Thirty years after the Civil War ended, many Union veterans in Indian Territory were reaching the age where they were eligible for a government pension. The paperwork was onerous for anyone, but particularly so for those individuals who spoke little English. Besides requiring affidavits from the veterans, supporting documents from witnesses were needed.
In the winter of 1892-93, a civil servant named Wiley Britton was assigned the task of examining about 50 pension claims made by Cherokees who had served in war.
There had been three Indian Brigade regiments fighting for the Union in the Civil War. The First and Second Brigades had been organized in Kansas near the outset of the war, and these units were composed mostly of Creek and Seminole men as well as free blacks and escaped slaves.
Most had joined Creek leader Opothle Yahola who had attempted to remain neutral in the conflict. But after their group was attacked more than once by Confederates as they fled to Kansas, neutrality was abandoned.
The Third Indian Brigade was primarily a Cherokee regiment. Many of its members had at first been a part of the Confederate unit called the Cherokee Mounted Rifles under John Drew. But Colonel William Phillips led a successful Union foray into Indian Territory in 1862, and many of the Mounted Rifles switched loyalties at that time. Phillips organized the Third Indian Brigade at Baxter Springs, Kansas. The Third Brigade helped to capture Fort Gibson in 1863 and Wiley Britton had been there as well with the Sixth Kansas Cavalry.
It was veterans or their widows from the Third Brigade whose claims Wiley Britton was called upon to process. He worked out of a pension office in Springfield, Missouri, that covered several counties in the southwest corner of that state and much of the northeast section of the Cherokee Nation.
The weather was cold when Britton left Springfield to travel to the Cherokee Nation. He was not looking forward to renting a buggy and traveling in an unfamiliar area with an interpreter to the homes of the claimants. Such an effort would be slow along muddy or frozen roads or poorly marked trails and would greatly delay a timely processing of the claims.
Britton firmly believed that these Indian veterans and their dependants were deserving of the pension and should receive it without delay. Having served alongside them in the war, he had seen their valor and courage.
So, to speed the process he established an office in a hotel at Southwest City right on the state line. He sent out letters requesting that the claimants meet with him there, bringing such documentation as they had along with any witnesses. They would be interviewed under oath, any discrepancies would be sorted out, and then Britton would send the claim on to an official reviewer.
Britton was gratified at the response he received and his respect for these veterans and their families grew as he worked on these claims. What might have taken well over a month to complete had he tried to travel all over the Nation was completed in 10 days.
He wrote of these aging soldiers, “The military service of the Indian soldiers of the Union Indian Brigade was as honorable and as efficient as the service [of any other soldier] and their hardships and losses were as great and as uncomplaining.” He was glad to recommend the approval of their claims and felt privileged to have played a part in helping them gain the pension they deserved.
Reach Jonita Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org.