Booker T. Washington wrote, “The Indians who first met the white man on his continent do not seem to have held slaves until they first learned to do so from him.”
Cherokee and other Indian tribes were traded in slavery long before any arrived from Africa. South Carolina eventually became the hub of Indian slave trade. This was not only supported by the Governor of South Carolina John Archdale, but he made money from the trade. Charleston, and especially a group of men associated with an area north of Charleston known as the “Goose Creek men,” became the center of this North American commercial slavery.
By the late years of the seventeenth century, caravans of Indian slaves were making their way from the Carolina backcountry to forts on the coast just as they were doing on the African continent. Once in Charleston, the captives were loaded on ships for the “middle passage” to the West Indies or other colonies such as New Amsterdam or New England. Many of the Indian slaves were kept at home and worked on the plantations of South Carolina.
Over time, some Cherokees owned slaves themselves. The majority were held by more affluent families like the Watie and Ridge. Of the 1,592 “black slaves” listed on the 1835 census, only 1% were held by full blood Cherokee. As mixed-bloods gained power within the Cherokee Nation the number of slaves grew.
After gold was discovered in Georgia, the Cherokee were forbidden to dig for it. Georgia authorized a survey of their lands to prepare for a lottery to distribute the land to whites. Missionary Evan Jones, who had translated the Bible into Cherokee, staunchly opposed this. As a result, he suffered greatly for his stand.
The Cherokee Nation was under great pressure to move west and relinquish their lands in the East, but most refused. Some found refuge in the mountains of North Carolina. Today these are incorporated as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The United States government then negotiated with a small faction of Cherokee who favored moving west. These included a wealthy planter and slaveholder named Stand Watie. This group became known as the “Treaty Party” because they signed a treaty with the government called the Treaty of New Echota. While never approved by the majority of Cherokee, it was used by the U.S. to forcibly move the Cherokee west. This is often called the Trail of Tears. Many slaves traveled west with the tribe during the Cherokee Removal, and so did Evan Jones. Jones and his family were so loved by the Cherokee that they were later adopted into the tribe.
Upon arrival in the west, several members of the Treaty Party were later murdered (executed) for their roles in the removal. Stand Watie escaped, but his brother Buck Watie (Elias Boudinot), his uncle Major Ridge, and cousin, John Ridge were killed. A bloody saga of vengeance ensued within the tribe and many fled, with the full-bloods going North while the mixed-bloods with their slaves went South.
By 1860 there were 4,000 slaves in the Cherokee Nation owned by only ten percent of the population. The Cherokee National Council abolished slavery in 1863, but Stand Watie helped organize a chapter of the secret pro-slavery group called “The Knights of the Golden Circle” within the Cherokee Nation. The “golden circle” was planned to be a territory that allowed slavery and extended as far as Mexico. In fact, they raised money and arms to invade Mexico.
In response, white missionary Evan Jones (who one newspaper called a “dangerous abolitionist”) along with his son John, full-blood Baptist minister Budd Gritts, Pig Smith, Creek Sam, and other traditionalist Cherokee helped organize the Keetoowah Society, a secret anti-slavery organization. A militant, mainly full-blood offshoot of the Society known as “Pins” wore turbans and crossed pins on their coat lapels or calico shirts.
In 1861, poet and a thirty-third-degree mason Albert Pike traveled to Indian Territory and with Stand Watie negotiated a Treaty of Alliance between the Cherokee and the Confederacy. Prior to the civil war, Pike helped Watie to become a Thirty-second Degree Scottish Rite Mason. He was later commissioned a colonel in command of the First Regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles. Stand Watie was the only Native American brigadier general in the Confederate States Army, and the final Confederate general in the field to cease hostilities at war’s end.
The following year Chief Ross was exiled to his wife’s family home in Delaware for the duration, and Stand Watie was elected Principal Chief by the first Confederate Cherokee Convention held at Tahlequah. Cherokees loyal to John Ross convened an emergency session of the National Council at Cow Skin Prairie, revoked the treaty with the South, and pledged loyalty to the Union. Stand Watie and his men then burned the Cherokee Capital buildings at Tahlequah and the Ross home at Park Hill, Oklahoma.
After the war, the Northern and Southern factions of the Cherokee negotiated a treaty with the U.S. government. John Ross was with the Northern Cherokee negotiators while Stand Watie and his brother’s son Elias were part of the Southern Cherokee group. The Southern Cherokee wanted the government to pay to relocate the Cherokee Freedmen from their lands. Instead, this Cherokee treaty of 1866 granted the former slaves (and their descendants) citizenship in the tribe. These are known as the Freedmen. The Wallace roll lists claims by 3,524 Freedmen to Cherokee Citizenship.
Watie then went into exile in the Choctaw Nation. Some say he went to recover some of the money hidden by the Knights of the Golden Circle when the war started. Even today there are stories that the Knights of the Golden Circle amassed and stashed millions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and currency around the United States. The story was revitalized when retired naval serviceman Bob Brewer discovered what may be part of it in1991, a mason jar full of gold and silver coins. Another $400 million in gold stored in kegs was reputedly thrown into a river near Kingsland, Georgia.
In the 1890s, after a political battle was blown out of proportion by newspapers, the United States government decided to totally wipe out the Cherokee tribal government. By creating the “Final Rolls”, all Cherokee lands and moneys would be divided among individual citizens. This is called the Dawes roll. Members of the Keetowah society bitterly resisted, hid, were arrested, and some were even added to the rolls by paid informants. Freedmen were included but listed separately with no blood quantum.
Keetoowah Chief Redbird Smith set out to gain separate tribal status for the full-bloods through the Keetoowah Society but instead, it fractionalized for many years into 22 separate entities. In 1936 the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act provided a way for them to reorganized and be recognized by the government. In 1949 this segment of the historical Cherokee Nation became the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.
In 1976 a quarter-blood Cherokee Chief developed a plan that would help establish services and programs from the BIA and Indian health service. A constitution for the “Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma” was drawn up and voted on by a number of Cherokee. However, unlike the Keetoowah and Eastern Band Cherokee, this was not done via the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
Sadly, in 1983 the rules for registration were changed to require a degree of Indian blood, even though the Cherokee Nation has no blood quantum requirement. This made the descendants of Evan Jones and the Freedmen, both “Indians by citizenship”, to be ineligible. Just as in the past, concerted efforts for a resolution are shrouded in secrecy and rendered by the most unlikely collaborators.
Today the historic Cherokee Nation lives on through its descendants, and hope for a united Cherokee Nation hasn’t waned. Unlike so many indigenous tribes that have vanished from the earth, the Cherokee diaspora has ended. They are recovering their culture through language immersion programs, seed preservation, and translation of ancient writings in syllabary. Gravesites are being discovered and recovered. DNA, while not approved for tribal membership, still holds promise as an added matching tool. Many descendants are just discovering their heritage, while others maintain ancient traditions through story telling, songs, and at stomp grounds.