A  Story About The Cherokee Freedmen

By: John Cornsilk

May 2006

Marilyn Vann  Cherokee freedmen descendant of  survivors
that walked the Cherokee Death March
The Trail of Tears
Courtesy of  wired Magazine
Click here for Story

The Cherokee Freedmen are the descendants of African slaves who played an integral role in the Cherokee Culture during the 1700s and 1800's. Many of the Cherokee Freedmen are Cherokee by blood descent. However, The Freedmen were listed on the Dawes Commission Rolls during the termination of the Cherokee Nation by the Dawes Commission during the late 1800s and early 1900s in a category that did not classify them as Cherokee by Blood,  which has led to modern controversies as to whether or not the Freedmen can claim they are Cherokee. However, after the civil war  the  council of the Cherokee Nation freed their slaves and  made them Citizen of the Nation by an act of law,  irregardless of blood quantum. And the Cherokee Freedmen were classified by the United States as Indians, and lived along side their brethren as Cherokee through the good an bad times of the the early years of Oklahoma Statehood.

Leslie Ross
Cherokee freedmen
G-Grandson of
Sick Ross, Son of a slave belonging to John  Ross Cherokee Chief 
1827 to 1866
Courtesy of wired Magazine

Cherokee Indians in earlier times in their history did enslave prisoners of war of the enemy. And did in these earlier times regard prisoners of war as commodities to be traded for other goods.

The rapid development of dependence by the Cherokee Culture on foreign manufactured goods made slaves very desirable possessions in early Cherokee History upon contact with Europeans and adoption of European Social customs. As a result, intertribal warfare and enslavement came to be viewed in an entirely different way from the traditional culture when Cherokee Society in the Eastern United States began to fully adopt the cultural European attitudes and started owning farms, and slaves became free labor. The Cherokee began to aquire African slaves for their fields. A new Cherokee aristocracy composed of wealthy farmers developed in the Cherokee Nation as a result of the Slave Trading  White Settlers. 1% of traditional Cherokee families owned slaves; 10.8 % of the mixed families and 30.4% of the non-full-blood families did (McLoughlin and Conser 1977:691, 695)

At the end of American Revolution, George Washington encouraged the Cherokees to grow cotton and flax to relieve the economical crisis. His agents sent them looms, spinning wheels, plows and other implements. He appointed Benjamin Hawkins as supervisor of this project, and Hawkins set an example establishing a plantation complete with black slaves on the Flint River.

Laws controlling the activities of slaves actually preceded the Cherokee Nation Constitution of 1827 where black were excluded from participation in the government .

An act passed by the National Committee and Council in 1820 prohibited the purchasing of goods from slaves. The law proscribed masters from allowing their slaves to buy or sell liquor, as well as the marriage of whites and indians to slaves and the freeing of slaves for the sole purpose of marriage and the possession of property by slaves. The legislature did not see fit, however to extend the law to cover marriage with free blacks.

The census of 1835 confirms that a small group in the Cherokee Nation admitted having African ancestry. According to Mcloughlin and Conser (1977:685); National Archives of the United States, "1960 Record Group 75, T496" the Record shows 16,542 Cherokee of which 72% were full blood leaving 4,632 mixed bloods of which 1.575% were intermarried white, There were 1,592 slaves of which .5% were part Cherokee.

Some voices were raised against slavery. The and Indian advocate newspapers addressed the question of international slave trade and came out in solid opposition to its continuation.

The Cherokee enforced the slave code in two ways: first, laws offered incentives to the prosecutor to seek out offenders and bring them to justice by providing that one-half the fines collected accrued to that official, and second, corporal punishment administered by patrollers of the settlement. The slave code was not the same that the whites had: there were no laws dealing with insubordination and rebellion and the majority of punishments were reserved for masters, not slaves ( laws penalized the person who bought goods from slaves or allow them to buy or sell liquor ). White or Indian women cohabitating with an slave were punished suffering fourteen fewer stripes than males committing the same act.

Because traditional Cherokee culture acted as a leveling agent, Cherokee planters avoided much of the rigidity and cruelty displayed by the white slave holding society, but revolts happened, like the one in the Vann family lands in 1842 ( Joseph Vann was the largest Cherokee slave holder, with 110 slaves in 1835 ). James Vann was good and generous when sober, but his frequent and immoderate consumption of alcohol aroused great cruelty. Vann's slaves reacted to the abuse he gave them in kind.

Cherokee planters allowed their slaves to establish the African Benevolent Society, affiliated with the American Colonization Society. The slaves anticipated "making out enough to carry one emigrant to Liberia" but never realized their goal. These organizations gave slaves in the Cherokee Nation an opportunity for an organized social existence apart from the plantation. The Moravians located their mission close to the home of James Vann, who offered them assistance in building an school. The missionaries held their first service for slaves on Vann's plantation. 

After the Treaty of 1866 most freed blacks remained in Indian Territory, and most remained in the nation in which they had lived as slaves. In the decades that followed, the freedmen established lives for themselves and made economic gains for themselves faster than the freedmen in the United States. Although some of the freedmen may have had difficulties as former Union soldiers, still very few left the nations. The Creek freedmen were among the first to establish schools for blacks.

The so called "Red-Black Cherokees" represent a truly unique Cherokee population, they are the descendants of former slaves of the Cherokees, the freedmen. Other Red-Blacks were the result of mixtures of Cherokees with black and often white ancestry ( tricolor ). This later group is a small segment of the Cherokee population, but unique and important. They have often been forgotten and discriminated against by Cherokees and non-Cherokees alike. Their "indianness" has typically not been accepted to the same degree as that of Indians with white ancestry, even though they might have more Indian Blood.

Seal of the Cherokee Nation Pre CNO Click picture for history!

March 7, 2006, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma  Click Link for the name of (CNO) announced that the Cherokee Freedmen, the descendants of African Americans who were Citizens of the Cherokee Nation and who were adopted into the tribe after the Civil War, by an emancipation and adoption act by the National Council of the Cherokee Nation in 1863, and are eligible for membership in the CNO as Cherokee Citizens, as the Constitution requires because they were classified by the Federal Government as Indians by Treaty in 1866 See pertinent articles to the Cherokee Freedmen . The Cherokee People did not view a person's race as relevant regarding adoption into Cherokee Clan, and historically viewed the Cherokee People as a political rather than racially based Nation. The Cherokee Freedmen, due to intermarriage with the Cherokee,  People many are of Cherokee Blood and ancestry.

There are many exceptionally talented Cherokee artisans of Freedmen descent who currently reside within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The Cherokee Freedmen suffered many of the same hardships as other Indian groups because of their Cherokee Citizenship at the turn of the century and were viewed by the Federal Government as Indians, which led to the freedmen being placed on the Dawes Commission Rolls as Cherokee Citizens during the early 1900's.

Many thin blood racist Cherokee of the Jim Crow era have always opposed  CNO tribal membership of the Freedmen, however, they were by fact of law, the Cherokee Nation granted membership to Indians of Delaware and Shawnee blood based upon previous treaties and agreements with the United States. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Supreme Court  recognized the unique role of the Freedmen in Cherokee history and the mutual hardships and common experience with the Cherokee People during pre-Oklahoma Statehood in rendering their decision, and upheld the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all Cherokee People regardless of blood.

The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma announced that due to issues raised by the fact of his racism demonstrated by this letter published on the CNO website next day after the ruling by the court copy parked here and on the issue of the membership of the Freedmen he is currently considering a vote regarding proposed amendments to the CNO Constitution, and is in the process of selling this idea to the outland voting Cherokee, who are the electorate that keeps the CNO junta in power, by the publication of his words, revamped of course in the hard copy of the Cherokee Newspaper that is sent religiously to the outland voters seemingly to imply they are words of the Cherokee people. 

Currently, The CNO Constitution restricts who may or may not serve as an elected official only to those persons who are of Cherokee Blood.

Cherokee traditionalists share the views of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Supreme Court that the Freedman descendants did contributed to, and were part of the Cherokee culture and society in modern times, right up to the time they were disenfranchised by Swimmer in 1983 with a racist set of rules, banned from the CNO, and the traditionalist do not oppose restoring the Freedmen membership in the CNO. As Stated above the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Supreme court negated the swimmer Rules, by the declaration that the law passed by the legislature of the Chief Mankiller era in 1992  attempting to legalize the swimmer rules was unconstitutional. This legislative act was the means by which the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma held the Cherokee Freedmen descendants at bay for years.

Principal Chief Chad Smith has been criticized by the Freedmen and a large number of Cherokee Citizens, the News Media and others for supporting a constitutional amendment regarding the Freedmen membership in the CNO and lobbying for the matter to be placed before the Cherokee People. Chad Smith was quoted as referring to the Cherokee Supreme Court as "just three people" deciding the issue of the Freedmen and has suggested a referendum considering a constitutional amendment restricting tribal membership to Cherokee's by blood and putting the matter before the Cherokee People at the general elections scheduled for 2007 for a vote.

And as of  April 21, 2006 an Agenda of the Rules Committee issued for a discussion of  amendments to the Cherokee Constitution with a special election which if passes committee an on to the full council and it passed there, this could be the beginning of the end for the Cherokee Freedmen Again.

Oklahoma's Black Indians and their hundreds of thousands of descendants are among those who have left a legacy of records, from the Dawes rolls to the earlier records created after the Treaty of 1866 was signed. In addition, until the middle of the 20th century, there were Black Indians - Freedmen who still lived and practiced the customs of the nations where they had been born. The WPA Slave Narratives contained more than 25 interviews of Black Indians, who spoke of their lives as Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws. Their language, burial customs, and diet were formulated by the native culture into which they had been born, lived and eventually died.

Those seeking more knowledge about the customs practiced by these Black Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes will not find lives centered around pow wows, and Hollywood images of the plains nations. These documented citizens of the Five nations were bilingual, bicultural people, seeking to establish new lives for themselves in their new country and their new state of Oklahoma.

Most of the Freedmen of Indian Territory who were adults when freed, were bilingual, speaking both English and the language of their Indian slave owners. In some cases some of the Indian Territory slaves, learned English after slavery ended, when meeting members of their families from whom they had been sold. Many of the Black Indians moved easily from English to their Indian mother tongue, while others had their native Indian language as their language of choice. There were others who preferred English though still understanding their Indian language. These excerpts reveal the language and culture in which the African Indians lived."

Most of the slaves who of the nations in Indian Territory were not allowed to practice any form of religion, however, most of the ex-slaves became part of a church-based community when they were free.

Only a few of the slaves interviewed had been exposed to religion or Christianity before emancipation. With many, religious practice was simply forbidden by their Indian slave masters. However, it is clear that the desire to worship was strong and when freed from bondage stayed with these Black Indians for the remainder of their lives.

However, some Cherokee planters seemed to have had no objection to their slaves receiving religious instruction and even encouraged and aided the work of the missionaries among their slaves. Some permitted children of their slaves to attend the mission schools along with their own children, but that was against the law and the state of Georgia started enforcing its laws in the Cherokee Nation.

In addition, some of the former slaves, also had beliefs in spirits, and charms, and some referred to the various charms they had used or seen used for protection throughout their lives

As told by Sarah Wilson Cherokee Freedwoman

"Before freedom we didn't have no church, but slipped around to the other cabins and had a little singing sometimes. Couldn't have anybody show us the letters either, and you better not let them catch you pick up a book even to look at the pictures, for it was against a Cherokee law to have a Negro read and write or to teach Negro."

Slaves narratives: Lucinda Vann

Lucinda Vann tell an unusual tale of plantation life from the perspective of a house slave who was born with privileges. The comfort accorded house slaves is in stark contrast to the lives of the field slaves described in other interviews. Interestingly, Mrs. Vann also speaks of some time that her family spent before and during the war in Mexico. There were some Cherokee slaves that were taken to Mexico, however, she makes vivid references to Seminole leaders John Horse, and Wild Cat. A few years of her life were also quite possibly spent among Seminoles during part of that time, although her memory of the death of Joseph "Rich Joe" Vann is clearly a part of Cherokee history.