We celebrated Juneteenth yesterday, which is a national holiday honoring the end of slavery and beginning of freedom in the United States for millions of people. However, for several thosand people just to the west, in Indian Territory, slavery continued. A full year after the Civil War the five slaverholding tribes finally abolished slavery by signing a treaty with the United States. Four different treaties were signed, with 3 tribes signing their own treaty--Cherokee, Creek and Seminole Nations. Choctaws and Chickasaws signed the same exact treaty, and at last slavery was abolished in Indian Territory.
There are not many stories written explaining how freedmen came to the various communities. However, years later a few of the formerly enslaved people referred to their experiences when freedom came to them. Below are a few of these memories shared in the 1930s when the WPA (Works Progress Administration) launched the Slave Narrative Project. Thankfully a few of the stories of Freedmen from the Five Tribes were also captured in that process.
Below are a few words documented by the project. Note that the final piece is the only reference made to freedom of an ancestor who was enslaved in the Choctaw Nation. It is a reference simply to my gr. gr. grandmother, and who had freed her. Though her own words are not there---the word "freed" is still there as part of our own family's story of freedom.
Those enslaved in Indian Territory should never be forgotten. Though many were told that they were not worthy, and that their blood did not count--it needs to be said: It did count! They did count! And their history is there to find.
Although our ancestors were not freed on Juneteenth, we still celebrate the beginning of the end. It would take a full year in the territory and for many such as the Choctaw Freedmen, it would be 19 years before citizenship was finally given to them.
"But one day Old Master stay after he eat breakfast and when us negroes come in to eat, he say: 'After today I ain't your master any more. Yall as free as I am.' We just stand and look and don't know what to say about it."1
After while Pappy got a wagon and some oxen to drive for a white man who was coming to the Cherokee Nation because he had folks here. His name was Dave Mounts and he had a boy named John.
We come with them and stopped at Fort Gibson, where my own grand mammy was cooking for hte soldiers at the garrison. And I was named after her. She had a good Cherokee master. My mammy was born on his place.
We stayed with her about a week and then we moved out on Four Mile Creek. She died on Fourteen-Mile Creek about a year later.
When we first went to Four Mile Creek we saw some negro women chopping wood and asked them who they worke for and I found out they didn't know they was free yet."
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~~Charlotte Johnson White~~
"Near as I ever know I was born in the year 1850 away back in dem hills east of Tahlequah; the Cherokees called it the Flint District and old master Ben Johnson lived somewheres about ten miles east of theh big Indian town Tahlequah.
Never did know jest where his farm was and when de new towns of this country spring up, it make it dat much harder for me to figure out jest where he lived and where I was born."
...I hear about the slaves being free when maybe a hundred soldiers come to de house. Dey was a pretty sights settin' on their horses, and de men had on blue uniforms wid little caps. "All de slaves is free," one of de men said, and after dat, I jest told everybody, "I is a free Negro now and I ain't goin to work for nobdy."
A long time after de war is over and everybody is free of dey masters I get down to Muldrow (Okla) and dat's where I join de church. For 58 year I belong to the colored Baptists and I learn dat everybody ought to be good while dey is livin', so 's dey will have a better restin' place when dey die." 2
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...I married Isom Love, a slave of Sam Love, another full-blood Indian that lived on a a jining farm. We lived on Masater Frank's farm and Isom went back and forth to work fer his aster and I worked ever day fer mine. I don't 'spect we could of done that way iffen we hadn't had Indian masters. They let us do a lot ike we pleased jest so we got our work done and didn't run off.
I was glad to be free. What did I do and say? Well, I just clapped my hands together and said thank Gof Almith, I'se free at last."3
(Dawes Interview for Walton Family)
In 1899, my great grandparents from the Walton family appeared in front of the Dawes Commission to be interviewed. Basic information was collected, and a member of the Perry family was present and testified on behalf of my great grandmother Sallie. One sentence stood out for me, that referenced how freedom came to the Perry slaves. This is the only reference to freedom from family records. and they are shared here as well.
"The mother of Sallie Walton was freed under my sister Emeline Perry."4
Clearly, a critical task awaits us---to find our freedom story!
1 Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Administrative Files. 1936. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mesn001/>
4 National Archives Publication M1301, Applications for Enrollment of the Five Civilized Tribes