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A Black Indian March for Peace, 1861-1862

William Loren Katz

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 the 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."

William Loren Katz, the author of forty books
on US history, adapted this article from his updated
and expanded Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage [2012] 
His website is williamlkatz.com

William Loren Katz williamlkatz.com 212 533 6875

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