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Riverboat Raiders

June 19, 2002

Historian's Notes

This account of Stand Watie's riverboat raid is another Civil War adventure that seems almost too interesting to be true, but was probably just another day in the life of Indian Territory soldiers. It is incredible, I think to hear of these events and realize that they occurred in areas and places right here in our state.


Knight, Wilfred. Red Fox: Stand Watie and the Confederate Indian Nations during the Civil War years in Indian Territory.

Franks, Kenny. Stand Watie and the Agony of the Cherokee Nation.

Manson, Worten Hathaway. Brigadier General Stand Watie.

Almanac Transcript

Riverboat raiders this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.

Hello, Iím Steven Knoche Kite.

The year is 1864 and the US Civil War is causing panic, mayhem and tragedy for the residents of Indian Territory. For the majority of the war the northern or Federal forces maintained control of what is today Oklahoma. The pro-southern or Confederate forces relegated themselves mainly to guerilla tactics and hit and run raids on northern supply lines. Usually northern army commanders relied on over land routes to send supplies considering the river routes too susceptible to ambush.

In June of 1864, however, plans were changed and a riverboat loaded with supplies began its journey from Fort Smith up the Arkansas River to re-supply troops and Native American refugees in the Fort Gibson area. The southern forces led at this time by famed Cherokee commander Stand Watie, knew in advance of the riverboat plans and planned an ambush to capture the supplies. Riverboats could carry as much as ten wagon loads worth of goods and northern officials took advantage of that fact. Packed as full as possible with all kinds of food and dry goods the U.S. riverboat J R Williams made a tempting target for the southern troops who ran continuously low on supplies. Loaded on board the JR Williams were thousands of yards of cloth, pounds of cotton yarn, blankets, shawls, skirts, harnesses, boots and other shoes, 1,000 barrels of flour, fifteen tons of bacon shoulders and thousands of yards of linen; enough supplies to fuel the southern raiders for many months. Colonel Watie positioned his artillery and men along high bluffs and waited patiently. The riverboat was not provided with any kind of overland protection and the crew on board was minimal. Before long the southern crossfire coming from the high bluffs disabled the boat sending it aground on a sand bar. Overpowered and outnumbered, the northern forces retreated from the boat leaving it to Watie and his men. The euphoria resulting from the capture of the boat led to a looting atmosphere as the southern troops ransacked the boat with many running off to their families carrying what they could.

Unable to transport the massive amounts of supplies he had captured Watie and his remaining men attempted to stow the excess off of the river. Hearing of the ambush northern troops rode quickly to cut off the southern raiders and regain some of the lost supplies. Knowing that he would soon be outnumbered Colonel Watie was forced to burn the great majority of the captured supplies as well as the riverboat before making good his escape. It was in this week of 1864 that Watie and his men pulled off the heist of the year as they captured then lost the supplies aboard the JR Williams.

I'm Steven Knoche Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of the Oklahoma State University Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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