Albert Pike, lawyer, soldier, poet and author, and one of the most remarkable figures in American history, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 29, 1809, the son of Benjamin and Sarah (Andrews) Pike. He attended school at Newburyport, the town to which his parents moved while he was still a boy, and at an academy in Framingham, Massachusetts. Through most of the years 1824 through 1831 Pike taught at schools in Gloucester, Fairhaven, and Newburyport, while pursuing private study and writing poetry in his spare time. His self-acquired knowledge of the classics was prodigious, and he acquired a working knowledge of Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French. In addition to a strong literary bent, he possessed unbounded physical energy and great determination. More than six feet tall and large of frame, with hair that reached his shoulders and a beard that reached near his waist, Pike also presented an impressive appearance.
When the restraints of New England life became too irksome for his adventurous spirit, he set out, in March 1831, for the West. Reaching Independence, Missouri, with little money and less of a plan for his future, Pike joined a party of traders and hunters bound for New Mexico. On the trail his horse broke away, leaving him to walk the remaining 500 miles to Taos. His party was caught, as well, in a ferocious snowstorm that caused a layover of five days and froze many of the horses. After reaching Taos at last, Pike accompanied another expedition to Santa Fe, but left that "city of mud" in 1832 for a trapping venture on the Llano Estacado of West Texas. He found the beaver population negligible, however, and traversed the Caprock, crossed Oklahoma, and finally arrived at Fort Smith, Arkansas, having traveled 1,300 miles, 650 on foot, and experienced many hardships and exciting adventures.
While serving as associate editor of the Little Rock, Arkansas, Advocate in 1833, Pike wrote in travel narrative, short story, and verse of his recent adventures. These vivid memoirs, tales, and poems, which first appeared serially in the Advocate were published by Light and Horton of Boston in 1834 as Prose Sketches and Poems Written in the Western Country. Pike's narrative is said to be the first book ever printed dealing with the region between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Certainly Pike was New Mexico's first Anglo-American poet as well as its first short story-writer in English and was among the first to describe in print the Mexican borderlands.
On October 10, 1834, Pike married Mary Ann Hamilton, and her dowry enabled him to purchase an interest in the Advocate. The following year he became its sole owner and editor. In 1837, however, he sold the newspaper, having been licensed to practice law. Within a few years he was regarded as one of the most capable attorneys in the Southwest and became the first reporter of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He wrote "Maxims of the Roman Law and Some of the Ancient French Law, as Expounded and Applied in Doctrine and Jurisprudence," which, although unpublished, greatly enhanced his reputation as a student of the law. As a staunch Whig and later a Know-Nothing, he championed many internal-improvement causes against the Democratic majority in Arkansas.
During the Mexican War Pike commanded a troop of volunteer cavalry in Archibald Yell's regiment and performed quite credibly at the battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. His War for Southern Independence record, however, was not so handsome. Although opposed to both slavery and secession, he cast his lot with the Confederacy and during the first year of the war greatly assisted Gen. Ben McCulloch in formulating alliances with the civilized tribes of the Indian Territory. (See “The Mission of Albert Pike” below)
He was commissioned a brigadier general on November 22, 1861, and led a brigade of Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees at the battle of Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge), Arkansas, in March 1862. Criticism of Pike and his command caused him to offer his resignation on July 12, 1862, but it was not accepted until November 5. His response to continued criticism led a fellow officer in the department to the conviction that Pike was "either insane or untrue to the South," and on November 3, 1862, he was arrested and was briefly placed under confinement in Warren, Texas. The end of the war saw him an associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
With his property confiscated and viewed with suspicion both in the North and the South, Pike became something of a wanderer. He first moved to New York in 1865 but feared arrest for inciting the Indians to revolt and so fled to Canada. When Andrew Johnson issued him a pardon on August 30, 1865, however, Pike returned to Arkansas but was charged with treason. After vindicating himself against these charges, Pike moved first to Memphis, where he practiced law and edited the Memphis Appeal, and then to Washington, D.C., where he continued his practice and edited the Patriot. Pike died in the house of the Scottish Rite Temple in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1891. Although he had instructed that his body be cremated and his ashes strewn around the roots of two acacia trees in front of the home of the Supreme Council, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington. Of his six children, only three survived him, one son having been killed in Confederate service.
Pike is perhaps best known for his work as a Freemason. For many years he was engaged in rewriting the rituals of the society, and "Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry" (unpublished) remains one of the standard works on the subject. He also spent much time reading and translating eastern writings. Pike's reputation as a poet was considerable, and his contribution to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine caused its editor to place him "in the highest order of his country's poets." His works include Hymns to the Gods and Other Poems (1872), Gen. Albert Pike's Poems (1900), and Lyrics and Love Songs (1916). In 1859 Harvard awarded Pike an honorary master of arts degree. Although his reputation as a poet has suffered over the years, his "Dixie" maintains a lusty vigor that makes it perhaps the best of the many versions of the famous Southern anthem. The narrative of his travels remains one of the most important descriptions of early New Mexico and far West Texas.
The Confederacy was early alive to the importance of securing an alliance with these five great tribes of Indians. It was asserted that such an alliance would protect Texas from invasion from Kansas, and that the Indians had sufficient cattle to feed all of the armies of the south. In addition, the tribes could supply soldiers especially valuable for scouting and cavalry operations along the border. Accordingly, on March 4, 1861, the provisional congress meeting at Montgomery authorized the Indian tribes west of Arkansas and to negotiate treaties of alliance with them.
The man chosen by President Davis for this important mission was Albert Pike, a native of New England who in 1832 had migrated to Arkansas. Pike had served in the Mexican War and had risen to the rank of captain. He was a poet and a thirty-third degree Mason. During his long residence in Arkansas he had often visited the Indians to the west of that state, among whom he was well known and popular. Pike soon set out from Little Rock for Fort Smith, where he found General Ben McCulloch, who was in command of the Confederate troops closely followed by McCulloch, and from there went to Park Hill to urge Chief John Ross to sign a treaty of alliance with the South.
Everything seemed to favor Pike. When the southern states seceded from the Union, Elias Rector, head of the Southern Superintendency, and all the Indian agents under his direction resigned their positions and were provisionally retained for service by the Confederate government. The United States had appointed new agents for the Five Civilized Tribes, but owing to the disturbed conditions in this region, not one of them was able to reach his station. The troops had been withdrawn from Fort Gibson in 1857 and, with the coming of war, the soldiers of the garrisons at Forts Washita, Arbuckle and Cobb were also withdrawn from the Indian Territory for service elsewhere, leaving the Indians with the feeling that they had been abandoned by the North. Also, the annuities due these tribes from the sale of their lands in the East remained unpaid. because United States officials were unwilling to attempt to send money to the Indian Territory, since they thought it would in all probability fall into the hands of the Confederacy. This fear, to them, may have been justified, but surely the powers-that-be could have found a way if they had really wanted to, and the tribes naturally wanted the funds rightfully due them. They thought that the failure of the Untied States to send their money was a confession of weakness and a further reason for them to distrust the government that had so many times left them high and dry, which did not augur well for the future.
In spite of all this, Chief John Ross was determined to remain neutral. He declared that the Cherokees were bound to the United States by treaty, and that since his people formed an independent nation they had no part in the quarrel between the North and South, but desired to live in peace with both. He maintained this position in spite of the pleadings of Pike and McCulloch and their assertions that neutrality was impossible, and also despite the pressure brought to bear upon him by the southern leaders in Arkansas.
Finding it impossible to secure a treaty with the Cherokees, Pike proceeded to the North Fork village, where he met commissioners of the Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws.
He experienced some difficulty with the Creeks, since a number of their leaders were away holding council with the Plains tribes. Many of the leaders, however, were favorable to the North. The Creeks signed a treaty without much delay and it was ratified some days later by the tribal council.
With the Choctaws and Chickasaws Pike had no difficulty whatever, since they had already expressed their sympathy for the South and had even provided for unusual military service for all able-bodied young men fo the tribes. They accordingly signed a joint treaty with Pike. Since the Confederate commissioner had been granted virtually plenary powers by his government, he was able to offer terms very favorable to the Indians, who felt that the Confederacy wished to be not only fair but generous in its dealings with them, an attitude which it seemed to them the government of the United States had not always shown in the past.
From the North Fork village, Pike went to the Seminole Agency and signed a treaty with that tribe. He then journeyed west to the Wichita Agency on the Washita, not far from the site of the present town of Anadarko, to make treaties with the small tribes and bands living in the Leased District. These included the Wichita and some bands of Comanche, Tonkawa, Shawnee, Delaware, and other tribes.
Pike's purpose in negotiating a treaty with these Indians was not to secure their aid for the Confederate cause, since they were not numerous enough to be of any substantial help. Rather, since these bands had in some cases been raiding in Texas, he hoped that by securing an alliance with them he would be of considerable importance after the men of the Texas frontier settlements had left their homes to join the Southern Army. Evidently he sought to impress upon the Indians that Texas was a state of the Confederacy, and that any future raids should be directed against the people of the northern state of Kansas.
After spending some weeks with these western Indians, Pike set out on his return journey by way of the Cherokee Country. Conditions among the Cherokees had changed materially since the time of Pike's first visit to them. With the leaders of the Ridge-Boudinot faction, who had always been in full sympathy with the southern cause, Pike had carried on a fairly regular correspondence throughout the summer. Also numerous young Cherokees had crossed over into Arkansas to join the Confederate army. The success of the southern armies during the early months of the war had also had its effect and the fact that all other large tribes of the Indian Territory had joined the Confederacy eventually seemed to convince Chief Ross that it would be impossible for the Cherokees to stand alone on the policy of complete neutrality. Accordingly, in August, 1861, he summoned a mass meeting or convention of the tribe to assemble at Tahlequah. Here he declared that he believed it would be useless to try to hold out longer, and voiced the opinion that the Cherokees should ally themselves with the South. To this pronouncement the convention responded with a set of resolutions expressing complete confidence in the regularly constituted authorities of the Cherokee Nation and a willingness to be guided by them in all matters touching the welfare and safety of the people. In consequence, when Pike reached Tahlequah on about October 1, he found no difficulty in negotiating a treaty. He first signed treaties with some bands of the Osages, Senecas, Shawnees, and Quapaws, and on October 7, the Cherokee Treaty of Alliance was formally signed. Pike's work as a diplomat in the Indian Territory had been successfully completed.
All Pike's treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes were very much alike. The Confederacy agreed to accept the same obligations and responsibilities to these Indians that had formerly been held by the United States. It agreed to assume and pay their annuities, to guarantee them their lands forever, together with the right of self-government. Slavery was recognized and a fugitive slave law was to be enforced. The Indians were to be protected and to be furnished arms with which to protect themselves, but were not to be called upon to fight, except by their own consent, outside the limits of Indian Territory. The Cherokees and Choctaws were to be allowed to choose a delegate to the Confederate Congress, and some hope was held out that the Indian country might eventually become a state of the Southern Confederacy. The treaties were on the whole fair and even generous in their terms.
With his work as envoy completed, Pike left the Indian country for Arkansas to prepare his report to President Davis. In November, however, he was appointed to the command of the newly created Department of Indian Territory, with the rank of brigadier general. He had many details to settle, however, and did not reach his headquarters post, Cantonment Davis near Fort Gibson, until February, 1862.