From the creation of the Lighthorse Companies by the National Council at Broomtown until Oklahoma statehood almost a hundred years later, the stage was set for a number of Cherokee lawmen to walk across the pages of history.
Being an Indian lawman presented its own set of challenges, not only did Indian lawmen have to deal with enforcing the law on a sometimes recalcitrant frontier, but they also had to deal with the schizophrenic nature of Federal Indian Law.
Captain Sam Sixkiller was a lawman’s lawman, serving in both the military and as a lawman from the 1860s until his death in 1886. To this day he is remembered as an honest and honorable lawman committed to his duty. Over the course of his career, he served as sheriff of the Cherokee Nation, Deputy U.S. Marshall, and captain of the U.S. Indian Police. All during the most volatile period of the “Old West.”
Most people, probably, are familiar with “The Old West,” from western movies, comic books and dime novels, in which Natives are either savages or victims. The truth is that a good portion of the deeds and doings of the “Old West” would not have happened without Natives in general and Cherokees in particular. The Old Chisolm Trail was blazed by a Cherokee, some of history’s most famous outlaws, from Dick Glass to the Dalton Gang were killed or captured either by Cherokee lawmen or by lawmen trained by Cherokees.
The Indian Territory, comprising most of what is now the state of Oklahoma, was a very dangerous place in the postwar period. There were a number of reasons for this, including vendettas between Natives who fought for the Yankees and those who fought for the Confederacy.
To make an already unstable situation worse, the legal limbo created by U.S. Indian law denying jurisdiction to Indian police over whites living in the Nations attracted miscreants and lowlifes from San Francisco to New Orleans. If an outlaw felt things getting a little too hot, or the law getting a little too close, it was simple enough to saddle up and “light out for the Nations.”
Pimps and bootleggers, murderers and horse thieves, pickpockets and bunco artists, sorry characters of all kinds attracted by the absence of any effective law, preying on people they assumed had no one to protect them, always the favored targets of evil and cowardly men. This then was the crucible, the fiery trial for men such as Sam Sixkiller. Lawmen for whom the law was not just a job but a calling. An honorable calling as intended by the Cherokee Council when they included the protection of “widows and orphans” in the resolution creating the “Lighthorse” or Cherokee Police.
But being a Cherokee lawman was not even half the battle. Remember, most of the criminals in the territory were not Indians. Most were whites over which Indian lawmen had no jurisdiction unless deputized by the U.S. Government. It was for this reason that Sam Sixkiller, and just about every other lawman in the territory worth his salt, became a deputy U.S. Marshall. As such they could pursue criminals throughout the territory.
A good and honorable job no doubt, but not for a man of shrinking courage. It is said that Muskogee, Indian Territory was the deadliest town west of the Mississippi, this was not Merle Haggard’s Muskogee. Few people there at that time cared about “livin’ right”, they did however care about “bein’ free”, and if that meant killing a cop, that was fine. This was the beat of Sam Sixkiller.
There are (in my opinion) few law enforcement officers today who have Sam’s cool courage, his patience for his honor. If they did, there would be a lot fewer unarmed civilians being shot by cops. It was a dangerous time to be a lawman, then as now, the difference being that then we had men like Sam Sixkiller, men with testicular fortitude, men with honor.
The next time you watch Gunsmoke, just remember, the archetype of the U.S. Marshall was not named Matt Dillon. His name was Sam Sixkiller, and he was a Cherokee Lawman.