1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
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The 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation, then located in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi River, was the largest escape of a group of slaves to occur among the Cherokee. The slave revolt started on November 15, 1842, when a group of 20 African-American slaves owned by the Cherokee escaped and tried to reach Mexico, where slavery had been abolished. Along their way south, they were joined by 15 slaves from the Creek.
The fugitives met with two slave catchers taking a family of eight slave captives back to Choctaw territory. The fugitives killed the hunters and allowed the family to join their party. Although some slaves were killed and captured by an Indian party near the beginning of their flight, the Cherokee sought reinforcements, raising an armed group of more than 100 of their and Choctaw warriors to pursue and capture the fugitives. Five slaves were later executed for killing the two slave catchers.
What has been described as "the most spectacular act of rebellion against slavery" among the Cherokee, the 1842 event inspired subsequent slave rebellions in the Indian Territory. But, in the aftermath of this escape, the Cherokee Nation passed stricter slave codes, expelled freedmen from the territory, and established a 'rescue' (slave-catching) company to try to prevent additional losses.
Prior to European contact, the Cherokee had been cultivating wealth in part by enslaving prisoners of war from other Indian tribes. In the late 18th century, some Cherokee set up European-American style 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 by using enslaved African Americans, a practice adopted from the Americans. Some Southeastern Indian farmers had large tracts of land under cultivation and used enslaved laborers to produce surplus crops for sale and profit, but most held fewer slaves and labored with them at subsistence agriculture. 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. Like other slaveholders, affluent Cherokee used slaves as a portable labor force. They developed robust farms, salt mines, and trading posts were created with slave labor.
The Cherokee brought many of their slaves with them to the West in the Indian Removal of the 1820s and 1830s, when the federal government forcibly removed the Indian peoples from the Southeastern states. Joseph Vann was described as taking 200 slaves with him. Black slaves in each of the tribes 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.
By 1835, the time of removal, the Cherokee owned an estimated total of 1500 slaves of African ancestry (the most black slaves of any of the Five Civilized Tribes). Within five years of removal, 300 mixed-race Cherokee families, most descendants of European traders and Cherokee women for generations, made up an elite class in the Indian Territory. Most owned 25-50 slaves each. 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, the Cherokee held an estimated 4,600 slaves, and depended on them as farm laborers and home servants. At the time of the Civil War, a total of more than 8,000 slaves were held in all of the Indian Territory, where they comprised 14 percent of the population.
Events of the revolt
The mass escape of enslaved African Americans from the Cherokee territory began on November 15, 1842 and has been called "the most spectacular act of rebellion against slavery" in Cherokee territory. Twenty slaves, most from the plantations of "Rich Joe" and his father James Vann, met and raided local stores for weapons, ammunition, horses, and mules. Escaping from Webbers Falls without incurring any casualties, the slaves headed south for Mexico, as they had learned that slavery had been prohibited there since 1836. Along the way they picked up another fifteen escaping slaves from Creek territory. Some Cherokee and Creek pursued the fugitives, but the slaves partially held them off. Fourteen slaves were either killed or captured in an altercation, but the remainder continued south. The Cherokee and Creek pursuers returned to their nations for reinforcements.
Along the way, the fugitives encountered two slave catchers, James Edwards, a white man, and Billy Wilson, a Lenape (Delaware Indian), who were returning to Choctaw territory with an escaped slave family of three adults and five children. The family had been headed west into Plains Indian territory. The fugitive party killed the bounty hunters to free the slave family, and continued, slowed somewhat by the five children.
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 large force caught up with the slaves seven miles north of the Red River on November 28, where the tired fugitives, weak from hunger, offered no resistance. They were forced to return to their owners in the Choctaw, Creek and Cherokee reservations. Five slaves were later executed for the murders of Edwards and Wilson. Vann put most of his surviving slaves to work on his steamboats, shoveling coal.
The slave revolt inspired future slave rebellions in the Indian Territory. By 1851, a total of 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; enslaved Africans were always considered property.
After the revolt, non-slave holding Indians were often hired to catch runaway slaves. In the past, some of these people had struggled to eat, while slave-owning families flourished in a market economy driven by slave labor. Some among these once poor Cherokee became wealthy by providing services to the 'rescue' company in catching fugitive slaves. When slave catching expeditions were mounted, such trackers were paid, as well as authorized to purchase ammunition and supplies for the hunt, 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 owners' profits. The Nation passed a stricter slave code and required expulsion of free blacks from the territory, as they were considered to foster discontent among slaves. Eventually, planters and the upper class of the Cherokee Nation shifted from plantation agriculture to developing manufacture of small-scale products, which were sold internally, instead of being exported.
As a mass escape that resulted in casualties and deaths, the 1842 slave revolt was widely reported. Even 50 years later, when the Fort Smith Elevator of Arkansas published an anniversary article about the escape, the account had nearly a mythic power. It recounted a morning when slaveholders could not find their slaves and described "hundreds" as having disappeared.
- Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, University of California Press, 2005, pp. 170-173
- "SLAVERY", Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society, Retrieved November 14, 2010
- William Gerald McLoughlin (1993). Chapter: "Slave holding and anti slavery efforts, 1846–1855"], in 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
- Art T. Burton, "SLAVE REVOLT OF 1842", Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture, accessed 14 February 2014
- Art T. Burton, "Cherokee Slave Revolt in 1842," True West Magazine (June 1996)
- Rudi Halliburton, Jr., Red Over Black: Black Slavery among the Cherokee Indians (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977).
- 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.
- Kaye M. Teall, Black History in Oklahoma: A Resource Book (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Public Schools, 1971).
- Morris L. Wardell, A Political History of the Cherokee Nation, 1838-1907 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).
- Murray R. Wickett, Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.