1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
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The 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation was the largest escape of a group of slaves to occur in the Cherokee Nation. The slave revolt took place on November 15, 1842, when a group of African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee escaped and tried to reach Mexico, where slavery had been abolished. They were soon captured, after killing two pursuers. Five slaves were later executed for these deaths.
The event inspired subsequent slave rebellions to take place in the Indian Territory and throughout North America. Although the 1842 slave revolt participants were captured before reaching the Mexican border, the aftermath of this revolt led Cherokee Nation slave holders to create stricter slave codes, expel Freedmen from the territory, and found a 'rescue' (slave-catching) company to prevent further loss of slaves.
Prior to European contact, the Cherokee had been cultivating wealth from the practice of making slaves of prisoners of war from other Indian tribes. In the late 18th century, there were Cherokee-owned plantations set up on Cherokee Nation land in Georgia and Tennessee. In 1819, the Cherokee Nation passed slave codes that regulated slave trade; forbade intermarriage; enumerated punishment for runaway slaves; and prohibited slaves from owning private property. An example of the consequences of one slave code, passed in 1820, dictated that anyone who traded with a slave without his owner’s permission was bound to the legal owner for the property, or its value, if the property traded proved to be stolen. Another code declared that a fine of fifteen dollars was to be levied for masters who allowed slaves to buy or sell liquor.
Many economic problems of large-scale agricultural production were alleviated with the enslavement of Africans. A great number of Indian farmers had large tracts of land under cultivation and used enslaved laborers to produce surplus crops for sale and profit. Slaves worked primarily as agricultural laborers, cultivating both cotton for their master's profit and food for consumption. Some slaves were skilled laborers, such as seamstresses and blacksmiths. Affluent slave-owning Cherokees had at their disposal a portable labor force available to enhance their fortunes. Robust farms, salt mines, and trading posts were created with the security of free slave labor. By 1835, individual Cherokees owned an estimated 1,600 slaves of African heritage (the most African slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes).
The Cherokee brought their slaves to the West in the 1820s and 1830s, when the federal government forcibly removed the Indian peoples from the Southern states. Black slaves performed much of the physical labor involved in the removal. For example, they loaded wagons, cleared the roads, and led the teams of livestock along the way. Within five years of removal, almost three hundred Cherokee families made up an elite class in the Indian Territory. Some of their plantations had 600 to 1,000 acres; cultivating wheat, cotton, corn, hemp, and tobacco. Most also had large cattle and horse herds.
By 1860, these families had an estimated 4,600 slaves, and depended on them as farm laborers or home servants. By the time the Civil War, more than eight thousand Africans were enslaved in the Indian Territory, where they comprised fourteen percent of the population.
Events of the revolt
The mass escape of enslaved Africans from the Cherokee territory began on November 15, 1842. The slaves from surrounding plantations met and raided local stores for weapons, ammunition, horses, and mules. They then headed for Mexico where slavery had already been outlawed.
In response, on November 17, the Cherokee National Council in Tahlequah passed a resolution authorizing Cherokee Militia Captain John Drew to raise a company of one hundred Cherokee citizens to "pursue, arrest, and deliver the African Slaves to Fort Gibson." (The resolution relieved the government of the Cherokee Nation of any liability if the slaves resisted arrest and had to be killed.) The commander at Fort Gibson loaned Drew twenty-five pounds of gunpowder for the militia. The force caught up with the slaves seven miles north of the Red River on November 28, where the tired fugitives offered no resistance. At one point during the chase, a few of the runaway slaves had killed two pursuers. These murders led to five of them later being executed.
The slave revolt inspired future slave rebellions to take place in the Indian Territory and elsewhere. By 1851, nearly 300 blacks had tried to escape from Indian Territory, most headed for Mexico or the area of the future Kansas Territory.
Indian slaveholders bought and sold slaves, often doing business with white slaveholders in the neighboring states of Texas and Arkansas. There were similarities between slavery in the states and the Indian Territory. For example, enslaved Africans were considered property.
A positive economic effect of the revolt was that non-slave holding Indians were often hired to catch runaway slaves. In the past, some of these had struggled to eat, while slave-owning families flourished in a market economy driven by slave labor. These poorer Indians often became rich by providing services to the 'rescue' company in the capturing of runaway slaves. These trackers were compensated, and authorized to purchase ammunition and supplies for the expedition, at the expense of The Nation (provided that the expedition was not “unnecessarily protracted and did not incur needless expenses”).
The slave revolt had threatened the security of the labor force, and revenues. Eventually, the citizens of the Cherokee Nation had to revise the economic system of the traditional plantation and convert it into a system based on the manufacture of small-scale products, which were sold internally, instead of being exported. Upon the return of a runaway slave, some owners put them to work on their steamboats, which plied the Arkansas, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers.
- "SLAVERY". http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/S/SL003.html. Retrieved November 14, 2010.
- "CHEROKEE SLAVE REVOLT OF 1842". http://artburton.com/articles/cherokee_revolt.htm. Retrieved October 31, 2010.
- WG William Gerald McLoughlin (1993). "Slave holding and anti slavery efforts, 1846–1855". After the Trail of Tears: the Cherokees' struggle for sovereignty, 1839–1880. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 121–153. ISBN 0-8078-2111-X.
- Herbert Aptheker. Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion. New York, NY: Humanities Press, 1966.
- Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.
- Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., The Chickasaw Freedmen: A People Without a Country. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
- Theda Perdue, Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540–1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979.
- Murray R. Wickett, Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
- J. Leitch Wright, Jr., Creeks & Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.