By Cady Shaw
Open now at the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum is an exhibit titled “1843 Cherokee Peace Council,” which looks at the famous council meeting, how it came to be and its outcomes. Historians describe it as the largest gathering of native tribes in recorded history, and American painter John Mix Stanley memorialized the event. That painting now resides in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but a facsimile of it is displayed in this exhibit.
Between 1838 and 1839, a majority of the Cherokees living in the East were forcibly removed to Indian Territory; other tribes and even other Cherokees had already relocated to Indian Territory. While the United States government stated the land was uninhabited, it was part of the ancestral homelands of several plains tribes, so when new arrivals began coming during removal, there were disagreements and sometimes violent clashes. Once the last of the eastern Cherokees arrived and reunited with their brethren to become one tribe again, they saw the need for that same peace and unity among the area tribes.
Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation John Ross insisted it was necessary to adopt laws between the tribes to “redress the wrongs which may be done by individuals of our respective nations upon each other.” Chief Ross believed intertribal collaboration could help solve conflicting territorial boundary claims and calm the fears held by tribes. It would also help his own tribe, which was trying to unify the factions that split up prior to removal. Most importantly, Ross felt such a display of unity and brotherhood among the tribes would show the U.S. government that the tribes would defend their sovereignty and their given territories against settler encroachment.
On Dec. 1, 1842, Cherokee Nation council called for an intertribal meeting in the Act to Authorize a General Convention of Neighboring Tribes. Once he had the authorization, Ross sent messengers to 36 tribal nations, which included all of the tribes in Indian Territory and some as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far north as Michigan. Invitations were extended to tribal leaders to come to Tahlequah, the capital town of Cherokee Nation. The invitations were met with interest and excitement among the tribes.
In June 1843, 211 delegates representing 18 Indian nations arrived in Tahlequah to attend the peace council. Delegates from tribal nations were housed in log cabins on the Cherokee council grounds, while spectators camped in the surrounding area. Picnic tables were set up, and it was reported there was a large supply of meat, hominy, cornbread and other foods for the guests.
On Friday, June 23, a horn was sounded to signal the opening of the peace council meeting in the large, open-air pavilion in the center of the Tahlequah town square. Peace pipes were passed around, and wampum belts were laid upon a large table in the middle. Delegates sat on benches that circled the speaking platform while they waited for the speeches to begin. Chief Ross was the first to speak and explained his reasons for calling the council. He suggested the tribes were neighbors and should find a way to live together in peace, which could only be done by adopting laws to right previous wrongs.
As the meeting progressed with speeches and interpreters, an agreement was finally reached on July 3, 1843, that addressed the major concerns of the gathered nations. Agreements were put in place addressing revenge, criminal jurisdiction, punishment of crimes across tribal jurisdiction, extradition procedures, and what to do with bootleggers. Tribes pledged themselves to stand with each other in solidarity and not to give up their lands unless they all agreed.
Of the attending tribes, only the Creek, Osage and Cherokee nations signed the compact. Representatives from the other nations declared they did not have the authority to bind their nations and wanted to consult their leadership. Some did not want to fall under the authority of another tribe. In the end, the delegations were sent home with food and supplies from Cherokee Nation. It is reported that after this agreement, intertribal conflicts were reduced sharply in Indian Territory.