CNN | Tiya Miles | 2/27/12
African American history, as it is often told, includes two monumental migration stories: the forced exodus of Africans to the Americas during the brutal Middle Passage of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the voluntary migration of Black residents who moved from southern farms and towns to northern cities in the early 1900s in search of “the warmth of other suns.”
A third African-American migration story—just as epic, just as grave—hovers outside the familiar frame of our historical consciousness. The iconic tragedy of Indian Removal: the Cherokee Trail of Tears that relocated thousands of Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), was also a Black migration. Slaves of Cherokees walked this trail along with their Indian owners.
In 1838, the U.S. military and Georgia militia expelled Cherokees from their homeland with little regard for Cherokee dignity or life. Families were rousted out of their cabins and directed at gunpoint by soldiers. Forced to leave most of their possessions behind, they witnessed white Georgians taking ownership of their cabins, looting and burning once cherished objects. Cherokees were loaded into “stockades” until the appointed time of their departure, when they were divided into thirteen groups of nearly 1,000 people, each with two appointed leaders. The travelers set out on multiple routes to cross Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas at 10 miles a day with meager supplies.
At points along the way, the straggling bands were charged fees by white farmers to cross privately owned land. The few wagons available were used to carry the sick, infant, and elderly. Most walked through the fall and into the harsh winter months, suffering the continual deaths of loved ones to cold, disease, and accident. Among these sojourners were African Americans and Cherokees of African descent. They, like thousands of other Cherokees, arrived in Indian Country in 1839 broken, depleted, and destitute.
In addition to bearing the physical and emotional hardships of the trip, enslaved Blacks were enlisted to labor for Cherokees along the way; they hunted, chopped wood, nursed the sick, washed clothes, prepared the meals, guarded the camps at night, and hiked ahead to remove obstructions from the roads.
One Cherokee man, Nathaniel Willis, remembered in the 1930s that: “My grandparents were helped and protected by very faithful Negro slaves who … went ahead of the wagons and killed any wild beast who came along.” Nearly 4,000 Cherokees died during the eviction, as did an unaccounted for number of Blacks. As one former slave of Cherokees, Eliza Whitmire, said in the 1930s: “The weeks that followed General Scott’s order to remove the Cherokees were filled with horror and suffering for the unfortunate Cherokees and their slaves.”
Although Black presence on the Trail of Tears is a documented historical fact, many have willed it into forgetfulness.
Some African Americans avoid confronting the painful reality of Native American slave ownership, preferring instead to fondly imagine any Indian ancestor in the family tree and to picture all Indian communities in the South as safe havens for runaway slaves.
Some Cherokee citizens and Native people of other removed slaveholding tribes (Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) have also denied this history, desiring to cordon off forced removal as an atrocious wrong that affected only Native Americans. By excluding Blacks (many of whom had Native “blood”) from a claim on this history, these deniers also seek to expel the descendants of Freedmen and women from the circle of tribal belonging. For it is the memory of this collective tragedy, perhaps more than any other, that binds together Cherokees who draw strength from having survived it.
As a researcher whose work focuses on African-American and Native American histories, I have encountered this resistance. A few years ago, I spoke on the subject of Blacks in the Cherokee removal at a conference of the National Trail of Tears Association. One member of the audience, a Cherokee instructor of Cherokee history, insisted that this was an historical event only for Cherokees, a story that rightfully belonged to them alone. This is a view shared by a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who reportedly implied in a published remark that descendants of Freedpeople do not deserve tribal rights because they did not suffer the collective trauma of removal. The Trail of Tears is a sacred story to the Cherokees, as in special and set apart. It carries a meaningful lesson across time and space—-about greed, injustice, and the perseverance of a people staring into a bleak and unknown future. However, a potent story shared with others is not necessarily diminished by the sharing; it might instead grow stronger in its ability to enlighten.
… Since labor was in short supply in British America, the earliest colonist enslaved first Indians and then Africans. Since unending bondage did no exist in English law, the first form was called “indenture” and lasted for about seven years. “Indentured servants” of any color could be mistreated while in service, have theri personal life regulated, and their time extended by scheming masters.
Since all three races were abused under this system, they often rebelled and escaped. Reward notices of the time tell of red*, black, and white men and women fleeting their masters- sometimes together.
The first Africans introduced into Jamestown’s economy in 1619 became indentured servants, not slaves. Upon their release, they became part of the Virginia colony. Some became landowners, and one, Anthony Johnson, ruled an African community of twelve homesteads and two hundred acres in Virginia’s Northhampton County.
In the 1630s the rules of indenture began to change. It became legal to hold Africans and Indians for more than the usual seven years, even for life. The change began on he English-ruled island of Barbados when the governor announced “that Negroes and Indians… should sever for life, unless a contract was made to the contrary.” And beginning in 1636, only whites received contracts of indenture.
British America had taken a large step in dividing labor by race and reserving the worse for dark people. More and more white laborers were pouring into the thirteen British colonies, and masters did not want them making common cause with African or Native Americans. Masters had probably concluded their profitable labor system would work only as long as whites did not see their condition and fate as identical with nonwhites.
In 1636 a Massachusetts Indian became the first North American to be legally enslaved, sentenced to work until he died. A decade later Governor John Winthrop though of the idea of seizing Narragansett Indians to exchange for Africans. Around the same time British commissioners meeting in New Haven also decided that it was fair to make slaves of Indians and exchange them for Africans.
By 1661 slavery had become legal in the British colonies. Africans were preferred because of being thousands of miles from home. Indian slaves were able to flee to their armed brothers and sisters- and then come roaring back seeking revenge.
This idea of keeping slaves distant from their homes and families was crucial to having them under strict control. British merchants took Indians enslaved on the mainland and shipped them out to the West Indies. This was the only safe way to enslave Native Americans, for bondage was only secure when its victims felt they had no one to turn to, no friends nearby.
Reward notices in colonial newspapers now told of African slaves who “ran off with his Indian wife” or “had kin among the Indians” or is “part-Indian and speaks their language good.”
In slave huts and beyond the British settlements along the coast, African and Native American women and men shared their sorrows and hopes, their luck and courage. They did not always know where to run to, bu they knew where to run from.
Judging reward notices, Africans picked up Indian languages soon as they reached a frontier region. Runaways in the woods always needed outside help.
The first full-scale battle between Native Americans and British colonist took place in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. Africans fared a lot better than their owners. According to historian James H. Johnstone “the Indians murdered every white but saved the Negroes.” This, noted Johnstone, became a common pattern during wars between colonist and Indians.
British colonial law not only lumped Native American and African people together, but handed both worse punishments than whites. A Virginia law set twenty-five lashes if he accused were a red* or black person. Virginia soon declared “Negro, Mulatto, and Indian slaves… to be real estate.”
Beginning slowly in 1670, rules of bondage began to change to permit Native Americans to leave. Virginia began matters that year by stating that Indians were enslaved for only twelve years, Africans for life.
This decision was based on a peculiar legal point that Africans were “imported into this colony by shipping” and Indians came “by land.” No mention was made of the fact that Indians did not come by land, but lived there before English settlers arrived, or that most Africans had been living in Virginia much longer than most British citizens.
Before Indians were erased out of the slave system, they had lived and married with African slaves, and produced in their offspring a new class of Americans held in chains. When the slave codes talked of “Indian slaves,” it probably meant those Black Indians. For example, although New York’s Assembly banned Indian bondage in 1679, in 1682 it forbad “Negro or Indian Slaves” from leaving their masters’ home or plantations without permission. The next year the Assembly denied “Negro or Indian Slaves” from meeting anywhere together in groups of four or more or being armed “with guns, Swords, Clubs, Staves or Any Other kind of weapon.”
Between 1619 and 1700 labor in North America had become divided by skin color. Liberty itself would remain divisible by sin color through the American Revolution and up to the Civil War and emancipation [and beyond].
This division kept working people in America from uniting against an unjust labor system. Masters deported Indian slaves to the West Indies so they could not flee to their homes and loved ones. They enlisted whites and local Indians to help them hunt their runaway African slaves. When local Native Americans refused this work, they reached out to Indians on distant islands who needed money or trade. Through this cleverness, slaveowners hoped to sleep soundly each night and awake each day to greater profits.
Those who have put history into books have emphasized differences between Africans and Native Americans. For example, they have stressed that Europeans encountered Indians as distinct individuals and members of proud nations, and Africans as nameless slaves. Little mention is made of the enslavement of Native Americans and nothing is said about the cultural similarities between the two dark peoples. In 1984, scholar Theda Perdue said: “By emphasizing the actual, exaggerated and imagined differences between Africans and Indians, whites successfully masked the cultural similarities of the two races as well as their mutual exploitation by whites.”
“Johnson suggested that as non-white peoples being oppressed by Southern whites, they should empathize with black slaves. In reality, his suggestion would have greatly offended Cherokee leaders, whose claim to civilization had become about not being black. In an 1829 article in the Cherokee Phoenix, Elias Boudinot wrote that “Indians…are red, not black, and therefore cannot be treated with gross injustice like negro slaves.” Cherokee leaders used an emerging racial hierarchy to distinguish themselves from all blacks. In the end, Johnson did not directly condemn the ownership of slaves by Cherokees, but he criticized them for their willingness to support the institution through publication. He felt that they unwittingly assisted white slaveholders who wanted them removed to western lands.”
Cherokee Slaveholders and Radical Abolitionists: An Unlikely Alliance in Antebellum America” by: Natalie Joy
William Loren Katz | December 19, 2011
Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of one of the least known battles for freedom and self-determination fought in North America. In 1837, in what had become the state of Florida less than a generation earlier, the freedom fighters were members of the Seminole Nation, an alliance of African slave runaways and Native American Seminoles.
They faced the strongest power in the Americas, the combined armed forces of the United States Army, Navy and Marines, whose goal was to crush the bi-racial alliance and return its African-American members to slavery.
The battle lines were drawn where they were, in part, because an early expedition by Ponce De Leon had claimed the Florida peninsula for the Spanish monarchy but Spain lacked the means to govern the large territory.
So, during the colonial era, escaped slaves from the Carolinas built a new home in ungoverned Florida. Since 1738, Africans had been establishing prosperous, self-governing communities, and around 1776, they welcomed Seminoles fleeing ethnic persecution by the Creek Nation.
The Africans taught their new friends the methods of rice cultivation they had learned in Sierra Leone and Senegambia. On this basis the two peoples of color built an agricultural-based society with a military force prepared to meet threats to their community, to their right of self-determination and to their liberty.
By the War of 1812, the Florida alliance was facing repeated attacks from American slave-hunter posses. There was also an occupation by an armed white militia force known as “Patriots,” who since 1811 enjoyed covert support from President James Madison. He hoped the Patriots would seize Florida for the United States.
Driving this campaign against Florida’s African and Seminole inhabitants were U.S. slaveholders who saw this successful bi-racial alliance as a clear and present danger to their southern plantation system. They had a point, since each week runaways crossed the border to find freedom in Seminole villages.