Slavery in the Indian Territory

Mark Lause MLause at
Fri Jul 11 08:33:44 MDT 2003

I know of Scott L. Malcomson's work but have not yet read this book.
However, I would dispute the generalizations you say it makes about the
Cherokee, as you're presenting them.

The idea that the Cherokee wanted to abandon their traditional homelands
represents an uncritical acceptance of contemporary apologetics for
Indian removal policies and for the Indian leaders who gained personally
from collaborating with those policies. On a factual note, the Chief
John Ross cited in opposition to the Keetowah Society was actually
supported by the Keetowah--the dominant organization in Cherokee
politics before the war.  Stand Watie, the last surviving member of the
Treaty faction--those who had collaborated in the removal--saw the
Confederacy as a way to displace Ross and the Keetowah.  Again, for the
present, trust Annie Abel on the Indians in the war because her research
and work largely predated the convenient post-war acquisition of a
Confederate heritage for Oklahoma.

Although I think I've posted on this subject before, I'll briefly
restate a few points about the Indians and slaver--starting with a clear
statement that the latter was a legal status defined by whites, not
native groups.

One of the reasons for Indian removal was that they did not replicate
race relations as existed among Southern whites.  Sizeable members of
these Indian nations were partly African or even mostly African rather
than native.  One of the reasons the government went after groups like
the Seminoles was because they harbored runaway slaves.  Whites, btw,
also sometimes preferred living among Indians.  (see <>. For
one account from 1844.)

When the Indian were removed from someplace like Georgia or Florida,
they could take their property with them, though blacks among them were
seized by the U.S. Army and resold into slavery.  Not surprisingly, it
wasn't unusual for blacks to go to the local chief and request that they
be claimed as a slave in order to be moved west with the tribe--a better
alternative than a Georgia plantation.  So you have these characters
like the Creek Chief Opothleyahola (various spellings) owning several
hundred slaves on paper but actually living as a poor "blanket Indian."
Among the Seminole and Creeks, particularly, slavery was rarely more
than a legal nicety.  Blacks usually lived on their own, farmed their
own land, and sometimes lived in their own villages.  Among the Choctaw
and Chickasaw, along the Red River border with Texas, some were trying
to grow cotton and replicate slavery as it existed among the whites, but
it's unclear as to the extent.

Certainly, contemporary white slave traders didn't want slaves from the
territory because they understood the difference very clearly.  That
multivolume collection on emancipation, FREEDOM--put together by Ira
Berlin and a number of others scholars from unpublished material in the
National Archives--provides a few good glimpses into the
African-American experience among Indians, but there are some very
specialized studies of blacks among the Creek, Seminole and Cherokee.

Mark L.

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