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The Fort Smith Council of 1865
Submitted by Fort Smith National Historic Site
Lisa C. Frost, Superintendent
In September 1865, the U. S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs met with representatives of 13 Indian nations in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The purpose of this historic meeting, known as the Fort Smith Council, was to reestablish formal relations between the tribes and the United States Government in the aftermath of the Civil War. While many of the tribes had signed formal treaties with the Confederacy at the outbreak of the war, they had also internally split into factions along Union or Confederate lines. Indian delegates from the following nations were present at the council meeting: Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Comanche, Creek, Osage, Quapaw, Seminole, Seneca, Shawnee, Wichita and Wyandotte.
The U. S. representatives, appointed by President Andrew Johnson and led by Dennis N. Cooley, the U. S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, consisted of Elijah Sells, head of the Southern Superintendency, Thomas Wister, Brigadier General W. S. Harney and Colonel Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian and aide-de-camp to General Ulysses S. Grant. The position of the United States in regard to tribes in Indian Territory was revealed in March 1865 with the introduction of the Harlan Bill in the Senate. The bill proposed a territorial organization for Indian Territory. It would destroy the tribal land ownership established in the removal treaties prior to the Civil War, which in effect would open the lands to white settlers.
The council meeting convened on September 8, 1865. Although loyal Union factions of the tribes were present at the meeting, all were treated as if they were Confederate and were told they had forfeited their annuities and right to land in Indian Territory, but that the President was willing to make new treaties which would contain strict stipulations. When summoned to the council, the Indian delegates had not been told the nature of the meeting, but supposed it would be to restore harmony among the various tribes. They were not prepared for what they heard in Cooley’s address and did not have the authority to make treaties for their respective nations. The Indian delegates argued that they had not willingly abandoned their allegiance to the United States, but had done so only under pressure when the Confederacy established supremacy by force of arms upon their border. As the Choctaws and Chickasaws explained to the commission, “the United States, upon the commencement of hostilities, had withdrawn all her troops from our territory and borders, thus failing to protect us as stipulated in her treaties with us. . . .”
The commissioners were not easily swayed by such arguments, nor would they compromise when several of the delegates voiced strong opposition to some of the treaty stipulations. The commission also refused to recognize John Ross as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Cooley did not achieve the signing of formal treaties at the Fort Smith Council, but did accomplish the following: an agreement of amity between the tribes and the United States was completed, and Indians acknowledged that they were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U. S., and canceled and repudiated the treaties they had made with the Confederacy. The United States in turn promised peace, friendship and renewed protection of the tribes. Another significant result of the council is that Choctaw delegate Allen Wright introduced the name “Oklahoma,” which means “Red People,” for a potential future state. The council concluded on September 21, and ultimately provided the foundation for the 1866 treaties which significantly altered conditions in Indian Territory and paved the way for Oklahoma statehood.