Cherokee Blood Bath

Some Background

On 28 May 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law.  The Act authorized the President of the United States to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders.  A few tribes peacefully complied, but many resisted their removal and were forcibly relocated to the new “Indian Territory.”  One of the first tribes “forcibly relocated” was the Cherokee.

“Indian Territory” generally describes an area of land set aside by the U. S. government.  In the early 1800s, Indian removal from their traditional homelands was considered necessary to reduce the likelihood of conflict between various tribes and settlers who were moving west to settle untamed lands.  The idea of Indian reservations and their creation within the United States followed a British policy before the American Revolution when the British government set aside land for indigenous tribes between the Appalachian Mountains and Mississippi River.  In the 1840s, “the Indian Territory” referred to unorganized regions west of the Mississippi River, the word territory meaning federally controlled areas not yet organized as states.  As the western territories became organized, it then became necessary to redefine the Indian Territory, the result of which was that Indian territories were successively reduced to accommodate westward migrating whites[1].

Before the American Civil War, the United States Army was assigned to protect settlers on the western frontier from hostile Indians —from Texas to the Canadian border; a secondary mission was relocating Indians to reservations in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).  The Army, however, was not very effective in completing either mission because, before the Civil War, the Army did not have a cavalry force.  What the Army had was horse-mounted riflemen, called dragoons —but they were not cavalry and the horse was viewed simply as a conveyance used to transport infantry to where they were needed.  Once these dragoons arrived at the point of contact with hostile forces, they dismounted and fought as regular infantry.  Challenging mounted Indians (the best horsemen in the world) with companies of infantrymen had little effect keeping Indians from attacking settlements at will.  Assigning infantry troops to western forts was equally ludicrous.

With the approach of civil war, the U. S. Army was (mostly) withdrawn from the western territories to consolidate the Union Army in the east, where they could best confront their Confederate foe.  It did not take the Indians long to realize that except for Texas[2], they had a free reign over the then-defenseless white settlements.

Now the story becomes a bit more difficult because after April 1861, most of the Cherokee Indians living in the Indian Territory threw their support behind the Confederate cause.  Why they should do this is anyone’s guess, but that’s what happened.

The American Civil War was a tragedy for most Americans of the time —and no less so for the Cherokee Indians living in the Oklahoma/Indian Territory.  Nothing was forgotten or forgiven after the Civil War; the raw emotion of wartime service remained part of American life for another 100 years.  The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) was a tough time to live in the American south; but it was even more difficult for Indian tribes, such as the Cherokee, because tribal support of the Confederate States of America resulted in the US Congress cancelling previously signed treaties.

Before the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871, the Indian Territory was an exceedingly large area in the central United States whose boundaries were established by treaties between the U. S. government and various native tribes.  These lands encompassed areas within several U. S. territories.  During the Civil War, Congress gave the President of the United States authority to invalidate treaties with any tribe hostile to the government of the United States.

Since most Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, treaty invalidation had a significant impact on Cherokee-US relations  Note: Brigadier General Stand Watie, a Cherokee from the Indian Territory, was the last Confederate general to surrender in the American Civil War.  In any case, the post-war Southern Treaty Commission redefined Cherokee Indian territory by shrinking it even further.

After 1871, the federal government dealt with the Indian tribes through statute.  The Act stipulated that “…hereafter, no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty … [The United States] has the right and authority, instead of controlling them by treaties, to govern them by acts of Congress, they being within the geographical limit of the United States.”— and— “The Indians owe no allegiance to a state within which their reservation may be established, and the state gives them no protection.”

In 1872, most of the present-day Oklahoma was still functioning as Indian territory.  Each tribe had its separate jurisdiction, its own legislature, set of laws (insofar as they were consistent with the U. S. Constitution and U. S. Case Law), and their own courts.  Federal supervision of Indian territories, reservations, and tribes, was maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which today falls within the purview of the Department of the Interior.

In 1872, the United States Marshal’s Service acted as the primary federal authority in the Indian Territory, but their authority was limited.  Federal marshals could not interfere in matters relating to how the Indians governed themselves.  For the most part, there were only a few conflicts between Indian tribes and US Marshals.

The Goingsnake Fight

“Zeke” Proctor

Ezekiel “Zeke” Proctor was a Cherokee Indian, but he had a white father[3].  He was originally from Georgia, but we do not know the sequence of events that brought him to the Indian Territory.  Zeke was a member of the Keetoowah Nighthawk community, a group of Cherokee striving to maintain their tribal values and customs.  The Keetoowah deeply resented whites for forcibly removing them from their traditional land, and they detested even more the recent onslaught of white settlers moving into the Indian Territory.

Given Zeke’s affiliation with the Keetoowah, it was a bit odd that when the Civil War broke out, Zeke joined the Union Army.  This was probably enough to cause other Keetoowah people to shake their heads in wonder, but it was a decision that made Zeke a minority within the Indian Territory[4].

Mary “Polly” Beck

The Beck family were also Cherokee living in the Indian Territory.  One of these was Mary “Polly” Beck (who also had a white father).  The Beck Clan were “non-traditionalists.”  When the Civil War broke out, the Becks cast their lot with the Confederacy.  Of course, wartime loyalties remain long after the end of the conflict, so war’s end did nothing to assuage raw feelings between opposing sides.  This Union vs. Confederate animosity, by the way, lasted through the mid-1970s.

Polly Beck lived at the Hildebrand Mill, which was in an area known as Goingsnake.  The mill was constructed in the 1840s by Jeremiah Towers and later purchased by Stephen Hildebrand, whom Polly had consented to marry.  When Stephen died in 1867, Polly Beck Hildebrand hired a man named James Chesterson to work the mill.  Polly ended up marrying James in 1871.

So far, the story appears unremarkable.  Widows frequently remarried back in the days when females had no right to property, and it would be a few more years before most women in the United States gained economic freedom.  Zeke Proctor didn’t mind when Polly hired Jim Chesterson[5] as an employee, but he was quite upset when the couple was married.  Whether this was about Jim’s whiteness or Zeke’s fascination for Polly, we don’t know.  Both could be true.

On 13 February 1872, an argument developed between Zeke Proctor and Jim Chesterson at the Hildebrand Mill.  We have no idea today what the argument was about, but the two men must have exchanged a few strong words because Zeke went for his gun[6].  Polly Beck Hildebrand Chesterson, who was standing just off to the side of the two men, threw herself between them hoping to stop the fight.  Unhappily, Polly’s timing was a bit off and Proctor’s bullet entered her chest and she was instantly killed.  Chesterson (who may have been unarmed) ran for his life.   Proctor shot at Chesterson several more times.  One account claimed that Chesterson was wounded while in flight, another version said that all Zeke was able to hit was Chesterson’s coat tail.  Either way, shooting at someone constitutes deadly assault.

When the Indian Reservation Police showed up to investigate Polly’s death, Zeke seemed remorseful and claimed that Polly’s death was accidental.  Zeke’s claim seems entirely plausible, but the Beck Clan wasn’t buying it.  Being Cherokee, traditionalist or not, the Becks were more interested in vengeance than justice.  Proctor was taken into custody, as he should have been, and then came the legal wrangling about a proper venue for a trial.  Cherokee Nation judge Blackhawk Sixkiller[7] was assigned to preside.  Sixkiller determined that Proctor would stand trial at the Cherokee Schoolhouse in Whitmore, Oklahoma[8] (present-day Adair County).  By moving the trial out of Goingsnake, the Beck family became convinced that there would be no justice for Polly Beck.

There was also a jurisdictional dispute.  Because the event occurred within the Indian Territory, the Cherokee Nation claimed jurisdiction.  Chesterson’s attorney, however, believing that Proctor would not be convicted in a Cherokee court petitioned the US District Court for the Western District of Arkansas for an arrest warrant so that Proctor could be tried in Fort Smith.

Acknowledging its limited jurisdiction, the federal court assigned two Deputy US Marshals (and an eight-man posse) to attend the trial.  Deputy US Marshal J. G. Peavy was instructed that if Proctor was acquitted by the Cherokee Court, Peavy would arrest him and charge him with violation of federal law in the assault of Chesterson.  Cherokee citizens in the Indian Territory resented non-tribal law officers’ involvement.

On the day of the trial, a makeshift courthouse (actually, a schoolhouse appropriated for use as a courtroom) was packed with people interested in the outcome of the trial.  Zeke Proctor’s supporters sat on the defense side of the courtroom, and the Becks situated themselves on the other side of the courtroom.  A large crowd gathered outside, including both Proctor and Beck sympathizers.  Everyone came to the trial well-armed.  Marshal Peavy’s posse arrived shortly after the court went into session.  By that time, the posse included two deputy marshals, six sworn posse members, and five of the orneriest, meanest men of the Beck family.

Surry Beck, whom some believed started the shooting with a double barrel shotgun

Peavy and his men began pushing aside onlookers to make their way into the makeshift courthouse.  Whether provoked by deputies shoving people out of their way, or in response to words spoken, we don’t know, but suddenly, everyone started shooting.  When the gun smoke had cleared, Deputy Marshal J. G. Owen lay dead; joining him were seven men associated with the posse, including three Beck men.  Also, several innocent bystanders were killed, including Proctor’s attorney, Moses Alberty, Zeke’s brother, Johnson Proctor.  Deputy US Marshal Peavy, posse deputies Paul Jones, George McLaughlin, and White Sut Beck were wounded, along with Zeke Proctor, Judge Sixkiller, and seven others were wounded.

Ultimately, Cherokee judicial authorities moved the trial to a new location, and Zeke was acquitted of all charges.  A second federal posse was dispatched from Fort Smith under Deputy US Marshal Charlie Robinson.  Robinson arrested twenty Cherokee men for their involvement in the shooting, including the previous jury foreman Archie Scaper, but all these men were later released due to lack of evidence or witnesses willing to testify.

After his acquittal, Zeke Proctor fled Goingsnake —which was probably a wise move.  He eventually returned, however.  In 1877, Zeke was elected to serve as a Cherokee Nation senator and by 1880, he operated a small ranch in Goingsnake.  From 1891-94, Zeke served as a Deputy US Marshal under Judge Isaac Parker, and in 1894 he was elected to serve as Sheriff of the Flint District of the Cherokee Nation.  He passed away on 23 February 1907.

Sources:

  1. Ernst, R. Deadly Affrays: The Violent Deaths of US Marshals.  Indiana: Scarlet Mask Publishers, 2006.
  2. Blood Bath at Goingsnake: The Cherokee Courtroom Shootout. net.

Endnotes:

[1] The area to which Indians were resettled encompassed the area of present-day Oklahoma.  Oklahoma statehood was made possible by combining the Territory of Oklahoma with the Indian Territory, which ended the existence of an unorganized, unincorporated independent Indian territory.

[2] Rangers were employed to protect frontier settlements in Texas throughout the Civil War period.

[3] One story paints Zeke’s father as a murderer, but there is no specific information to prove the allegation.

[4] Zeke’s ostracism from mainstream Cherokee society may explain his alleged alcoholism, or his alcoholism may explain his ostracism.

[5] May also have been Kesterson.

[6] The argument may have had nothing to do with Polly, because one story is that Jim Chesterson was previously married to Zeke Proctor’s sister, Susan and that he had left her to marry Polly.  It is an unconfirmed assertion, however.

[7] According to Cherokee legend, the name Sixkiller memorializes a fight between the Creek and Cherokee tribes during the Creek Indian Wars, alleging that one of Sixkiller’s ancestors killed six men before being killed himself.

[8] There is no longer a Whitmore, Oklahoma.  It may have been a community in or near Stillwell, where Whitmore Farms is presently located, but I am unable to ascertain this.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Indians, Cherokee Nation, History, Indian Territory. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cherokee Blood Bath

  1. Andy says:

    Any story with “Blood Bath” in the title is apt to be a good one. And this one certainly lived up to the title.

    To say that the U.S. government’s treatment of native Americans was shameful is an understatement. While the indigenous people’s treatment of White settles in many cases was barbaric, the government’s treatment of the “Indian” was no less so.

    The image of a gunfight in close quarters of a frontier schoolhouse keeps replaying in my mind. It certainly must have been a blood bath.

    Like

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