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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


The impact of the Civil War on the civilian population of the Indian Territory was unparalleled in any other venue. Neither regular troops nor guerrilla bands on either side respected civilian property. Worse, bitter Removal-era hostilities within the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek nations greatly escalated the level of violence aimed at perceived enemies, whether in uniform or not. To escape victimization, Indian Territory civilians on both sides fled their homes, creating a refugee problem not anticipated by Union or Confederate authorities.

Dislocation due to the war began in summer 1861 when the Creek Nation signed a treaty allying itself with the Confederacy. Opothleyahola, longtime foe of the pro-Confederate leaders, led dissident Creeks, with their movable wealth, slaves, and livestock, away to the western frontier. His followers included opponents of the Creek pro-Confederate faction, neutral Indians hoping to avoid war, and runaway slaves. When the dissidents' number reached about seven thousand, pro-Confederate leaders in the Indian nations became alarmed, fearing the loss of more slaves and that Opothleyahola and his "Loyalists" would join forces with Unionist troops to invade the Indian Territory.

As Opothleyahola led his followers toward the safety of Unionist Kansas, Confederate Indian and Texas troops launched a preemptive strike in November and December 1861. Opothleyahola's followers who survived the running fight to Kansas, now minus their belongings, found no preparations for their arrival. After a bitter winter of exposure and starvation, the able men enlisted in regiments of the Indian Home Guard. Federal authorities planned to use them in a summer invasion of the Indian Territory that they anticipated would allow the refugees to return home and provide for themselves. But the 1862 Indian Expedition failed, and one year after the war began, the Union agent reported that 5,487 refugees were still encamped at LeRoy, Kansas.

Meanwhile, federal employees, non-Indian residents, and missionaries who no longer felt safe in the Indian nations were leaving the Indian Territory in a more orderly fashion. Wealthy pro-Confederate Indians began a more substantial mass migration, taking their families, livestock, and male slaves to the Red River Valley of northern Texas and putting land into production. Some, such as Creek Principal Chief Motey Kennard and Creek Judge George W. Stidham, then returned home to await events. Others, including Sarah Watie, wife of Confederate Cherokee commander Stand Watie, stayed, farming to support their children and slaves. With Opothleyahola in Kansas, early 1862 was relatively quiet for the pro-Confederate Indians, although "bushwhacking," or sporadic partisan attacks, took lives on both sides. The real fighting was generally far away in Missouri and Arkansas.

The calm lasted until the summer of 1862, and then the Indian Expedition moved south from Kansas into the Cherokee Nation and set off a flight of pro-Confederate Cherokees. Some crossed the Arkansas River to settle temporarily in the Creek Nation and escape continuing violence in their own country, even after the invaders withdrew to Kansas. In April 1863 a stronger, more determined Union advance began with the recapture of Fort Gibson. This time the invasion force included former slaves and Union Indians in federal uniforms, which particularly frightened pro-Confederate Cherokees and Creeks. More pro-Confederate Cherokees fled to the Red River Valley as these Union troops burned homes and harassed civilians as far south as Webbers Falls.

The final large-scale movement of refugees occurred in the aftermath of the Battle of Honey Springs on July 18, 1863. Pro-Confederate Cherokee and Creek civilians understood that the Confederate defeat and subsequent withdrawal south to the Canadian River left them exposed and vulnerable. They scrambled out of the way of the Union advance in a flight they later wryly called "the Stampede," taking refuge in the Red River Valley camps in the southern Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. For the last two years of the war the Creek Nation was virtually deserted.

In the Red River Valley Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Bell Maxey, ex-officio superintendent of Indian affairs, knew that the Indian families, many now destitute, must be cared for to ensure that their men would fight on in the Confederate Second Indian Cavalry Brigade. That unit was helping defend the Texas border. At various times Maxey supplied flour, beef, and soap to 4,823 Creeks in the Washita River camps, 2,906 Cherokees at Tishomingo, 574 Seminoles near Fort Washita, 241 Osages near Fort Arbuckle, 4,480 Choctaws, and 785 Chickasaws. However, the refugees helped themselves by growing abundant corn and vegetables. In 1864 they raised fifteen hundred bales of cotton to trade for textiles. Indian women carded cotton, spun yarn, and wove their own fabric to provide clothing for themselves and their men. Even so, there were chronic shortages of clothing and shoes. The capture of the million-dollar wagon train at the Second Battle of Cabin Creek on September 18, 1864, boosted morale by bringing welcome supplies of calico, candles, flour, bacon, coffee, canned goods, and shoes to the refugee camps.

By comparison, the Union refugees fared much worse. Although federal forces held Fort Gibson from April 1863 through 1865, the Confederate First Indian Cavalry Brigade raided the vicinity at will. Union Indian refugees, brought back from Kansas, dared not leave miserable, crowded camps protected by the fort's cannon. Federal troops rounded up slaves in the aftermath of Honey Springs and delivered them to the fort, adding further to the refugee problem. Feeding refugees who could not raise their own food was not a federal priority. Malnutrition then afflicted refugee camps already ravaged by smallpox, dysentery, pneumonia, diarrhea, and gastric disorders.

Refugees who survived four years of displacement, disease, and deprivation trickled home gratefully in late 1865 and 1866, but their number was drastically reduced. The toll of the dead or missing ranged from one of every nine Chickasaws to one of every four Creeks. Once home, they faced the daunting task of rebuilding homes, farms, and public buildings that had been stripped, if not destroyed, in their absence.

Mary Jane Warde


Wiley Britton, The Civil War on the Border, 2 vols. (3d ed., rev.; Ottawa: Kansas Heritage Press, 1994).

Stephen Foreman Collection, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Alice Robertson Collection, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

Ella Coody Robinson interview, Indian-Pioneer History, Vol. 77, microfiche, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Mary Jane Warde, "'Now the Wolf Has Come': The Civilian Civil War in the Indian Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 71 (Spring 1993).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Mary Jane Warde, “Civil War Refugees,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CI013.

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