Published on November 1, 2014 by Carol
Chitto Harjo (also known as Crazy Snake, Wilson Jones, Bill Jones, Bill Snake, and Bill Harjo; 1846–1911) was a leader and orator among the traditionalists in the Muscogee Creek Nation in Indian Territory at the turn of the 20th century. He resisted changes which the US government and local leaders wanted to impose to achieve statehood for what became Oklahoma. These included extinguishing tribal governments and civic institutions and breaking up communal lands into allotments to individual households, with United States sales of the “surplus” to European-American and other settlers. He was the leader of the Crazy Snake Rebellion on March 25, 1909 in Oklahoma. At the time this was called the last “Indian uprising”
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Born in the Muscogee Creek Nation in Indian Territory after the tribe was removed from Alabama in the 1830s, Wilson Jones was a full-blood Muscogee Creek Indian. He was better known by his Creek name of Chitto Harjo, meaning “Crazy Snake.” Chitto means “snake” and harjo means “one who is brave beyond description, or foolhardy.” He became a traditionalist, belonging to the minority of the tribe who remained loyal to the Union during the American Civil War.
Later in the century, traditionalists worked to reinstate the tribal government of 1867 and to enforce treaty rights with the United States. They opposed the extinguishing of government and allotment of lands to households under the Dawes Commission
While a young man, Chitto Harjo was allied with the federalists or Loyalists led by Opothleyahola, who moved the group to Kansas in 1861 with the start of the American Civil War. They remained loyal to the Union when most Creek allied with the Confederacy. He and many of these Creek men were recruited to the Union Army and served with federal forces in the Civil War. In testimony in 1906, he said that he had believed this service, in a war between the white men and one which did not concern the Indians, would help ensure the maintenance of government promises to his people. The Civil War divided the tribe, as many Creek were allied with the Confederacy.
In the late 19th century, the Muscogee Creek and other American Indian tribes in Indian Territory were pressured to change by the US government, in part to make way for a demand for statehood by European-American settlers in parts of the territory. There was national legislation to extinguish tribal government and to establish individual household allotments of land in place of tribal communal holdings. Congress created the Dawes Commission in 1896 to carry out the allotment of lands for the Five Civilized Tribes. The Dawes Rolls were the registries of tribal members who were eligible to receive allotments. These became a record of tribal members.
Chitto Harjo was a leader in the Four Mothers Society, an intertribal religious movement. This group sought to revive the traditional practices and solidarity between related tribes that had been relocated to Oklahoma from the southeastern United States. In 1900 a meeting at Harjo’s ceremonial grounds of Old Hickory declared the chief Pleasant Porter deposed for having violated the 1867 Creek Constitution while cooperating with the allotment process. They selected Chitto Harjo as the new principal chief of the Creek. They founded a police force, known as Lighthorse, and attempted to dissuade the Creek from accepting allotment of lands.
From 1900 to 1909, Chitto Harjo led Creek resistance to the assimilation changes. The Green Peach War took place in 1901, and Isparhecher retired. He had been a judge in the Okmulgee District and leader of Loyalists. Harjo led those Creek who opposed cultural assimilation and allotment. As the US was trying to extinguish tribal government, Crazy Snake and his followers set up a separate government for a time at the old Hickory Stomp Grounds southeast of Okmulgee|.
Chitto Harjo and others were arrested and convicted in US court and imprisoned briefly. They were released on parole. During the next five years, the majority of the tribe accepted the changes and were allotted individual plots of land, in preparation for the territory to be admitted to statehood as Oklahoma. Chitto Harjo and other Snakes refused to choose their allotments.
In 1906 members of a Special Senate Investigating Committee visited the Indian Territory to learn more about the issues and why some of the Muscogee Creek people were resisting changes. Harjo, as the recognized as a leader of the traditionalists, testified at length to the senators. His speech to the US Congress in 1906 is considered an eloquent statement regarding US treatment of Indian peoples. It is often quoted for the phrase, “as long as the grass grows”, used in regard to the promised perpetuity of Indian treaties and agreements with the US government.
In 1909, after Oklahoma had achieved statehood and passed Jim Crow laws like those of neighboring states of Arkansas and Texas, a group of African Americans came to Harjo’s grounds seeking refuge. They had faced discrimination and been driven out of other parts of Oklahoma. During the time of the March meeting of the Four Mothers Society, local European-Americans said that a piece of smoked meat had been stolen from them. Fearing an alliance between the Creek and the African Americans, they called together a white posse to break up the black encampment. A melee ensued in which one black man was killed, a white man wounded, and 42 blacks were arrested and jailed.
Whites began to get arms, wanting to break up the Creek-black encampment and to arrest Chitto Harjo, known as a conservative leader. When a group went to his house, a gun battle broke out. Two white deputies were quickly killed and others were wounded; Harjo and his followers escaped to the old Choctaw Nation. They were helped by fellow members of the Four Mothers Society. This became known as the “Crazy Snake Rebellion”.
The Oklahoma governor, “Charles N. Haskell, ordered a militia to pursue the Creek conservatives and restore order in McIntosh and Okmulgee counties.” The commanding officer found that whites were causing most of the problem and forced the disbanding of posses in the area. Harjo took refuge with Daniel Bob, a Choctaw conservative leader, in McCurtain County, Oklahoma. He died in 1911, without being seen again by white enforcers