Tag Archives: Indian Territory

The Impact of Oil

Court Street in Atoka, Oklahoma while it was still Indian Territory

Native Americans were almost continually exploited by the white settlers who relentlessly encroached upon their land. Oil had been discovered in Oklahoma before the turn of the twentieth century, but when deep drilling replaced shallow drilling, oil exploration stepped up in intensity. One result for Indians was a turnover of land ownership that left many of them tenant farmers.

Whites had already gone around protective laws to settle in Indian Territory well before the end of the nineteenth century. By that time, more non-native peoples lived in Indian Territory than Native Americans. Oil made Indian land even more desirable, and several laws were introduced that made it easier for whites to take over desirable real estate. The allotment process, which gave Indians a specified amount of land per head of household, was a first step toward depriving Indians of their property. After allotments were made, any unassigned land (which had previously been part of common tribal holdings) became available for sale to whites. Then, a series of competency laws made it easy for white-dominated courts to determine that certain Indians were not competent to handle their own affairs. Courts often assigned “guardians” to manage Indian land on behalf of their wards. As a result, a huge transfer of wealth took place.

My next post will discuss some  guardians’ behavior.

Odd Fellows Home, Grand Lodge of Oklahoma Territory

Oklahoma Town circa 1900, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

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Alice Mary Robertson

Alice Mary Robertson, courtesy Library of Congress

Alice Mary Robertson was born on January 2, 1854, in the Tullahassee Mission in the Creek Nation Indian Territory, now in Oklahoma. Her parents were missionary school teachers committed to assisting displaced Cherokee. Robertson attended college (1873-1874) and became the first female clerk within the Indian Office at the Department of the Interior. She worked briefly at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, but later returned to Indian Territory and established Nuyaka Mission. Though she considered herself a friend of Indians and was concerned about their welfare, she took a traditional route toward helping them. She was instrumental in the success of the Minerva Home in 1885; it was a boarding school to train Native American girls in domestic skills. The school later developed into Henry Kendall College and is now the University of Tulsa. In 1900 Robertson became the government supervisor of Creek Indian schools.

Robertson eventually owned and operated a dairy farm, and ran for Congress in 1920 on the premise that “there are already more lawyers and bankers in Congress than are needed . . . The farmers need a farmer, I am a farmer.” She defeated three-term incumbent William Wirt Hastings. After her election she announced that she would concentrate on bettering the lives of Indians, women, farmers, soldiers, and working people. Robertson was the second woman to serve in Congress, though the only one in office at the time of her service. Congress recognized her interest and work on behalf of Indians by giving her a seat on the Committee on Indian Affairs. She was continually frustrated, though, and could push little of value through the committee.

Alice Robertson (lower step) at U.S. Capitol With Two Women Elected to the Next Session of Congress

Jeannette Rankin, First Woman Elected to Congress

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Indians and Slaves

The Five Civilized Tribes

Indian Territory may have seemed a world away from the slave-holding South, but slavery was introduced there in 1830. Some of the slaves who ran away from southern slave states were received as free people by tribes in the Territory. However, all tribes except the Seminole eventually began to buy slaves. In the 1830s, about 3,000 African-Americans lived in Indian Territory. Most of them were slaves.

Indian farmers used slaves to help them cultivate their crops. Some masters had large tracts of land, but most Indians were subsistence farmers who worked as hard as their slaves. In the 1830s and 1840s, slaves came with Indians who were removed from the their eastern lands. The Cherokee held about 1,500 slaves, the Chickasaw Nation about 1,200, and the Creek Nation about 300. There were about 8,000 slaves held by Indians by the time of the Civil War. After the war, tribes abolished slavery.

Slaves of Indians, 1893, courtesy Library of Congress

John Taylor (African-American) and Dick Charlie (Ute), 1880-1910?, courtesy Library of Congress

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The Curtis Act

Representative Charles Curtis, center

Whenever Indian land became valuable, whites found a way to get it. After the Dawes Act (see last post) freed up former Indian land for settlement, the Curtis Act further weakened Indian control.  A mixed-blood Kansa Indian and Kansas congressman, Charles Curtis, sponsored a law that abolished tribal courts in Indian Territory. This gave the federal government even more power over Indian affairs, since everyone in the Territory now came under federal law. The Act passed in 1898; any tribal legislation after that had to be approved by the president of the United States.

Senator Curtis was born in 1860, a descendant of Kansa chief White Plume. He attended an Indian mission school on the Kaw reservation, but later attended Topeka High School. He was admitted to the bar in 1881 and ran as a Republican in Shawnee County, Kansas. He was elected to Congress in 1892 and held office in the House of Representatives for eight terms. He was elected a senator in 1907.

Indians on Kaw Reservation

Kansa Indian Bark House, courtesy Oklahoma State University

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Oil Money

Camp Modoc, Indian Territory, between 1888 and 1890, courtesy Library of Congress

Unscrupulous profiteers were never shy about trying to benefit from something Native Americans possessed. When petroleum was discovered in Oklahoma (see last post), the lands occupied by the Five Civilized Tribes became a magnet for exploitation.

Early in the nineteenth century, the United States gave the Five Civilized Tribes  all the land in Indian Territory. Congress later decided to divide the land into small acreages, called allotments. These allotments were given to Indian families, but were controlled and (nominally) protected by the federal government on their behalf.

In 1908, federal protection was lifted, and unscrupulous whites moved in to take advantage of the riches on the Oklahoma land. Many Indians could not read or write, or really understand the unfamiliar laws and practices involved in land ownership. Congress gave control of Indian lands to the county courts in Oklahoma, and the ravaging began. Hundreds of Indian families lost their land and the wealth they might have enjoyed. Within 30 years, Oklahoma Indians retained only one fifteenth of their original allotments.

Oil Workers Playing Dominoes, St. Louis, Oklahoma (1939), courtesy Library of Congress

Oil Derrick with Waste Oil in Stream, 1939, courtesy Library of Congress

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BIA Supervision

Cato Sells

The Bureau of Indian Affairs expanded over time, as many other government offices did. In its 1913 report to Congress, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Cato Sells) noted that the Indian Office had received 77,000 letters in 1902 and employed 132  people, but had received 209,000 letters and had employed 227 people by 1911. The commissioner presented his office in the most positive light as he highlighted the strides and failures of the past few years.

He specifically discussed the discovery of petroleum in Indian Territory. In a special report about petroleum in 1902, the Census Bureau had barely noted the existence of 13 wells there. The land was occupied by the Five Civilized Tribes, though the Secretary of the Interior had authority over it through the Curtis Act of 1898. By 1912, Oklahoma was second among oil-producing states, and pumped out almost one-fifth of all the petroleum produced in the U.S.

The wealth represented by Oklahoma’s oil consequently focused greedy attention on the Indians who were supposed to benefit from it. The next post will continue this topic.

Hoy Oil Field on Black Bear Creek near Enid, Oklahoma, circa 1917, courtesy Library of Congress

Oil Wells in Bartlesville, Oklahoma

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The Land Grab Continues

Cover of Pamphlet Souvenirs of Tulsa-Indian Territory, 1906, courtesy National Archives

Cover of Pamphlet Souvenirs of Tulsa-Indian Territory, 1906, courtesy National Archives

Native Americans  forced out of their homelands by white settlers were relocated to land in the western United States, called Indian Territory. In a Congressional act of June 30, 1834, Indian Territory  was described as “all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi, and not within the States of Missouri and Louisiana, or the Territory of Arkansas.”

In 1890, unassigned lands in the center of Indian Territory were organized as Oklahoma Territory. In 1906, Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were combined to form the state of Oklahoma, which was admitted into the union by Proclamation 780 on November 16, 1907. After that, Indian Territory no longer existed.

Map of Indian Territory, 1885, courtesy National Archives

Map of Indian Territory, 1885, courtesy National Archives

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How to Make an Indian Vanish

Cherokee Chief John Ross Fought Against Migration

Cherokee Chief John Ross Fought Against Migration

In 1830, a year after he took office, President Andrew Jackson (see 7/8/10 post) pushed a piece of legislation called The Indian Removal Act through Congress. The Act authorized Jackson to grant unsettled land in the west to Indians living in the east.

In his message to Congress, Jackson said:  “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.”

Though a few tribes migrated peacefully, many did not want to leave their lands. Jackson’s “happy consummation” came to a head during the winter of 1838 – 1839 when 4,000  Cherokees died on a forced 1,000-mile march to Indian Territory called “The Trail of Tears.”

Cherokee Trail of Tears

Cherokee Trail of Tears

Map of Trail of Tears, courtesy National Park Service

Map of Trail of Tears, courtesy National Park Service

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The Insane Cherokee

Map of Cherokee Nation, circa 1903

Map of Cherokee Nation, circa 1903

The Cherokee Nation actually established an asylum for insane Indians before the U.S. government did. The Cherokee National Council selected a site for the Cherokee  Home for the Insane, Deaf, Dumb, and Blind six miles south of Tahlequah in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1873. The asylum was governed by a board of trustees composed of the principal chief, assistant principal chief, the national treasurer, and three trustees appointed by the principal chief, with the consent of the Cherokee Senate.

Construction began in 1874 and on December 5, 1876, John A. Foreman was elected steward of the asylum at a salary of $400/year. The asylum opened March 1, 1877, and by October had accepted 14 males and 8 females. Foreman made a telling request in his first report: “I would hereby have to suggest that a change be made in the manner of receiving inmates into the asylum, and that such lines be drawn, as will prevent the Asylum from being made into a hospital.”

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians never drew such a line, and quickly became a dumping ground for many inconvenient Indians who were not necessarily insane.

Cherokee National Female Seminary (1851-1887) Tahlequah

Cherokee National Female Seminary (1851-1887) Tahlequah

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