Area History
Native Americans in Newton County

In practical terms, Native Americans had left Newton County by the 1820s. The Osage were the last tribe to have full-time inhabitation in the county. Members of this tribe did wander back and forth for a time, but they never set up permanent villages again. One of the last recorded contacts between white settlers and the Osage came in the early 1830s. The story goes that two early settlers, Matthew H. Ritchey and Gideon Henderson, went with about ten armed men to see a band of Osage who had come to camp near the home of the two men. After suffering several losses through theft, the men took other settlers with them and "reasoned" forcefully with the Osage, causing the Indians to move on out of the county.

But white settlers in Newton County always had Native-American neighbors, mostly on the west in Indian Territory, which is now known as Oklahoma. Many of these neighbors were among the Five Civilized Tribes which were removed, along the Trail of Tears, from Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas to Oklahoma. But these tribes did cross the border to shop and trade in Seneca and Neosho.

One of the most controversial and tragic events that did occur between whites and Indians occurred on May 29, 1879 , in Seneca. Shepalina, an eighteen-year-old Modoc Indian, was killed by John T. Albert, a local merchant. Mr. Albert was charged, unsuccessfully, in the death of Shepalina by Newton County Prosecutor, M. E. Benton.

Ironically, M. E. Benton's son, artist Thomas Hart Benton, used local Indians extensively in his murals. Artist Benton wrote that he, as a boy, was greatly influenced and highly fascinated with the Indian men who visited Neosho. Often on Saturdays, he talked to these men who sat around the Neosho Square waiting while their wives shopped. Tom Benton spent many hours at his father's law office on the city square. That is how he came to meet some of the Indian men who came to town.

Native Americans left a tremendous influence on the town of Seneca and the community takes great pride in its Indian heritage.

One of the most remarkable stories of Native American history in Newton County occurred during the Civil War. On September 30, 1862, during the First Battle of Newtonia, Native American soldiers played a prominent role. The most remarkable part of this event was the fact that Native American regiments fought on both sides of the conflict. These were regiments, not just individual Indian soldiers belonging to regular army units. Even more remarkably is the fact that in the heat of the battle, fate brought the opposing Native American regiments face to face in hand to hand combat.

Fighting on the side of Federal forces were Cherokee soldiers. Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw troopers fought for the Confederacy. Although he probably was not there in person, the famous Cherokee General, Stand Watie, sent his own regiment to fight at Newtonia. Historians believe General Watie was in Neosho at the time of the First Battle of Newtonia. General Watie is best known as the last Confederate general to surrender at the end of the war.

This battle is said to be the only time in the Civil War when full Native American regiments faced each other on a battlefield.