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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 travellers 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 some[166] 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.

Dole[172] had had warning from Hunter[173] 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 own[176] 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 refugees[177] 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's[178] 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 mismanagement[185] 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 appeal[186] 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]