Zeke Proctor

• Sheriff • Cherokee Senator • Farmer • Trail of Tears survivor

Because culture is how a civilization lives based on its history, looking back on historical events and personalities can give one insight on the value of culture. The importance of Cherokee culture to Zeke Proctor is one such example.

Ezekial, or Zeke, Proctor was a full-blood Cherokee who came to this area over the Trail of Tears as a boy. Although his father was non-Indian, he was considered Cherokee as his mother was a fullblood from the Downing family. Because the Cherokee society is matrilineal, he was a member of her clan. His home was in the Goingsnake District, only five miles from the Arkansas line. Zeke was educated in schools operated by the Cherokee Nation. The tribal schools were known to be of top educational quality, and many non-Indian persons from Arkansas sent their children to these schools, paying a ‘subscription.’ Respected by his neighbors, he became a prosperous Cherokee farmer and served as sheriff in his district. He took his job seriously, and was still bitter over the Removal and was determined that the Cherokee Nation would remain a free sovereign nation, as stipulated in the treaties and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At one time, Zeke made a journey to the Sequoyah District to visit his sister Susan. There he discovered that her husband had left her and her children, and they were hungry. He quickly took them to another sister’s home, and set out looking for the man that had abandoned his sister. The man’s name was Jim Kesterson, and rumor had it that he had moved in with a widow by the name of Polly Beck Hilderbrand who lived in the northern border of Goingsnake District (now Adair County). Jim had been working at the Hilderbrand family mill, located on Flint Creek a few miles from the Arkansas border near Siloam Springs.

When Zeke arrived at the mill, he found Jim and the widow together. Zeke became furious, and pulled his gun to shoot his brother-in-law, but Polly jumped in the way and was killed by the bullet meant for Jim.

Zeke and his family had fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War, as did most Keetowahs. The Becks had been southern sympathizers and were not Keetowah. Lewis Downing, head chairman of the Keetowahs all during the Civil War had been elected Chief and was in office at the time of this incident. Downing was a fine diplomat and politician and had managed to bring together the Cherokee factions and get them to work together.

The Cherokee court claimed jurisdiction, and the Beck family wanted Zeke Proctor found guilty. They were afraid of the power of the Keetowah Society, so they used every delaying tactic possible to get the Federal Court in Fort Smith to intervene on the grounds that Kesterson was a white man. Since Kesterson had a Cherokee wife, the Cherokee court assumed jurisdiction.

One problem surfaced; Chief Lewis Downing was having a terrible time finding a prosecuting attorney who was not related to the Proctor family. If there had been any relationship at all, the Becks would have objected. One Cherokee judge even resigned because of the pressure, and this caused further delay. Chief Downing, aware of what the Becks were up to, quickly appointed Blackshaw Sixkiller as the judge. The council refused to honor any more objections from the Becks, and an early trial date was set. The Cherokee council wanted the matter concluded before the United States could intervene, as an issue of sovereignty.

The trial was originally scheduled to take place in the Goingsnake Courthouse, but was moved to Whitmire Schoolhouse for security reasons and scheduled for April 15. On April 11, the Becks and Kestersons filed charges at Fort Smith against Proctor. The orders stated that if Proctor were found guilty at his trial, no arrests would be made. However, if he was acquitted then everyone mentioned on the warrants was to be brought to Fort Smith. This became a complex situation as the Keetowah Society, ever adamant about retaining tradition, culture and sovereignty had taken an oath not to testify against each other in federal court.

Both the schoolhouse and the schoolyard were packed for the trial. The U.S. Marshals from Fort Smith, which included several Becks, arrived after the trial had begun. They did not wait for any verdict and charged the schoolhouse. The Lighthorsemen guarding the door was forced away at gunpoint and then the posse, led by the Becks, burst in and opened fire. Sut Beck aimed his gun at Zeke, but Johnson Proctor grabbed the gun and got shot in the chest. When it was over, 9 men were killed and two wounded. Included in the fatalities were Zeke’s attorney and Mose Alberty. Zeke was one of the wounded.

Before his death, the Deputy U.S. marshal from Fort Smith claimed he had tried to keep the Becks from charging into the courtroom. Aaron Beck, the head family member, didn’t take part in the massacre. The next day as the court reconvened at Arch Scraper’s home, Zeke Proctor was found not guilty. Zeke then went home to his farm on Flint Creek, and after saying goodbye to his family and redressing his wound, headed into the hills to hide from the Becks and the federal officials who soon would be after him. A force of traditional Keetowahs protected him. Also hiding out were members of the court including Judge Sixkiller. Zeke was considered a hero by the Cherokees but an outlaw by the United States. At the same time, Cherokee authorities indicted Sut Beck and several others for the murder of Johnson Proctor. Yet another, larger federal posse arrived from Fort Smith to arrest the parties involved in the shootout. They decided to wait it out as far as Proctor was concerned but Arch Scraper and another member of the jury was arrested and taken to Fort Smith. Even though suffering from wounds, there were placed in irons and imprisoned. These men did not fire a single shot during the massacre, so were eventually released.

In October 1873, the United States District Court dismissed the case of U.S. v Zeke Proctor. Two months earlier, it had announced that it would not proceed with the prosecution of Arch Scraper and twenty others who had been indicted for their part in the shootout. In February 1874, the Cherokee National Council passed an amnesty act preventing legal action against anyone involved in the case. In addition, Zeke Proctor is said to be the only single individual to have a treaty with the United States. After this incident, Zeke was a law abiding citizen and held offices in the Cherokee Nation including Senator and sheriff. Not only did Zeke resolve his problems with the law, but on a personal level as well. With a handshake at a dramatic meeting in Tahlequah, Zeke Proctor and Sut Beck concluded the feud.

Although this case was the result of a family feud, this tragedy at the Goingsnake Courthouse was the result of a jurisdictional dispute of long standing between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government. Just forty years earlier, the landmark Supreme Court cases of Cherokee Nation v Georgia and Worcester v Georgia clarified the division of authority between the Cherokee and American nations, but President Andrew Jackson failed to urge enforcement of the ruling. The establishment of federal courts within Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory failed to resolve the jurisdiction dilemma as well.

Info provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center. For information regarding culture and language, please contact:

cultural@cherokee.org