A Black Indian March for Peace, 1861-1862

by William Loren Katz on April 18, 2012

As the country celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, one major event has passed unnoticed, though it stands as a massive demonstration of people power harnessed in the cause of peace and justice. It involved thousands of men, women and children of color in a painful and vast exodus to flee the Indian Territory which had fallen into Confederate military control.

It began when Creek leaders signed a treaty with the Confederacy that would commit Native Americans to the bloody US conflict. A furious Opothle Yahola, a wealthy Creek, gathered an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people on his huge ranch in the Indian Territory in late 1861. They agreed they must avoid the impending carnage even if it meant uprooting their families and seeking freedom in a northern state.

First they hoped the new President would to promise help. Apothle Yahola wrote to Lincoln asking for federal protection saying “now the wolf has come. Men who are strangers tread our soil. Our children are frightened & mothers cannot sleep for fear.” Getting this letter to the Union forces proved almost impossible. Getting Union help in an Indian Territory surrounded by Confederate forces was impossible.

Apothle Yahola had more luck when he sent messages into slave communities saying that people who joined him would be considered “free.” Enslaved families and others flocked to his banner—half of the Seminole Nation, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creeks, Choctaw, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Delaware and Commanche.

Anticipating a Confederate attack, on November 5, 1861, Opothle Yahola led his “Peace Party” northwest to avoid Douglas Cooper, US Indian agent, who now served as commander of Indian Confederate troops. In two weeks, as the Peace forces circled around recruiting followers, a Confederate army of Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and white Texas cavalry attacked them at Round Mountain but were driven off. In a second battle, at Chusto Talasah (Caving Banks), on December 19, Peace forces again repulsed another Confederate attack. Then they slipped across the Arkansas River into Cherokee Territory continuing to recruit families.

But on December 26, at Chustenahlah (High Shoals) northeast of present-day Tulsa, a third battle that included desperate hand to hand fighting saw superior Confederate forces that included Cherokees
overwhelm the Peace Party.

The defeated families fled, abandoning wagons, bedding, and clothing. They lost about 900 cattle, 250 ponies, and 190 sheep and took off on foot through a blizzard and one of the worst winters on record toward Union lines in Kansas. Desperate men tried to cover the retreat of their women and children with their few weapons. Said one Seminole leader, “At that battle we lost everything we possessed, everything to take care of our women and children with, and all that we had. . . . We left them in cold blood by the wayside.”

After a disorderly march, thousands of survivors reached Kansas in January 1862. But along the way many had died and had to be left on the frozen ground to be devoured by wolves.

In Kansas Opothle Yahola and his families had to camp without blankets on still frozen ground. He died in a year, knowing he had led a bold exodus for freedom through the winter snows to safety, and after the Emancipation Proclamation changed the war’s direction.

In April, as the first buds of spring came through the soil, some 7,600 in his camp were receiving US Army supplies and the young men of color talked of enlisting for the Union.

For some men peace no longer seemed the goal. Surviving men of the Peace party, particularly people of African descent, volunteered to form one of first official regiments of soldiers of color in the Civil War. Because most Indians did not speak English, the bilingual African Americans served as interpreters and provided a cultural bridge between the white officers and the Indian soldiers.

General Jim Lane, a flamboyant Kansas senator, led these men into battle and they established a unique record. Fighting their way to Kansas, they had participated in the first three battles in the Indian Territory, and their African American and Black Indian men were the first to fight the Confederacy. With the official organization and mustering of the First Indian Regiment in May 1862, the African American members became the first officially mustered into the Union Army.

During forays into the Indian Territory in the summer of 1862 they became the first African Americans to take part in official Union combat operations. At the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, on December 7, 1862, they were the first African Americans to participate in a major Civil War battle—and 30 of their members defeated 130 mounted Confederate guerrillas.

These brave soldiers went on to fight on the battlefields of Missouri, Arkansas and Indian Territory, and to free enslaved people.

Five years earlier Senator Jim Lane said people of African descent were a connecting link between the orangutan and the human. As General, Lane changed his tune. He proudly announced, “they are the finest specimens of mankind I have ever gazed upon.”

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