By J. B. DAVIS
Slavery as we usually understand the term probably did not exist among the Cherokee before the coming of Europeans. The early French and Spanish histories abound in allusions to Indian slaves, even designating the tribes from which they were taken, but the terms "slave" and "prisoner" were used interchangeably in almost every such instance and the latter term was probably more nearly correct in most instances.
In the place of slavery was found another institution unknown to Europeans, that has often been mistaken for it. Among the North American Indians a state of periodic intertribal warfare seems to have existed. Blood vengeance, retaliation for acts of violence and disputes as to the possession of lands were some of the usual causes, but the real underlying cause was the Indian's martial spirit. In consequence of these wars tribes dwindled through the loss of members killed in actual fighting, or in subsequent tortures or punishment, and by prisoners or captives taken. Natural increase was insufficient to make up for such losses, hence the institution of adoption arose. In some tribes only women and children were kept but generally men, women and children were captured.
When a sufficient number of prisoners had been tortured and killed to satisfy the savage passions of the conquerors, the rest of the captives were adopted, after certain ceremonies, into the various clans and families, each newly adopted member taking the place of a lost husband, wife, son or daughter, and being invested with all of the rights, privileges and immunities of the deceased member of the tribe.
During the colonial wars between the European settlers and the Indians many captives were taken on both sides. Some of the white captives were tortured and killed but many of them were adopted into the various tribes. Children thus adopted usually became loyal members of the tribe but the adult captives frequently attempted escape or at least failed to take the
adoption in the spirit intended by the Indians. A higher value was soon discovered by the Indians for the white prisoners than an adoption which the whites did not understand. The ransoms offered in money, in guns and powder, or in whiskey soon changed the status of the white captive.
The Indians captured by the whites were usually sold into slavery but did not find such ready sale as negroes for they usually did not make docile servants.
Soon after the colonization of the southeastern part of the country the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees, Choctaws and others came into possession of runaway slaves. The Indians were quick to perceive their value as servants and were soon buying and selling negro slaves. Hodge in the Handbook of American Indians said that there was nothing to show that this introduction of black slaves materially changed the status of the Indian prisoners of war, and that with the exception of the Seminoles there was no considerable amalgamation of the races.
Dr. Starr in his History of the Cherokee Indians says that the first negro slave was owned by the famous Nancy Ward, the Ghi-gu-u or "Beloved Woman" of the Cherokee. She was a Cherokee woman of the Wolf clan whose first husband was Kingfisher of the Deer clan. In a battle with the Muskogees, Kingfisher was killed, and his wife, who had been lying behind a log chewing the bullets so that they would lacerate the more, picked up his gun and fought as a warrior during the remainder of the skirmish.
Because of her determined action the Muskogee were defeated and, according to custom, the captured spoils were divided among the victors. Kingfisher's widow was given a negro that had been captured from the vanquished and thus became the first slaveholder among the Cherokees. She is also said to have been the first to keep cows and make butter. By common consent she became the Ghi-gu-u or "Beloved Woman." This lifetime distinction was only granted as an extreme mark of valorous merit and carried with it the right to speak, vote, and act in all peace and war councils of the tribe, and it also vested her with the supreme pardoning power, a prerogative that was not granted to any other—not even to the civil or war chiefs.
It is probable that other slaves were owned at the same time in other sections of the Cherokee country for it seems to have been a well established institution at the time of the visit of Sir Alexander Cumming who induced the Cherokee "Emperor" Moytoy to acknowledge the authority of the British crown.
In 1730 a party of seven Cherokee Chiefs went to London to make a treaty with the British authorities. Among the provisions of the treaty was one relating to negro slaves which reads as follows:
"That if any Negroe Slaves shall run away into the Woods from their English Masters, the Cherrokee Indians shall endeavor to apprehend them, and either bring them back to the Plantation from whence they run-away, or to the Governor; and for every Negroe so apprehended and brought back, the Indian who brings him shall receive a Gun and a Watch Coat; whereupon we give a Box of Vermillion, 10,000 Gun Flints, and six dozen of Hatchets."
This treaty was signed by six of the chiefs and was certified by Sir Alexander Cumming, who had accompanied them, by the following statement:
"These are to certify to Moytoy of Telliquo, that I have seen, perused, and do approve of all the Articles contained in the above Agreement to which the Indians above mentioned have by my Advice given their Consent.
After two days' deliberation the Cherokee delegation prepared an answer which was delivered by Ketagustah, one of their number, on the 9th of September, 1730. The answer contained the following statement in regard to slaves:
"This small Rope we shew you, is all we have to bind our Slaves with, and may be broken, but you have Iron Chains for yours; however, if we catch your Slaves, we shall bind them as well as we can, and deliver them to our Friends again, and have no Pay for it."
In 1741-42 Antoine Bonnefoy was a captive among the Cherokees and some extracts from his Journal will throw some light on the treatment accorded adopted captives and the different treatment accorded negro slaves.
"We came around the bayou, up to the place of ambusch, when a first discharge of muskets from the savages instantly killed our skipper and two of our oarsmen . . . . . The savages directed so heavy a fire upon our boat that we were obliged to lie down flat to escape certain death . . . .
"A moment afterward, these same pirogues came and surrounded us. The shore was lined with the other savages, who were aiming at us. The surprise and the death of our skipper and two of our oarsmen, having put us out of condition to help ourselves, we surrendered at discretion, to the number of four Frenchmen and one negro, and were siezed, each by one of the savages, who made him his slave. Brought to the land, we were tied separately, each with a slaves' collar around the neck, and the arms merely, without, however, depriving us of freedom to eat.
"When we had been bound with the collars, the savages having found in our boat what had been intended for our breakfast, brought it to us to eat, and gave us to understand by signs that no harm should come to us, and that we should be even as themselves. Then they unloaded our boat, and distributed the goods equally among the eighty men of the party, with the exception of the iron and the three kegs of rum, which they left in the boat . . . . They embarked in twenty-two boats, with two, three, four, or five men in each, according to its size. My companions in misfortune, and I, followed our masters, bound in the manner I have described. The party took up its course, paddling without making the least noise, along the River Oubache till six o'clock the next morning, then rested two hours, during which time they broiled some meat . . . . They gave us (as they always did) a portion equal to theirs, after which they resumed their paddles, and gave us each one???? When evening
had come the savages landed at the mouth of the river (Tennessee), and passed the night there, and made stocks to keep us in safety. In these my three comrades were set, who were: Joseph Rivard, son of the Sieur Rivard of Bayou St. Jean; Pirrie Coussot, son of Coussot the pilot at the Belagy in 1719, Guillaume Potier, half-breed son of Potier, habitant of the Illinois; and Legras's negro. The savage to whom I belonged did not wish that I should be put in the stocks . . . . .
"The 20th of December my savage took off my slave's collar, Rivard and Potier kept theirs a fortnight and Coussot a month. They were not put in the stocks except the first four days and then only during the night. At the beginning of January we were adopted by men of prominence in the party.
"I was adopted as a brother by a savage who bought me of my master, which he did by promising him a quantity of merchandise, and giving me what at that time I needed, such as bed-coverings, shirts and mittens, and from that time I had the same treatment as himself. My companions were adopted by other savages, either as nephews or as cousins, and treated in the same manner their liberators and all their families.
"The same day on which my collar was taken off, the negro, whose wounds had become worse, was set at liberty, and the head man of the party told him to return to the French, but, not knowing where to go, he followed the pirogues for two days. On the third, which was the 23rd of December, the savages, tired of seeing him, gave him over to the young people, who killed him and took his scalp."
From this account it would appear that the captives, during the time they wore the slave-collar were considered the property of their captors and might be bought or ransomed. The negro was in a different position. He could not be adopted into the family of a Cherokee and his wounds probably kept him from being considered desirable as a slave.
Bonnefoy describes the ceremony of adoption as follows:
"Our clothes were taken off and a stock was made for each of us, without however putting us in it; they merely put on us our slaves-collar. Then the savages putting in each ones hand a white stick and a rattle told us that we must sing, which we did for the space of more than three hours, at different times, singing both French and Indian songs, after which they gave us to eat of all that the women had brought from the village, bread of different sorts, corn porriage, buffalo meat, bear meat, rabbit, sweet potatoes and graumons. The next day February 8, in the morning the savages having decorated themselves made the entry into the village in the order of a troop of infantry, marching four in each rank, half of them in front of us, who were placed two and two after being tied together, and having our collars dragging.... They made us march in this order, singing and having, as we had had the evening before, a white stick and a rattle in our hands, to the chief square of the village and march three or four times around a great tree which is in the middle of the place. Then they buried at the foot of the tree a parcel of hair from each one of us, which the savages had preserved for this purpose from the time when they cut our hair off. After the march was finished they brought us into the council-house, where we were each obliged to sing four songs. Then the savage who had adopted us came and took our collars. I followed my adopted brother who, on entering into his cabin, washed me, then after he had told me that the way was free before me, I ate with him and there I remained two months, dressed and treated like himself, without other occupation than to go hunting twice with him. We were about thirteen days the first time and nine days the last.
"The savage who adopts a captive promises a quantity of merchandise to the one to whom he belongs at the moment when he buys him. This merchandise is collected from all the family of the one who makes the purchase, and is delivered in an assembly of all the relatives, each one of whom brings what he is to give and delivers it
piece by piece, to him who sold the captive, and at the receipt of each piece, he makes the rounds of the assembly constantly carrying what has been given him, it being forbidden to lay down any piece on the ground, for then it would belong to whoever touched it first. The collection of my ransom was made on the nineth and tenth and the ceremony on the eleventh."
It would appear from these statements that the ceremony was one of adoption into the family rather than the purchase of a servant.
During the latter part of the eighteenth and the earlier part of the nineteenth centuries the number of slaves increased slowly as the Cherokee began the cultivation of more land than was necessary to supply their own needs.
The Christian Observer of London for November 1811 contains the following review of the census of the Cherokee Nation:
"The Cherokee Nation has at length, in full council, adopted a Constitution which embraces a simple form of government. The legislative and judicial powers are vested in a General Council with less ones subordinate. In this Nation there are 12,395 Indians. The females exceed the males by 200. The whites are 341, and one third of these have Indian wives. Of negro slaves there are 583. The number of their cattle is 19,600; of horses 6,100; of sheep 1,037. They have now in actual use 13 grist mills, 3 saw mills, 3 saltpetre works and 1 powder-mill. They have also 30 wagons between 480 and 500 plows, 1600 spinning wheels, 467 looms and 49 silversmiths."
From this report it is seen that the number of negro slaves at that time exceeded the number of whites in the Cherokee Nation. About one third of the whites had Indian wives so the remaining two thirds were probably captives who had been adopted by some such ceremony as that described by Bonnefoy.
For a number of years the General Council acted in a judicial as well as a legislative and executive capacity and lawsuits were brought before the General Council, which acted as a trial
jury, assessing punishments and making such laws as seemed necessary. The Light Horse or militia was a sort of executive or law enforcing body which had authority to decide in cases of misdemeanor and to inflict punishment.
It appeared that negro slaves had sometimes sold property belonging to their masters and in the records of the General Council for 1819 the following entry was made:
"New Town, Cherokee Nation, November 1st, 1819
Jno. Ross, Prest. Nat. Com.
This act was probably violated and considerable annoyance was experienced from drunken negroes so that the general council in the following year passed an additional act making the purchaser of merchandise from a slave responsible to the slave's master. The same act also provided for punishing by a fine of fifteen dollars any slaveowner who permitted his slave to buy
liquor and the act further provided that any neighborhood might organize a patrol company. These patrollers had the authority to punish any negro possessing liquor: "such negro or negroes, so offending, shall receive fifteen cobbs or paddles for every such offense, from the hands of the patrollers of the settlement."
The patrollers frequently interpreted this law to mean that the offender should receive fifteen blows from each member of the company and very severe punishment was sometimes inflicted—so much so that a subsequent act of council defining murder, contained a clause excepting from the penalty any person or persons causing the death of a slave who died "under moderate correction."
During the earlier half of the nineteenth century the Cherokee Nation was considered as a separate, independent government and became a sanctuary for fugitives from the United States as the laws of the United States did not extend over it. Many runaway negroes sought refuge within the Cherokee boundary but they were not welcomed and the General Council of 1524 passed the following resolution:
"RESOLVED by the National Committee and Council, that all free negroes coming into the Cherokee Nation, under any pretense whatsoever, shall be viewed and treated, in every respect, as intruders, and shall not be allowed to reside in the Cherokee Nation without a permit from the National Committee and Council."
The same council passed a resolution prohibiting negroes owning property of any kind and confiscating the property to be sold "for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation."
The Western Cherokee who were at that time living in what is now the State of Arkansas had similar problems and passed similar laws.1
1RESOLVED BY THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE AND COUNCIL IN GENERAL COUNCIL CONVENED, That after the expiration of six months from and after this date, no slave or slaves in the Cherokee Nation, shall have the right or privilege to own any kind of property whatever, and therefore, all slaves in the Cherokee Nation now owning any kind of property, and failing to comply with this law, by not selling it off by the above mentioned time, shall thereby forfeit their property to their owners, and the National Light-Horse are hereby required to enforce and carry into effect this law in their respective districts.
Resolved Further, that if a slave or slaves are caught gambling or intoxicated, or if they should in any way abuse a free person, he, she, or they (negroes) shall for either of the above offenses, receive sixty lashes on the bare back for each and every such offense to be inflicted by the Light Horse.
Tahlonteeskee, Dec. 3, 1833
The intermarriage of Cherokees and negroes was considered repugnant and traditional laws against it existed from the earliest times. The General Council of 1824 passed a resolution providing a fine of $50.00 against any person who permitted his slaves to marry whites or Indians, and punished the persons attempting such marriage by fifty-nine stripes on the bare back.
The number of slaves in the Cherokee Nation east of the Mississippi increased until in a census taken in 1825 the number was 1,277. No accurate census of the Cherokee in Arkansas was made during that period but it is known that they had numbers of slaves from the legislative acts of their Council.
The method of handling all government affairs by the General Council proved too cumbersome and in 1827 the Cherokee Nation east of the Mississippi adopted a new constitution. This constitution was similar to that of the United States and divided the government into legislative, judicial, and executive departments and defined the duties of the various officers. Negroes were not permitted to have a part in the government. Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution stated: "No person who is of negro or mulatto parentage either by the father's or mother's side, shall be eligible to hold any office of profit, honour, or trust under this Government." Section 7 provided that: "All free male citizens, (excepting negroes and descendants of white and Indian men by negro women who may have been set free) who shall have attained to the age of eighteen years, shall be equally entitled to vote at all public elections.
In the punishment for misdemeanors fines were usually assessed against Cherokees but the punishment of negroes was usually whipping, for a fine would really have been a punishment of the master, for the slave could own no money.
Several acts were passed by Council during the next ten years which assessed various punishments for criminal offenses. In the case of Indians or whites the punishment was a fine or flogging but the fine against a negro was always corporal punishment.
In 1841 an act was passed prohibiting negroes owning or carrying weapons:
"BE IT FURTHER ENACTED: That all masters or owners of slaves, who may suffer or allow their negro or negroes to carry or own firearms of any description, Bowie or butcher knives, dirks or any unlawful instrument, shall be subject to be fined in a sum not less than twenty-five dollars.
BE IT FURTHER ENACTED: That any negro, whether free or slave, that may be found or seen carrying weapons of any kind, in violation of the second section of this act, such patrol company or companies may take up and inflict as many stripes on the bare back as they may think proper."
In the same year an act was passed prohibiting the teaching of negroes to read and write:
"BE IT ENACTED BY THE NATIONAL COUNCIL: That from and after the passage of this act, it shall not be lawful for any person or persons whatever, to teach any free negro or negroes, or any slave belonging to any citizen or citizens of the Nation, to read or write.
BE IT FURTHER ENACTED: That any person or persons violating this act, and sufficient proof being made thereof, before any of the Courts in this Nation, such person or persons, upon conviction, shall pay a fine for such offense in a sum not less than one nor more than five hundred dollars, at the discretion of the court, the same to be applied to National purposes."
A number of negroes belonging to plantations in what was known as Canadian District—that section of the Cherokee territory lying between the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers—revolted, took horses and supplies from their masters, crossed over the
Canadian River into the Muskogee country and escaped. Captain John Drew of the Cherokee Light Horse was empowered by a special act of Council to "command a company which shall consist of 100 effective men to pursue, arrest and deliver" the fugitives. He was "authorized to purchase ammunition and supplies for the expedition, and to render his accounts to the National Council for payment, which shall be made out of the National Treasury:—Provided that the expedition be not unnecessarily protracted and no needless expense incurred."
A number of negroes who had been freed by their masters who found them unprofitable and a number of fugitive slaves from the States settled in the Cherokee Nation without permission of the Council and escaped attention for some time and no notice might have been taken of their presence if they had not encouraged slaves to run away and assisted them to escape. In 1842 the Council took the matter under consideration and passed the following act:
"BE IT FURTHER ENACTED: That should any free negro or negroes be found guilty of aiding, abetting, or decoying any slave or slaves, to leave his or their owner or employer, such free negro or negroes, shall receive for each and every offense, one hundred lashes on the bare back, and be immediately removed from this Nation."
So many drastic laws had been passed that some irresponsible youths thought that there would be no punishment for killing a slave. The Council took the matter under consideration and passed a special act in regard to slaves
"BE IT ENACTED BY THE NATIONAL COUNCIL: That if any person shall wilfully or maliciously, with malice aforethought kill any negro or mulatto slave, on due and legal conviction thereof such person shall be deemed guilty of murder, as if such person so killed had been a free man and shall suffer death by hanging. If the slave so killed shall be the property of another, and not of the offender, his estate on conviction thereof shall be liable to the payment of such slave so killed. PROVIDED, This act shall not be extended to any person killing any slave in the act of resistance to his lawful
owner or master; or any slave dying under moderate correction."
The humane intention of this act was largely nullified by the final clause of the article.
Some missionaries felt that as they were not citizens of the Nation, they should not be bound by the law prohibiting the teaching of negroes. On October 24, 1848 the council made its meaning clear by the following act:
"BE IT ENACTED BY THE NATIONAL COUNCIL: That an Act passed October 22d, 1841, prohibiting the teaching of negroes to read and write, be amended so that if any white person, not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, should be guilty of a violation of this act, it shall be the duty of the Sheriff of the District where such violation should take place, to notify the Chief of the same, and it shall be the duty of the Chief to notify the Agent, and demand a removal of such person or persons from the limits of the Cherokee Nation."
The problems of slavery became more acute as time went on. The organization of the free territory of Kansas and its settlement by abolitionists who encouraged and assisted runaway slaves was a source of irritation for slave owners.
At the beginning of the Civil War the states of Arkansas and Texas hesitated about joining the Confederacy until they could ascertain the sentiments of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory. Governor Rector of Arkansas wrote to Chief Ross on Jan. 29, 1861 requesting the co-operation of the Cherokees with the Confederacy. Ross answered by letters of May 17, June 12, and 17 and in a proclamation of May 17 restated his stand for strict neutrality.
The powerful anti-Ross party however, under the leader of Stand Watie organized a regiment to serve in the Confederacy. Albert Pike the Confederate Commissioner to the Indian tribes was bringing great pressure to bear upon Ross. He had already succeeded in inducing several other tribes to make treaties with the Confederacy. The withdrawal of Federal troops and the military successes of the Confederacy and continued pressure from
prominent slave-holding Cherokees was so great that Ross called a special council to meet in Tahlequah on August 21. Ross again urged neutrality but was convinced that the Confederates would overrun the country unless he joined them and wrote to General McCullough "we are authorized to form an alliance with the Confederate States". A regiment of Ross partizans was organized, placed under the command of Colonel John Drew and tendered to the Confederacy.
The Confederate Commissioner hastened to Tahlequah and on Oct. 7 a treaty was concluded with the Confederate States. On October 28th the Cherokee Council issued a "Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled them to Unite with Those of the Confederate States of America," in which the following statement concerning slavery is made:
"Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past to complain of some of the Southern States, they cannot but feel that their interests and destiny are inseparably connected with those of the South. The war now waging is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude; against the commercial freedom of the South, and against the political freedom of the States, and its objects are to annihilate the soverignty of those states and utterly change the nature of the General Government.
"The Cherokee people and their neighbors were warned before the war commenced that the first object of the party which now holds the reins of government of the United States would be to annul the institution of slavery in the whole Indian country and make it what they term free territory and after a time a free state: and they have been also warned by the fate which has befallen those of their race in Kansas, Nebraska and Oregon that at no distant day they too would be compelled to surrender their country at the demand of Northern rapacity and be content with an extinct nationality, and with reserves of limited extent for individuals, of which their people would soon be despoiled by speculators, if not plundered unscrupulously by the State.
"Urged by these considerations, the Cherokees, long divided in opinion, became unanimous and like their brethren the Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws and Chickasaws, determined by the undivided voice of a General Convention, of all the people, held at Tahlequah, on the twenty-first day of August, in the present year, to make common cause with the South and share its fortunes."
This Declaration was signed by Thomas Pegg, President of the National Committee; Lacey Mouse, Speaker of Council; and was approved by Chief John Ross.
By the terms of the treaty with the Confederacy the Cherokee soldiers were not to be called outside of their own territory but they were ordered to Arkansas where they took part in the battle of Pea Ridge and other engagements. They were entirely without equipment except that which they provided for themselves and that which they captured. They were not paid and many of them felt that their services were not properly recognized. After a few months the most of the men under Colonel Drew joined the Federal army and fought with it until the close of the war. Private feuds added bitterness to the struggle and the country was alternately ravaged by both armies. Practically all property was destroyed and all of the live stock driven off or consumed by the armies.
John Ross and his family were captured by the Federals and he did not return to the Nation. The Federal Cherokees set up a government and the Confederate Cherokees set up another. Both claimed to represent the entire Cherokee people. The Federal Cherokees met at Cowskin Prairie and on February 21st, 1863 their Council passed an act emancipating the slaves and assessing a fine of "not less than one thousand dollars or more than five thousand dollars" against anyone who held slaves after the 25th day of June 1863. The acting Principal Chief of the Federal Cherokee was Thomas Pegg, the Speaker of Council was Spring Frog, and the President of the National Committee was Louis Downing, afterwards Principal Chief.
The Confederate Cherokees under Stand Watie continued the struggle after all of the other units of the Confederate army had surrendered. Finally at Doaksville in the Choctaw Nation, Lieut.
Col. A. C. Mathews made an agreement with Brigadier-Gen. Stand Watie by which the Confederate Cherokees agreed to a sort of truce until a treaty could be made with the entire Cherokee people.
Such a treaty was made July 19th, 1866. It contained the following article in regard to slavery:
"The Cherokee Nation having, voluntarily, in February, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, by an act of the National Council, forever abolished slavery, hereby covenant and agree that never hereafter shall either slavery or involuntary servitude exist in their Nation otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, in accordance with laws applicable to all the members of said tribe alike. They further agree that all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners, or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees: Provided, That owners of slaves so emancipated in the Cherokee Nation shall never receive any compensation or pay for the slaves so emancipated."
This treaty made necessary some changes in the Cherokee Constitution which were made at a special convention called at Tahlequah on the 26th day of November, 1866. Among other provisions one was made regarding citizenship which stated:
"All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation."
The negroes who returned to the country usually settled in groups where they managed their own affairs. Those who returned
with their masters usually remained near them and were frequently employed by them. They were not prohibited from voting at elections but were usually not encouraged to do so, and usually took small part in politics.
A few negroes were elected to Council where they served without molestation but without distinction. When the Cherokee Strip was sold the Cherokee authorities made the payment to Cherokees by blood only, excluding the negroes and the adopted whites. The negroes brought suit and recovered this amount and in the final allotment of lands they received shares equal to Cherokees by blood.