Following on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, in February 1863 the Cherokee Nation declared that all slaves within its limits were “forever free.” In 1983, the descendants of these slaves, known as the Cherokee Freedmen, were removed from tribal membership rolls and prohibited from voting in Cherokee elections. A series of protracted legal battles over Freedmen citizenship ensued and continue today.
Questions on the status of the Cherokees’ former slaves in tribal life originated in the complicated landscape of the Civil War in Indian Territory, a story of an internal civil war within the larger conflict. Although the Cherokee Nation had initially joined the Confederacy, Principal Chief John Ross and his supporters began discussions with Northern forces during the summer of 1862. These loyal Cherokees convened a meeting of the National Council at Cowskin Prairie and produced two distinct emancipation acts, documents that reverberate in today’s controversies over the legal standing of the Cherokee Freedmen.
Ross had originally rebuffed attempts to become engaged in the war, writing in June 1861: “I have already signified my purpose to take no part in it whatever.” But neutrality proved untenable, and the Cherokees signed a treaty of alliance with the Confederacy in October 1861. The nation raised two regiments; one was under the command of Ross’s nephew-in-law John Drew, while Stand Watie, Ross’s long-time political opponent, led the other.
By 1862, Ross had become disillusioned with the Confederate government. The first major military engagements in Indian Territory proved disastrous for both the Confederacy and the Cherokees. Retreating from Indian Territory, the Confederacy left the Cherokees open to Union advances and without supplies for Cherokee troops and destitute civilians. Although Ross believed the Confederacy was shirking its treaty promises, the Confederate colonel Douglas H. Cooper called upon Ross to fulfill his obligations by ordering all Cherokee men of fighting age to “take up arms to repel invasion.”
Union Capt. Harris S. Greeno was aware of Ross’s dissatisfaction with the Confederacy, and he ordered the arrest of Ross and his family at their plantation home, Rose Cottage, in present-day eastern Oklahoma. They were quickly paroled and escorted to Union territory, and they retreated to his wife’s family home in Philadelphia. Ross would spend the remainder of the war attempting to convince the Lincoln administration of the Cherokee’s loyalty and commitment to the Union cause.
With Ross absent from from Indian Territory, southern Cherokee leaders moved quickly to elect Stand Watie as principal chief and reaffirmed the Cherokee Nation’s treaty with the Confederacy. But in the winter of 1863, Col. William Phillips escorted Union Cherokees into the Cherokee Nation. There, they held a meeting of the National Council to affirm that they, and not Watie and his followers, were the true government of the Cherokee people. This 1863 loyal council opened by denouncing the Cherokee treaty with the Confederacy and insisting they were pressured into the alliance due to a lack of federal protection in Indian Territory. They then quickly moved to address the issue of slavery in the Cherokee Nation. Within the four-day period from Feb. 18 to Feb. 21, 1863, the Cherokee Council passed two separate emancipation acts.
The slavery issue was of such great importance they tackled it first: before they removed Stand Watie and other Confederates from office, before discussing how to deal with the utter devastation the Cherokee people faced in their war-torn country and before John Ross was appointed to represent the Cherokee Nation in discussions with the United States government.
The prominent place of slavery at these council meetings reflected a keen understanding of the nature of emancipation policy within the Lincoln administration. As the Cherokee Nation severed ties with the Confederacy and hoped to rejoin the Union, they were certainly aware of another government that had recently done exactly that: on Dec. 31, 1862, President Lincoln welcomed West Virginia into the Union, with its statehood conditional on its newly written constitution’s including an abolition clause.
The Emancipation Acts themselves further demonstrated the Cherokee Council’s acute awareness of President Lincoln’s policies. They first called for a Cherokee delegation to negotiate with the United States government to emancipate their slaves “upon the Principle of Compensation.” During the initial years of the Civil War, Lincoln had proposed ending slavery in the border states through a gradual dissolution of the peculiar institution, with compensation offered to slave owners for their financial losses. He again endorsed a plan for gradual and compensated emancipation in his annual address to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862. The Cherokee Council’s first Emancipation Act, passed on Feb. 18, was an attempt to take Lincoln up on this offer.
What is surprising, then, is how quickly the Cherokee council issued a second Emancipation Act that specified universal emancipation without compensation. On Feb. 20, the council declared: “Any person or Persons, who may have been held in Slavery are, hereby, declared to be forever free.” Why did Cherokee leaders change such a fundamental aspect of their emancipation plans?
Between Lincoln’s endorsement of compensated emancipation in his annual address and the Cherokees’ plan for compensated emancipation, a watershed had occurred. On Jan. 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This action forever altered the parameters of freedom in the United States, and Lincoln would cease his offers of compensated emancipation. The Cherokee Nation had missed its opportunity to receive payment for freeing slaves. Strengthening ties with the Union would require the Cherokees to adjust to Lincoln’s new emancipation policies.
The Cherokees, however, differed from Lincoln and his cabinet over one key issue. There was no serious discussion or consideration of freedmen’s citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. Instead, on Nov. 14, the Cherokee Council passed an act that explicitly denied citizenship to former slaves and required freed slaves remaining in the Nation to obtain work permits. The incorporation of the former slaves of Cherokee masters into the Cherokee citizenry would wait until the 1866 Treaty between the Cherokees and United States.
In the aftermath of freedom, the United States incorporated freed people into the body politic with constitutional amendments outlining their citizenship rights. In the 1866 treaty, federal officials also required Cherokee leaders to grant former slaves and their descendants “all the rights of native Cherokees.” This particular phrase is important, because it did not explicitly state what these rights were - and has been a source of tension between Cherokee leaders and the Cherokee Freedmen ever since.
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Sources: Clarissa Confer, “The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War”; William McLoughlin, “After the Trail of Tears”; Melinda Miller, “Essays on Race and the Persistence of Economic Inequality; Cherokee Nation, 1863 Emancipation Acts and Treaty of 1866; James Oaks, “Freedom National”; Rachel Smith Purvis, “‘Maintaining intact our homogenousness’: Race, Citizenship, & Reconstructing Cherokee”; United States Government, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Melinda C. Miller, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Yale and an assistant professor of economics at the United States Naval Academy, studies the economic status of the Cherokee freedmen during the decades following the Civil War. Rachel Smith Purvis, a postdoctoral associate at Yale, is revising her manuscript on the Cherokee Nation during the Reconstruction era.