What was Indian Territory?

Hope you are making plans to attend the ALHFAM 2018 conference in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, June 1-5. Tahlequah was established in Indian Territory as the Cherokee capital by the Cherokee people in 1839. So what was Indian Territory and where was it?

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 (the land owned by the United States west of Pennsylvania, east of the Mississippi and northwest of the Ohio River), 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.

In 1803 the United States negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which included all of the future state of Oklahoma except the panhandle. Although the boundaries remained undefined until the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, the Mississippi River no longer served as the United States’ western boundary. President Thomas Jefferson envisioned an “Indian colonization zone,” in a north-south tier on the west bank of the Mississippi. Many people believed that removal of Indians to that area would permanently resolve the conflict between the original Native inhabitants and the Euro-Americans who were clamoring to “civilize” the continent. Whites would live east of the river, Indians west of it. The concept of an Indian zone solidified during the administration of President John Quincy Adams and later developed fully under the direction of President 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.

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. Some of the Cherokee moved west in the 1810s, with large migrations into west-central Arkansas in 1817. In 1820 the Choctaw agreed to accept land between the Arkansas and Canadian rivers and the Red River, in present-day Oklahoma. In 1828 the federal government engineered another treaty with the Western Cherokees in which they agreed to move further west

During the 1820s and 1830s dozens of tribes in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast 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 for land 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 excluded from the region, for most purposes, and trade 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 of present-day Kansas. Thus by 1840, Indian Territory had been populated by Native groups but was not a formal or organized territory. This land once again proved desirable to whites and 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, more Indian Nations were moved further south into the part of the Indian Territory that is present-day 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 in “Indian Territory.”

The geographical area commonly called “Indian Territory” was never actually a territory. Congress never passed an organic act establishing Indian Territory. A few measures were proposed, and one bill was written for that purpose, but no action was taken so it remained unorganized. 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 by the Western District of Arkansas since the 1834 Trade Act. 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.

Removal map 72 no bgrnd (2)

Soon this area was reduced again. In May 1890, the Oklahoma Territory Organic Act reduced Indian Territory to slightly more than the eastern half of the present state of Oklahoma. Now 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. 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 pre-statehood period.


1 thought on “What was Indian Territory?”

  1. Thanks for the background. I wonder why Jefferson thought a white/Indian boundary would work at the Mississippi, when it hadn’t worked at the Appalachians? The British government had tried to put a western limit to white settlement in 1764 with the Royal Proclamation, but this just made London deeply unpopular with the colonists. Conflict resumed anyway. And as soon as the technology for western settlement appeared (trains, Gatling guns, steel ploughs) the great plains were next. But at least he still thought there was a place for indigenous nations on the continent, unlike many “statesmen” of the period.

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