Cowskin Prairie Council

During the Civil War in Indian Territory, when the Cherokee National Council met at Cowskin Prairie (located north and east of present Grove in Delaware County, Oklahoma) on February 17–18, 1863, they were a government without a country. After the Civil War began, the Cherokee Nation had allied with the Confederacy, but the act divided the Cherokee people. Stand Watie and his supporters praised the alliance, but Chief John Ross and many other Cherokees were quickly disillusioned. After Union forces invaded Indian Territory in the summer of 1862, all semblance of tribal unity collapsed, and civil war tore apart the Cherokee Nation. Ross left for exile in Washington, D.C., and he faced the task of convincing the United States that the Cherokees had in fact remained loyal to the Union. Complicating this position was the existence of a rival Cherokee government led by Stand Watie. Watie’s government not only reaffirmed the nation’s treaty with the Confederacy, but also declared Ross a traitor. More problematic, Watie’s forces controlled most of the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee National Council’s meeting at Cowskin Prairie was an attempt to strengthen their precarious political situation. The council comprised primarily soldiers serving in the Union’s Indian Home Guard regiments, and many were probably members of the Keetoowah Society. In Ross’s absence they elected Thomas Pegg as acting principal chief. He argued that the Confederate treaty had been coerced and that the tribe had always remained loyal to the Union. The council’s other primary decision was to abolish slavery in the Cherokee Nation, but the members simultaneously made it clear that freed slaves had no right to citizenship and were expected immediately to leave the nation.

Throughout the meeting the council affirmed its ties with the Union while simultaneously asserting their right to govern the Cherokee Nation. Although leaving no doubt of its opposition to Stand Watie’s government, the council primarily directed its actions toward the United States. The tribe’s continual pledges of loyalty were calculated to convince the Union to protect the Cherokee people and uphold their treaty rights. At the same time, however, the council also strongly affirmed that it, not the Union, had the authority to make decisions within the borders of the Cherokee nation.