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John Thompson Drew Biography

John Thompson Drew (1796-1865) was a prominent political and military leader of the Cherokee Nation. A shrewd businessman who dealt in grain, beef, and slaves, Drew was fiercely loyal to John Ross and served several times as a Cherokee Canadian District’s senator and legal advisor. He lived at Webber’s Falls near the Arkansas River, owned several salt works, and was considered a rich man in the Cherokee Nation. The John Drew manuscript collection sheds light on early to mid-nineteenth century Cherokee leaders’ involvement with slavery, often revealing its dehumanizing and tragic nature.

Emigration to Indian Territory
Colonel John Drew led the last of thirteen groups to embark from the Southeast for Indian Territory. This group, which included Chief John Ross and his family, traveled by flatboat down the Hiwassee and the Tennessee Rivers. They departed from the Cherokee Agency on December 7, 1838. The trip was especially difficult because extreme drought had caused a major drop in water level along the Tennessee River. Once in Indian Territory, Drew helped to unite the Old Settler Cherokee emigrants with the recently removed Eastern Cherokees under one government in 1839. He signed the Cherokee Constitution at Tahlequah on September 6, 1839.

Slave revolt of 1842
By November, 1842, John Drew had become a captain in the Cherokee Militia. On November 15, 1842, a group of at least 25 black slaves escaped from the plantation of Joseph Vann near Webbers Falls and fled in the direction of Mexico, where slavery had already been outlawed. The Cherokee National Council passed a resolution, and Chief John Ross approved that the Cherokee Militia, commanded by Drew, pursue the fleeing slaves. Drew raised a company of nearly one hundred men to arrest the fugitive slaves and return them to Fort Gibson. The militia left Tahlequah on November 21. By November 28, the militiamen caught up with the runaways about 7 miles north of the Red River. The runaways were starving and submitted to Drew and his men, who returned them to Fort Gibson in December.

Civil War: John Drew’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles
As a Cherokee-Confederate alliance neared in 1861, Drew, one of the few leaders acceptable to various Cherokee factions, was designated a colonel and was given command of the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles. He served as colonel and commander of the Ross party’s regiment of Cherokees However, most of the regiment deserted by 1862 rather than fight fellow Indians who had sided with the Union. Drew appears to have fled to the Chickasaw Nation by 1864. He returned home when the Civil War ended and died at Fort Gibson in August 1865. Drew’s title before the Civil War was captain, from his organization of a Cherokee company of mounted men in 1842. In a letter dated January 10, 1860, John Vann suggested that Captain John Drew become the leader of a local secessionist company, which would patrol the Canadian District in search of escaped slaves, guard against abolitionists, and compel “all negroes to know their places.” (Gaines, 16). William Potter Ross was chosen as lieutenant colonel of Drew’s regiment.

As a rule in Drew’s regiment, enlisted men were full-bloods and the officers were mixed-bloods affiliated with the Ross party (Gaines, 20). Beef and salt were used to recruit soldiers to join Drew’s regiment.  The officers tended to be educated men and had English names, but the full-blood Cherokees generally went by their Indian names. Most of the enlisted men in the regiment were members of the Keetoowah Society, a secret organization of full-bloods founded by two abolitionist Baptist preachers, the Reverend Evan Jones and his son the Reverend John Buttrick Jones. Its members were Christians who wanted to preserve traditional Cherokee tribal rites. They may have been formed to oppose the Blue Lodge and the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Most of Drew's soldiers did not want to fight their former friends and family. Although the majority of his regiment eventually deserted, Drew remained loyal to the Confederate cause. In 1864, when it was apparent that the Confederate army would be defeated by the Union, Drew moved into the Chickasaw Nation, closer to the northern border of Texas. He moved back to his former plantation only after the Confederates surrendered. John Drew contracted lung fever near the end of the Civil War and died of the disease at Fort Gibson on August 25, 1865. He was buried on his estate at Bayou Menard, in present-day Muskogee County, Oklahoma.