April 15, 1872 | Tragedy at Going Snake

 Zeke Proctor

“For about five minutes rifles cracked and balls whizzed, and at the end of that time seven of the marshal’s forces were dead and Deputy Marshal Owens mortally wounded, two others severely hurt, and only Deputy Marshal Peavy remaining uninjured.  He bore off Owens in his arms, and his clothing was perfectly riddled with balls.”             -Orleans County Monitor (Barton, VT), May 6, 1872

Zeke Proctor was on trial for the murder of Polly Beck when a posse of deputy US marshals arrived to arrest him.  Both Proctor and Beck were members of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Proctor was on trial in a Cherokee court. Where Proctor would be tried was a question of jurisdiction that, in 1872 Indian Territory, was a serious matter.

Deputy Marshals Jacob Owens and Joseph Peavy, with a posse of ten men, rode out to the isolated school house where Proctor’s trial was taking place to serve him with the arrest warrant. Several relatives of the deceased Polly Beck were part of the posse. The school house was packed and many in the audience were heavily armed. It will probably never be known who fired the first shot, but once fired, all hell broke loose. The posse was completely wiped out except for Deputy Marshal Peavy who fled with a mortally wounded Deputy Marshal Owens. In the courtroom, the defendant, the judge, one of the attorneys, and several others were wounded and three were killed.

Newspapers all over the United States published articles about the tragedy. This excerpt from a Vermont paper was typical of how many Americans viewed the incident at that time:

“It appears from this account that the much-vaunted success of the efforts to civilize the Cherokees… has been of the most superficial and partial character, and that the innate barbarism and ̒‘cussedness’ of the Indians is not thus easily eradicated.”

The Cherokees, of course, had a different perspective. The principle was one of sovereignty and whether the Cherokee nation had the right to try its own citizens without interference. A tragic domestic dispute exposed a fundamental conflict between the federal government and the Native Nations in Indian Territory that led to a dozen people, including nine officers, paying a terrible price.