The Origins of the Keetoowah Society

This week I read about an anti-war group in the Cherokee Nation called the Keetoowah Society. In previous sources I had read, historians believed the society grew out of the political rivalry between Chief Ross and Stand Watie. Part of this is true, however, according to historian Patrick Minges, the anti-war or abolitionist groups in the Cherokee Nation had roots in Freemasonry. In the chapter “The Birth and Growth of the Keetoowah Society: Indian Pioneers” from his book Slavery in the Cherokee Nation: The Keetoowah Society and the Defining of a People, 1855-1867, he described an almost religious history of the “secret” society that contributed to the split of the Cherokee Nation. He argued that after removal from the East to Indian Territory, “another peculiar institution arose within the populace and began to spread more rapidly upon arrival in the Indian Territory” (57). This phenomenon, as he called it, was the story of the Oklahoma Masonry.

Minges discussed how the outreach of the Masonic Brotherhood to the leadership of the Indian nations was as old as the country itself. Though the Freemasons have close associations with Judeo-Christian traditions of morality, Freemasonry is not a religion. Their messages of charity, brotherly love, and respect appealed to many of the tribes’ leaders in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century even before Indian Removal (60). The Freemasons did not accept African-American members but they did accept Native American chapters and lodges. Minges mentioned how Chief John Ross was a Master Mason in Jasper Tennessee before removal and carried his practices into the new territory. Upon arrival into Indian Territory, former lodge members in the East began to reorganize the “craft” in their new home (62). He described in 1848 the Grand Lodge of Arkansas granted them to formulate a “Blue Lodge” in the Cherokee capital. This was the first lodge of Indian Freemasons established in the United States. In 1852, “Cherokee Lodge #21 and the Sons of temperance” shared a building where community services, lodge meetings, temperance meetings, education instruction, and church meetings took place (63).

An interesting part of this chapter was the influence between the relationship of Freemasonry in the west and black denominationalism or Christianity. Minges stated “A conservative estimate of the black population in the Indian Territory in the mid-1850s amounted to fifteen to twenty percent of the overall population. It is not unreasonable to consider that, among the African-American population of the Cherokee Nation, there were fraternal orders including Freemasonry” (63). He argued that the spread of the church, specifically the African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist, throughout the South were closely related to the spread of Freemasonry. Many of the slaves coming into the Cherokee Nation were from the Caribbean, where Freemasonry had been well organized (64). This is where Minges believed the origins of the abolitionist influence on the Cherokee Nation came from.

From 1846-1855, the number of slaves within the Cherokee Nation had grown immensely. From ten percent of the population in 1839 to twenty-five percent in 1860 (65). The 4,000 slaves in the Cherokee Nation were owned by less than ten percent of the population. This is why, Minges argued, the Baptist conservatives continued to spread a message of abolition. The slaveholder progressives did not represent the interest of the conservatives, who wanted to regain their sovereignty from before European contact. Many of the ministers had “expelled Cherokee Slave owners from the church” and preached against their ideologies of the race (70). As tensions about slavery in the United States grew in the 1850s, Minges described:

In 1855, the issue of slavery within the Cherokee Nation could no longer be ignored and the topic of “Southern Rights” became a popular subject among the slave owners in the nation. Chief John Ross tried to maintain a position of neutrality but with the Cherokee Nation lodged squarely between Deep South and “bleeding Kansas,” this became exceedingly difficult—especially considering the power and affinities of the Cherokee aristocracy. Ross, a slaveholder himself, tried to quiet the controversy by publicly distancing himself from “abolitionist” forces associated with the Northern missionaries by leaving the Congregational Church and joining a Southern Methodist congregation. (71)

Ross’s position of neutrality did more damage than good. When he did not denounce abolitionists, his opponents retaliated. The National Council passed a bill declaring the Cherokee to be a “slaveholding people” even though less than ten percent of the nation owned slaves (71). This is when the Knights of the Golden Circle, the society that supported Watie, was established for “expanding the superior Anglo-American civilization” and expanding the slave empire through the west (73). The Constitution of the Knights of the Golden Circle, finalized on August 28th, 1860, stated:

We, a part of the people of the Cherokee Nation, in order to form a more perfect union and protect ourselves and property against the works of Abolitionists do establish this Constitution for the government of the Knights of the Golden Circle in this Nation… No person shall become a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle in the Cherokee Nation who is not a pro-slavery man… The Captain, or in case of his refusal, then the Lieutenant has the power to compell each and every member of their Encampment to turn out and assist in capturing and punishing any and all abolitionists in their minds who are interfering with slavery….You do solemnly swear that you will keep all the secrets of this order and that you will, to the best of your abilities protect and defend the interests of the Knights of the Golden Circle in this Nation, so help you God. (73)

The leadership of the Northern Baptist churches of the Cherokee Nation felt a strong need to respond to the growing militancy of the Golden Knights. Out of many religious gatherings would become the Keetoowah Society. The word Keetoowah was derived from the Cherokee term “Ani-Kituhwagi” meaning “people of Kituwah”, the original Cherokee people (74). Mignes argued the purpose of the Keetoowah Society was the “perpetuation of the full-blood race and to stand for unity and brotherly love among the Cherokee in every possible way, to work for the best interest as a whole… The Keetoowah Society also sought to conserve the purity of Cherokee Indian customs and traditions” (77). The Constitution of the Keetoowah Society, approved on April 29th, 1859 stated:

Only full blood Cherokees uneducated, and no mixed blood friends shall be allowed to become a member… Under the Cherokee Constitution, after confidential conference, a number of honored men began to dis-cuss and deliberate and decide secretly among friends whom they love, to help each other in everything. Our secret society shall be named Keetoowah. All of the members of the Keetoowah Society shall be like one family. It should be our intention that we must abide with each other in love. Anything which derive from English or white, such as secret organizations, that the Keetoowahs shall not accept or recognize. Now all above described must be adopted same as under oath to be abided by. We must not surrender under any circumstance until we shall “fall to the ground united.” We must lead one another by the hand with all our strength. Our government is being destroyed. We must resort to bravery to stop it. (78)

The interesting part of Minges’s interpretation was what the Keetoowah meant by full-bloods. Other historians have taken that phrase as meaning racial differences. But he argued that “The term “mixed-blood” often meant intermarriage with whites, however, those intermarried with free blacks and slaves were nearly always classified as black. It seems entirely possible that those Africans who intermarried with Cherokee and clung to traditional beliefs could have also been classified as full blood” (78). The Keetoowah Constitution described its members as bing only full-blood Cherokees uneducated, about those fluent in Cherokee who were uneducated in the European language and culture. To Minges, it was not a race-based identity, there was no race-based understanding of identity within the “old ways” of Cherokee culture (79). The secret society was not pro-slavery but it did not take an anti-slavery stance. This is how Ross fits being their leader. The Keetoowah society believed that the more the Cherokee Nation disestablished its ties with the institution of slavery, the better it could sustain its own national identity and control its sovereignty. They predicted the nations would split, the churches would split, and the lodges would split but the “Kituwah Spirit” would preserve in the hearts of the people (89).

Next week I plan on reading the next chapter “Between Two Fire” which ironically is the name of the other book I read. That chapter covers more about the direct influence the society had during the war on the homefront.


Minges, Patrcik. “Slavery in the Cherokee Nation : The Keetoowah Society and the Defining of a People, 1855-1867,” 2003.

2 Replies to “The Origins of the Keetoowah Society”

  1. Rick Kipphut

    If you had a time machine and could sit down with one Cherokee leader, who would it be, and what counsel would you give that might have altered the history of the Cherokee Nation. No need to answer it now, this is an end of the semester question. Just curious.

  2. Nathaniel Jarvie

    As a rule, secret societies are just fascinating. It just leaves you with a curiosity of what’s occurring behind the scenes.

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