Enslaved Black People: The Part of the Trail of Tears Narrative No One Told You About
Contrary to the favored historical narrative, the Union’s effort to rein within the Confederacy and end the secessionist military rebellion now referred to as the war was incomplete upon the long-lasting April 9, 1865, surrender of Robert E. Lee at a Virginia courthouse in Appomattox. While ending the conflict in Virginia, the legendary courthouse meeting between Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant prompted a series of subsequent surrenders in numerous Southern states and Western territories over the following months. On Midsummer Eve, a full two-and-a-half months after Appomattox, the war finally came to its conclusion at the Doaksville settlement in present-day Oklahoma with the surrender of Stand Watie, the last Confederate general to get down his arms.
Watie, a staunch Confederate whose loyalty and battlefield exploits had earned him the rank of brigadier, was, perhaps, far too complicated for our sanitized and more linear national historical narrative. He was a Native American, a Georgia-born Cherokee who commanded Southern troops within the Indian Territory consisting of battalions of Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and Osage natives. He was one among many natives who’d left their Southern lands behind three decades prior and entered the Oklahoma Territory by way of the infamous “Trail of Tears,” a series of forced relocations enacted by government authorities following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
And, sort of a number of his native brethren, Watie was a wealthy planter and landowner who was accompanied on the western trail to the Oklahoma Territory by the sizable number of enslaved Africans he owned.
“What people got to realize is that slavery wasn’t just Black and white,” said Dr. Arica L. Coleman, a nationally recognized historian of Black and Native American descent. Coleman, who has held numerous faculty appointments, is that the author of “That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and therefore the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.”
“Every time you see the pictorial representations, the iconography of the paths of Tears, you simply see Indians,” stressed Coleman, noting “the truth of the matter is that they certainly didn’t leave their slaves behind.”
“We couldn’t ignore the very fact that the Five ‘Civilized’ Tribes were slave states legally, where they did practice slavery,” said Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Smith, a Comanche, noted the necessity to place the term “civilized” in quotations given its skewed 19th-century Eurocentric application to the Southern-based Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. The author of several books on Native American culture recently facilitated the museum’s “Ámericans” exhibit, including information on the Trail of Tears, and a “Finding Common Ground” symposium exploring African-American and Native American relations.
While slavery wasn’t practiced in native communities “in an equivalent way that Mississippi or Alabama did in terms of numbers or being essential to the economy,” Smith stressed, “they took an edge to support slavery, to enforce it in their laws and to fight for the Confederacy truly. So it might are pretty hypocritical to speak about the role of Indian removal being a part of these larger historical processes while ignoring the undisputed historical incontrovertible fact that Indian nations practiced and guarded the institution of slavery.”
Although Native Americans, long before Waite and like many cultures, had practiced the enslavement of prisoners of war within and between their own cultures, they didn’t engage in racialized chattel slavery until the late 18th century amidst the increasing encroachment of white settlers. While this violent encroachment and its associated “civilization” efforts by whites impacted and influenced all of the five major groups, it had been the Cherokee Nation that the majority actively engaged in and profited from Southern enslavement. Coleman has acknowledged that by 1809, 600 enslaved Africans were held within the Cherokee nation alone, a variety that increased to 1600 by 1835.
It was during the 1830s, within the aftermath of the Indian Removal Act, that the decade-long process referred to as the Trail of Tears occurred. Fueling the will to say the lands of these believed to be “godless savages” was the white settlers’ government-backed wish to expand the cotton industry, and therefore the recent discovery of gold in parts of the South, particularly North Carolina. As a consequence, thousands of Native Americans were evicted from their common lands and made to steer thousands of miles to designated Indian Territory in current-day Oklahoma, many dying from starvation and disease along the way.
Watie, one among a smaller faction of Cherokees who supported removal to the Western Territory because the only thanks to preserving the Cherokee autonomy, was among those that signed the 1835 Treaty of the latest Echota that ceded native lands in Georgia in exchange for the Western Territory. While he and therefore the Africans he enslaved would make a move west in 1837, of the estimated 15,000 Cherokee in Georgia forced on to the trail in 1838, as many as 4,000 died.
Once in the Indian Territory, Watie and other native slave-owners resumed and even increased their cruel and profitable practice. “Slavery in Indian territory became a mirror-image of slavery within the white South,” said Coleman. She further explained there have been already established slave codes within native territories dating back to the 1827 Cherokee Constitution, which stated, “The descendants of Cherokee men by all free women, except the African race, whose parents may are cohabitation as man and wife, consistent with the customs and laws of this Nation, shall be entitled to all or any the rights and privileges of this Nation, also because the posterity of Cherokee women by all free men. nobody who is of negro or mulatto parentage, either by the daddy or mother side, shall be eligible to carry any office of profit, honor or trust under this Government.”
“There were even Black Codes to stay in line with the free Black populace, given there was a free Black population living among the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and other groups,” added Coleman.
“I learned a narrative that said there had been some fundamental differences between the treatment of individuals enslaved by Native Americans and people enslaved by White race ,” said Smith, of a well-liked yet questionable historical theme that emerged within the 1970s. “But newer scholarship has demolished that argument.”
While noting there have been certainly variances within the way individual states and territories had practiced it, Smith stressed that “one thing we now realize slavery that’s well documented is that it was about metrics, about money, about careful record-keeping as long as slaves were very expensive” and a serious investment. “So it’s not a legitimate argument to mention that somehow enslavement under Native Americans was, to any significant degree, a kinder and gentler sort of slavery.”
By 1860, there have been 4,000 enslaved Africans living within the Cherokee Nation alone. Upon the war, in 1861, Watie didn’t hesitate to hitch the Confederacy, given his common interest with the wealthy slaveholders of the South and his view of the federal because of the Cherokees’ primary displacer and enemy. He was pivotal in establishing the first Cherokee regiment of the Confederate Army referred to as the “Cherokee Mounted Rifles” and in securing early Confederate control of the Indian Territory. Unwilling to acknowledge Confederate defeat upon Lee’s Appomattox surrender, Watie would ultimately close the epic military chapter of America’s most historic internal conflict by finally laying down his arms to Union light colonel Asa C. Matthews at Doaksville on Midsummer Eve.
It is a little-known conclusion to a pivotal American event.
“This is why history is so important,” insisted Coleman, promoting the worth of a more nuanced and accurate account, no matter where the reality may take you. “When you say slavery was only Black and white,” continued Coleman, “it erases the opposite a part of that story.”