Beneath the Underdog:
Race, Religion, and the Trail of Tears

By Patrick Minges
Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York
© Copyright 1994, 1998, All Rights Reserved
Used With Permission

In the fields and homes of the colonial plantations of the United States in the late eighteenth century, the first intimate relations between African-American and Native-American peoples were forged in their collective oppression at the hands of the “peculiar institution.” [1] The institution of the African slavery, as it developed in the New World, was based upon the lessons learned in the enslavement of traditional peoples of the Americas. In spite of a later tendency in the Southern United States to differentiate the African slave from the Indian, African slavery was in actuality imposed on top of a preexisting system of Indian slavery. [2] In North America, the two never diverged as distinct institutions. [3]

Vast numbers of indigenous peoples toiled to their death in the fields and mines of the European colonists from the very earliest points of contact. Many of the early explorations of the New World were quite simply slaving expeditions. The colonial predisposition to cite Indian depredations as justification for “Indian wars” were often quite simply rhetorical exercises to cover the seizure and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the America. [4] A Cherokee from Oklahoma remembered his father’s tale of the Spanish slave trade, “At an early state the Spanish engaged in the slave trade on this continent and in so doing kidnapped hundreds of thousands of the Indians from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to work their mines in the West Indies.” [5]

With the arrival of twenty “negars” aboard a Dutch man-of-war in Virginia in 1619, the face of American slavery began to change from the “tawny” Indian to the “blackamoor” African between 1650 and 1750. Though the issue is complex, the unsuitability of the Native American for the the colonial’s labor intensive agricultural practices, their susceptibility to European diseases, the proximity of avenues of escape for Native Americans, and the lucrative nature of the African slave trade led to a transition to an African based institution of slavery.

During this period, however, the colonial “wars” against the Pequots, the Tuscaroras, the Yamasees, and numerous other Nations led to the enslavement and relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans. By the late years of the seventeenth century, caravans of Indian slaves were making their way from the Carolina backcountry to forts on the coast just as they were doing on the African continent. Once in places such as Charleston or Savannah, the captives were loaded on ships for the “middle passage” to the West Indies or other colonies such as New Amsterdam or New England. [6] Many of the Indian slaves were kept at home and worked on the plantations of the Carolinas; by 1708, the number of Indian slaves in the Carolinas was nearly half that of African slaves. [7]

By the beginnings of the eighteenth century, the Cherokee people had become objects of the slave trade to the extent that a tribal delegation was sent to the Royal Governor of South Carolina to protect the Cherokee from Congaree, Catawba, and Savannah slave-catchers. [8] In 1705, the Cherokee accused the colonial governor of granting “commissions” to slave-catchers to “set upon, assault, kill, destroy, and take captive” Cherokee citizens to be “sold into slavery for his and their profit.” [9] The Cherokee slave trade was so serious that it had, by this time, eclipsed the trade for furs and skins and become the primary source of commerce between the English and the people of South Carolina. [10]

During this transitional period, Africans and Native Americans shared the common experience of enslavement. In addition to working together in the fields, they lived together in communal living quarters, produced collective recipes for food and herbal remedies, shared myths and legends, and ultimately became lovers. The intermarriage of Africans and Native Americans was facilitated by the disproportionality of African male slaves to females (3 to 1) and the decimation of Native American males by disease, enslavement, and prolonged wars with the colonists. [11] As Native American societies in the Southeast were primarily matrilineal, African males who married Native American women often became members of the wife’s clan and citizens of the respective nation.

As relationships grew, the lines of distinction began to blur. The evolution of red-black people began to pursue its own course; many of the people who came to be known as slaves, free people of color, Africans, or Indians were most often the product of integrating cultures. [12] In areas such as Southeastern Virginia, The Low Country of the Carolinas, and Silver Bluff, S.C., communities of Afro-Indians began to spring up. The depth and complexity of this intermixture is revealed in a 1740 slave code from South Carolina:
all negroes and Indians, (free Indians in amity with this government, and negroes, mulattoes, and mustezoes, who are now free, excepted) mulattoes or mustezoes who are now, or shall hereafter be in this province, and all their issue and offspring... shall be and they are hereby declared to be, and remain hereafter absolute slaves. [13]
It is important to note at this point that according to most researchers and observers, the concept of racism as an identifying component in interaction did not exist among the traditional nations of the early Americas. William McLoughlin has stressed the importance of clan relationships and the larger national identities of Native Americans; race was not considered a critical element in perception or hostility. [14] In her pivotal work Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society 1540-1866, Theda Perdue sums up the research in stating that the Cherokee regarded Africans “simply as other human beings” [for] “since the concept of race did not exist among Indians and since the Cherokees nearly always encountered Africans in the company of Europeans, one supposes that the Cherokees equated the two and failed to distinguish sharply between the races.” [15] Kenneth Wiggins Porter, an African American historian, concurs: [we have] “no evidence that the northern Indian made any distinction between Negro and white on the basis of skin color, at least, not in the early period and when uninfluenced by white settlers.” [16]

In the middle to latter part of the eighteenth century, white colonists began to recognize that, especially in areas of the South where Africans and Indians outnumbered whites 4 to 1, a great need existed “to make Indians & Negro’s a checque upon each other least by their Vastly Superior Numbers, we should be crushed by one or the other.” [17] Various mechanisms began to be developed throughout the colonies which served to differentiate between African and Native Americans: slave codes began to distinguish between Africans and Native Americans, miscegenation laws were passed which forbade the intermarriage between the two, African slaves were used against “Indian uprisings,” Native Americans were used to quell slave revolts, and bounties were offered to Native Americans for runaway slaves. The policy of fostering hatred between the races became an enduring element in the relationships among the varied peoples of the South; it was codified by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1814 when it made provisions related to the natural rights of white persons and Native Americans, “but entirely disapproving, thereof, so far as the same relates to native Africans and their descendants.” [18]

Following the Revolutionary War and with the settlement of hostilities with the Native Americans, the newly established national government inaugurated its “program to promote civilization among the friendly Indian tribes” which “furnished them with useful domestic animals, and implements of husbandry.” [19] A critical element in the civilization program was the shift from a subsistence based agricultural system to a plantation based large-scale farming system. However, this dramatic shift in the culture of the peoples of the Southeast could not be accommodated without first altering the entire social, political, and religious structures of traditional societies. [20] Towards this end, the missionaries of the Christian churches proved quite effective.

From the very beginning of United State’s policy toward the Indians, missionaries (as well as government agents) played a critical role in the civilization/christianization of the indigenous inhabitants of North America. George Washington’s Indian policy stated that “missionaries of excellent moral character should be appointed to reside in their nation who should be well supplied with all the implements of husbandry and the necessary stock for a model farm.” [21] It went further to state “It is particularly important that something of this nature should be attempted with the Southern nations of Indians, whose confined situation might render them proper subjects for the experiment.” [22] With the establishment of the first model farms and missions among the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeastern United States, a key element in this civilization process was the implementation of African slaves as laborers in the building and operation of the model farms and missions. [23]

Farms grew into plantations, buildings grew into towns. As the program of civilization pursued its goals, slavery spread among the nations of the Southeast. Individuals who held positions of power and land began to grow wealthy and to buy black slaves to extend their fields and tend to their livestock. Intermarriage among the Nations and the whites who served among them increased: mixed-blood natives who spoke English began to adopt the social and cultural patterns of the missionaries and white farmers who surrounded them, including slavery. Gradually the nations developed a landed elite and a small group of shopkeepers and entrepreneurs formed a bourgeois element that became dominant in national affairs. It was among this group of the rich and powerful, the assimilated peoples of the Five Civilized Tribes, that slavery became most accepted.

Though the missionaries did not themselves own slaves except “with a view towards emancipation” and only used slaves rented or borrowed from Native American slave owners, they were reticent to preach against the evil of slavery among their practitioners in the Five Civilized Tribes. [24] Many of their most loyal supporters were slave owners. They and the local governments and federal agents would oppose the missionaries should they choose to espouse the cause of abolition. Many missionaries believed that the most important goal was to first convert the heathen, then attempt to deal with the “sin” of slavery. [25]

In fact, some government agents attributed the progress made by the Five Civilized Tribes to the growth of the practice of slavery among them; one such agent stated “I am clearly of the opinion that the rapid advancement of the Cherokees is owing in part to the fact of their being slave holders.” [26] In addition, their governing boards in the North did not want to jeopardize contributions from wealthy persons who disliked abolition. [27] The missionaries, and especially those of the American Board, established a basic position of neutrality “between two fires” and as the Bible did not explicitly condemn slavery, they accepted “all to our communion who give evidence that they love the Lord Jesus Christ.” [28]

However, several dynamic phenomena were to draw many of the missionaries away from their positions of neutrality and cast the Five Civilized Tribes into a cauldron which would have devastating affects upon the Nations for the next hundred years. The first was a decisive split which occurred within the Nations, themselves, as to those who pursued the path of assimilation, commonly referred to as “progressives,” and those who clung to traditional values, the “conservatives.” Especially in the light of a pan-Indian religious awakening inspired by Tecumseh/Tenskwatawa of the early nineteenth century, many of the full blooded members of the Southeastern Nations rebelled against assimilation by reasserting the traditional methods of living. This left little room for colonial institutions, including slavery, among large populations of the of full-blooded members of the Southeastern Nations.

In addition, there were splits among the various nations according to the level of assimilation to white culture and intermarriage between Europeans and the peoples of the First Nations. Within the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, nations such as the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and especially the Cherokee intermarried with the white missionaries, government agents, and local settlers while the Muscogean people of the deep south did not. A joke developed among the Southeastern nations which highlighted this aspect of Southern society: “A Creek said to a Cherokee... ‘You Cherokees are so mixed with whites we cannot tell you from the whites.’ The Cherokee... replied: ‘You Creeks are so mixed with the Negroes we cannot tell you from the Negroes.’ ” [29]

From the middle part of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, Africans had been fleeing slavery South along the same routes that their native forebears had used in earlier times. As Congressman Joshua Giddings described it a hundred years later, “The efforts of the Carolinians to enslave the Indians, brought with them the natural and appropriate penalties. The Indians began to make their escape from slavery to the Indian Country. Their example was soon followed by the African Slaves, who also fled to the Indian Country, and, in order to secure themselves from pursuit continued their journey.” [30] The Muskogees, and especially their relatives the Seminoles (a corruption of the Spanish word cimarron meaning runaway or maroon) [31] of Southern Florida, accepted these African-American runaways and incorporated them into their nations because the Africans were well-skilled in languages, agriculture, technical skills, and warfare. Just as the “underground railroad” provided freedom in the north in later years, this other underground railroad ran south to “freedom on the border.” [32]

Among the Muskogees and the Seminoles, the Africans were granted much greater freedom, even though they were referred to as “slaves.” [33] Africans among the Muskogees could own property, travel freely from town to town, and marry into the family of their “owner.” Often, the children of a Muskogee’s African American slaves were free, and African American Muskogees became traditional leaders among several local indigenous communities. [34]

Among the Seminoles, there was even greater freedom. The blacks lived set apart to themselves, managing their own stocks and crops, paying only tributes to their “owners.” The Africans could own property, moved about with freedom, and were allowed to arm themselves. [35] According to contemporary sources, the Seminoles “would almost sooner sell his child as his slave.” [36] In addition, “there exists a law among Seminoles, forbidding individuals from selling their negroes to white people.” [37]

The Africans were more than just the laborers and technicians for the Muskogee and Seminole, they became their diplomats, their warriors, and their religious leaders. In many areas throughout the South, the Muskogee were continually exposed to an apocalyptic religious tradition that promoted resistance to white oppression. [38] A prophetic Christianity spread among African-Americans, witnessed by Francis LeJau as early as 1710, in areas such as Goose Creek, S.C. and Silver Bluff, S.C. Jesse Galphin, himself, was an Indian trader with the Muskogee. [39] On the frontier, there were constant rumblings of insurrections by black Christians and there was great fear of blacks and Indians coming up from Florida to attack planters, “to rob and plunder us,” and to rescue enslaved Africans. [40] Calvin Martin, in his work Sacred Revolt, believes that African-American prophetic Christianity may have contributed to the emergence of the Redstick prophetic movement, “for at the heart of African American Christianity was a spiritually inspired critical view of Anglo-American civilization.” [41]

One leader in the Redstick rebellion was the Prophet Abraham (Souanakke Tustenukke), a West African slave who fled south to Florida and served as both war leader and interpreter for the maroon community at Fort Negro, Florida. Throughout the Southeastern United States, there existed independent and integrated Afro-Indian communities led by African and mixed-blood religio/political leaders such as Jim-Boy, Black Factor, Garcon, Mulatto King, Chief Bowlegs, and the Choctaw (Seminole) Chief. [42] Henry Wiggins Porter described the peculiar presence of Africans in Florida as quite significant:
...not only were there chiefs of mixed Indian and Negro Blood among the Seminoles, and free negroes acting as principal counselors and war-captains, but... the position of the very slaves was so influential that the Seminole nation might present to students of political science an interesting and perhaps almost unique example of a very close approach to a doulocracy, or government by slaves.
The presence of such refuges and spiritual centers so close to colonial plantations, especially in the light of slave rebellions in Haiti and the colonies, proved to be a great threat to the institution of slavery. General Andrew Jackson, believing the settlements to be established by “villains for the purpose of rapine and plunder,” destroyed them in the First and Second Creek War. As Joshua Giddings noted, there was but one effort in Jackson’s war, “the bloody Seminole War (sic) of 1816-17 and 18 arose from the efforts of our government to sustain the interests of slavery; or that our troops were employed to murder women and children because their ancestors had once been held bondage, and to seize and carry back to toil and suffering those who had escaped death.” [43] During these wars, those “stolen negroes,” not killed or returned to the English colonies, fled deeper into the South. [44]

It is important to note at this point that Africans and mixed bloods were not just religious leaders among the “exile” communities of Muskogees and Seminoles, the same also existed within the communities of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Most of the early records of the missionaries note that their earliest converts were the enslaved African-Americans within Native American communities. [45] Even as late as 1818, the missionaries referred to their “Sabbath schools” as “our Black Schools,” because of the presence of Africans as both students and teachers. [46] As few missionaries spoke the native languages, the Africans played an intermediary role as teacher, and of necessity, preacher. [47] One of the most fascinating accounts of the presence of the African presence in the early Native American church comes from Cornelia Pelham, a visitor to a mission in the Choctaw Nation:
About two thirds of the members of the church are of African descent; these mostly understand English; and on that account are more accessible than the Chickasaws. The last mentioned class manifest an increasing attention to the means of grace, and since the commencement of the present year, more of the full Indians have been constant in their attendance upon religious meetings, than at any time since the mission was established. The black people manifest the most ardent desire for religious instruction, and often travel a great many miles to obtain it... Two or three years ago, a black man who belonged to the mission church, opened his little cabin for prayer, on the evening of every Wednesday, which was usually attended by half a dozen colored persons. This spring, the number suddenly increased, till more than fifty assembled at once, many of whom were full Indians. The meetings, were conducted wholly by Christian slaves, in the Chickasaw language. One of their number can read fluently in the Bible, and many of the others can sing hymns which they have committed to memory from hearing them sung and recited. [48]
Similar experiences are recorded among the Cherokees in the early nineteenth century including the case of two slaves who were teaching their Cherokee mistress “to read in the Bible.” In August 1818, a full blooded Cherokee seeking admission to the Chickamauga Mission was found “able to spell correctly in words of 4 & 5 letters. He had been taught solely by black people who had received their instruction in our Sunday School.” [49]

Within the cultural nexus of the integrated community of the early American frontier, a unique synthesis grew in which African and Native American people shared a common religious experience. Not only did Africans share with Native Americans, the process of sharing cultural traditions went both ways. From the slave narratives, we learn of the role that Native American religious traditions played in African American society:
Dat busk was justa little busk. Dey wasn’t enough men around to have a good one. But I seen lots of big ones. Ones where dey all had de different kinds of “banga.” Dey call all de dances some kind of banga. De chicken dance is de “Tolosabanga“, and de Istifanibanga is de one whar dey make lak dey is skeletons and raw heads coming to git you. De “Hadjobanga“ is de crazy dance, and dat is a funny one. Dey all dance crazy and make up funny songs to go wid de dance. Everybody think up funny songs to sing and everybody whoop and laugh all de time. [50]

When I wuz a boy, dere wuz lotsa Indians livin’ about six miles frum the plantation on which I wuz a slave. De Indians allus held a big dance ever’ few months, an’ all de niggers would try to attend. On one ob dese ostent’tious occasions about 50 of us niggers conceived de idea of goin’, without gettin permits frum de master. As soon as it gets dark, we quietly slips outen de quarters, one by one, so as not to disturb de guards. Arrivin at de dance, we jined in the festivities wid a will. Late dat nite one ob de boys wuz goin down to de spring fo de get a drink ob water when he notice somethin’ movin in de bushes. Gettin up closah, he look’ agin when-lawd hab mersy! Patty rollers! [51]
Slaves were welcome at the Native American dances and festivals and “mixed and mingled and danced together with the Indians,” and the Muskogees welcomed new dances including those from their African counterparts. [52]

Native Americans also played roles in the development of the African Churches, both in the “invisible institution” as well as the black church proper:
Another dispensation of Providence has much strengthened our hands, and increased our means of information; Henry Francis, lately a slave to the widow of the late Colonel Leroy Hammond, of Augusta, has been purchased by a few humane gentemen of this place, and liberated to exercise the handsome ministerial gifts he possesses amongst us. He is a strong man about forty-nine years of age, whose mother was white and whose father was an Indian. Brother Francis has been in the ministry fifteen years, and will probably become the pastor of a branch of my large church... it will take the rank and title of the 3rd Baptist Church of Savannah. [53]
A “close neighborly feeling” [54] existed between the peoples of the “Five Civilized Tribes” and the Africans within their Nations. Even as slave owners, the Native Americans were particularly noted for their kindness and refusal to implement even their own national laws with respect to slavery. [55] According to one Southern visitor to the Indian nation, “The Indian masters treated their slaves with great liberality and upon terms approaching perfect equality, with the exception that the owner of the slave generally does more work than the slave himself.” [56] The slaves themselves noted the differences:
We all live around on them little farms, and we didn’t have to be under any overseer like the Cherokee Negroes had lots of times. We didn’t have to work if there wasn’t no work to do... Old Chief treated all the Negroes like they was just hired hands, and I was a big girl before I knowed very much about belonging to him. [57]
Even within a particular nation there was great variation; New Thompson noted “the only negroes that have to work hard were the ones who belonged to the half-breeds. As the Indian didn’t do work he didn’t expect his slaves to do much work.” [58]

Within the conservative elements of the Five Civilized Tribes, more than just a “close neighborly feeling” existed. Cudjo, the slave of Cherokee Chief Yonaguska of North Carolina, described their relationship as, “He never allowed himself to be called `master,’ for he said Cudjo was his brother, and not his slave.” [59] In the late 1820’s, the abolition movement spread among the Cherokees of North Carolina; the Cherokee American Colonization Society was formed in 1828 and Cherokee David Walker spoke for many full-blood Cherokees in 1825 when he said, “There are some Africans among us; ... they are generally well treated and they much prefer living in the nation as a residence in the United States... The presumption is that the Cherokees will, at no distant date, cooperate with the humane efforts of those who are liberating and sending this prescribed race to the land of their fathers.” [60]

Caught between Benjamin Lundy, (whose abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation had once employed William Garrison) in the West and the Manumission Society of North Carolina in the East, there is little doubt that the full-bloods were exposed to abolitionist rhetoric. [61] In 1824, the Baptist minister Evan Jones, a noted opponent of slavery, had come to work as a missionary among the full bloods in the valley towns of N.C. [62]

Among the Muskogee and Seminoles of the deep South, the abolitionist movement had been spread by the British in the latter half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The British had offered freedom to Africa-American slaves during both the 1776 and 1812 wars, believing that “the terror of revolution in the southern states can be increased to good effect.” Among those ex-slaves of Southern Florida who had existed in free communities like Fort Negro, the abolitionist message struck a particular note. [63]

In 1828, the Cherokee people took what it considered its final steps towards “civilization” by the establishment of a constitution, a bicameral legislature, a judicial system, and an electoral process which elected John Ross as principal chief. [64] However, in the same year, the people of the United States elected Andrew Jackson, noted Indian fighter and slave holder, to the Presidency of the United States. In his first message to Congress, Andrew Jackson set forth his plan for the removal of all of the Southeastern Indian nations to lands west of the Mississippi River. Eleven days after Jackson’s message to Congress, the state of Georgia (bolstered by “their man in the White House“) nullified all Cherokee laws, prohibited the Cherokee government from meeting, and ordered the arrest of anyone opposing emigration westward. [65]

In the minds of most of the inhabitants of the Southeast, the issues of slavery and removal were indissoluably linked. [66] Among the reasons for removal of the Muskogee, and especially the Seminoles, was the presence of “another class” of citizens of the nation, the African-Americans. [67] Moreover, the presence of “abolitionist” missionaries was a tremendous threat to the institution of chattel slavery. [68] Indicative of the nature of the problem was the attitude of Sophia Sawyer, when asked in 1832 by the Georgia Guard to remove to African boys from her classroom, replied, “... until the Supreme Court of the United States declares the Cherokee nation to be a part of the State of Georgia I will obey Cherokee laws, which are just laws, not Georgia laws.” [69]

The relationship between slavery and removal was not one that was lost upon the Cherokees, though their understanding of the situation was propelled by a different focus. Following a sermon by Evan Jones on providence in one of the Valley Towns of North Carolina, a discussion ensued regarding what sins could have turned God’s face away from the Cherokee Nation. “God cannot be pleased with slavery,” said one of the Cherokees. There followed “some discussion respecting the expediency of setting slaves at liberty.“ When one of those present noted that freeing the slaves might cause more harm than good, a Native Baptist preacher replied, “I never heard tell of any hurt coming from doing right.” [70]

In 1835, the movement to free the African slaves of the Cherokee nation was put into motion by several “influential men” of the nation. Arrangements were being made to emancipate the slaves and receive them as Cherokee citizens. The following December, the “treaty party” of the largely assimilated slave-owning Cherokees, signed the Treaty of New Echota relinquishing all lands east of the Mississippi and agreed to migrate to Oklahoma. According to Missionary Elizur Butler, the Treaty of New Echota effectively prevented the abolition of slavery within the Cherokee Nation. Though the signers of this treaty were ultimately punished for treason, the impact of this treaty would be disastrous upon Cherokee and African alike for many years. [71]

On the eve of the forced displacement of the Five Civilized tribes, the African-American presence among the Cherokees was estimated by an 1835 Census at approximately 10-15% of the Nation. However, taking into account that free blacks and people of mixed ancestry were probably not considered, we can assume the number to be much higher, especially among the Muskogee and Seminole. In spite of tales used to support emigration, [72] the natives were reluctant to leave their ancestral homelands.

In the spring of 1838, the process of forced removal began for the Cherokee at the hands of the U.S. military. An African-American member of the community described the process of removal:
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. The women and children were driven from their homes, sometimes with blows and close on the heels of the retreating Indians came greedy whites to pillage the Indian’s homes, drive off their cattle, horses, and pigs, and they even rifled the graves for any jewelry, or other ornaments that might have been buried with the dead.

The Cherokees, after having been driven from their homes, were divided into detachments of nearly equal size and late in October, 1838, the first detachment started, the others following one by one. The aged, sick and young children rode in the wagons, which carried provisions and bedding, while others went on foot. The trip was made in the dead of winter and many died from exposure from sleet and snow, and all who lived to make this trip, or had parents who made it, will long remember it, as a bitter memory. [73]
Resistance among the Cherokees and the slaves was high, many had to be bound before being brought out. [74] A Georgia volunteer was later to remark on the cruelty imposed upon the Indians, “I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.” [75]

The Indians, slaves, and white members of the Cherokee nation were rounded up into “concentration camps” [76] where they were kept as “pigs in a sty.” [77] Starvation and disease was so rampant among those forcibly marched to the West that missionary Daniel Buttrick said “we are almost becoming familiar with death.“ [78] A month later he was to say that the government might more mercifully have put to death everyone under a year or over sixty; rather it had chosen “a most expensive and painful way of exterminating these poor people.“ [79]

Without a doubt, the Trail of Tears fell hardest upon those 1000 African Americans were forced to march, many without shoes, through the dead of winter into Oklahoma. [80] The route to Oklahoma was blazed by African-Americans, “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.” [81] In spite of the fact that they were given the responsibility to guard (with “axes and guns”) the caravans at night, few of the slaves made their escape.

The newspaper reports of the time detailed a “peaceful and deathless trek of the Cherokees,” [82] but missionary Elizur Butler estimated conservatively that over 4600 Indians and African-Americans died on that nine-month march. More recent estimates put the number of deaths at nearly 8,000 people who died as a direct result of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. [83] An estimate of the number of African-Americans who died on the Cherokee Trail of Tears could be as much as 1/4 to 1/3 of those who made the trek west. If we can assume similar numbers of deaths among the Choctaw slaves as the Cherokee, perhaps 100 of the Choctaw slaves died in route. Many Choctaws stayed in Alabama and formed a community of resistance with African slaves similar to Fort Negro which proved to be a thorn in the side for later governments. [84]

Among the Muskogee and Seminoles where not only were relationships with Africans quite deep but where Africans played prominent roles in their society, the question of removal was very serious. The Africans among these nations knew that they were the property of men from whom they, or their ancestors, had fled. The burden of proof lay upon them and that their losing to the United States government meant that they would become the property of whoever claimed them. [85] In 1836, simultaneous wars were initiated by the United States government to remove the Muskogee and their relatives the Seminoles from their lands in the deep South. The process was not to be completed until nearly ten years, twenty million dollars, and fifteen hundred soldiers lives later. The removal of the Muskogees, Seminoles, and their African counterparts was the costliest war in American history until the Civil War.

Let us make no mistake about the nature of this endeavor. As General Jessup, the leader of the campaign stated it in 1836, “This, you may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war: and if it be not speedily put down, the South will feel the effects of it on their slave population before the end of the next season.” [86] Joshua Giddings saw the war in a similar light; the Second Seminole War “on our part had not been commenced for the attainment of any high or noble purpose.... Our national influence and military power had been put forth to reenslave our fellow men: to transform immortal beings into chattels; and to make them to property of slave holders; to oppose the rights of human nature; and the legitimate fruits of this policy were gathered in a plentiful harvest of crime, bloodshed, and individual suffering.” [87]

The Indians were led in their resistance by the same Afro-Indian leaders who had fled deep into Florida to escape from slavery; Jim-Boy, Gopher John, The Negro Abraham, Cudjo, Wild Cat, and many others led the Indians in their struggle for resistance. Those leaders of the Muskogee and Seminole such as Opothoyehala, Micanopy, and Osceola had deep ties to the African-American communities in their presence. [88] In the Spring of 1837, General Jessup reasserted his position, “Throughout my operations I found the Negroes the most active and determined warriors; and during the conference with the Indian chiefs I ascertained that they exercised almost controlling influence over them.” [89]

To solve the problem, General Jessup set about to divide and conquer; he offered to free the slaves who would separate from the Indians and allow them to move to the west en mass. He wrote to John Horse of the Seminoles, “to whom, and to their people, I promised freedom and protection on their separating from the Indians and surrendering.” [90] Black emancipation and removal had become the policy of the United States Army. Jessup refused to return the African slaves to their owners in the South, they would be sent to the West as part of the Seminole Nation. [91] Though many Africans surrendered and the Seminoles followed suit, the struggle to remove the last of the exiles from Florida went on for many years.

The Africans, Seminoles, and Creeks set about on the path to the Western territory, where the conflict over the status of the Africans was uncertain and the relationship between the Seminoles and the Muskogees seemed undecided. One thing was certain and decided; the losses among the Creeks and the Seminoles in their Trail of Tears were immense. The Creeks and the Seminoles were said to have suffered fifty percent mortality rate. For the Creeks, many of these deaths followed removal, probably one-third died from “bulious fevers.” [92] Among the Seminole, the deaths were not from disease, but from “the terrible war of attrition that has been required to force them to move.” [93]

As they were proceeding west upon the trail watered by their own tears and sanctified by the many gravestones of their children and elders, many of the Muskogee Indians began to sing the spiritual “We are going home.” [94] The words “We are going home to our homes and land; there is one who is above and ever watches over us” rang true to those nurtured in a Christian religion birthed in the cauldron of oppression. It also rang true to those traditionalists among the Muskogee who believed that they emerged from caves in the west and came east to settle in the Southeast. [95] In the collective experience of African-Americans and Native-Americans who struggled to understand why a just deity allowed such injustice, a religious expression was born which reflected the essential nature of the experiences of both peoples. It gave them the strength to resist and it gave them the strength to endure.

When the Cherokees were moving west along the more famous “Trail of Tears,” the missionaries who had been with them through the struggle in the homelands, the concentration camps, and the agony of the journey were with many of the Cherokee at their deaths. Many of the contingencies were led by the ministers of the American Board and their followers. The records of the Trail of Tears show that along the way, the churches themselves were allowed to congregate and express their faith in God. Reverend Jesse Bushyhead, himself a controversial Baptist slave owner, expressed his thanks that were able “to continue, amidst the toil and sufferings of the journey, their accustomed religious services.” [96]

Equally well, we can rest assured that whenever faces gathered around the campfire, there were Africans there to serve as spiritual guides into a different kind of wilderness. When there were dances to celebrate, deaths to mourn, or festivals to mark the passing of the seasons, there were Africans present. In addition, we must never forget that on the “trail where we cried,” there were also African tears. This we can never forget.


[1] This is, of course, an issue of some debate for there are many theories regarding pre-colonial contact between Africans and Native Americans. For a brief overview, see Leo Wiener, Africa and the Discovery of America (Philadephia, 1920); Jack Forbes, Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1993); Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus (New York:Random House, 1976); Michael Bradley, Dawn Voyage (Toronto : Summerhill Press, 1987).

[2] George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1882), 123-180.

[3] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 176.

[4] See Almon Lauber, Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States (New York: Doctoral Dissertation, Columbia University, 1933); Barbara Olexer, The Enslavement of the American Indian (Monroe, N.Y.: Library Research Associates,1982); J. Leitch Wright, The Only Land They Knew:The Tragic Story of the American Indian in the Old South (New York: Free Press, 1981); Jack Forbes, Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (Urbana:University of Illinois Press,1993); Patrick Minges, Evangelism and Enslavement (Unpublished Manuscript,1992).

[5] Grant Foreman, “Indian Territory in 1878” Chronicles of Oklahoma IV (1926), 264.

[6] Booker T. Washington, The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1909), 129.

[7] Gary Nash, Red,White and Black: The Peoples of Early America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974), 130.

[8] H.T. Malone, Cherokees of the Old South:A People in Transition (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1956), 20.

[9] James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), 32.

[10] ibid.

[11] J.Leitch Wright, The Only Land They Knew:The Tragic Story of the American Indian in the Old South (New York:Free Press, 1981), 258.

[12] For excellent surveys and discussions of this phenomenon, see Kenneth W. Porter, Relations Between Negroes and Indians Within the Present United States,(Washington, D.C.: The Association for Negro Life and History, 1931); J. Leitch Wright, The Only Land They Knew:The Tragic Story of the American Indian in the Old South (New York:Free Press, 1981); Jack Forbes, Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (Urbana: University of Illinois Press., 1993); Laurence Foster, Negro-Indian Relations in the Southeast (Philadelphia, n.p. 1935)

[13] John Curdman Hurd, The Law of Freedom and Bondage in the United States (Boston, 1858-1862), 303.

[14] William McLoughlin, The Cherokee Ghost Dance: Essays on the Southeastern Indians (Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1984), 266.

[15] Theda Perdue, Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society 1540-1866 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979), 36.

[16] Kenneth W. Porter, Relations Between Negroes and Indians Within the Present United States (Washington, D.C.: The Association for Negro Life and History, 1931), 16.

[17] Quoted in William S. Willis, Jr., "Divide and Rule: Red, White, and Black in the Southeast," Journal of Negro History 48 (1963): 165.

[18] Quoted in David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture.(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 181.

[19] "Trade and Intercourse Act, March 30, 1802" in Francis Paul Prucha, Documents of United States Indian Policy Second Edition (Lincoln:Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1990), 19.

[20] Perdue, p. 50

[21] American State Papers:Indian Affairs, Vols. I and II, Documents, Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States, ed. Walter Lowrie, Walter S. Franklin, and Matthew St. Clair Clarke (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832, 1834): Vol. I, 53.

[22] ibid.

[23] Perdue, 54; William G. Mcloughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 139.

[24] Robert T. Lewit, The Conflict of Evangelical and Humanitarian Ideals: A Case Study (Cambridge: MA Dissertation, Harvard University, 1959) 35-53.

[25] Lewit, 97.

[26] William McLoughlin, “Red Indians, Black Slavery, and White Racism: America’s Slaveholding Indians” American Quarterly 26 (1974): 368.

[27] William McLoughlin, " Red Indians, Black Slavery, and White Racism: America’s Slaveholding Indians", 371.

[28] Perdue, 121.

[29] Quoted in Martin, Joel. Sacred Revolt:The Muskogees Struggle for a New World. (Boston:Beacon Press, 1991) p. 73

[30] Joshua Giddings, The exiles of Florida: or, The crimes committed by our government against the Maroons, who fled from South Carolina and other slave states, seeking protection under Spanish laws (Columbus, Ohio: Follett, Foster and Company, 1858), 4.

[31] Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993), 7.

[32] Mulroy, 25.

[33] It is important to note that many of the Muskogee and Seminole referred to their African brethren as their "slaves" to protect them from white slaveholders who sought their return. In addition, there was some social status acquired by owning slaves, even though the Muskogee and Seminole had little need for slave labor because they did not adopt plantation style agriculture as did the northern nations of the Five Civilized Tribes.

[34] Joel Martin, Sacred Revolt:The Muskogees Struggle for a New World (Boston:Beacon Press, 1991), 73.

[35] Mulroy, 19.

[36] Wiley Thompson to Lewis Cass, April 27,1835. National Archives Microfilm Publications, Microcopy M234, Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824-1831. in Henry Wiggins Porter Collection, Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, New York, N.Y.

[37] John L. Williams, The Territory of Florida (Gainesville: University of Florida Press,1962[1837]), 239.

[38] Martin, 75; Wright, 265.

[39] See Francis Le Jau to John Chamberlayne, St. James, Goose Creek 1709/10 quoted in Mulroy, 74.

[40] Peter H. Wood, Black Majority, (New York: Knopf, 1974) 298-301.

[41] Martin, 73.

[42] J.Leitch Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 190.

[43] Joshua Giddings, Exiles in Florida, 44-45.

[44] Foster, 24.

[45] McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 48; Perdue, 89; McLoughlin, Champions of the Cherokees, 21; Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 223; Eighth Annual Report of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, (Boston,1818), 16; Ninth Annual Report of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, (Boston,1819), 19.

[46] ibid.; Brainerd Journal,April 20, 1817, February 12, 1818

[47] The positive attitude of the Cherokees toward African-American missionaries could be related to the fact that the first missionary among the Cherokee was a Black Methodist, John Marrant. Marrant’s mission in 1740, in which he converted the "king" of the Cherokees, is considered among he most successful missionary enterprise among the Cherokee. According to Michael Roethler, "It is only natural that the Cherokees should judge the value of Christainity by the character of the people who professed it.... The Cherokees had no reason to suspect the religion of this Negro preacher." (Roethler, 126)

[48] Sarah Tuttle, Letters from the Chickasaw and Osage Missions (n.p., 1821), 9-10.

[49] Chickamagua Journal quoted in H.T. Malone, Cherokees of the Old South:A People in Transition (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1956), 142.

[50] Lucinda Davis in Works Progress Administration:Oklahoma Writers Project. Slave Narratives. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932) p. 58

[51] Preston Kyles in Works Progress Administration: Arkansas Writers Project. Slave Narratives. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), 220.

[52] J. Leitch Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 95.

[53] Letter of Andrew Bryan to Reverend Doctor Rippon in Milton Sernett, ed., Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), 49.

[54] Rawick, George. Interview with Irene Blocker, p. 264

[55] Raleigh Wilson, Negro and Indian Relations in the Five Civilized Tribes from 1865 to 1907 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1949), 22.

[56] House Reports, No. 30, 39th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, 1867, Pt. IV, Vol. II, pp. 162

[57] Nellie Johnson in Works Progress Administration, Oklahoma Writers Project, Slave Narratives (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932) 157.

[58] Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma, Indian Pioneer History, Vol. 108: 213.

[59] Cudjo quoted in Perdue, 106.

[60] American State Papers II, 651.

[61] Carl Degler, The Other South:Southern Dissenters in the Nineteenth Century, (New York:Harper and Row,1974) pp. 19-21. The presence of large numbers of Quakers in North Carolina and Tennessee played a profound role in the development of anti-slavery sentiments. Benjamin Lundy estimated in 1827 that there were 106 anti-slavery socities in the South as compared with 24 in the Northern states.

[62] McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 159.

[63] Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 166.

[64] Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1970) 113.

[65] Michael Roethler, "Negro Slavery among the Cherokee Indians, 1540-1866" (Ph.D. Dissertation.,Fordham University,1964), 135-136.

[66] McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 264.

[67] Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 232.

[68] Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 226.

[69] A.B.F.M.Missionary Papers, Cherokees: Vol. VIII, 1831-1837, March 14, 1832.

[70] Robert Walker, Torchlights to the Cherokees, (New York: 1931), 298-299.

[71] Elizur Butler to David Green, March 5, 1845, A.B.C.F.M. Missionary Papers, Cherokees: Vol. IX, 1838-1845.

[72] "they told em they was hogs runnin’ around already barbecued with a knife and fork in their back. Told em cotton growed so tall you had to put little chaps up the stalk to get the top bolls," Lewis Johnson in Works Progress Administration, Arkansas Writers Project, Slave Narratives (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), 100.

[73] Eliza Whitmire in George Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972), 380-381.

[74] A.B.C.F.M. Missionary Papers , Cherokees: Vol. IX, 1838-1845, Daniel Butrick’s Journal, February, 1838

[75] James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (Cherokee, N.C. Cherokee Heritage Books, 1982), 124.

[76] Roethler, 150.

[77] A.B.C.F.M. Missionary Papers , Cherokees: Vol. IX, 1838-1845, Daniel Butrick’s Journal, July 1838.

[78] ibid.

[79] A.B.C.F.M. Missionary Papers , Cherokees: Vol. IX, 1838-1845, Daniel Butrick’s Journal, August 1838.

[80] Roethler, 150.

[81] Nathaniel Willis in Indian Pioneer Papers, Vol. 50, 117.

[82] A.B.C.F.M. Missionary Papers , Cherokees: Vol. IX, 1838-1845, Daniel Butrick’s Journal, March 1838.

[83] Russell Thornton, The Cherokees: A Population History, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1990), 118.

[84] Annie Abel, The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist (Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press,1992), 23.

[85] Henry W. Porter, Relations, 50-51.

[86] Executive Documents, 25th Congress, 2nd Session, 1837-1838,vol iii, no. 78, 52.

[87] Joshua Giddings, Exiles in Florida, 119.

[88] Wright states the cause of the Second Seminole War was the seizure of Osceola’s African wife by merchants who sought to sell her back into slavery. Opothoyohela was to go on to lead a Maroon community in their flight from the Creek Nation to Kansas during the Civil War.

[89] Executive Documents, 25th Congress, 3nd Session, 1838, no. 225, 51.

[90] Jessup quoted in Mulroy, 38.

[91] ibid.

[92] Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust And Survival (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1992), 115.

[93] ibid.

[94] Mary Hill interview, Okfuskee Town, Okemah, Okla., Apr. 19, 1937, Indian Pioneer Papers, 5:106-107.

[95] Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 283.

[96] Jesse Bushyhead, quoted in Grant Foreman, Indian Removal (Norman:University of Oklahoma, 1932), 310.

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Beneath the Underdog
Are You Kituwah’s Son?
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
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