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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,078

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This is the grave of Stand Watie.

Born in 1806 in the Cherokee Nation village of Oothcaloga, which is today Calhoun, Georgia, Watie grew up in a time of massive and horrifying change for his people. The endless onslaught of whites after the American Revolution had made conditions for the Cherokee increasingly difficult. Total slaughter and genocide was the white way, with people such as John Sevier building entire political careers on killing them. White hunger for land was insatiable. The Cherokees were told to live like whites and maybe they would be OK. They tried that, adopting modern plantation agriculture with Black slaves. Many converted to Christianity and learned to read English. Didn’t matter. Whites didn’t mean any of those words. They wanted the land for their white republic and there was no place in it for Cherokees. How to deal with this living hell was the key question of Cherokee life during Watie’s years.

As for Watie himself, he was 3/4 Cherokee as his mother had a white father. Not uncommon at all by this time. The family was among the tribal leaders, which had become a lot more hierarchical as the Cherokee adopted aspects of English-American culture. So he was related to a lot of the leading Cherokee of these years, including Elias Boudinot and John Ridge. Watie’s given name was Uwatie, but he converted to the Moravian faith, who were active missionaries in the area and he changed it for an English name, also very common among the Cherokee elite. He became a journalist and wrote articles for the tribe’s English and Cherokee newspaper beginning in 1828. That it was in Cherokee is of course quite significant. Sequoyah became famous among whites for taking Cherokee and creating a written language for it. But what whites don’t get is that it wasn’t about being “civilized” or whatever. It was a nationalist move to try and protect his people from whites by adopting what the Americans said they should do so they would leave his people alone. Didn’t work, but that’s the background that isn’t taught in elementary schools.

With gold discovered in north Georgia in the late 1820s, white pressure to get rid of the Cherokee increased, with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 sealing their fate. The question was then how this would go. Some Cherokees thought the best move was to sell out and move west. Others wanted to resist. Although Watie was initially wanting to fight, he joined the Treaty Party, which sold out the lands. He moved to Indian Territory in 1835, joining others who decided to start over. This divided the Cherokee community deeply. The anti-treaty Cherokee decided that the leaders of the Treaty Party needed to be killed. They in fact would kill Elias Boudinot, John Ridge, and other leaders. Watie was the most prominent Treaty Cherokee who survived this wave of assassinations.

It’s hard to condemn Watie too much for all of this. What choice did the Cherokee really have? Both sides faced a horrible scenario for which there was no good answer. Moreover, it’s not as if the Cherokees entered into some empty land when they moved out to contemporary Oklahoma. There were powerful tribes either living nearby or for whom this was raiding country. It was very hard to reestablish the tribe. The Trail of Tears led to massive death. Then there was the civil war in the tribe. In 1842, Watie ran across James Foreman, one of the anti-treaty Cherokee involved in the murders of his family. So Watie killed him. He eventually faced trial in the 1850s for murder in Arkansas and I think he got off.

In any case, by 1861, Watie was once again a relatively wealthy Cherokee with slaves. And you know what that means? He joined the Confederacy. Initially, the Cherokee nation generally supported the Confederates. By this time, John Ross was the principal chief. But of course the Confederates had no interest in Native rights anymore than the Union did. Ross soon realized this early agreement was a disaster and he moved with the tribal records to Kansas. This allowed Watie to declare himself the new principal chief and he continued the alliance with the Confederates. This often surprises people but as the Cherokees had long ago agreed to take whites at their own words and adopt their society, the institutionalization of chattel slavery and the growing of cotton with African slaves was now part and parcel of Cherokee society. This led to a new civil war within the Cherokees themselves, with Ross supporters once again furious at Waite. But Watie was a real player in the Confederacy and was named a brigadier general, the highest ranking Native American in the war. That included fighting at Pea Ridge in 1862, where Waite’s troops covered the Confederate retreat after the Union won the battle.

By 1864, most Cherokee now openly supported the Union, which only increased the aspect of civil war in the Cherokee nation. Watie’s own family fled to Texas to escape retribution. In February 1865, Jefferson Davis named Watie the commander of the Indian Division of Indian Territory, although with the Confederacy’s impending defeat, this didn’t mean much anymore.

When the Civil War ended, the government had to negotiate a separate treaty with the tribes to end slavery there. Watie’s faction wanted the African-Americans all shipped out at government expense. Pro-Union Cherokees wanted to adopt the now former slaves into the tribe, but to give them separate lands. This in-fighting among the Cherokees gave the U.S. government opportunities to play the two sides against each other in the renegotiated treaties with the tribe that ended slavery. All of this forced Watie into exile. He lived in the Choctaw nation for awhile, near his Cherokee home but not in it. But when the Cherokees elected the moderate and savvy Lewis Downing at its principle chief, who did a great job in avoiding further violence between the factions, Watie felt good enough about it all to return home. At this point, he mostly tried to avoid politics because he had lost much of his money, which I assume was largely wrapped up in human beings like most of the southern elite, and needed to rebuild his finances.

Watie died in 1871. He was 64 years old.

Interestingly, in the really pretty bad pro-Confederate Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales, Chief Dan George plays Waite, although in the film he is known as Lone Watie for some reason.

Stand Watie is buried in Polson Cemetery, Delaware County, Oklahoma.

If you would like this series to visit other Native American leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sitting Bull is at least possibly in Fort Yates, North Dakota and Red Cloud is in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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