The forced removal of the Five Tribes from their homelands in the southeastern United States to Indian Territory in the 1830s also included the African American slaves owned by many tribe members. The transition of these slaves to American citizenship is unique in the history of race relations in the United States. It was a journey filled with contentious negotiation among factions of the Indian nations, the federal government, capitalist developers, black and white agricultural colonizers, and the freedmen themselves. Efforts to secure the rights of the freedmen represented one aspect of the struggle that ultimately opened Indian lands to non-Indian settlement.
By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the tribes’ members owned approximately ten thousand slaves. Unlike slavery in the southern states, the form of slavery in Indian Territory widely varied. The Creek and Seminole often intermarried with their slaves and allowed a broad range of freedoms. The Cherokee resisted intermarriage but pursued benign relationships on their small farms. The Choctaw and Chickasaw more closely approximated the system of white slaveholders on the cotton plantations. In all cases the slaves adapted to the patterns of the Indian cultures in dress, food, language, and communal landholding. Episodes of mistreatment and violence occurred, but more often, runaway slaves came to Indian Territory because they believed it to be a less race-restrictive environment.
As the Civil War began, tribal factionalism that had begun at the time of removal resurfaced in violence over the issues of slavery and sectional loyalty. Some Indians declared their allegiance to the Union, but other groups from all of the Five Tribes signed agreements with the Confederacy to provide supplies and troops. The slaves were caught in the crossfire. The war in Indian Territory began with an attack on loyal Creeks, Cherokees, and runaway slaves retreating toward Kansas in 1861. In the next four years guerrilla raiding by both Union and Confederate Indian units and desperate foraging destroyed many of the prosperous farms, businesses, and homes of the territory.
The Cherokee national government freed their slaves in June 1863, the only one of the Five Tribes to do so until after the war, although few slaveholders acknowledged this law. Black Indians joined both the Union and Confederate armies, leaving their elderly, women, and children behind. Many slaveholding Indians sold their slaves and left the territory. Others remained on their lands until the violence forced them to retreat with their slaves to Arkansas or south to the Red River and into Texas. Black Indian refugees fled to Kansas, moved onto the farmlands previously occupied by their owners, or huddled for protection near Fort Gibson. Hunger, disease, exposure, fear, and violence marked their lives. When the war ended with Cherokee Brig. Gen. Stand Watie’s surrender in June 1865, the Five Tribes no longer exercised the autonomy over their own tribal affairs.
Federal government officials refused to recognize the divisions within the tribes’ leadership or the contributions of the loyal factions to the war effort, choosing instead to deal with them all as rebels and to enact a punitive peace agreement. Tribe leaders met first at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and later in Washington, D.C., to conduct treaty negotiations. Sizeable land cessions, railroad right of way, and a unified territorial government were among the government demands, but the most complex issue dealt with the fate of the freedmen. The government insisted on the abolition of slavery and the incorporation of the freedmen into their respective tribal groups with full citizenship rights. All of the Indian nations were willing to end slavery, but citizenship rights conferred access to land and tribal monies as well as political power. This issue prolonged the negotiations. When reports reached Washington that the freedmen were being mistreated and kept in bondage, Maj. Gen. John Sanborn was dispatched to investigate the charges, distribute supplies to alleviate some of the suffering, and make clear the government’s position with regard to freedmen’s rights. Indian leaders resented Sanborn’s interference and the elevated status of their former slaves.