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Fort Smith Conference (1865)

As a diplomatic assembly of Native American delegates and U.S. government officials, the Fort Smith Conference of 1865 was designed to reestablish relations between the federal government and Native American tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) who had allied themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Talks, which stretched from September 8 to September 23, 1865, informed tribal delegates that all pre-war treaty rights were forfeited upon taking up arms against the Union and that new treaties with the United States had to be negotiated. The Fort Smith Conference ultimately failed to achieve new treaties, as Native American delegates refused to consent to strict treaty stipulations and because factional squabbling between loyalist and secessionist Native Americans hampered negotiations.

At the start of the Civil War, a host of Native American tribes displaced by Indian Removal policies of the 1820s and 1830s occupied Indian Territory. Primary among these were the so-called Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. With the abandonment of nearby Fort Smith (Sebastian County) by Federal troops on April 23, 1861, and the secession of Arkansas on May 6, the tribes in Indian Territory found themselves devoid of Union support and susceptible to diplomatic overtures from the fledgling Confederacy.

Albert Pike, Confederate commissioner to Indian Territory, forged agreements through the summer and fall of 1861 with representatives of the Five Civilized Tribes, as well as the Comanche, Wichita, Osage, Shawnee, Seneca, and Quapaw tribes, effectively abjuring these tribes’ treaties with the federal government. Negotiations proved difficult, however, as many individual Native Americans bucked the authority of tribal leadership, preferring instead to remain neutral or even loyal to the federal government. Indian soldiers of the territory consequently joined with both Union and Confederate forces during the war, with hostilities only ending with the surrender of Stand Watie’s Confederate Indian command on June 23, 1865. With peace in Indian Territory secured, the federal government demanded the negotiation of formal treaties with the wayward Native Americans, with some officials calling for severe punishments and even forced consolidation of the rebellious tribes.

The Fort Smith Conference opened on September 8, 1865, to address these matters. Representing the U.S. government was a five-man delegation headed by Dennis N. Cooley, commissioner of Indian Affairs. Most of the Native American delegates initially at hand were loyal, pro-Union spokesmen. Secessionist Indian delegates were delayed and would not arrive until September 15. When Cooley opened the council, he declared that those tribes who made treaties with the Confederacy had “rightfully forfeited all annuities and interests in the lands in the Indian territory,” a startling declaration for the loyal tribal factions present.

The following day (September 9), Cooley announced that to renew relations with the federal government, the errant tribes would have to comply with seven stipulations. These terms included “permanent peace and amity” within and between the tribes and with the United States; measures to assist the government in keeping the peace among the Plains Indians; the abolition of slavery; the incorporation of the freedmen into the tribes “on an equal footing”; the surrender of portions of tribal lands to be used to resettle tribes from Kansas; the organization of a consolidated government of the tribes in Indian Territory; and the exclusion of whites from living in Indian Territory. Most objectionable to the Native Americans were the incorporation of the freedmen into the tribal nations and the scheme of a consolidated government, which was deemed a diminishment of the individual tribes’ identities.

Overall, the Fort Smith Conference achieved few of its intended aims. The protests of the Indian delegates to the freedmen incorporation and consolidated government stipulations prohibited the creation of comprehensive treaties. Additionally, continued divisions between loyalist and secessionist factions of the tribes complicated matters further. For example, Northern Cherokee led by John Ross and Southern Cherokee under Watie and Elias C. Boudinot vied to advance their respective interests during the conference proceedings, offering additional frustrations for the federal delegation.

By the time the conference adjourned on September 23, 1865, all that Cooley and the U.S. commissioners had done was to extract a Treaty of Peace and Amity acknowledging that the tribes were again under the jurisdiction of the federal government and that they had repudiated their treaties with the Confederacy. The Fort Smith Conference did, however, open the door for negotiations held in Washington DC the following spring and summer. These treaties accomplished many of the federal government’s objectives, as tribes were now compelled to formally emancipate their slaves, provide for the freedmen, and give up portions of their land (some of which was given over for railroad rights-of-way). Although the treaties did not force the consolidated government scheme, they did stipulate a general council of all tribes in Indian Territory, which diminished tribal identities.

For additional information:
Baird, W. David. “Fort Smith and the Red Man.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 30 (Winter 1971): 337–348.

Bearss, Edwin C., and Arrell M. Gibson. Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

Lause, Mark A. Race and Radicalism in the Union Army. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Parins, James W. Elias Cornelius Boudinot: A Life on the Cherokee Border. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Jonathan D. Neu
Bethel Park, Pennsylvania

Last Updated 12/30/2011

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