Born in Georgia, Stand Watie left his native Cherokee lands behind in the 1830s, after signing a controversial treaty accepting removal to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. Watie’s loyalty to the South led him to join the Confederate Army as leader of the first Cherokee volunteer regiment soon after the Civil War broke out. Unlike most of his fellow Cherokees, who switched their support to the Union over the course of the war, Watie remained a loyal Confederate, rising to the rank of brigadier general. Unwilling to accept defeat at war’s end, he held out longer than any other rebel general before finally surrendering on June 23, 1865.
Stand Watie was born in Oothcaloga, Cherokee Nation (near present-day Rome, Georgia) in 1806. The son of Oo-wa-tie, a full-blooded Cherokee, and Susanna Reese, who was of half-Cherokee, half-European heritage, he was given the Cherokee name Degataga, meaning “stand firm.” After Oo-wa-tie was baptized into the Moravian Church as David Uwatie, he changed his son’s name to Isaac S. Uwatie, but as an adult the younger Uwatie combined his Cherokee and Christian names (and dropped the “U”) to get Stand Watie.
As a student at the Moravian Mission School, Watie learned to speak English, and he later helped his brother Buck (who would change his name to Elias Boudinot) publish the Cherokee Phoenix, a tribal newspaper. By the time his son reached young adulthood, David Uwatie had become a wealthy planter who owned African-American slaves.
Beginning in 1829, thousands of prospectors poured into Georgia after gold was discovered in Cherokee territory. The gold rush led Anglo settlers to put increasing pressure on the Cherokees to relocate to reservations further west, aided by Congress’ passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Watie, who served as a clerk for the Cherokee Supreme Court, was among the minority of tribe members who supported removal to the western Cherokee Nation, believing it was the only way to preserve the tribe’s autonomy. In 1835, the group signed the Treaty of New Echota, ceding their ancient homelands in Georgia in exchange for land on Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.
Watie made the move west in 1837, settling in the northeastern corner of the western Cherokee Nation, near Honey Creek. Thousands of other Native Americans evicted from their homes in the 1830s and forced to migrate west along the Trail of Tears were not so lucky. In 1838, the U.S. military began forcing other Cherokees from Georgia; out of an estimated 15,000 Cherokee who made the arduous journey, as many as 4,000 died.
Under Cherokee law, anyone who alienated tribal lands was subject to the death penalty, and in 1839, Watie’s co-signers of the New Echota treaty—his brother, Boudinot; his uncle, Major Ridge, and his cousin, John Ridge—were executed. Watie, who barely managed to escape the same fate, would become a prominent figure in Cherokee politics as the surviving member of the Ridge-Watie-Boudinot faction, and a lifelong enemy of principal Cherokee Chief John Ross. He was also a slaveholder, and established a successful plantation in Indian Territory. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Watie wasted no time in joining the Confederacy, viewing the federal government, not the South, as the Cherokees’ principal enemy. He raised the first Cherokee regiment of the Confederate Army, the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, and helped secure control of Indian Territory for the rebels early in the conflict.
At the Battle of Pea Ridge (or Elkhorn Tavern) in Arkansas in March 1862, Watie’s troops earned acclaim for capturing a Union battery in the middle of what turned out to be a Confederate defeat. By early 1863, the Confederate hold on Indian Territory was loosening, but Watie continued to torment Union troops there for the remainder of the war. On June 15, 1864, his men scored a major victory by capturing the Union steam boat J.R. Williams; the following September, they seized some $1.5 million worth of supplies on a Federal wagon supply train at Cabin Creek.
Ross, who had reluctantly agreed to the Cherokee-Confederate alliance in 1861, ended up fleeing to Federal territory, and Watie had become the principal Cherokee chief in August 1862. Much of his activity during the latter half of the war consisted of attacks against the land and property of those in Indian Territory who stayed loyal to the Union. Even after a majority of the Cherokee repudiated the alliance with the Confederacy in 1863, Watie stayed loyal, and he was rewarded for his constancy with a commission of brigadier general.
So dedicated was Watie to the Southern cause that he refused to acknowledge the Union victory in the waning months of the Civil War, keeping his troops in the field for nearly a month after Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith surrendered the rest of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Army on May 26, 1865. A full 75 days after Robert E. Lee met with Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Watie became the last Confederate general to lay down his arms, surrendering his battalion of Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Osage Indians to Union Lieutenant Colonel Asa C. Matthews at Doaksville on June 23.
After the war, Watie returned to Indian Territory to rebuild his home, which Federal soldiers had burned to the ground. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to represent the southern Cherokee during negotiations of the Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty of 1866, which stripped tribe members of vast tracts of land in Indian Territory in exchange for their reinstatement in the Union. Watie then retreated from public life to his old Honey Creek home, where he died in 1871.