Showdown at the Cross Roads: The King of Coal Faces the Formidable Choctaw Chief Coleman Cole

In 1875 Chief Colman Cole was a very angry man. He had just begun his first term as Chief of the Choctaw Nation, following in the footsteps of Rev. Allen Wright and William Bryant. His task to preserve the integrity of the Choctaw Nation was fraught with seemingly insurmountable problems.

The Civil War struggle was ten years in the past, but the neighboring states were still in great turmoil and increasingly affected by lawlessness, which bled relentlessly into the Indian Territory Nations. Even though teams of tribal militia roamed the countryside tasked with evicting the white squatters and whiskeymen, the flood gates could not be closed. The federal court in the Western District of Arkansas proved ineffective in enforcing the sanctity of Indian Territory borders against the white intruders. The federal court in the mid-1870s – before the infamous Judge Parker – was prone to bribery and developed a reputation for convicting more Indians than white men.

Elias Boudinot
Col. Elias C. Boudinot

About this time Col. Elias C. Boudinot, an educated and well-spoken member of the Cherokee Nation, began to advocate a plan to establish a U.S. Territorial Government across all parts of the Indian Territory, arguing that it was the only way to reduce the criminal uprising in the Indian Nations. His ideas shocked most of the native citizens in the Indian Territory. One of Boudinot’s ideas was the “allotment of lands” to each citizen of the tribes. The Saint Louis newspaper took note of his activities, reporting on August 14, 1874 that Boudinot “will in a few days deliver a speech at Vinita, Cherokee Nation, in response to an invitation from his fellow citizens of that nation. The Colonel will say some plain words on the subject of Territorial organization, allotment of lands, property, and political rights, and the advancement of the “people” in the Indian Territory.”

The newly-elected Choctaw Chief as well as the Chiefs from other Nations were unprepared for the cunning and wily Boudinot. To the great alarm of the tribal governments, Boudinot was invited to present his ideas to the Board of Indian Commissioners in Washington, D.C. in January 1875. His views were opposed by all official delegations from the various tribes, including Peter P. Pitchlynn and Chief Coleman Cole.

The Commission reassembled at the Arlington hotel at 7 pm and the Territorial question for the Indian Territory was further discussed by Peter P. Pitchlynn of the Choctaw Nation, Col. Adair of the Cherokee, against, and Col Boudinot for its establishment.

Agent J.W. Ingalls read a letter from Coleman Cole, Governor of the Choctaws; also a letter from the Principal Chief Chicote, of the Creeks, against any change of government, and stated that a delegation from the Chickasaws, appointed by a special council of the Nation, called together for that purpose, were on their way to Washington to urge the same view.

[Agent Ingalls] admitted the truth of the allegations made of the anarchy and disorder prevailing in the Territory, but said he was satisfied not a hundred members of the Cherokee or any other Nation of the Territory would consent to the change of government proposed [by Boudinot].

–Published Jan 15, 1875, Daily National Republican, Washington, D.C. 

[Note: However, as we know, the idea of “allotment of lands” never disappeared from the political arena. Discussion gradually shifted to defining the term “people of the Indian Nation,” in other words, who would be eligible to receive an allotment of land.] 

To the Choctaw people’s credit, they were willing to hear and discuss Colonel Boudinot’s radical ideas. On August 10, 1875 the Atoka, I.T. newspaper reported that Colonel Boudinot, by invitation of nearly all the prominent citizens of the vicinity, had spoken to a large gathering at Atoka. The article further said, ”many prominent citizens were present from all parts of the Choctaw Nation, and the principle of free discussion is firmly established, and people are determined that questions affecting their social and political rights shall have a patient hearing in the Territory.”

Although Chief Cole attended the Atoka meeting, he was perhaps unwilling to directly challenge the more progressive views of some of his political foes, and stalled for time by issuing a proclamation to halt any new permits for white men seeking to live in the Choctaw Nation.

1875-09-08 Driving the Whites Out Springfield MA–Published September 8, 1875, in Springfield, MA newspaper

The old Chief waited until the beginning of his next term in October 1875 to once again take up his battle against the growing presence of the white man. In his Annual Message October 9, 1875 the Chief took aim at his biggest threats, when he made the following recommendations: to oppose the admission [as citizens] of any white men, as either merchants or miners, into the Nation and to oppose any concessions to the railroads into the Choctaw Nation.

In addition he clearly stated that the Choctaw government claimed sole ownership of all mines of coal, lead or other minerals and timber as belonging to the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations in common with the soil, and not to individuals. He recommended the appointment of National Agents, authorizing them to construct scales and weigh all coal sold to railroads or other companies and to collect royalty for the same, the proceeds to be applied to promote the education of the nation’s children, adding that any children of non-citizens were to be excluded from the Choctaw schools.

He urged the people of the United States to let the Choctaws alone to enjoy their rights in their own way, pointing out that the crops were sufficient for the wants of the people, and much better than in years past.

–-Extracted from a West Virginia newspaper, October 11, 1875

 All in all, the Chief’s annual message was viewed as more liberal than most people feared, coming from a person considered to be a “non-progressive.” But Chief Cole was not done with his attempts to disempower the white man. His attention shifted to the new coal industry, and in particular, to a bold ambitious white man by the name of James J. McAlester, whom Chief Cole found extremely irritating.

This young man from Arkansas had set up a retail establishment in 1869 at “The Crossroads,” the most lucrative spot in the entire Choctaw Nation because it sat at the junction of the California Trail and the Texas Trail. His savvy choice of location paid off as his store prospered, particularly after the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (Katy) constructed a line nearby in 1872.

Photo Rebecca Burney McAlester dau of Lucy JamesMcAlester now had the funds to pursue his main interest, developing a coal mine to supply the ravenous demands of the newly built railroad. In the same year McAlester found himself an Indian wife, Rebecca Burney, part Choctaw/part Chickasaw. Because of his Indian wife, McAlester was now entitled to citizenship in the Choctaw Nation as an “intermarried white.”

His citizenship enabled him to acquire control over the area’s valuable coal claims. In 1875 McAlester and three partners leased the land to the Osage Coal and Mining Company, which was served by a spur from the railroad. This was the beginning of Indian Territory’s coal-mining industry, which would grow to include Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee lands and over a dozen counties..

The story of Chief Cole bringing the entire might of the Choctaw Nation down on J. J. McAlester has grown somewhat dim over time. We know that Chief Cole sent out his Lighthorse to arrest, and then execute J. J. McAlester and his partners without a trial. But cooler heads prevailed and McAlester was granted a trial by jury. We have an account of those trials written by Dr. John H. Miller, Sr., of Antlers, Okla., sometime before his death in 1922. Dr. Miller was himself an intermarried white, having married Ella Josephine Roebuck in December 1876. Ella was the daughter of Choctaw Judge William Roebuck and Mary Anna Homma. Here is Dr. Miller’s account of those events:

Pushmataha County, Oklahoma, was the home of Coleman Cole, the full-blood, uneducated Choctaw Indian, the man who possessed great native ability and mind, and was a born orator.

His chief aim and ambition was to preserve the Choctaw Nation for a home for his people and to prevent its invasion by white people that he might prevent a reoccurrence of what happened in Mississippi, to that end while Chief, he had enacted a law making it treason to sell, or attempt to sell any portion of the Choctaw Nation.

Soon after the Katy [railroad] was built through this country, coal was discovered in great quantities and some enterprising citizens went to work to develop this coal by giving leases. Chief Cole toke the stand that they were disposing of a part of the land when the coal was moved.

He caused an indictment to be found against the following parties:

J. McAlester, Ex-Secretary of State, and Lieutenant Governor, James Davis, intermarried citizen, Jim Thomas, treasurer of the Choctaw Nation, and Tandy Walker, half-brother of the governor of the Chickasaw Nation, Douglas H. Johnston.

These men, fearing the power of Chief Cole, fled the country, and were exiled for many months. Later a truce was made and these [men] were granted a fair trial. A special term of Court was convened at Caddo, in the old Blue County, Choctaw Nation, and District Judge Loring W. Folsom tried the case. Coleman Cole was present to direct the prosecution and put all the steam into it that was in his power, but without effect. The jury found [the parties] not guilty.

It was then that Coleman Cole publicly reprimanded Judge Folsom, saying, “Loring Folsom, you are not fit to sit on the bench as judge of the District Court. You are as much of a traitor to your beloved country as these men you have acquitted.”

Had you charged the jury as the law warranted you in doing and as you should have done, you would have convicted these men and the end of justice would have been met.”

He turned and said to these prisoners and told them, “Don’t flatter yourself that you are free.”

He then turned to Sheriff Joe Bryant and said, “Re-arrest these men, and then go summon a new jury. I will take the bench and try them myself, and see that justice is done.”

The jury was summoned and Cole laid off his blanket and stepped upon the judge’s bench and proceeded with the trial. After he had charged the jury at length, they retired and soon returned with a verdict of “Acquittal.”

Cole seemed to be both grieved and indignant at the result. He said to the jury, “By your verdict today you have driven a wedge that will burst our beloved country asunder. I had hoped my people would not have to live over again the trying ordeals that we passed through in Mississippi, but it is sure to come. Who will lift this coal – not Indians, Indians are not coal miners. White people will be brought in by the hundreds and thousands to do this work. They will have to have houses to live in and pretty soon they will begin to talk about vested rights as they did in Mississippi in days of old. Each one has a friend in another state and they will be appealed to, and pretty soon, Indian’s right will go down and the white man’s will come. There is nothing in common between white men and Indians. They are like water and oil; they will not mix. Thank God, the sin is not mine; I have done my full duty. I tried to preserve this country as it was intended for a home for my people. It may not seriously affect me, nor you, but your posterity will pay for the crime you have committed today. “

With these words he picked up his blanket and retired from the scene of action. At the next regular election he was defeated for office by Isaac Garvin.  

Cole was the last full-blood or anti-progressive administration. There were many hot campaigns after that time but the progressive party was always able to carry the election in some way to the effect that the Indian Government went out of existence, [with] the territorial and later the State government coming in.

arrowhead

1876-06-14 Cole is Obsolete Ft Smith New Era
In the end Chief Cole’s war against the “white intruder” lost the support of his people. His isolationist ideas were becoming more and more obsolete as the old veterans of the Trail of Tears passed away and a younger generation began to look forward, not backward. The Industrial Revolution, with its demands for easier transportation and the coal that fueled it, had arrived in the Indian Territory. Borders had become obsolete. The next great battle would be over property rights.

–Published June 14,, 1876, in New Era newspaper, Fort Smith, Arkansas

In August 1878 Isaac Garvin was elected the new Choctaw Chief and assumed that office in October 1878. Chief Cole’s term of office was over. Most historical accounts imply that Chief Cole was allowed to finish out the last year of his second term in 1878. However in one of the files at the Research Library, Oklahoma Historical Society, I found the briefest note, hand-written on a typed list of Choctaw Chiefs prepared by Choctaw historian Edmund J. Gardner, the following statement about Coleman Cole:

Impeached 1878; the Hon. J. B. Moore, Pres. of the Senate, is Acting Principal Chief.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another explanation might be that Chief Cole simply took a leave of absence due to the illness of his wife. On September 18, 1878, The Indian Journal on page 5 made mention of the passing of Chief Cole’s wife.

1878-09-18 Death of wife of Coleman Cole

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***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***

For a more light-hearted look at the life of Chief Coleman Cole, read my blog:

Chief Coleman Cole: Humble Man, Great Orator & Old School Chief ,which tells one of the most humorous stories about Choctaw living in the mid 1800s you will ever read.

Sources:

Map displayed in the blog banner is from the website, Historic Underground Mining Maps of Eastern Oklahoma

The impeachment document was from a document collection at the Research Library, Oklahoma Historical Society:  Historic Oklahoma Collection – Manuscripts. – Native American Tribes file – Choctaw – Choctaw Leaders.

Photos are courtesy of the Research Library, Oklahoma Historical Society.

Various newspaper articles, as cited within the blog.

 

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