Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Free People and Property in Post Civil War Indian Territory

In the years after the Civil War, many citizens of Indian Territory used the services of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau. Some needed the Bureau for assistance as they settled into war torn land they once knew as home. For some, the Bureau assisted them with life as free people for the first time. For others, they needed rations, that were provided, and for others, there was an issue of lands abandoned during the War.

Of course, for those once enslaved in Indian Territory the Bureau was a place where many resources could be found. But a group of Creeks who were of African ancestry who were not enslaved also appealed to the Bureau in western Arkansas for assistance. These were people who were born free, and not enslaved. They had lived in the Seminole & Creek Nation as free people, but during the Civil War and the time of conflict, many had to abandon their own lands for safety. Prior to the war, they had settled on lands and had worked their own lands for years, but once the conflicts and issues of the war came closer to their home, like many, they took refuge in Kansas to avoid the chaos and devastation brought by war. After the surrender, many wished to return home, but found much of their property destroyed.

Lewis Moore, who was a leading man of color, first made the inquiry to the bureau officials, inquiring about compensation for the lands that they had abandoned. The officials in the Fort Smith Field office were not certain and in fact wrote to their superiors with the same inquiry. A copy of a letter written about Seminole and Creek people was found among the papers of the Fort Smith Field office of the Bureau. The letter appears below.


The letter was written by the Superintendent of the Fort Smith Field Office of the Bureau, and sent to his superior in Little Rock at the Bureau office there.

There is no response among the letters from the Fort Smith Field office addressing the rights of people and property in the Territory. But the answer can still be learned simply but understanding the bureau, the jurisdiction, and the actions taken.

The bureau, did oversee the issue of abandoned lands in the United States, but the bureau did not restore lands to people in Indian Territory. That is also complicated by the fact that among the Five Civilized Tribes, land was not "owned" in private parcels of land, and private ownership did not take place in the Territory until the Dawes allotment process began in the 1890s.

So although there was no official response found to the letter above, the letter is still revealing as it is one that pertains to the rights of free people of color in the Territory, and it is reflective of a time of post Civil War re-adjustments that were made by all who lived in the Territory.



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