Was Nede Wade “Ned” Christie a bloody outlaw or a wrongfully accused Cherokee patriot? That was the question in 1887 when he was charged with gunning down U.S. Deputy Marshal Dan Maples from ambush.
The crime that triggered Ned Christie’s troubles occurred in Indian Territory near Tahlequah on May 4, 1887, when Maples, who worked out of the U.S. District Court in Fort Smith, led a group composed of marshals and possemen into Indian Territory to make arrests for the illegal sale of whiskey. One of the principal targets was Bud Trainer, a notorious whiskey dealer and troublemaker with a violent past.
After a day of investigating to determine Trainer’s whereabouts, Maples and posseman George Jefferson were headed back to their camp near Spring Branch Creek on the outskirts of Tahlequah. Somewhere between Tahlequah and the camp, Maples was shot from ambush by a killer who escaped unseen. Maples’ wound proved to be fatal, and he died the next day.
The remaining marshals immediately suspected Trainer but also learned that Christie, a Cherokee councilman, and four other Cherokees had been seen in the area of the crime. In spite of his generally good reputation, Christie was known to be hot tempered when he drank and in 1885 had been charged with manslaughter in the death of another Cherokee, William Palone. Christie was tried in the tribal court and found not guilty of the crime, which allegedly arose over an insult to Christie’s mother.
Christie, who was drinking with friends at the time of the marshal’s death, denied committing the crime. On the advice of friends, Christie left town for his home in the Rabbit Trap community of the Going Snake District in the Cherokee Nation, where he lived with his wife, Nancy, and their 13-year-old son, James. Because the crime involved a U.S. marshal, it came under the jurisdiction of U.S. District Judge Isaac Parker, widely known as the “Hanging Judge,” and Christie feared that he could not receive a fair trial in whiteman’s court.
At the time, Christie was a tall, handsome man of 35 years and a respected citizen of the Cherokee Nation. A gunsmith and blacksmith, he was a Cherokee statesman and one of the members of the Executive Council, who acted as advisor to the Principal Chief. Christie was also a staunch advocate of Cherokee sovereignty, renowned for his fiery speeches against breaking up the Cherokee Nation into allotments and becoming part of a new state.
After returning to Rabbit Trap, Christie learned that he had been indicted for Maples’ murder and that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He wrote a letter to Judge Parker and informed the judge that he would be willing to surrender if Parker would ensure him bail so that he could collect evidence to prove his innocence. Parker did not respond, and marshals sought to find and arrest Christie.
Christie received the aid of other Cherokees, who warned him whenever marshals were in the area, and evaded capture for two years. In 1889, U.S. Marshal Jacob Yoes took office in Fort Smith and determined to bring in Christie. Yoes assigned the task to his top deputy, Heck Thomas, a notorious lawman famous for his many arrests and later his work to bring down the Doolin Gang.
Thomas enlisted the aid of Deputy Marshal L.P. Isbell of Vinita and two other marshals. The marshals were also assisted by Trainer, who had been appointed a deputy despite facing criminal charges. Trainer led the posse to Christie’s home, where they hoped to take him by surprise. Instead, Christie’s dogs alerted him to their presence.
Christie armed himself, scrambled into his loft, and when Thomas demanded his surrender replied with a gobble—the Cherokees’ traditional war cry—and a volley of bullets. A gunfight then occurred and the marshals were held at bay. Thomas decided to burn Christie out and set fire to Christie’s blacksmith shop, which was near enough to also ignite Christie’s cabin. During the fight, Isbell exposed himself. Christie badly wounded the marshal with a shot from his Winchester.
As the house burned, Christie’s wife fled while the deputies held their fire. Christie had been shot in the head and temporarily lost his vision and consciousness. His nephew Little Arch Wolf fired his uncle’s rifle at the lawmen and then escaped the burning cabin. Little Arch was also shot through the right lung during the fight.
At this point, Thomas thought Christie was dead. Isbell was bleeding badly and needed medical attention, so the posse left the scene to seek medical aid. Nancy returned to the cabin, found Christie alive and, with the help of friends, managed to drag him to safety. Both Christie and Wolf survived with the help of a local white doctor and a Cherokee medicine man.
From this time forward, Christie declared a one-man war against the United States and swore to never surrender. Realizing that he was vulnerable, he constructed a fort for his protection with the help of friends. The fort was double-walled and built of logs with sand packed between the walls. It also featured gun ports and was kept stocked with food, water, and ammunition. The Indian was now in the fort holding off the attacks of whitemen.
Although Christie was still considered innocent by the Cherokees, he was a wanted criminal in the eyes of the law for killing one marshal and wounding another. A handy scapegoat, Christie was attributed with every robbery or unsolved violent crime in Indian Territory. He may have sold whiskey illegally to support his family, but there is little hard evidence that he committed other crimes. His exploits also gained national notoriety and he was featured in dime novels and other publications as a bloody outlaw who terrorized both whites and Indians.
Christie’s freedom was an embarrassment to the marshals and the reward for his capture increased from $500 to $1,000. Given this background, he became the target for the deputies and bounty hunters and repeated attempts were made to arrest him. All of these efforts failed as he either escaped capture in the woods or repulsed the marshals from his fort.
Finally, in October 1892, Yoes decided to make an all-out push to get Christie. A posse of six marshals assaulted Christie’s cabin, but two were wounded and the marshals were forced to withdraw. Yoes reacted by mounting a veritable military invasion under the command of Deputy Gideon S. “Cap” White, a former captain in the U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War, and Gus York, a civilian familiar with the territory. A force of 14 men was assembled and a canon was borrowed from an army post in Kansas.
This formidable force surrounded Christie’s cabin and prepared to attack on the morning of November 3, 1892. The cabin was occupied not only by Christie and Nancy but also by Christie’s daughter Mary, granddaughter Charlotte, Nancy’s son Albert, Little Arch Wolf, and Charles Hair, a young Cherokee. Historical accounts vary as to whether James and a young Cherokee boy Charles Grease were also present.
Early on the morning of the 3rd, Little Arch, armed as always, left the cabin headed for the nearby spring. The deputies yelled for him to surrender, but when he fired on them they let fly and wounded him in the leg and arm. Little Arch stumbled into the cabin. The battle was on.
After the first exchange of fire, the marshals let the women leave. The fight went on through the day as the posse exchanged fire with Christie, Little Arch, and Hair. The canon was maneuvered into position and canon shots were fired at the fort, which proved to be so well built that all of the shells bounced away. Frustrated, the marshals loaded the canon with more powder and promptly blew the gun to pieces.
Christie had constructed the out buildings far enough from the fort to avoid being burned out, but two marshals were able to push a wagon loaded with dynamite against the wall of the fort. The marshals ignited the dynamite destroying part of the fort and setting fire to the remainder. Christie made a run for it, firing at the marshals as he burst out of the flaming fort. He was gunned down as he tried to escape through the woods.
Hair was wounded and captured. Little Arch escaped only to be apprehended months later in Chicago. Christie’s body was tied to his front door and transported to Ft. Smith, where he was put on display and photographed with the members of the posse.
In 1896, Trainer was killed in Vinita by four men armed with shotguns, likely over a whiskey deal gone bad. The real story of Maples’ killing came to light in 1918 when an eyewitness, Dick Humphrey, gave an interview to the Daily Oklahoman. Humphrey, an ex-slave, had seen Trainer kill Maples but feared that Trainer would kill him if he talked.
Christie’s great-great-nephew Roy J. Hamilton, who has written books about Christie and tried to dispel the myth of Christie’s outlaw deeds, has said, “I really don’t think Ned was fully exonerated. Why do I say that? People still call him an outlaw.” Some historians may still call him outlaw, but many Cherokees see him as a symbol of independence and strength. He has been described as “a warrior,” “our Geronimo,” and “a symbol of Cherokee sovereignty, fighting for his people.”
In spite of the assimilation of the Cherokee Nation into the state of Oklahoma, the tribe remains a strong independent force with its government, language, and historic traditions. Ned Christie lived free and died free, a Cherokee who epitomizes the tribe’s undying spirit.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016