In the late eighteenth century white settlers began migrating from the original thirteen colonies over the Appalachian Mountains and into the "West." Around the turn of the nineteenth century they slowly began to move into the eastern parts of the Northwest Territory, which had been established in 1787, and into parts of the Old Southwest, or Alabama, Mississippi, and western Kentucky and Tennessee. They viewed the Native peoples who resided there as an obstacle to be conquered or pushed further westward.
The United States negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Although the boundaries remained undefined until the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, after 1803 the Mississippi River no longer served as nation's western boundary. Explorers of this enormous American portion of the trans-Mississippi West revealed the eastern part to be fertile and habitable. The middle-western part, viewed by some as the "Great American Desert," was thought uninhabitable.
Pres. Thomas Jefferson and those who followed him envisioned an "Indian colonization zone" or permanent Indian frontier, in a north-south tier on the west bank of the Mississippi. Many people advocated this approach to "the Indian problem." They believed that removal of Indians to that area would permanently resolve the conflict between the original Native inhabitants and the Euroamericans who were clamoring to "civilize" the continent. Whites would live east of the river, Indians west of it. One vocal advocate of a trans-Mississippi Indian zone was Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy, who believed that eventually the region should become a formal territory, with government and laws, for all Indians. The concept of an Indian zone solidified during the administration of Pres. John Quincy Adams and later developed fully under the direction of Pres. Andrew Jackson. A region conceived as "the Indian country" was specified in 1825 as all the land lying west of the Mississippi. Eventually, the Indian country or the Indian Territory would encompass the present states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and part of Iowa.
In actuality, the Indian Removal process had begun by treaties soon after 1800. In addition, many tribes simply fled westward as the line of white settlement advanced toward and then across the Mississippi River. Some of the Cherokee, for example, had begun moving west in the 1810s, with large migrations into west-central Arkansas in 1817 into a region they had exchanged for land in the Southeast. Shortly before the 1817 Cherokee treaty came "Lovely's Purchase" in 1816, and an 1818 Osage treaty theoretically cleared northeastern Oklahoma and added the land to the public domain. In 1820 the Choctaw agreed to accept land between the Arkansas and Canadian rivers and the Red River, in present Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, whites also crossed the Mississippi and began to occupy a wide strip running north-south along its west side. Soon thickly populated, Missouri became a state in 1821 and Arkansas a territory in 1819. In 1824 a western boundary was surveyed for Arkansas, and it included all or part of Craig, Mayes, Delaware, Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah, Muskogee, Wagoner, Haskell, Le Flore, Latimer, Choctaw, Pushmataha, and McCurtain counties of present Oklahoma. It also incorporated the 1816 Osage cession of Lovely's Purchase as well as a huge chunk of land promised to the Choctaw in the 1820 treaty. As early as 1816 whites had begun to settle in this strip of land, which in 1820 was incorporated by Arkansas Territory into Crawford County, on the north, and Miller County, on the south, even extending down into present northeastern Texas. In 1827 Lovely County was created from Crawford County, taking in nearly all of present northeastern Oklahoma, and its seat established at Lovely Courthouse (Nicksville), later the location of Dwight Mission in Sequoyah County.
The Western Cherokee objected to being surrounded by whites and by organized Arkansas counties. The Choctaw objected to Miller County and its white residents, as well. In 1825 a new treaty adjusted the Choctaw eastern boundary, and Miller County was reduced. Many whites who had settled in that region now moved east of the new line. In 1828 the federal government used the situation to engineer another treaty with the Western Cherokees in which they agreed to move west of the new line. Lovely County was abolished, and the border between Arkansas and the Indian Territory, actually the Choctaw and Cherokee nations, was resurveyed in 1828 generally along the present Oklahoma-Arkansas boundary.
During the 1820s and 1830s dozens of northeastern, midwestern, and southeastern tribes were removed by treaty and under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to force tribes to cede their lands east of the Mississippi. Those who did were to be placed west of the new white settlements, that is, west of the 95th Meridian. An 1834 Trade Act further defined "the Indian country" as all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi and not within the states of Missouri, Louisiana, or Arkansas Territory, or any other organized territory. Whites were carefully excluded from the region, for most purposes, and trade by them with Indians was regulated. For judicial purposes, the northern region (mostly present Kansas) was attached to Missouri and the southern part (mostly present Oklahoma) to Arkansas Territory (after 1836, Arkansas state). In 1835 Isaac McCoy apparently used the words "the Indian Territory" for the first time in print.
The Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw also succumbed to forced migration. All of these southeastern tribes thereafter inhabited the southern part of "the Indian Territory." Similarly, numerous tribes of the Northeast and the Northwest Territory, including the Kickapoo, Miami, Delaware, and Shawnee, were removed into the northern part, present Kansas. Thus by 1840 the Indian Territory had been populated, sparsely, by Native groups but was not a formal or organized territory.
However, because its fertile land proved desirable to whites, with the 1854 Kansas and Nebraska Act Congress formally organized those parts of northern Indian Territory into official territories that afterward became states. (Kansas entered the Union in 1861 and Nebraska in 1867.) After the Civil War ended, Indians were moved further south into the part of the Indian Territory that is present Oklahoma. Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache, were concentrated on reservations in the western half of the territory. By 1889 more than three dozen tribes resided here.
In order to understand the full meaning of the term "the Indian Territory," one must also understand the process by which a region became a territory. As established by United States law, beginning with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, when a specifically defined part of the unorganized federal domain was sufficiently populated, its residents (United States citizens) could petition Congress for territorial status. Congress would subsequently pass an organic act, with a bill of rights for territory residents, and set up a three-part government with appointed executive and judicial branches. Residents elected a legislative branch. The federal government had ultimate authority over territorial affairs, and an elected territorial representative was seated in Congress. Congress never passed an organic act for the Indian Territory, although a few measures were proposed, and one bill was written, for that purpose. The region never had a formal government, and it remained unorganized. Therefore, the geographical location commonly called "Indian Territory" was not a territory.
In the late nineteenth century the federal government began to assume more control over events transpiring in Indian country. In March 1889 a law established a federal court system based at Muskogee, assuming judicial authority and jurisdiction that had been exercised since the 1834 Trade Act by the Western District of Arkansas. The 1889 measure for the first time specified enclosed boundaries for the Indian Territory, now officially reduced to an area bounded by Texas on the south, Arkansas and Missouri on the east, Kansas on the north, and New Mexico Territory on the west.
Soon this area was reduced again when Oklahoma Territory was created from part of it by the Organic Act in May 1890. A governor was appointed, and a two-house territorial assembly and a judicial system were set up. A bona fide territory of the United States, Oklahoma Territory would be eligible for statehood if its population grew large enough and if its leaders followed the process prescribed by federal law. The Oklahoma Territory Organic Act even more closely defined Indian Territory, reducing it to slightly more than the eastern half of the present state. In the 1905 Sequoyah Convention, Indian leaders sought to bypass the territorial process and bring about separate statehood for Indian Territory. However, with the 1907 union of the Indian nations and Oklahoma Territory as the State of Oklahoma, a separate, Indian-dominated territory or state was no longer viable. During the twentieth century the generic term "Indian Territory" came to be used by historians, genealogists, and the public to represent the entire Oklahoma region during the prestatehood period.
Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949; rev. ed., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001).
Brian C. Hosmer, "Rescued from Extinction? The Civilizing Program in Indian Territory," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 48 (Summer 1990).
William Miles, "'Enamoured With Colonization': Isaac McCoy's Plan of Indian Reform," Kansas Historical Quarterly 38 (Autumn 1972).
George A. Schultz, An Indian Canaan: Isaac McCoy and the Vision of an Indian State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, “Indian Territory,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=IN018.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.