Frontier soldiers and marshals weren’t the only law enforcement presence throughout Indian and Oklahoma territories. Indian tribes had their own police forces to keep order in their communities.
The Cherokee Nation has one of the first documented community police agencies, known as the “Regulators,” and dates to the early 1800s before their forced removal from southeastern states to Indian Territory. Their mission was to prevent horse stealing and robbery, to protect widows and orphans, and to kill any accused person resisting their authority.
In November 1844, after the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee National Council passed a bill authorizing a Lighthorse Company. One source said the name Lighthorse came from Revolutionary War hero General Henry Lee, who was called “Lighthorse Harry” due to his rapid cavalry movements during the conflict. Another source infers the name came from a man by the name of Thomas Lighthorse, who was the U.S. Indian Agent to the Iowa, Sac, and Fox tribes in Nebraska. He was the first agent to report the establishment of a federally sponsored Indian police force. The Cherokee Lighthorse Company included a captain, lieutenant and 24 horsemen. Included in their mission was to pursue and arrest all fugitives from justice.
After being relocated to Oklahoma, the Indian nations known as The Five Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) set up their law enforcement and judicial systems similar to what they had in their original homelands. The Indian lawmen were tribal police and criminals were processed through the Indian courts for trial and punishment. Sentencing was carried out by an Indian judge and jury. The Kiowa and Comanche set up police forces at the Anadarko Agency in Caddo County.
A federally sponsored Indian Police Force was established in 1869; however, no funds were allotted to compensate the group. Indian agents didn’t wait for congress to act and began organizing law enforcement groups within the tribes they were assigned to oversee. In Arizona, the San Carlos Reservation Agent, John Clum, organized a special force of 103 Apaches to peacefully arrest Geronimo and his followers in 1877. Geronimo’s group was accused of raiding several Arizona settlements.
“Only Clum and 22 policemen went to Warm Springs Agency where Geronimo was. The remainder of the force stayed a few miles out with orders to come in after nightfall. When the reserves slipped in, they were hidden in a commissary warehouse. Geronimo and the 50 men with him believed they had the agent's forces badly outnumbered. But as Clum prepared to make demands, the doors of the warehouse were flung open, and with rifles at the ready, the reserves took control.” The incident was documented in an article titled “A Short History of Indian Law Enforcement” at bialaw.fedworld.gov/history.
Congress eventually allotted funds for the U.S. Indian Police Force for the first time in 1879. Their duties included arresting and turning back intruders, removing squatters’ stakes, driving out cattle, horse or timber thieves, escorting survey parties, serving as guards at ration and annuity distributions, protecting agency buildings and other property, returning truants to school, stopping bootleggers, marking arrests for disorderly conduct, drunkenness, domestic violence and theft, serving as couriers, keeping agents informed of births and deaths and notifying agents of any strangers.
One of the most famous officers in the U.S. Indian Police Force was Capt. Sam Sixkiller, who was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2010. He was a Cherokee who became a legend in carrying out his duties.
Capt. Sixkiller was born in Going-Snake District, Cherokee Nation, in 1862. His biography, found at okhistory.org, said he was raised in the Cherokee Nation and educated at the Old Baptist Mission. He joined the Southern Army and served one year under General Stand Waite, who commanded Indian forces made up mostly from the Cherokee, Muskogee and Seminole Indian tribes. Gen. Waite was the last Confederate States Army general to surrender. In the Cherokee language, Waite means “stand firm.”
After one year with Gen. Waite, Capt. Sixkiller joined the Federal Artillery Company at Fort Gibson and married Miss Fannie Foreman. They moved to Tahlequah and he was appointed high sheriff. In 1879 they moved to Muskogee, Creek Nation, and Capt. Sixkiller was made Captain of the U.S. Indian Police Force of the Five Tribes. Reportedly, he did more than any one person to free the railroad towns in Indian Territory of their dangerous and reckless elements.
Sources for this article include www.tribal-institute.org, “Indian Law Enforcement History” (web.archive.org); Oklahoma Historical Society, okhistory.org; http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/, “Indian Police” by Art T. Burton; en.wikipedia.org.
FROM ‘REGULATORS’ TO LIGHTHORSE