For many years, the Cherokees were divided into two major factions around the issue of removal. Those who opposed removing from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory were known as the Ross Party. Those who favored the move made up the Treaty Party. Bitter rancor and even violence marked the era of these two parties.
The divisions continued into the American Civil War with many of the Ross Party siding with the Union and many of the Treaty Party favoring the Confederacy. The war for a time fueled the nation’s divisions, but by its end many Cherokees realized they should not allow themselves to be drawn into such a bloody conflict again.
Following the Civil War, the Ross Party became known as the National Party. In one of the first elections, Lewis Downing ran for chief on a reconciliation platform and his supporters became known as the Downing Party. This party exercised a great deal of control in the political offices of the nation until statehood. But at every election, the old issues brought out the prejudices and rancor of the past.
In 1887, Joel Mayes of the Downing Party ran against Rabbit Bunch for principal chief. These two men were seeking to replace Dennis Bushyhead who had held the position for two terms as a member of the National Party.
Mayes, a cattleman from the area that would one day be named Mayes County, won the election. Their constitution required the two houses of the Cherokee legislature to meet in a joint session and declare the election. But the houses were divided – the Council was dominated by the Downing Party and the Senate was primarily National Party. The senators refused to call for the joint session that would certify Mayes’ election. So, Chief Bushyhead continued to act as chief for a few months as the stalemate lingered.
In January of 1888, leaders of the Downing Party agreed to meet in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah. They came armed and determined to use force if necessary to see that their candidate was seated. Members of the National Party were also heavily armed, and everyone in town tensely awaited the outcome.
The Downings arrived at the capitol building, pushed past the guards and forced their way into Chief Bushyhead’s office, breaking down his door in the process. Here the president of the senate, a Downing man, administered the oath of office to Joel Mayes. Bushyhead conceded the office and urged everyone to remain calm and return to their homes.
A few days later, a strange sight greeted Tahlequah residents from the window of a store on Muskogee Avenue. The plaster cast of a foot sat in the window and it was missing its big toe. It was a symbol of the recent conflict for the man who had broken down the door of the executive office had broken his toe in the process. Everyone got a laugh from someone’s droll sense of humor and the laughter broke the tension between the factions.
Mayes had a successful first term as chief and was easily elected for a second term in a much less rancorous campaign. Perhaps the humorous “broken toe” served as a reminder to not take politics quite so seriously.
Reach Jonita Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org.