southern states to aid in subjugating a people struggling for freedom, to burn, to plunder, and to commit the basest of outrages on the women; while the heels of armed tyranny trod upon the necks of Maryland and Missouri, and men of the highest character and position were incarcerated upon suspicion without process of law, in jails, forts, and prison ships, and even women were imprisoned by the arbitrary order of a President and Cabinet Ministers; while the press ceased to be free, and the publication of newspapers was suspended and their issues seized and destroyed;”
The eleventh paragraph of the Cherokee declaration is a fairly concise summary of their grievances against the Lincoln Administration:
“Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past to complain of some of the Southern states, they cannot but feel that their interests and destiny are inseparably connected to those of the South. The war now waging is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude; against the commercial freedom of the South, and against the political freedom of the states, and its objects are to annihilate the sovereignty of those states and utterly change the nature of the general government.”
Finally, appealing to their inalienable right to self defense and self determination as a free people, they concluded their declaration with the following words:
“Obeying the dictates of prudence and providing for the general safety and welfare, confident of the rectitude of their intentions and true to their obligations to duty and honor, they accept the issue thus forced upon them, unite their fortunes now and forever with the Confederate States, and take up arms for the common cause, and with entire confidence of the justice of that cause and with a firm reliance upon Divine Providence, will resolutely abide the consequences.”
The Eastern Band of Cherokee made no formal declaration but considered themselves North Carolinians and eagerly defended their state and the Southern cause.
The Cherokee Declaration of October 1861 uncovers a far more complex set of “Civil War” issues than most Americans have been taught. Rediscovered truth is not always welcome. Indeed some of the issues here are so distressing that the general academic, media, and public reaction is to rebury them and shout them down as politically incorrect. However, genuine unity requires truth and common interest. Unity by coercion and falsehood however appealing is a fragile fraud.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist
a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs
Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.
He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.
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