Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the heart and capital of the Cherokee Nation. Last week, I talked about our visit to the museums in the downtown area. Southeast of downtown Tahlequah is the “Park Hill” area which has historically been the “cultural center” of the Cherokee Nation. It was the area where John Ross (Principal Chief of the Cherokee during relocation era) and some members of his family chose to build their homes and the area where the Cherokee Female Seminary was built. Many fine homes and prominent leaders also chose to build in the Park Hill area during the “golden era” after relocation and before the civil war.
But in the civil war most of the homes including John Ross’s were burned. Today, the area has been rebuilt and showcases the golfcourse, many lovely residences, museums, Ross Family Cemetery, and the Cherokee Heritage Center.
After visiting the Cherokee Judicial Museum and the old prison [Part 1], we drove up to Park hill to see the John Ross Museum [Video of Grand Opening]. The museum is housed in an old rural schoolhouse which was built on the site of an old Cherokee Schoolhouse and next to the Ross Family Cemetery. Inside one room is set up as a representative classroom with placards full of information on the civil war’s impact on the Cherokee in Oklahoma. Another is set up as a representative office of John Ross with information on his life.
Last week I mentioned that Elias Boudinot was the first editor of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper (before relocation). His brother, Stand Watie, also wrote articles for the Cherokee Phoenix and, after Elias was fired from the paper joined his brother and others who believed that relocation was inevitable and that the Cherokee should secure their rights by treaty before relocation. Principal Chief John Ross, and the majority of Cherokee, opposed relocation and the signing of any treaties with the government. Even though, Boudinot and Stand Watie held no representative power in the Cherokee Nation, they and some of their cohorts signed the “Treaty of New Echota” in 1835.
After relocation, the “Treaty Party” was tried for giving up tribal lands, which was a “blood” or capital offense under Cherokee law. Stand Watie, his brother Elias Boudinot, their uncle Major Ridge and cousin John Ridge, along with several other Treaty Party men, were all sentenced to death on 22 June 1839. All were executed except Stand Watie who managed to escape.
As southern states started to secede from the union, Principal Chief John Ross’s main goal was to stay neutral. A Grand Council was held in 1861 with the Cherokee, Creeks, and Seminoles and, on Ross’s advice, voted “to do nothing, keep quiet, and to comply with our Treaties . . . “
But, in the following months when war broke out, all Union soldiers were ordered to withdraw from Indian Territory and Texas Confederate troops moved in to fill the void. Albert Pike was sent to negotiate with the tribes on behalf of the Confederacy for treaties that would make them allies of the south. John Ross wrote “Our wish is for peace,” and insisted on remaining neutral. However, Pike was able to secure treaties with the other four Civilized Tribes promising them perpetual Confederacy recognition of their land titles.
After a majority of the Cherokee Nation voted to support the Confederacy fearing the Federal Government’s threat to create the state of Oklahoma, Stand Watie organized a regiment of cavalry and was commissioned by the Confederacy as a colonel in the “First Cherokee Mounted Rifles.” His cavalry fought both Union and Indian forces as Cherokee support for the Confederacy sharply declined.
In August 1862, after John Ross and his followers went to Fort Leavenworth to announce their support for the Union, the remaining Southern Confederate minority faction elected Stand Watie as principal chief. Watie continued to lead the remnant of his cavalry and was promoted to brigadier general by General Samuel Bell Maxey in 1864. He was the last Confederate general in the field to surrender.
While John Ross was away, he received word from his wife that their house and many others in Park Hill were burned. One of the houses that survived was the Murrell Home. The mansion was built by George Michael Murrell, a wealthy white planter and merchant married to Minerva Ross, the niece John Ross. Murrell called it Hunter’s Home. The Murrells came to Park Hill about 1839. They furnished their house with the latest in fashions. They held 42 slaves, whom they housed in nine cabins on the large property.
After the war, the two factions of the Cherokee each tried to negotiate separately with the US government. The commissioner of Indian Affairs, Dennis N. Cooley, was persuaded that Ross was a dictator and supported Stand Watie. Even though in poor health, Ross left Park Hill, where he was staying with his niece, on November 9, 1865, to meet with President Andrew Johnson. Ross died on August 1, 1866 in Washington, DC while still negotiating a final treaty. However, Ross had by then persuaded Johnson to reject the treaty version favored by Cooley.
Initially, Ross was buried beside his wife Mary in Wilmington, Delaware. A few months later, the Cherokee Nation returned his remains to the Ross Cemetery at Park Hill, for interment. As mentioned above, the Ross Cemetery is located next to the Ross Museum and can be viewed by the public.
Next week, The Cherokee Heritage Center.