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The Indian Refugees in Southern Kansas

 Native American Nations | Participant in the Civil War                    


The thing that would most have justified the military employment of Indians by the United States government, in the winter of 1862, was the fact that hundreds and thousands of their southern brethren were then refugees because of their courageous and unswerving devotion to the American Union. The tale of those refugees, of their wanderings, their deprivations, their sufferings, and their wrongs, comparable only to that of the Belgians in the Great European War of 1914, is one of the saddest to relate, and one of the most disgraceful, in the history of the War of Secession, in its border phase.

The first in the long procession of refugees were those of the army of Opoeth-le-yo-ho-la who, after their final defeat by Colonel James McIntosh in the Battle of Chustenahlah, December 26, 1861, had fled up the valley of the Verdigris River and had entered Kansas near Walnut Creek. In scattered lines, with hosts of stragglers, the enfeebled, the aged, the weary, and the sick, they had crossed the Cherokee Strip and the Osage Reservation and, heading steadily towards the northeast, had finally encamped on the outermost edge of the New York Indian Lands, on Fall River, some sixty odd miles west of Humboldt. Those lands, never having been accepted as an equivalent for their Wisconsin holdings by the Iroquois, were not occupied throughout their entire extent by Indians and only here and there encroached upon by white intruders, consequently the impoverished and greatly fatigued travelers encountered no obstacles in settling themselves down to rest and to wait for a much needed replenishment of their resources.

Their coming was expected. On their way northward, they had fallen in, at some stage of the journey, with some buffalo hunters, Sacs and Foxes of the Mississippi, returning to their reservation, which lay some distance north of Burlington and chiefly in present Osage County, Kansas. To them the refugees reported their recent tragic experience. The Sacs and Foxes were most sympathetic and, after relieving the necessities of the refugees as best they could, hurried on ahead, imparting the news, in their turn, to various white people whom they met. In due course it reached General Denver, still supervising affairs in Kansas, and William G. Coffin, the southern superintendent.165 It was the first time, since his appointment the spring before, that Coffin had had any prospect of getting in touch with any considerable number of his charges and he must have welcomed the chance of now really earning his salary. He ordered all of the agents under him—and some166 of them had not previously entered officially upon their duties—to assemble at Fort Roe, on the Verdigris, and be prepared to take charge of their several contingents; for the refugees, although chiefly Creeks, were representative of nearly every one of the non-indigenous tribes of Indian Territory.

It is not an easy matter to say, with any show of approach to exact figures, how many the refugees numbered.167 For weeks and weeks, they were almost continually coming in and even the very first reports bear suspicious signs of the exaggeration that became really notorious as graft and peculation entered more and more into the reckoning. Apparently, all those who, in ever so slight a degree, handled the relief funds, except, perhaps, the army men, were interested in making the numbers appear as large as possible. The larger the need represented, the larger the sum that might, with propriety, be demanded and the larger the opportunity for graft. Settlers, traders, and some government agents were, in this respect, all culpable together.

There was no possibility of mistake, however, intentional or otherwise, about the destitution of the refugees. It was inconceivably horrible. The winter weather of late December and early January had been most inclement and the Indians had trudged through it, over snow-covered, rocky, trailless places and desolate prairie, nigh three hundred miles. When they started out, they were not any too well provided with clothing; for they had departed in a hurry, and, before they got to Fall River, not a few of them were absolutely naked. They had practically no tents, no bed-coverings, and no provisions. Dr. A.B. Campbell, a surgeon sent out by General Hunter,168 had reached them towards the end of January and their condition was then so bad, so wretched that it was impossible for him to depict it. Prairie grasses were "their only protection from the snow" upon which they were lying "and from the wind and weather scraps and rags stretched upon switches." Ho-go-bo-foh-yah, the second Creek chief, was ill with a fever and "his tent (to give it that name) was no larger than a small blanket stretched over a switch ridge pole, two feet from the ground, and did not reach it by a foot from the ground on either side of him." Campbell further said that the refugees were greatly in need of medical assistance. They were suffering "with inflammatory diseases of the chest, throat, and eyes." Many had "their toes frozen off," others, "their feet wounded." But few had "either shoes or moccasins." Dead horses were lying around in every direction and the sanitary conditions were so bad that the food was contaminated and the newly-arriving refugees became sick as soon as they ate.169

Other details of their destitution were furnished by Coffin's son who was acting as his clerk and who was among the first to attempt alleviation of their misery.170 As far as relief went, however, the supply was so out of proportion to the demand that there was never any time that spring when it could be said that they were fairly comfortable and their ordinary wants satisfied. Campbell frankly admitted that he "selected the nakedest of the naked" and doled out to them the few articles he had. When all was gone, how pitiful it must have been for him to see the "hundreds of anxious faces" for whom there was nothing! Captain Turner, from Hunter's commissary department, had similar experiences. According to him, the refugees were "in want of every necessary of life." That was his report the eleventh of February.171 On the fifteenth of February, the army stopped giving supplies altogether and the refugees were thrown back entirely upon the extremely limited resources of the southern superintendency.

Dole172 had had warning from Hunter173 that such would have to be the case and had done his best to be prepared for the emergency. Secretary Smith authorized expenditure for relief in advance of congressional appropriation, but that simply increased the moral obligation to practice economy and, with hundreds of loyal Indians on the brink of starvation,174 it was no time for economy. The inadequacy of the Indian service and the inefficiency of the Federal never showed up more plainly, to the utter discredit of the nation, than at this period and in this connection.

Besides getting permission from Secretary Smith to go ahead and supply the more pressing needs of the refugees, Dole accomplished another thing greatly to their interest. He secured from the staff of General Lane a special agent, Dr. William Kile of Illinois,175 who had formerly been a business partner of his own176 and, like Superintendent Coffin, his more or less intimate friend. Kile's particular duty as special agent was to be the purchasing of supplies for the refugees177 and he at once visited their encampment in order the better to determine their requirements. His investigations more than corroborated the earlier accounts of their sufferings and privations and his appointment under the circumstances seemed fully justified, notwithstanding that on the surface of things it appeared very suggestive of a near approach to nepotism, and of nepotism Dole, Coffin, and many others were unquestionably guilty. They worked into the service just as many of their own relatives and friends as they conveniently and safely could. The official pickings were considered by them as their proper perquisites. "'Twas ever thus" in American politics, city, county, state, and national.

The Indian encampment upon the occasion of Kile's178 visit was no longer on Fall River. Gradually, since first discovered, the main body of the refugees had moved forward within the New York Indian Lands to the Verdigris River and had halted in the neighborhood of Fort Roe, where the government agents had received them; but smaller or larger groups, chiefly of the sick and their friends, were scattered all along the way from Walnut Creek.179 Some of the very belated exiles were as far westward as the Arkansas, over a hundred miles distant. Obviously, the thing to do first was to get them all together in one place. There were reasons why the Verdigris Valley was a most desirable location for the refugees. Only a very few white people were settled there and, as they were intruders and had not a shadow of legal claim to the land upon which they had squatted, any objections that they might make to the presence of the Indians could be ignored.180

For a few days, therefore, all efforts were directed, at large expense, towards converting the Verdigris Valley, in the vicinity of Fort Roe, into a concentration camp; but no precautions were taken against allowing unhygienic conditions to arise. The Indians themselves were much diseased. They had few opportunities for personal cleanliness and less ambition. Some of the food doled out to them was stuff that the army had condemned and rejected as unfit for use. They were emaciated, sick, discouraged. Finally, with the February thaw, came a situation that soon proved intolerable. The "stench arising from dead ponies, about two hundred of which were in the stream and throughout the camp,"181 unburied, made removal imperatively necessary.

The Neosho Valley around about Leroy presented itself as a likely place, very convenient for the distributing agents, and was next selected. Its advantages and disadvantages seemed about equal and had all been anticipated and commented upon by Captain Turner.182 It was near the source of supplies—and that was an item very much to be considered, since transportation charges, extraordinarily high in normal times were just now exorbitant, and the relief funds very, very limited. No appropriation by Congress had yet been made although one had been applied for.183 The great disadvantage of the location was the presence of white settlers and they objected, as well they might, to the near proximity of the inevitable disease and filth and, strangely enough, more than anything else, to the destruction of the timber, which they had so carefully husbanded. The concentration on the Neosho had not been fully accomplished when the pressure from the citizens became so great that Superintendent Coffin felt obliged to plan for yet another removal. Again the sympathy of the Sacs and Foxes of Mississippi manifested itself and most opportunely. Their reservation lay about twenty-five miles to the northward and they generously offered it as an asylum.184 But the Indians balked. They were homesick, disgusted with official mismanagement185 and indecision, and determined to go no farther. They complained bitterly of the treatment that they had received at the hands of Superintendent Coffin and of Agent Cutler and, in a stirring appeal186 to President Lincoln, set forth their injuries, their grievances, and their incontestable claim upon a presumably just and merciful government.187

The Indians were not alone in their rebellious attitude. There was mutiny seething, or something very like it, within the ranks of the agents.188 E.H. Carruth who had been so closely associated with Lane in the concoction of the first plan for the recovery of Indian Territory, was now figuring as the promoter of a rising sentiment against Coffin and his minions, who were getting to be pretty numerous. The removal to the Sac and Fox reservation would mean the getting into closer and closer touch with Perry Fuller,189 the contractor, whose dealings in connection with the Indian refugees were to become matter, later on, of a notoriety truly disgraceful. Mistrust of Coffin was yet, however, very vague in expression and the chief difficulty in effecting the removal from the Neosho lay, therefore, in the disgruntled state of the refugees, which was due, in part, to their unalleviated misery and, in part, to domestic tribal discord. There was a quarrel among them over leadership, the election of Ock-tah-har-sas Harjo as principal chief having aroused strong antagonistic feeling among the friends of Opoeth-le-yo-ho-la.190 Moreover, dissatisfaction against their agent steadily increased and they asked for the substitution of Carruth; but he, being satisfied with his assignment to the Wichitas,191 had no wish to change.192

165: These facts were obtained chiefly from a letter, not strictly accurate as to some of its details, written by Superintendent Coffin to Dole, January 15, 1862 [Indian Office Special Files, no. 201, Southern Superintendency, C 1474 of 1862].
166: For instance, William P. Davis, who had been appointed Seminole Agent, despairing of ever reaching his post, had gone into the army [Dole to John S. Davis of New Albany, Indiana, April 5, 1862, Indian Office Letter Book, no. 68, p. 39]. George C. Snow of Parke County, Indiana, was appointed in his stead [Dole to Snow, January 13, 1862, ibid., no. 67, p. 243].
167: Compare the statistics given in the following: Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1861, p. 151; 1862, pp. 137, 157; Indian Office Special Files, no. 201, Southern Superintendency, C 1525 of 1862; General Files, Southern Superintendency, C 1602 of 1862.
168: The army furnished the first relief that reached them. In its issue of January 18, 1862, the Daily Conservative has this to say: "The Kansas Seventh has been ordered to move to Humboldt, Allen Co. to give relief to Refugees encamped on Fall River. Lt. Col. Chas. T. Clark, 1st Battalion, Kansas Tenth, is now at Humboldt and well acquainted with the conditions."
169: Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1862, pp. 151-152.
170: O.S. Coffin to William G. Coffin, January 26, 1862, Indian Office Special Files, no. 201, Southern Superintendency, C 1506 of 1862.
171: Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1862, pp. 152-154.
172: Dole had an interview with the Indians immediately upon his arrival in Kansas [Moore, Rebellion Record, vol. iv, 59-60, Doc. 21].
173: Hunter to Dole, February 6, 1862, forwarded by Edward Wolcott to Mix, February 10, 1862 [Indian Office General Files, Southern Superintendency, 1859-1862, W 513 and D 576 of 1862; Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1862, p. 150].
174: Agent G.C. Snow reported, February 13, 1862, on the utter destitution of the Seminoles [Indian Office General Files, Seminole, 1858-1869] and, on the same day, Coffin [ibid., Southern Superintendency, 1859-1862, C 1526] to the same effect about the refugees as a whole. They were coming in, he said, about twenty to sixty a day. The "destitution, misery and suffering amongst them is beyond the power of any pen to portray, it must be seen to be realised—there are now here over two thousand men, women, and children entirely barefooted and more than that number that have not rags enough to hide their nakedness, many have died and they are constantly dying. I should think at a rough guess that from 12 to 15 hundred dead Ponies are laying around in the camp and in the river. On this account so soon as the weather gets a little warm, a removal of this camp will be indespensable, there are perhaps now two thousand Ponies living, they are very poor and many of them must die before grass comes which we expect here from the first to the 10th of March. We are issuing a little corn to the Indians and they are feeding them a little...." See also Moore, Rebellion Record, vol. iv, 30.
175: Dole was from Illinois also, from Edgar County; Coffin was from Indiana [Indian Office Miscellaneous Records, no. 8, p. 432].
176: Daily Conservative, February 8, 1862.
177: Indian Office Consolidated Files, Southern Superintendency, D 576 of 1862; Letter Book, no. 67, pp. 450-452.
178: Indian Office Land Files, 1855-1870, Southern Superintendency, K 107 of 1862.
179: Some had wandered to the Cottonwood and were camped there in great destitution. Their chief food was hominy [Daily Conservative, February 14, 1862].
180: For an account of the controversy over the settlement of the New York Indian Lands, see Abel, Indian Reservations in Kansas and the Extinguishment of their Title, 13-14.
181: Annual Report of Superintendent Coffin, October 15, 1862, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1862, p. 136. Compare with Coffin's account given in a letter to Dole, February 13, 1862.
182: February 11, 1862, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1862, p. 153; Indian Office Special Files, no. 201, Southern Superintendency, D 576 of 1862.
183: Congressional Globe, 37th congress, second session, part I, pp. 815, 849. Dole's letter to Smith, January 31, 1862, describing the destitution of the refugees, was read in the Senate, February 14, 1862, in support of joint resolution S. no. 49, for their relief.
184: Coffin to Dole, March 28, 1862 [Indian Office Special Files, no. 201, Southern Superintendency, C 1565 of 1862].
185: Mismanagement there most certainly had been. In no other way can the fact that there was absolutely no amelioration in their condition be accounted for. Many documents that will be cited in other connections prove this point and Collamore's letter is of itself conclusive. George W. Collamore, known best by his courtesy title of "General," went to Kansas in the critical years before the war under circumstances, well and interestingly narrated in Stearns' Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns, 106-108. He had been agent for the New England Relief Society in the year of the great drouth, 1860-1861 [Daily Conservative, October 26, 1861] and had had much to do with Lane, in whose interests he labored, and who had planned to make him a brigadier under himself as major-general [Stearns, 246, 251]. He became quartermaster-general of Kansas [Daily Conservative, March 27, 1862] and in that capacity made, in the company of the Reverend Evan Jones, a visit of inspection to the refugee encampment. His discoveries were depressing [ibid., April 10, 1862]. His report to the government [Indian Office General Files, Southern Superintendency, C 1602 of 1862] is printed almost verbatim in Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Report, 1862, 155-158.
186: Coffin's letter to Dole of April 21, 1862 [Indian Office General Files, Wichita, 1862-1871, C 1601 of 1862] seems to cast doubt upon the genuineness of some of the signatures attached to this appeal and charges Agent Carruth with having been concerned in making the Indians discontented.
187: Opoeth-le-yo-ho-la and other prominent refugees addressed their complaints to Dole, March 29, 1862 [Indian Office Land Files, Southern Superintendency, 1855-1870, O 43 of 1862] and two days later to President Lincoln, some strong partisan, supposed by Coffin to be Carruth, acting as scribe.
188: On the way to the Catholic Mission, whither he was going in order to cooperate with Agent Elder in negotiating with the Osages, Coffin heard of "a sneaking conspiracy" that was "on foot at Iola for the purpose of prejudicing the Indians against us [himself and Dole, perhaps, or possibly himself and the agents]." The plotters, so Coffin reported, "sent over the Verdigris for E.H. Carruth who" was "deep in the plot," which was a scheme to induce the Indians to lodge complaint against the distributors of relief. One of the conspirators was a man who had studied law under Lane and who had wanted a position under Kile. Lane had used his influence in the man's behalf and the refusal of Coffin to assign him to a position was supposed to be the cause of all the trouble. Coffin learned that his enemies had even gone so far as to plan vacancies in the Indian service and to fill them. They had "instructed Lane, Pomeroy, and Conway accordingly," leaving graciously to Lane the choice of superintendent. A Mr. Smith, correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette was their accredited secretary [Coffin to Dole, April 2, 1862, Indian Office Consolidated Files, Southern Superintendency, C 1571 of 1862].
Further particulars of the disaffection came to Coffin's ears before long and he recounted them to Dole in a letter of April 9, 1862 [ibid., General Files, Southern Superintendency, 1859-1862].
189: Perry Fuller had been in Kansas since 1854 [U.S. House Reports, 34th congress, first session, no. 200, p. 8 of "Testimony"]. The first time that his name is intimately used in the correspondence, relative to the affairs of the refugees, is in a letter from Kile to Dole, March 29, 1862 [Indian Office Consolidated Files, Southern Superintendency, K 113 of 1862, which also makes mention of the great unwillingness of the Indians to move to the Sac and Fox reservation.]
190: Carruth gave particulars of this matter to Dole, April 20, 1862 [Indian Office General Files, Wichita, 1862-1871, C 1601 of 1862].
191: Dole to Carruth, March 18, 1862 [Indian Office Letter Book, no. 67, pp. 493-494].
192: Carruth to Dole, April 10, 1862 [ibid., General Files, Wichita, 1862-1871, C 1588 of 1862; Letters Registered, vol. 58].

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The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War, 1919

Participant in the Civil War


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