Act to Define the Status of Freedmen and their Descendants – ca. 1881

Cherokee Nation resided in Indian Territory, current day Oklahoma, and was bordered on the north by the newly admitted free state of Kansas and to the east was the slave states of Arkansas and Missouri. Since Cherokee Nation was considered a separate, independent government in the early nineteenth century, it was seen as a refuge for many runaway slaves. The General Council sought to deter runaways and passed the following resolution:

RESOLVED by the National Committee and Council, that all free negroes coming into the Cherokee Nation, under any pretense whatsoever, shall be viewed and treated, in every respect, as intruders, and shall not be allowed to reside in the Cherokee Nation without a permit from the National Committee and Council.1

When the Civil War began in 1861, the Cherokee Nation found itself with divided sentiment. Leader of the National Party, John Ross, supported strict neutrality. While the Old Ridge party, led by Stand Watie declared support for the Confederacy.2 In July 1861, Watie organized the First Cherokee Mounted Rifles near Fort Wayne and he was promoted to Colonel. He took command of his companies and departed for Missouri to join the Confederate war effort. Over the summer the Confederacy secured victories at the Battles of Bulls Run and Wilson’s Creek, which perhaps persuaded further support for the Confederacy. Towards the end of August the Cherokee Executive Council met and elected to join the Confederacy. On October 7, 1861 the Cherokee Nation signed a treaty with the Confederacy at Tahlequah. The tribe dissolved all treaties with the Federal Government, and later the Chicksaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes also gave their allegiance to the Confederacy.

After the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862 the Union Army moved into Indian Territory. Union and Native American troops burned the Confederate Command Post at Fort Davis forcing Confederate army to retreat south. On February 20, 1863 the Cherokee tribe called an emergency session of the National Council at Cow Skin Prairie and revoked the treaty with the Confederacy. They pledged their allegiance to the Union, removed all Confederates from office, emancipated slavery and reaffirmed Ross as the Principal Chief.3 The Union army took control over Fort Gibson in April 1863, and began fighting Confederate Indian raiding parties over control of the territory. Brig. General Stand Watie was the last Confederate General to surrender during the War. He finally signed a peace treaty at Doaksville, Indian Territory on June 23, 1865.

After the War, the Cherokee Nation signed a reconstruction treaty on July 19, 1866 which stated,

The Cherokee Nation having, voluntarily, in February, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, by an act of the National Council, forever abolished slavery, hereby covenant and agree that never hereafter shall either slavery or involuntary servitude exist in their Nation… They further agree that all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners, or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.4

The Act to Define the Status of Freedmen and their Descendants, written after 1880, sought to establish the rights and privileges of African Americans within the Cherokee Nation. The document defined freedmen as those who resided in the Cherokee Nation at the commencement of the American Civil War, those who were at that time slaves of any Cherokee or other citizen, those who were liberated by voluntary act or by law, and those who had not return to the Cherokee country within the time specified within the Treaty of 1866. These men became adopted citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and were granted the corresponding rights and privileges as adopted citizens.

they are hereby Entitled to all the rights and amunities of adopted Citizens of the Cherokee Nation, as here in after defined. That no distinction of rights or privileges shall be deemed to exist between the Colored Citizens of the Cherokee Nation by operation of art 9 of the treaty of 1866 and those who are made citizens by the operations of the preceding section of this act

-Act to Define the Status of Freedmen and their Descendants

The legal status and rights of Cherokee Freedmen has been an ongoing political and tribal dispute since 1866. The Freedmen and their descendants were considered Cherokee citizens until the early 1980s, when the Cherokee Nation’s administration stripped them of voting rights and citizenship for more than two decades. In March 2006, the Cherokee Nation’s courts ruled that the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen were allowed to register and become enrolled citizens of the Cherokee Nation. However, Principal Chief Chad “Corntassel” Smith, one of the most vocal opponents of the Freedmen’s citizenship, wanted to amend the constitution to exclude their citizenship entirely. After circulating a petition, Chief Smith called an emergency election to settle the issue. As a result, the descendants of Freedmen were stripped of their citizenship, but they have continued to press for recognition within Cherokee Nation.5

Contributed by the University of Tulsa Special Collections and University Archives

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  1. J.B. Davis, “Slavery in the Cherokee Nation,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 11, No. 4, December, 1933, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed October 20, 2010, pg 1064
  2. James Mooney, History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (Fairview, NC: Bright Mountain Books, Inc, 1992), pg 148.
  4. J.B. Davis, “Slavery in the Cherokee Nation,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 11, No. 4, December, 1933, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed October 20, 2010, pg1071
  5. “Putting to a Vote the Question ‘Who Is Cherokee?’,” The New York Times, March 3, 2007.