Historic 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.”

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 and the council made the necessary 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.”

On October 28, 1876, the Cherokee Advocate reported, “Our jail or penitentiary has one inmate – one Charles Clar, who was found guilty of resisting an officer while attempting to arrest Taylor Parris. The sentence is for five years.”

A November 25, 1876 article said that the town was, “startled by the appearance of a cavalcade of 8 or 10 men following a wagon filled with people and proceeded by a pair of well dressed men who looked like officers. It turned out to be a number of prisoners from Delaware District on their way to jail. Half the town was soon at the heels of the party, curious to see the operation of imprisonment practically illustrated – a new thing with most of them. Standing at our window, we could see the prisoners handed over one by one, to disappear behind the stone walls and front doors, which had been erected such from abusing their liberty. We could not help thinking what folly must have possessed them in our favored country – favored beyond any on earth in respect of natural advantages – to violate laws so easy to observe. There were three criminals imprisoned this time, each for five years which increases our jail inmates to five.”

The April 11, 1877 edition of the Cherokee Advocate reported, “Sixkiller . . . is having a wall put around the National Prison – solid boards, ten feet high, which encloses two acres of ground, and adds to the looks and safety of that institution muchly.”

Well-built gallows in the enclosure were described several years later as “not the worse for wear, as the authorities inclined to be very merciful.”

“The High Sheriff…in order to beautify and improve the appearance of the Capitol Square, has grubbed out all of the stumps and overgrowth which covered, to the disgust of the citizens, the entire square, and has placed in their stead, some beautiful shade trees, which is very suggestive to our enterprising citizens that they should do likewise, which would not only add to the appearance of the town, but would enhance the value of their property wonderfully.” “Beautify your homes.”

Of special note in the April 11th edition, an article reported, “Convict labor has been found by those of our citizens who have tried it, to be quite profitable – they work as well, if not better than those who are foot loose. They want to profit by their confinement they say, and had rather work than be idle – they are hired out at one dollar per day in National tickets.”

The existence of a jail and the many newly established laws ran contrary to the thinking of some citizens more accustomed to old Cherokee traditions and practices.

On May 2, 1877 the newspaper reported, “The prisoners in our jail have a kind and intelligent but firm and resolute keeper and guard, and both the class of prisoners and the manner of their confinement is different from what it is in older countries where they have well defined criminal classes and the handling of them is more severe. Here, inducement to break the law by crimes against property are continued to persons who could not steal if they would -–old and disabled men, widows and orphan children. There consequently ought to be no criminal class as a class at all here, nor do we think there is. There is no genuine temptation to dishonesty offered to anyone who can work, from one year’s end to another.”

U.S. Interior Department Agent reports in Indian Territory noted that “there are 43 men of the Indian police force of the agency distributed throughout the agency.” An equal division of the territory to be protected would give about 712 square miles to each officer. They cooperated with both Indian officers and the U.S. deputy marshals and State officials, hunting refugees from justice and made many needed arrests of persons who by for the force, with general authority, would escape.

There were six occupants in the jail on April 8, 1877, “having to serve from four to fifteen years each.”

In December of 1877, a notice was published that said, “Hereafter the convicts. . . will be known by their uniform—streaked and striped.”

January, 1878 news articles say convicts of the national prison are to be taught mechanical arts, such as shoemaking, blacksmithing, wagon making as soon as the shops are put in. Sixkiller is making preparations in February of ’78 to put in and cultivate about thirty or forty acres of corn with his convict force, within a short distance from town. Other enterprising projects by Sixkiller continued through early 1879.

High Sheriff Sixkiller served until June 7, 1879 when he, along with his newly appointed deputy, Cullos Thorne, were arrested and charged with the murder of Jeter Thompson. In a letter to the Principal Chief, Executive Secretary J.F. Thompson stated, “It is the wish of George Downing Johnson and family of deceased that you appoint someone to take Sixkiller’s position until the mitigation, and trial is over because [it] might be used for the advantage of the accused. Anyone acceptable to you and not related to either of the parties would give satisfaction.” He suggested Samuel H. Downing for prison operations.

Sixkiller initially refused to relinquish the prison informing Downing that it would take an act of force. Downing detailed Sixkiller’s insubordination in a five page letter to the Chief. In a July 1st letter to Sixkiller, Chief Thompson repeats his demand to turn over the books, papers and records of the National Prison stating a deadline of the 2nd of July, 1879. The chief warns that a second failure to comply with his demand will find Sixkiller to be held responsible. Sixkiller complied.

David Row calls for a thorough examination of the condition of the National Prison on July 22, 1879. On November 25th, a special committee of the council was appointed to investigate the affairs of Sixkiller.

Sixkiller retained attorneys S.S. Stephine and James M. Bell to “attend to any and all business connected in any way with the office of High Sheriff and the National Prison during the last few years ending in November, 1879.” Eventually acquitted of the murder and released, Sixkiller never regained his position.

The June 7, 1897 Act of Congress that required all original offences committed by citizens of the Cherokee Nation on or after January 1, 1898, should be tried regardless of citizenship by the United States court; along with an Act of Congress approved June 28th, 1898, that abolished the Cherokee courts on and after July 1, 1898; and the burden of the $8,000 annual expense to the Cherokee Nation marked the beginning of the end to the National Prison.

The Cherokee National Council resolution approved by Principal Chief T.M. Buffington on November 28, 1899 and entitled “An Act for the Purpose of disposing of certain jail property belonging to the Nation and for other purposes,” was submitted by the Secretary of the Interior to the President of the United States for executive action on December 20, 1899 and duly approved on December 22. It was placed on file in the Office of Indian Affairs at Washington.

The council act said the agreement entered into by and between the U.S. and Cherokee Commission of January 14, 1899 provided in Sec. 78 that immediately upon ratification of the agreement, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation had the authority and was directed to grant absolute and unconditional pardon to all persons who had heretofore been convicted in the courts of the Cherokee Nation of a violation of Cherokee laws. It stated that the agreement was ratified by a vast majority of citizen voters of the Cherokee Nation.

Additionally, the council act included that the prisoners incarcerated in the national jail had served sentences for more than a year and because of the uncertainty under the existing state of affairs, further supplies had been declined to be longer furnished which of itself necessitated closing the jail. Pending a change in the affairs of the country, it was desirous so far as the public morals would permit, to give all equal opportunity in caring for his share of the common property and they hoped that the prisoners in the jail, when liberated, would lead exemplary lives and make good and useful citizens.

Absolute and unconditional pardons were granted the following persons incarcerated in the jail at Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory.

James Wolf William Clark William Linn Dan Rogers Lee Tehee
Will Wildcat George Beck Don Ross James Shirley Robert Austin
Keener Vann Ross Benge Mose Fielding Jesse Rogers John Watts
Will Sawnie Sam Squirrel Walter Wofford

And all other persons who had heretofore been convicted or indicted by the courts of the Cherokee Nation of a violation of Cherokee laws, and the full rights of citizenship was restored to each of them.

At the end of the following fiscal year, the Cherokee National Prison was closed. The building was soon converted for use by the tribal government for other purposes. Today, in 2000, the building is used by the Cherokee Nation as a home for the Cultural Resource Center and is designated as a National historical site. The third floor no longer exists, nor do the stockade walls and original gallows.

The Cherokee Nation District Court was re-established in 1991 along with the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service under a new self-governance act. The Judicial Branch of the Cherokee Nation operates under the authority of the Judicial Appeals Tribunal which is also known as the tribe’s supreme court. The Supreme Court and District Court are located in the historic Cherokee Capitol Building on the Cherokee Square in downtown Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The National Prison is located on the corner of Choctaw and Water Streets.

Centuries of restoration and rebuilding the Cherokee Nation is a testament to the strength and resilience of our people.

In 1875, the Cherokee National Council codified “An Act in Relation to Crimes and Misdemeanors” that included laws governing the following:

Treason and conspiracy, murder and manslaughter, excusable and justifiable homicide, assault with intent to kill, burglary, robbery and larceny, rape, mayhem, arson, perjury, abortion, poisoning, bribery, embezzlement, forgery and counterfeiting, escape of prisoners, guards, introducing and vending of liquors, houses of ill-fame, gambling, marking branding stock, offenses against health, disturbing public assemblies, malicious trespassing, false pretense, burning prairie or woods, weights and measures, betting on elections, public roads, destroying pecan trees, principals and accessories, slander and libel, Sundays, violation of, damages, skinning dead cattle, game, prairie hay, fish, or destruction of.

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

cultural@cherokee.org