An Essay: The battle of the Caving Banks

A Short History of the Battle of Chusto Talash by Murv Jacob, James Murray, and Deborah Duvall

Hardly a person alive has even heard of the Battle of the Caving Banks. The now hidden site where the dramatic battle was fought, nestled in a heavily wooded valley, hosts a few small oil wells pumping  alongside several old landfills.  The site bears only a stone marker as a remembrance of the many who bravely fought and died there. In early December, 1861, on a cold, wet and miserable day, the largest Civil War battle of Indian Territory was waged just north of what is now the city of Tulsa.

As the Five Tribes of Indian Territory were one by one signing treaties of alliance with the Confederacy, hundreds of escaped Negro slaves, free Black Indians, Creek and Seminole Indians were gathering at the Creek Chief Opotheyahola’s settlement on the north fork of the Canadian river. The Chief’s people included a number of intermarried and adopted Blacks, and Opotheyahola was known for his anti-slavery sentiments. It was becoming painfully obvious that a large group of armed and hostile Blacks and Indians would not be tolerated in the newly Confederate Indian Territory.

Opotheyahola’s band was joined by many more slave runaways and Seminole and Creek sympathizers as they began to trudge with great uncertainty towards the safety of Fort Scott, Kansas, the nearest Union fort outside Confederate territory. Opotheyahola’s warriors protected hundreds of the aged, children, mothers and other noncombatants who struggled to leave the war-stricken Territory and their oppressive White Indian masters. With them they carried their possessions and herded thousands of head of livestock.

When they learned of the huge refugee column moving north, the Confederate military authorities in Indian Territory hastened to prevent their escape. Orders were given for a force of Texan cavalry and various commands of Confederate Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokees to pursue the Loyal Indians and runaways. These Southerners were seeking booty – notably slaves and livestock.

A large-scale cross-country pursuit ensued. Opotheyahola and his warriors knew that they could never outdistance the Confederate forces with such a large group of non-combatants and animals in tow. Relying on centuries of Creek military tradition, Opotheyahola sought out a “horseshoe bend” on the water. He found it at the Chusto Talash – the “caving banks” of the Muddy Bird Creek. There with the help of Billy Bowlegs, the battle-tested Seminole war chief, Opotheyahola positioned his men along the inside of the Caving Banks and kept the refugees moving northward far behind them in the Osage Hills.

Soon Confederate forces converged upon the scene and both sides prepared for a fight. But the night before the battle an amazing and unforeseen event occurred. Six hundred Cherokee mounted riflemen, who had arrived with the Southern contingent under Colonel John Drew, decided to switch sides and joined forces with Opatheyahola and his allies. These “full-blood” traditional Cherokees, known as “Pin Indians,” were members of the Keetowah Society and were explicitly anti-slavery and pro-Union. They had been drafted into the Confederate Army by Cherokee Nation Chief John Ross after Ross had received a large amount of money from the Southern leaders.

The Keetoowah Cherokees balked at the idea of helping the Confederate government attack their fellow Indians. During the night, the Keetoowahs slipped away from Drew’s camp, leaving thirty-five pro-Southern White Cherokee officers peacefully slumbering in their tents. The addition of these brave 600 men, and the guns and horses they brought with them, made all the difference to Pro-Union forces in the battle that ensued.

The battle took place on December 9, 1861. Cooper and his Texans (battle hardened Comanche fighters) led the attack, backed up by Pro- Southern Choctaws, Chickasaws, McIntosh Creeks, and a few White Cherokee officers loyal to Drew. The battle raged all day with neither side able to gain an advantage in the thickly wooded valley. Horses were useless on the steep, crumbling sand banks of rain-swollen Muddy Bird Creek. Shotguns, pistols and rifles took an awful toll at such close range. At nightfall, the Southerners abandoned their plans of glory, slaves and free cattle and horses, took their wounded and withdrew into the freezing night.

When the Southerners returned the next day to gather their dead, the Black and Indian combatants had vanished, taking their dead and wounded. Each side lost 150-200 men, with at least twice that number wounded.

This battle was by far the largest ever fought in the history of Oklahoma, and by the very nature of the combatants, it was difficult to describe or define. Both sides claimed victory. One fact is certain; had these Keetoowahs or ”Pins” not valiantly joined the loyal Union Forces, the free Blacks, Black Indians and runaway slaves would have been driven back in chains to four more years of slavery at Confederate hands.

The mass of refugees proceeded north to Kansas and freedom, hindered on their journey by hit and run Southern guerilla raids (mostly on the livestock) and fierce winter storms. Many did not survive the harsh winter.

Selected Readings

‘The Cherokee Nation In The Civil War’ by Clarissa W. Confer, OU Press, 2007

‘The Confederate Cherokees – John Drew’s Regiment of Mounted Rifles’ by W. Craig Gaines, LSU Press, 1989 (Woefully mis-titled, this book tells the story of how the “full-blood” Keetowahs were drafted into the Cherokee Confederate army and were unwilling to fight their fellows among the Creek and Seminole. In Kansas these men would form the Indian Home Guard – known to their enemies as “Cut-throat Pin Indians.” A roster list is included as appendix, as close as we are liable to come for a membership list of the charter male members of the Keetowah Society.)

‘Opothleyahola and the Loyal Muskogee – Their Flight to Kansas in the Civil War’ by Lela J. McBride, McFarland and Co. 2000 (The story from the Creek perspective. How “Loyal” to the Union these people were is subject to debate, however they were anti-slavery in sentiment and unwilling to live peacefully under the newly Confederate-aligned Creek Nation.)

‘The American Civil War in the Indian Territory’ by John D. Spencer, illustrations by Adam Hook, Osprey 2006


2 Responses to “An Essay: The battle of the Caving Banks”

  1. bob Says:

    why were the keetowahs, called “pin” indians?

  2. murvsworld Says:

    The secret sign by which these ‘pin’ Indians knew each other was a pair of crossed straight pins fastened on the back side of their left jacket lapel, they would turn the lapel over and show it to each other to verify their hidden Keetoowah identity— Murv

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