The names of wealthy, slaveholding Cherokee families of the past are attached to cities and counties throughout Oklahoma. Those names were also affixed to the descendants of families they enslaved. A treaty in 1866 provided Cherokee citizenship to recently freed slaves. Many of these “Freedmen” are listed on the final Cherokee rolls.
Without the letters, family stories, testimonies, and slave narratives that have been preserved, many of their descendants today might not receive the tribal benefits they deserve. The genealogy of these families can be difficult to document. Research into the story of one young woman sheds new light on where to search and why.
Caleb Starr, a white Quaker from Pennsylvania came to the Cherokee Nation and became a tribal member around 1794 by marrying into one of it’s most distinguished families. His wife Nancy Harlan was the granddaughter of Nancy Ward, the Ghigau
, or “Beloved Woman”. He soon became involved in treaties between the Cherokee and the U.S. government. Under the Treaty of 1817, he received 640 acres. There he had a farm and about 100 slaves.
In the 1830’s, without authorization from their chief, a leader named Major Ridge and a few others signed the Treaty of New Echota in which the Cherokee agreed to move west of the Mississippi in exchange for $5 million. One of the signers of the treaty was Caleb Starr’s son, James. The Cherokee Nation rejected the treaty, but it led to their forced removal in 1838 known as the Trail of Tears.
Some of those making the journey took their slaves with them. James Starr, like many in the “Treaty party”, moved west ahead of the forced removal. Others traveling to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1837 included George Washington Adair and wife Martha (Patsy) Martin, who brought 15 slaves. Jesse Mayfield and Caleb Starr’s daughter Sallie brought another 15.
In retaliation for signing the treaty, Major Ridge, his son John, and Elias Boudinot were assassinated by other Cherokees in 1839. James Starr was also on the kill list but escaped that attack. Successive murders and response broke out throughout the
territory. As it escalated, James and members of his family terrorized rival Cherokee. They even attacked whites across the line in Arkansas. John Ridge wrote to Stand Watie
that the people of Fayetteville “would rather meet the Devil himself” than the Starrs. In 1845, James Starr was killed and scalped along with his son Buck.
Another son, Tom Starr, father-in-law of the famed Belle Starr
, claimed to have killed all 32 of the men who came for his father. In time these hostilities morphed from political revenge into
criminal enterprise. Creek Starr and others kidnapped black youths both free and slave and sold them outside the territory. Archibald Campbell rescued a free black woman named Aiky and one of her daughters after her other two children had been kidnapped from their beds. A year later the kidnappers returned for Aiky and her daughter.
Many Cherokee families from both sides left Indian Territory to escape the violence.
Some took their slaves with them.
“My father and mother (George Harnage and Nancy Mayfield) married in the Cherokee Nation and remained there until what they called the “Starr War”, between parties of Treaty and Anti-Treaty. My parents, along with Judge Adair, George Starr, Judge Wiley, Franklin D. Thompson, two or three of my uncles and my grandmother, Sally Mayfield, all went to Texas, before the Civil War, and lived as one big family”. ~ W.W. Harnage
The place where this extended family settled in Rusk County, Texas eventually became known as the Mount Tabor Indian Community
. It is remembered in some of the slave narratives recorded decades later.
“I was born in Rusk County, Texas, on a plantation …..My mammy and pappy belonged to a part Cherokee named W. P. Thompson when I was born. …. Then, so I been told, old master Thompson sell my pappy and mammy and one of my baby brothers and me back to one of his neighbors in Texas name of John Harnage. I can just remember when Master John Harnage took us to Texas. We went in a covered wagon with oxen and camped out all along the way….. Mammy say we was down in Texas to get away from the War, but I didn’t see any war and any soldiers. 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. You all as free as I am.” We just stand and look and don’t know what to say about it.” ~ Phyllis Petite
“Just ’bout two weeks before the coming of Christmas Day in 1853, I was born on a plantation eight miles east of Bellview, Rusk County, Texas“.
~ Betty Robertson, Cherokee Freedwoman
“Mammy and pappy belong to W.P. Thompson, mixed-blood Cherokee Indian, but before that pappy had been owned by three different masters; one was the rich Joe Vann who lived down at Webber Falls and another was Chief Lowery of the Cherokees.”
~ Johnson Thompson, Freedman
By the end of the Civil War the majority of Cherokee and many of their former slaves returned to Indian Territory. The treaty of 1866 specified a time limit under which slaves had to return if they were to be included. This became a very important point forty years later when Cherokee lands were allotted to those who could verify their status. It still affects their descendants when applying for citizenship today.
“Pappy wanted to go back to his mother when the war was over and the slaves was freed. … Mammy died in Texas, and when we left Rusk County after the Civil War, Pappy took us children to the graveyard. We patted her grave and kissed the ground, telling her good-bye”.
~ Johnson Thompson, Freedman
The grandson of Jesse Mayfield and Sallie Starr later lamented over his grandparents’ difficulties after losing their slaves.
“It left us very much humiliated from a financial standpoint. All we had was land. We started farming then by employing Negroes and doing the best that we could under the circumstances with free-Negro labor and it was really bad”. ~ W. W. Harnage
Sallie Starr Mayfield held a slave called Susie Mayfield. Susie had been enslaved by John Tompson Adair, and as a result, her daughter was called Lizzie Adair.
Lizzie’s descendants should today be eligible for Cherokee Nation citizenship. In addition to Mayfield and Adair, Lizzie received the names of Thompson, Lott, Lovely, and Lee through enslavement and marriage.
The Lee name came from her marriage to 10th Cavalry soldier Jordan Lee. The 10th Cavalry Regiment was a unit of the United States Army formed as a segregated African-American unit. It was one of the original “Buffalo Soldier” regiments in the post-Civil War Regular Army.
Sadly, Lizzie died only weeks before she could have been added to the Dawes rolls. Her daughter Alzie Lee was adopted by Sarah Davis and enrolled with her.
COM’R NEEDLES:–The name of Sarah Davis is found upon the authenticated roll of 1880 as well as the census roll of 1896. She is duly identified and makes satisfactory proof as to residence and she will be listed for enrollment as a Cherokee Freedman.
Applicant applies for the enrollment of Alzie Lee, an orphan child now in her custody. She avers that Alzie Lee is the child of Lizzie Lee, and the name of Lizzie Lee is found and identified upon the authenticated roll of 1880 as Nig Adair, the cause of confusion of names being explained in the testimony. She is fully identified and makes satisfactory proof as to residence, consequently, Alzie Lee will be listed for enrollment as a Cherokee Freedman. ~ Dawes commission
Lizzie’s children who were enrolled are listed below.
We’ve found no image of Lizzie. Consideration of who her own ancestors may have been is represented by the amazing sculpture above, a 600-year-old copper head from West Africa. Leading art experts believe it is “among the most aesthetically striking and technically sophisticated in the world”. Did Lizzie’s family saga come from a land where powerful empires existed and lead to a hideout for slave owners? After surviving enslavement, the story of their resilience and endurance continues today.