Cherokees, Slavery, and Masters

There’s a legal battle brewing in Oklahoma about the tribal status of the descendants of the former slaves of the Cherokee. As it stands now they are getting the boot and Great White Father is not happy about it.

The dispute stems from the fact that some wealthy Cherokee owned black slaves who worked on their plantations in the South. By the 1830s, most of the tribe was forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma, and many took their slaves with them. The so-called Freedmen are descendants of those slaves.

After the Civil War, in which the Cherokee fought for the South, a treaty was signed in 1866 guaranteeing tribal citizenship for the freed slaves.

The U.S. government said that the 1866 treaty between the Cherokee tribe and the U.S. government guaranteed that the slaves were tribal citizens, whether or not they had a Cherokee blood relation.

Indian tribes claim to be sovereign nations who alone can decide who is or is not a member, but OTOH the idea of “blood quantum” is a pretty much discredited one with echoes of the Old South and apartheid-era South Africa.

As the article notes the Cherokee, one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” who were removed to Oklahoma by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, fought for the South. One of their chiefs, Stand Watie, was a Confederate Brigadier General—the highest ranking Native in an American Army.

The Cherokee and allied warriors became a potent Confederate fighting force that kept Union troops out of southern Indian Territory and large parts of north Texas throughout the war.

Watie was the last field commander of the Confederacy to surrender, laying down his arms on June 23, 1865.

In the East the remaining Cherokee were led by Will Thomas, a white man (and so far as I know the only one ever elected as chief of a Native American tribe), who organized a legion for Confederate service. His men fired the last shots of the war in North Carolina before surrendering in May 1865.

Closer to home here is an article by columnist Rob Neufeld in his “Visiting the Past” section. Neufeld looks at the meeting of the descendants of a slave and his owner. Some of the details are quite interesting, for instance that the slave, Joe, was at one point locked up in the local jail over a debt dispute as “collateral.” A skilled slave (Joe was a mason) was a valuable asset. It also points out the differences between slavery in the mountains and elsewhere. The mountainous western part of Carolina did not lend itself to plantation agriculture and thus masters seem to have more likely to “learn a trade” to a slave and either use him in that capacity or hire him out. Having a marketable skill like masonry, carpentry, and such made the transition to emancipation much easier after the war.

Joe’s imprisonment came about during the building of Mars Hill College, which still stands.

“During the first term,” Dillingham writes, “the Trustees found themselves in litigation with the building contractor…According to oral tradition, the court-determined debt amount was $1,100; whereby, eleven of the founding families divided the debt among themselves…liberating Joe from jail and saving the school.”

In the slave records for Madison County, Joe was listed as one of 10 slaves belonging to Jesse. In 1859, Joe was 21, and had worked in local brickyards. His listed value was $1,000.

After the war, the Reverend gave Joe five acres on Gabriel’s Creek. When Jesse, in his old age, moved to Asheville, Joe helped take care of him.


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