|Date||April 15, 1872|
|Location||Adair County, Oklahoma, United States|
The Goingsnake Massacre was a shootout that occurred during a trial in the Cherokee court system on April 15, 1872, in the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation. Ezekial "Zeke" Proctor was being tried for killing Polly Beck and wounding Jim Kesterson in a shooting incident. The trial was highly charged due to the strong family ties of the accused and victims and because of a jurisdictional dispute between the Cherokee and United States courts. A federal posse consisting of ten United States Marshals was sent to attend the trial and to arrest Proctor on federal charges if he was acquitted. However, shooting broke out in the crowded courtroom during the proceedings, killing eight of the Marshals and three Cherokee citizens. The incident has also been called the Goingsnake Tragedy, the Cherokee Courthouse Shootout and the Proctor-Beck Fight.
During the Civil War, Ezekiel "Zeke" Proctor, a Cherokee from Georgia, fought for the Union Army, while all of the Beck family, also Cherokee, fought for the Confederate Army. Following the war, tensions between the Becks and the Proctors were high; mostly due to those former loyalties, but partly due to Proctor's alleged romantic interest in Polly Beck. Also, Proctor was a member of the Keetoowah Nighthawk Society, which strongly believed in the preservation of traditional ways, including a growing dislike of the European-American encroachment. This belief included disapproval of Cherokee women being involved romantically with white men. Thus, Proctor thought Polly should not be in a relationship with a white man, despite Proctor's and Polly Beck's fathers both having been white.
Proctor was the son of a known murderer and was often drunk. He once forced his way into a house where a young girl had been playing the piano; after she stopped, he held her at gunpoint and made her continue playing. He was involved in several saloon brawls in the small town of Cincinnati, Arkansas, but was also known for his trait of always returning afterward to pay for damages. He had also previously killed two Cherokee brothers from the Jaybird family.
Polly was said to have been an attractive woman of mixed race (her father being white). She was the widow of a Cherokee man, Steven Hilderbrand, who had been killed during the Civil War. She remarried several times, and Jim Kesterson or Chesterson, another white man, was either her fourth or fifth husband. Polly had one brother and two first cousins who were Deputy US Marshals.
The United States Marshals have one version of what led up to the incident, whereas the Cherokee nation another. Over time, various versions of the initial incident have surfaced, but all tend to indicate three particular facts:
- 1. The murder suspect, Zeke Proctor did object to a Cherokee woman being involved with a white man,
- 2. the victim Jim Kesterson had once been married to Proctor's sister, and
- 3. the victim Polly Beck was a love interest to Proctor.
Aside from these fact, the versions of the story are often quite different.
Some versions state that Jim Kesterson had previously been involved with Proctor's sister, Susan, and had left her for Polly, leaving Susan and the children destitute (it is said the children were not Kesterson's). Another version indicates Kesterson caught Proctor stealing cattle and intended to prosecute. Yet another version claims Proctor had been previously involved romantically with Polly, who was known locally to be promiscuous (dating several men, most of them white), and that he was in love with her. Another version indicates Proctor had never been involved with Polly, but was jealous about an native woman having married or being involved with a white man.
Whatever the reason, Proctor confronted Polly and Jim at Polly's dead husband's mill in the Oklahoma Territory, on February 27. The incident developed into an argument; Zeke Proctor produced a rifle and shot Kesterson in the head, slightly wounding him. Proctor then turned to Polly and fired, killing her. Zeke maintained his killing of Polly was accidental.
Stories diverge here, but one version says Proctor surrendered himself after the murder of Polly to the sheriff of the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee judge Blackhawk Sixkiller was appointed to the case.
Chesterson, believing Proctor would not be convicted in a Cherokee court, appealed to the local federal court, asking that an arrest warrant be issued to ensure that Proctor received a trial in a non-Cherokee court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Treaties with the United States federal government said that Cherokee Nation courts would have jurisdiction over Cherokee people, so the involvement of non-tribal law officers was seen as a threat to tribal sovereignty and was deeply resented by the Cherokee people. The federal court dispatched ten United States Marshals to secure the arrest of Proctor at the court house in Tahlequah.
Several Cherokees were prepared to protect their treaty rights, so the Cherokee court's trial of Proctor was moved to the schoolhouse, since it was seen as being easier to defend than the courthouse. All participants of the trial were heavily armed. Without issuing a warning, the marshals attacked the schoolhouse. In the ensuing melee, seven of the marshals were killed, Proctor and the Cherokee judge were wounded, and the Cherokee court clerk was killed.
Proctor was acquitted the next day in a Cherokee court. The Cherokee ruling on Proctor was accepted by American courts, since Cherokee courts had jurisdiction at the time, and due to federal laws against double jeopardy. Marshal James Huckleberry immediately dispatched twenty one Deputy Marshals under the command of Charles Robinson. They took with them two doctors, who helped tend to wounded Cherokee civilians.
The second posse arrested several men believed to have been involved in the killing of the Marshals, including jury foreman Arch Scaper. There was no resistance made against the second posse. Zeke Proctor had fled by the time this posse arrived. The suspects were taken to Fort Smith, Arkansas for trial, but all were eventually released due to lack of evidence or witnesses willing to testify.
A federal grand jury in Fort Smith indicted twenty Cherokees present at the trial as well all the tribal court officers. Cherokee Nation issued warrants for several Cherokee citizens, as well. The federal government later dismissed all indictments.
Zeke Proctor continued living in the area. By the 1880s he owned a small ranch. He was elected as a Cherokee Senator in 1877, and in 1894 was elected sheriff of the Flint District of the Cherokee Nation. Ironically, he served as a United States Deputy Marshal from 1891 to 1894, under "Hanging Judge" Parker. Proctor died on February 23, 1907 at age 76. His interment was in West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma's Johnson Cemetery.
United States Marshals
- Will Beck
- Black Sut Beck
- Will Hicks
- George Selridge
- Jim Ward
- Riley Woods
- Sam Beck
- Jacob Owens
- The two Marshals who survived were Joseph Peavy and Isaac Vinn. Both were wounded, but recovered.
- Johnson Proctor, brother to suspect Zeke Proctor
- William Alberty, Proctor's attorney
- Andrew Palone, a Cherokee and Civil War veteran
- Six Cherokee men were wounded, including Zeke Proctor and the Judge, Sixkiller.
- Fourkiller, Nick and Wendell Cochran. 1983. Historic sites of the Cherokee Nation. Tahlequah, OK: Cross Cultural Education Center. p 61.
- Smith, Robert Barr. 2004. Blood Bath at Going Snake: The Cherokee Courtroom Shootout. Wild West (via Historynet)
- Cherokee Arts & Humanities Council: Zeke Proctor
- Federal Writers' Project 257
- Federal Writers' Project 258
- Find A Grave: Ezekiel Downing "Zeke" Proctor
- Federal Writers' Project. Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941.