This Date in Native History: Stand Watie was born Degadoga Watie on December 12, 1806 in New Echota, near present day Rome, Georgia. By the time Watie was born, the Cherokees had already been defending and ceding their land to the federal government for 50 years.
The diminishing Cherokee lands and lack of respect for Cherokee sovereignty by President Andrew Jackson led Watie to negotiate the Treaty of New Echota, which required all Cherokee to relocate to Oklahoma.
Breaking Cherokee law and tradition, Watie and close to 20 others—who became known as the Treaty Party—signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. The faction included John Ridge, Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot, all of whom were relatives of Watie.
“When it came to signing the Treaty of New Echota, the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction saw it as frivolous to hold onto the land when they were being overrun by the federal forces,” said Bill Welge, of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The Treaty of New Echota was signed on December 29, 1835. It allowed the Cherokee to retain sovereignty and maintain peace, yet required they release their ancestral lands and relocate to Oklahoma. Cherokee law required that anyone giving away ancestral lands without approval of the tribal government was to be put to death. “By signing that treaty, they signed their own death warrants,” Welge said.
By 1838, Watie and only a few thousand Cherokees had relocated. They developed property, businesses, and a tribal school system that rivaled the best education in the country. Several other tribes had already been relocated. The federal government was anxious to move the remaining Cherokees out, and in 1838 the famous forced relocation of more 16,000 Cherokee—the Trail of Tears—began. Between 2,000 and 5,000 perished on the tragic walk amidst exposure to extreme weather, starvation and overall harsh conditions. Of those who died, many were women, children and the elderly.
In the early 1830s, 125,000 Indigenous Peoples had lived in the southeastern part of the country. By the end of that decade, virtually all of them had been relocated across the Mississippi River.
Principal Chief of the Cherokee John Ross, who had not signed the treaty, sought to enforce the Cherokee rule of death for the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction. “Once they were out into the Oklahoma territory, it was then that retribution took place,” Welge said. “Had Watie not been away he would have been killed.”
The tales of Watie’s escape are the stuff of legend. Some believe he was hiding in a well, others believe he learned of Ross’s plans and escaped on a white horse. Others say he was simply not there at the time.
However, John Ridge, Major Ridge, and Elias Boudinot—Watie’s brother—did not escape and they were brutally murdered to avenge the signing of the treaty. With the murder of Boudinot, the bitter relationship between Ross and Watie increased. Welge said that after the removal, there was tremendous pressure on Watie’s shoulders to defend his family as well as “why they moved in the first place.”
Tensions did finally ease between the Ross and Watie factions and the 15 years following removal were the most progressive and peaceful of Watie’s personal life. Known to be passionate about his beliefs, Watie was also dedicated to his wife and children, the majority of whom died young.
Watie’s peace was not long-lived though. With the commencement of the Civil War, the polarized relationship between Ross and Watie once again sparked, causing a great division between the Cherokee people.
“During the American Civil War, the Treaty Party became the Southern Party and the National Party became the Union Party,” Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah National Center at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, explained. “The Cherokee Nation was split over the Civil War, which had to do with political intrigues and missionaries involved in the abolition movement. Some were slave-holding tribes, but tribal people came down on both sides of that issue.”
Watie’s reputation for heroism increased after he participated in battles at Wilson Creek, Bird Creek, and Pea Ridge. At a time when soldiers’ resources were running low, Watie captured a Union Steamboat and 300 wagons loaded with supplies at Cabin Creek. Afterwards, Watie was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. At the end of the war, on June 23, 1865, Watie was the last Confederate General to surrender.
“Most people recognized what he did,” Littlefield said. “His escape from assassination; he was kind of heroic. He rode into the Cherokee capital and burned Tahlequah. He was striking out at his enemies—he burnt Ross’s home. It was a factional war,” Littlefield said. “The Civil War was an excuse for tribal in-fighting to come to a head.”
Watie lived out his life in the new Oklahoma territory, and though he maintained his businesses, he was not active in Cherokee politics. Watie died September 9, 1871.