top of page

Missionaries and Indians Battle Liquor (Part 2)

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 second.

It was in the Cherokee Nation that the temperance movement took form in its most interesting and spectacular aspect. The majority of this tribe was removed through the autumn and winter of 1838 overland through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, to their new home in the Indian Territory. About 4,000 of them died on the way and the survivors were so impressed by the dreadful effects produced by the sellers of whisky deliberately conceived by the whites to force them from their old home, and by those along their unhappy route, called by them "The Trail of Tears,” that they had scarcely begun to erect new homes in the strange country to which they had been forced, when they called temperance meetings to formulate plans for the suppression of the introduction and sale of liquor in their new country.

In April, 1839, the month of the arrival of the last of the emigrants, meetings were held at the homes of Rev. Jesse Bushyhead and W. A. Adair, near the Arkansas line, and resolutions were signed by 100 Cherokees at one and 62 at the other, declaring that all whisky introduced in the Nation should be seized and destroyed. If the person so introducing it were a Cherokee citizen he should be punished, and if a white man he should be reported to the commanding officer of the nearest military post.

The Cherokees present organized a company of lighthorse consisting of a captain, lieutenant and twenty men to carry their resolutions into effect, and the signers bound themselves to render all assistance in their power. But their neighbors saw something sinister in the plans for curtailing their sales of liquor and carried tales to the commanding officer at Fort Gibson that the Indians were inciting reprisals against the forces that removed them from their old homes in Georgia.

The Cherokee people reestablished their government, adopted a constitution and code of laws in the autumn of 1839 and returned to an era of government by laws enacted by their legislative body, construed by their courts and administered by their chief and other constitutional officers. The Cherokee Temperance Society had been organized in 1836 among the few thousand Cherokee Indians already living in the West and by 1843 the combined factions of the tribe contributed a total of over 2,000 members to this temperance organization. This society held annual meetings where the evil effects of the use of liquor were impressed upon all who would listen, and in that year more than 400 additional names were added to the rolls.

So influential had the temperance movement become at this time that the Cherokee National Council on October 25, 1841 enacted stringent laws against the introduction and sale of liquor in the Cherokee country. These laws were printed and circulated all over the Cherokee Nation for the information of all and remained on the statutes of the Cherokee Nation as long as it existed.

An important Indian council in the summer of 1843 at Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, was attended by representatives of 18 western tribes of Indians. Hundreds of Indians were in attendance and the Cherokee sheriff of the district seized and destroyed over 1,700 gallons of whisky brought to the neighborhood in barrels, jugs and bottles for sale to the people gathered there.

Besides the annual meetings of the national temperance society, auxiliary societies were organized in different parts of the Nation so that all the people of the tribe were under the influence of the movement. Stirring meetings were held and speeches were made in English and Cherokee.

Those gathered at these meetings sang “Stalks Abroad a Direful Foe,” “The Penitent Rum Drinker,” and “The Drunkard's Dying Wife”; “The Drunkard's Wife,” was sung to the tune of “Ingleside.” The children sang “Come and Join the Temp'rance Army,” and “Away with Melancholy, nor Doleful Changes Ring.”

The people were then invited to come forward and sign the pledge. And they did sign. Surely these were earnest people to have been moved by such songs.

Cherokees came to these meetings from many miles around; they crowded the little log church or school house for hours listening to the programs while hundreds unable to gain admittance stood around the building. Dr. Elizur Butler, the missionary who shared Dr. (Samuel A.) Worcester's martyrdom in the Georgia penitentiary for his devotion to the Cherokees, fascinated the people with exhibitions of “Dr. Sewell's plates,” which contained pictures of the stomach of a “beastly drunkard” to compare with the normal organ of a man who did not drink.

“This is a new source of information to our people respecting deleterious effects of intoxicating drink and one I think well calculated to make a deep impression on the mind,” said an intelligent Cherokee. The good doctor traveled all over the Cherokee Nation showing and explaining his plates to everybody who would look and listen. Leaving with one group or household his lesson of temperance, he would pass on to impress others.

The temperance movement grew until it transcended in interest all other subjects of general concern in the Cherokee Nation. A Young Men's Temperance Society was organized with several hundred recruits and to make a particular appeal to the youth of the Nation a society called the Cold Water Army was formed in which many children were enrolled. They met annually in November at their national capital where they would “form a march of allegiance” around the capital square, carrying banners and singing temperance songs written and set to music by the Rev. Samuel Worcester, the Presbyterian missionary who also printed temperance tracts on his press at Park Hill.

With great good sense, William P. Ross, secretary of the Cherokee Temperance Society, and nephew of the chief, John Ross, stressed the significance of the organization and education of the children under the banner of temperance: “Commencing thus early in life, to march along the path of temperance, these youthful soldiers, now the beauty and hope of our country, and hereafter to become its mothers, fathers, laborers, law-givers, and guides, must exercise an immense influence, and perhaps are those destined to consummate the great cause in which they have enlisted.”

Rev. Worcester traveled all over the Cherokee Nation carrying in his wagon a little melodeon or “seraphine” and his daughter who played accompaniments wherever people congregated, for the singing of her father's temperance songs. In log churches, or school houses, or homes, under brush arbors, under the shade of forest trees, or in the open on the bank of a stream or beside a cooling spring, Mr. Worcester taught the people to sing temperance songs and preached to them on the evils of intemperance. The Cherokee Advocate, the national newspaper, printed half in English and half in the Cherokee characters invented by the great Cherokee, Sequoyah, was an ardent supporter and aided tremendously in spreading the gospel of temperance.

During this period of intense concern in this vital subject the agent of the Cherokee people was the gallant Pierce M. Butler, former governor of South Carolina, who departed from the Cherokee country to command the Palmetto Regiment and lay down his life at the Battle of Churubusco, Mexico, in 1847. Upon the termination of his service as Cherokee Indian agent he made a final report which contains some interesting observations on the working of the temperance movement among the Indians:

“Temperance has been a God-send to the Cherokee nation. Its progress has been marked by a successful suppression of vice, and a happy subjugation of the turbulent and depraved passions. The number of members is, as will be seen, about 2,700—a larger proportion of the whole people than can be found in any other of equal extent of population. Private associations among themselves of a similar character produce a like effect, working, perhaps, a more lasting and permanent reformation, from the fact that they pride themselves on their undeviating adherence to a promise, and their fidelity to this pledge. The saving influence of this society shows itself not only in the voluntary abstinence from the use of spirits, but also in their manifest demonstration of an intention to prevent its importation into their country.”


Commencing thus early in life, to march along the path of temperance, these youthful soldiers, now the beauty and hope of our country, and hereafter to become its mothers, fathers, laborers, law-givers, and guides, must exercise an immense influence, and perhaps are those destined to consummate the great cause in which they have enlisted.

—William Ross


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.


Related Posts

See All


bottom of page