Cherokee National Prison (Part1)

Cherokee Nation has a wealth of historical sites and buildings within its jurisdictional boundaries. Looking at the histories and lifestyles associated with these sites, we can get a good idea of the cultural lifestyle of our past as compared with today.

We begin this series with the Cherokee National Prison.

The Cherokee National Prison was authorized in 1873 by an act of the Cherokee National Council. Proceeds from the sale of the Cherokee Outlet were designated in the amount of $6,000 for the construction of the prison on the Cherokee Nation capital square in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It was completed in 1874. The Committee to Build the National Jail consisted of Riley Keys, John Lynch Adair and John Francis Lyon. The position of High Sheriff of the Cherokee Nation was established and filled in 1875. Administration of the prison was shared with a Board of Supervisors, which consisted of the Principal Chief, Assistant Principal Chief and the Executive Council.

The prison was the only such facility in the entire Indian Territory from 1875 to 1901. It housed sentenced or accused prisoners from throughout the Territory.

Built of sandstone rock, the original structure of the building was three stories high, and it was one of the major tribal buildings erected in Tahlequah during the period. Accounts at that time said it was, "made to hold the most hardened and dangerous prisoners." It was also said the "No one escaped unless through death; condemned prisoners were taken to be hanged on a scaffold behind the building in the courtyard." However, at least one major jailbreak occurred at the jail.

The "Indian Sentinel," published in Tahlequah, reported on January 21, 1898 that fourteen prisoners had made an escape from the National Jail. The men, who were incarcerated for a variety of crimes from misdemeanors to murder, dug out through the rock, wood and dirt using a pair of scissors, two pieces of iron, and a saw made from a table knife..

The National Prison, also referred to as the Cherokee jail or penitentiary, was created for reformation as well as for punishment for offenders. According to the law, punishment could include hard labor, solitary confinement, or, imprisonment and confinement therein at hard labor. It was used, "when deemed expedient for the safe keeping of persons charged with murder, or other high crimes, and for the temporary confinement or punishment of persons sentenced by the National Council, or who may be put under arrest for drunkenness, or other misdemeanor, at the seat of government." The Principal Chief had the power to pardon condemned men, with the advice and consent of his Executive Council, but this was rarely exercised."

Appointed by Principal Chief Charles Thompson in December of 1875, Samuel Sixkiller, became the National Prison's first High Sheriff. His $500 annual salary was paid out of the National treasury. Sixkiller was initially delayed from using the jail as a place of imprisonment for several months until the criminal portion of law was in force appropriation to furnish supplies for the maintenance of inmates.

Being High Sheriff was a formidable task since responsibilities required that he act as warden, treasurer of the National Prison, custodian of the capital building and other public property at the seat of government, and perform such general and special duties imposed under him by law. Duties of the sheriff, described by Sixkiller's successor, were "impossible."

Info provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center cultural@cherokee.org