Oklahoma: Tahlequah

This is the site where the Eastern and Western branches of the Cherokees came together to sign the Cherokee Constitution. Tahlequah functioned as the Cherokee national capital until the Curtis Act of 1898 abolished tribal authority in the Indian Territory. Following Oklahoma’s admission as a state, Tahlequah became the seat of Cherokee County. The town remains the administrative headquarters for the Cherokee tribal government.

Site Office

Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce

123 E. Delaware Street

Tahlequah, OK 74464

ph.: (918) 456-3742

The Cherokees originally lived in the Southeast, on lands that would form parts of the states of North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. After they were forced to embark on the Trail of Tears–the long, hard journey to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma–they made Tahlequah their capital. The Cherokees still influence the town’s culture and economy.

White Settlers Displace the Cherokees

As white settlers began moving into the Southeast in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they displaced increasing numbers of the region’s native inhabitants. Initially, these Indians were simply pushed into neighboring areas farther from the encroaching settlers. Eventually, however, the federal government decided on a more systematic and comprehensive approach: All of southeastern tribes were to be moved to Oklahoma, which in 1825 was officially designated Indian Territory and declared off limits to white settlers.

One Cherokee group, called the Western Cherokees, had moved west of the Mississippi in about 1770. They were initially assigned by the federal government to an Arkansas reservation in 1817, but white settlers soon clamored for these lands as well. In 1828, the Cherokees signed a treaty with the federal government exchanging their Arkansas land for the northern third of Oklahoma Territory.

Conditions of the Cherokees in Georgia

Meanwhile, most of the remaining Cherokees east of the Mississippi had been squeezed into northwestern Georgia. Life was made increasingly difficult for these Cherokees, as it was for the Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles–the other members of the Five Civilized Tribes (so called because they had adopted many European customs). Pioneers were trespassing on their land, and the governments of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi were threatening to confiscate it. In Georgia, the state legislature enacted laws abolishing the Cherokee tribal government. The state even arrested some missionaries working among the tribe when it was suspected that they were encouraging the Cherokees not to move west.

Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, increasing the government’s control over the Indians. The Cherokee leaders now believed that the tribe would suffer further losses unless they agreed to move to Oklahoma. So in 1835 they signed the Treaty of New Echota, which surrendered eight million acres of land in Georgia for a payment of five million dollars. The federal government then began escorting the Cherokees to Indian Territory, where they were to join the Western Cherokees already settled there.

Because the Cherokees and the other southern tribes endured such great suffering on their march to Oklahoma, their journey is called the Trail of Tears. They were stricken by cholera, smallpox, and measles epidemics, and many had to travel in freezing temperatures. They had few wagons, and most of them walked the entire route. About one-fourth of the southern Indians died en route.

The Eastern Cherokees lost most of their livestock and belongings on their journey, but the Western Cherokees gave them food and shared their homes. Soon, aided by their black slaves, they established new farms, plantations, and ranches that produced corn and other grains and supported large herds of cattle and horses, they also worked the local salt springs. The Cherokees sold many of their products to nearby military posts.

The Western Cherokees had established a new government in Oklahoma, and they invited the Eastern Cherokees to join them. The Eastern Cherokees had more members, however, and John Ross, their chief, convinced the Western Indians to join his government.

Reuniting of the Cherokees in Oklahoma

On September 6, 1839, the Eastern and Western Cherokees met at Tahlequah, on land that would become the town’s public square, to sign a new constitution reuniting the two groups. The constitution created a national council to make the laws and also a judicial branch. It contained a bill of rights and gave a vote to every male tribe member over the age of seventeen. The Cherokees made Tahlequah their capital and elected John Ross their first chief under the new constitution. Ross was repeatedly reelected and held the office until his death in 1866.

Initially, the main structure in Tahlequah was a shed, around which were the camping grounds for council delegates. The Cherokee government soon decided to create a more elaborate capital for their nation, however, and on January 8, 1845, the council passed an ordinance calling for the removal of all existing buildings on the public square, the laying out of new streets, and the erection of government buildings. Among the earliest of these structures were the Cherokee Supreme Court Building and the Cherokee National Capitol. The former was home not only to the tribal court, but also to the Cherokee Advocate, the government’s official newspaper, published both in English and in Cherokee. The paper, which began publication in 1844, was edited by William Ross, nephew to Principal Chief John Ross. In 1846, two Cherokee high schools were built near Tahlequah: the Male Seminary just south of town and the Female Seminary in nearby Park Hill.

The Murrell Mansion, one of the finest residences in the area and a center of local social activities, was built around 1843 by George Murrell, a prosperous white merchant who had married a niece of John Ross. Typical of the antebellum style, the mansion was built from local materials, but most of its furnishings came from France and New Orleans.

The Cherokees During the Civil War

With the coming of the Civil War in 1861, the Cherokee authorities in Tahlequah, like the other tribal governments, were forced to choose between retaining their alliance with the Union or throwing their lot with the Confederacy. The Confederacy actively courted the governments of Indian Territory. The Southern states, which grew mostly cotton, tobacco, and rice, saw Indian Territory as a new source of supplies to replace those previously imported from the North. The Confederacy also saw Indian Territory as strategically important: Its acquisition would connect the Confederate States to the territories of the far West, protect Texas against invasion along its northern border, and allow Confederate armies to invade Kansas.

The Union, on the other hand, had all but abandoned Indian Territory. Federal troops were pulled out of forts in the area, and the U.S. government stopped making payments required by the relocation treaties. To make matters worse, many Northern politicians had won office on pledges to open Oklahoma to white settlers.

Despite these disparities between North and South, the debate among the tribal leaders was often fierce, particularly in the Cherokee Nation. Many tribal members favored the Confederacy because they owned slaves; many others wished to remain with the Union. Ultimately, John Ross and the government at Tahlequah sided with the other governments of the Five Civilized Tribes. In 1861, they signed a treaty with the South, making Oklahoma a Confederate territory. Each tribe also agreed to provide troops. Although the Confederacy was supposed to provide guns and supplies for the Indian troops, their own supplies were low and the tribal governments were forced to outfit their own men.

The pro-Union faction among the Cherokees refused to fight for the South, and soon a civil war erupted in Indian Territory itself. With Cherokees fighting on both sides of the conflict, their lands became the site of many battles. In 1862 Union troops entered Tahlequah and captured Chief John Ross. Both sides destroyed Indian homes and tribal buildings and took their crops, livestock, and other belongings. The Cherokee National Capitol was burned to the ground. By the close of the war, the Indian lands were devastated. Many civilians had died in refugee camps and many Indian soldiers, who had served in both the Confederate and Union armies, were killed in battle.

New Treaties with the Federal Government

In 1866 leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes went to Washington to sign treaties with the federal government, which took the western half of Oklahoma from them and settled tribes from other parts of the country on this land. By 1869 the Indians had begun rebuilding their towns, and tribal officials could once again enforce their laws.

One of the first public buildings restored in Tahlequah was the Cherokee National Capitol. The Italianate red-brick structure that replaced the original log capitol was opened in 1870; it housed both the tribal legislature and supreme court. The Cherokee Supreme Court Building had survived the Civil War, but it was gutted by fire in 1874 and needed to be rebuilt. Parts of the original 1845 brick structure are still visible today. While the Supreme Court Building was being renovated, the Cherokee Advocate moved its operations to the Cherokee National Prison, which had just been completed. The prison has since been converted to the Tsa-La-Gai Library, which offers children’s readings in the former jail cells.

In 1886, Ed Hicks, a Cherokee, built Oklahoma’s first commercial telephone line, which ran from Tahlequah to nearby Fort Gibson. The next year the Female Seminary in Park Hill burned to the ground, and it was decided to rebuild the school in the capital. The new building, ornamented with turrets and towers, is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Opening of Indian Territory to White Settlers

As cattle ranching and lead and coal mining brought prosperity to the area, white settlers pressured the U.S. government to open Indian Territory. Officially, only citizens of the Indian tribes were allowed to live free of restrictions in the territory; whites who wished to settle there needed to purchase an annual five-dollar permit from the tribal government. In order to open more land for these settlers, Congress passed the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887. Prior to this point, lands were held communally by each tribe. The Dawes Act ended this traditional system of ownership by parceling out 160-acre allotments to individual Indians. The millions of acres of remaining lands were declared surplus and opened to white settlers. The Five Civilized Tribes managed to exclude themselves from this treaty until 1893, and even then the allotments were divided such that no surplus land was given to settlers.

Such obstacles created by the tribal governments were overcome with the Curtis Act of 1898, which abolished tribal authority, made Indians subject to federal laws, required surveys of towns and the creation of free public schools for white children in the territory, and extended voting rights to the permit holders, who by 1900 outnumbered Indians. The white settlers now lobbied Congress to admit Oklahoma Territory as a state. In response, the Five Civilized Tribes called for a separate Indian state to be carved out of the eastern half of the territory, which they proposed to call Sequoyah (after the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet). Congress refused their plans, however, and on November 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the proclamation making Oklahoma a state.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Tahlequah was named the seat of Cherokee County, and the buildings once used by the tribal government were given over to county functions. The Cherokee National Capitol, for instance, served as the county courthouse from 1907 to 1979; it is now a National Historic Landmark. The Female Seminary was purchased by the state in 1909 and became the main building of Northeastern State College, now the second-largest employer in Tahlequah. The Male Seminary south of town was destroyed by fire in 1910.

Tahlequah continues to be the administrative headquarters for the Cherokee tribal government, which is the town’s largest employer. In 1993 the Cherokee Nation had an annual budget of sixty-eight million dollars and controlled over seven thousand square miles of territory. The tribal government made headlines in 1985 when Wilma P. Mankiller was appointed its first female chief. She was overwhelmingly reelected in 1987 and 1991.

For Further Information

  • Duvall, Deborah L. The Cherokee Nation and Tahlequah. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 1999. A largely pictorial history of Tahlequah in the Images of America series.
  • Gibson, Arrell M. The Oklahoma Story. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978. For young readers, but adults will also be interested in its detailed history, beginning in prehistoric times, and its many maps, drawings, and historical photos.
  • Wallis, Michael. Way down Yonder in the Indian Nation. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. A collection of essays about the people of Oklahoma, including Chief Wilma Mankiller.
  • Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Oklahoma. Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State. 1941. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957. Part of the WPA’s American Guide Series and revised by Kent Ruth and the staff of the University of Oklahoma Press, with special articles contributed by authorities on particular topics.