top of page

Missionaries and Indians Battle Liquor (Part 1)

Grant Foreman (1869-1953), one of Oklahoma’s greatest early historians, wrote this classic essay for the Chronicles of Oklahoma historical magazine. We have parceled his penetrating work into three convenient parts. This is the first.

Choctaw Indians many years ago said that Neal Dow the Maine apostle of temperance was yet a boy when the first “council fire against whisky was kindled” by them. No class of people in this country had more reason to understand and dread the evils of intemperance than the American Indians. Particularly susceptible, they were from an early day the victims of white exploiters armed with this most potent weapon of spoliation.

The government in the administration of what passed for an Indian policy, enacted laws intended to protect the Indians from its devastating influence. As far back as 1802 in what was called the Indian Intercourse Act, the President was empowered in his discretion to prevent the sale of liquor to the Indians. Twenty years later Congress strengthened his hand slightly by the grant of power to search the stocks of traders in the Indian country for ardent spirits.

In 1834, after the enactment of President Andrew Jackson's famous Indian Removal Bill and the emigration of the Indians from the Southern states was under way, a measure was enacted declaring a vast domain west of the Mississippi River to be "Indian Country." This measure revised and superseded the intercourse act and stringent laws with severe penalties were enacted to prevent the introduction and manufacture of liquor in the region. Under the supposed protection of this act most of the Indians arrived in the West at the end of the tragic forced migration from their ancestral homes in the Southern states.

But while outlawing whisky in the Indian country when introduced by others, the government reserved to itself the use of it in negotiations with the Indians. For the employment of liquor equally with bribery of the responsible members of the tribes became part of governmental policy in dealing with the Indians east of the Mississippi River. Hand in hand these two agencies for influencing reluctant Indians were employed by representatives of the government delegated to negotiate "treaties" with the Red Man. Though dignified by the name, the hundreds of so-called "treaties" between the United States government and the Indian tribes were in nearly all instances documents by which the Indians were wheedled out of parts of their lands; few did not contain cession of their tribal domain.


“While outlawing whisky in the Indian country when introduced by others, the government reserved to itself the use of it in negotiations with the Indians.”

—Grant Foreman


To the more intelligent Indians, treaties with the government came to have the sinister significance of territorial divestiture and to be associated with whisky and bribery, gatherings at which the Indians were gorged with meat and the smartest and most influential of them were treated freely to liquor and in return for signing the desired papers, returned home with money in their pockets.

As part of the plan of the white people engaged in driving the Indians from their homes, vendors were permitted to go about the Indian country without let or hindrance selling whisky to the inhabitants to hasten their ruin and break down their morale and resistance to removal. On the sad journey to the West shameless white men all along the route dogged the footsteps of the unhappy Indians, selling them whisky as long as they had a penny left or a horse, gun or blanket to trade for it. The appalling death rate of between fifteen and twenty thousand Indians during the removal and the first two or three years after their arrival in the West was due in no small degree to the curse of the white man's liquor.

Immediately on the arrival of the immigrant Indians in present day Oklahoma, whisky sellers by the hundreds set up their shops on the borders of Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. Others more venturesome brought the contraband into the country by land and up the Arkansas River.

The introduction of whisky by water grew to such proportions that an army post was established on the river bank about ten miles west of the Arkansas line. Here at Fort Coffee a company of the Seventh Infantry was stationed to intercept boats ascending the river. All boat captains were warned to stop here for inspection of their cargoes under threat of having their boats fired into by a cannon mounted in the fort if they failed.

Fifty-two steamboats stopped for examination in a 60-day period during the summer of 1835. Not far north of the Arkansas River was a road of evil repute running from Fort Smith to the interior of the Cherokee and Creek nations called the "Whisky Road," testifying to the boldness and success of those who scorned the risk of detection.

The immigrant Indians who came from the Southern states to live in the present Oklahoma are called the Five Civilized Tribes. Not the least of their claims to that name is the fact that many years ago they began to observe the harm to their people produced by the introduction and use of whisky and took measures to combat it. No white people ever had such cause to fear it from observing its devastating results.

In 1801 the chiefs of the Choctaw nation were induced to meet commissioners of the United States and agree upon a treaty yielding part of their domain, accept new boundaries, and grant a roadway through their territory to the Mississippi River. Indignant at what they saw there the proud chiefs addressing the commissioners said: “We came here sober; we wish to go away so; we, therefore, request that the strong drink, which we understand our brothers have brought here, may not be distributed.”

In the subsequent treaty of 1820 where a further divestiture of their tribal domain was achieved by Andrew Jackson and another United States commissioner, the Choctaw representatives had a provision incorporated that an agent should be appointed to live in their Nation vested with power to seize and confiscate all the whisky that might be brought into their country. The provision was intended “to promote sobriety among all classes of the red people in the nation, but particularly the poor.” That introduced by the agent or the three principal chiefs, however, was excepted.

After the arrival of the immigrant Indians in the West impoverished, broken spirited, and embittered at their enforced removal from the homes they loved, a large part of them were easy prey to the unscrupulous whites along the border of Indian Territory who sold them whisky in exchange for their meager substance.

The removal of the Choctaw Indians was substantially completed by 1833 and for the next few years sickness and whisky took a sad toll of life and stamina. The intelligent leaders of the tribe rallied round the indomitable missionaries who accompanied them west and organized temperance societies to which there were many adherents among the Indians. Laws were adopted by the Indians in council to prevent the introduction and sale of whisky in their country. In 1849 a petition was circulated and signed by many people asking the Texas legislature to prevent the sale of whisky by citizens of that state to members of the Choctaw tribe.

Creek removal was accomplished principally through the winter of 1836-37 and was a more tragic undertaking than that of the Choctaw Indians. Thousands of them died along the way and the white whisky sellers completed the demoralization of most of the survivors who gave themselves up to drunkenness and debauchery. However, as soon as the leaders of the tribe got their government to functioning again, encouraged by the missionaries they began enacting measures to prevent the introduction of liquor, with some measure of success.


“The intelligent leaders of the tribe rallied round the indomitable missionaries who accompanied them west and organized temperance societies to which there were many adherents among the Indians.”

—Grant Foreman


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :


which can be purchased HERE.

View the inspiring preview video HERE.

7 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page