As a girl I remember I used to love to flip through my parents’ set of Time-Life books about The Old West. My favorite book of the series, by far, was the Gunfighters book. I used to love to read about all the outlaws who roamed the West and roamed in a child’s imagination. I remember feeling a strange sense of pride when I read about Ned Christie, the “elusive Cherokee outlaw” because he was the only Cherokee mentioned in the books. I felt a kinship to him because of our shared heritage. At the same time I was horrified by the demoralizing image of his corpse, riddled with bullets, propped up for photos with a rifle fitted into his hands. The image is haunting and sad, but I didn’t know until much later just how sad it was.
When you’re young you think the books are right. It never occurred to me that Ned Christie was anything other than the train robber, horse thief, whiskey runner, and outlaw that the book describes him as. But this is only one side of the story. To most Americans, or at least to those who have heard of Ned Christie, he was a vicious killer and outlaw who killed a deputy and evaded capture for over four years until his death. To the Cherokee, however, Ned Christie is a martyr, a symbol of white encroachment and racism. What follows is the true story of Ned Christie, the way the Indians see it.
Contrary to the description given in most history books, Ned Christie was not a man of questionable character. In fact he was a politician. I know what you’re thinking, but he was a good politician. In 1885, Ned was elected a Cherokee Senator, representing the Going Snake District in the National Council of the Cherokee Nation. As a member of the Cherokee National Council, Ned was interested in protecting the interests of the Cherokee people. He supported tribal sovereignty and was opposed to allowing the railroads to enter the Cherokee Nation. In addition to his political dealing, Ned was also a successful blacksmith and gunsmith.
In May 1887, while Ned was in Tahlequah to attend a special council meeting regarding the fire that destroyed the Cherokee Female Seminary, U.S. Deputy Marshal Dan Maples was killed. Ned was accused of the crime and was soon wanted for the murder. Though he wanted to approach authorities immediately and proclaim his innocence, Ned was persuaded otherwise by friends. Ned retreated to his home in Wauhalla to try and collect evidence which would prove his innocence.
“Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, a Federal Judge in nearby Fort Smith, Arkansas claimed jurisdiction over the case because it had been one of his white Marshals who was killed. Knowing that he would most likely not receive a fair trial, Ned stayed at his home and thus began a five-year-long battle between the US Marshals and Ned Christie and his family and neighbors. Though he never left his home, Ned was able to evade capture for many years. The marshals efforts to capture or kill him were thwarted on several occasions. During one siege, in which they burned his house to the ground, the Marshals managed to shoot him in the head but the wound was not fatal and only blinded him in one eye. His fame grew over the years and Ned became known as the most notorious and sought after outlaw in the region. He was accused of every unsolved crime in the Cherokee Nation and surrounding areas.
After the fire, Ned and his neighbors built a new cabin. The new home was fortified, built two logs thick with sand between the logs. The Marshals continued their attempts to capture Ned. They endangered the lives of his family and friends serving only to embitter Ned. He believed more strongly than ever in sovereignty and even vowed to stop speaking English, only speaking Cherokee – his first language.
In December 1892, a posse attacked Ned’s home. They unsuccessfully attempted to destroy his home with a cannon before resorting to dynamite. The deputies fashioned a shield to cover them from gunfire so that they could approach the house. When they were within ranged they lobbed dynamite into the house. Ned fled his home and was confronted with a volley of gunfire. Ned was shot and killed.
However, Ned’s story did not end with his death. As was the practice in the day, the outlaw’s body was paraded on display. The deputies tied Christie’s body to a plank door and took him to Fayetteville, Arkansas where he was propped up on a porch and people were allowed to pose for pictures with the body. Next, the deputies traveled to Fort Smith, Arkansas with Ned’s body in order to collect their reward. In Fort Smith Ned’s body was put on display with a rifle placed in his arms. Finally the body was sent to Fort Gibson — Indian Territory where his father and brother were able to claim his remains and lay him to rest.
In the early 1900’s a witness stepped forward and cleared Ned of the killing of Deputy Dan Maples. Regardless of the facts surrounding the killing of Dan Maples and the fact that Christie was never tried nor convicted of the crime and despite the truth about Ned’s life as a respected member of the Cherokee community, Ned Christie is still referred to as a murderer, criminal, gang leader, whiskey runner, horse thief, and train robber in history books and western lore. However, to the Cherokee Ned Christie will always be remembered as a martyr. At the time of Ned’s death the Cherokee people lost what little sovereignty still remained with the Dawes Rolls, which absorbed the Cherokee Nation into Oklahoma. Ned Christie stood up for his rights as a Cherokee and lost his life, but at least he stood up. While the history books paint his as a monster we will always know and honor the real Ned Christie.