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The Cherokee and the Slave: Background

When we think about slavery we usually have a mental picture of the Black Slave and the White slave-owner, but there is another picture that deserves our attention.

In the Southeastern United States, for example in Georgia and in Alabama, some Native Americans…American Indians like the Cherokee also bought and sold Black Slaves.  Bought slaves to work on their farms and in their kitchens.

Let me explain how I found out about this particular aspect of slavery.

Years ago I became interested in the history of the Cherokee Nation. One afternoon I was driving along, listening to a recorded book about the Trail of Tears. 

All across the South, all the land belonged to the American Indian Nations.  The largest nations were the Cherokee, the Creek, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw and the Seminole.

White settlers were determined to take their land, their villages, their houses, their farms, but the Native Americans refused to give them up. So in 1830 the United States Congress passed what was called the INDIAN REMOVAL ACT.  The Indian Removal Act said we will remove all of the Indian Nations from their land and send them to the Oklahoma Territory, 800 miles away. So The United States Government ordered all of the Native Americans to leave their homes in the Southeast United States and travel 800 miles away to the Oklahoma Territory.  General Winfield Scott commanded the US Army Militia that forced them out at gunpoint, with rifles and bayonets.  So the Cherokee men, women and children had to leave their homes behind and make the journey to the west.  So many of them died along the way that the route of the journey came to be known as the TRAIL OF TEARS.  They died from exposure to the cold, hunger, poor food, exhaustion, cholera,

So, I was driving along, listening to this recorded book about the Trail of Tears.  Then, suddenly I heard the narrator say something that made me stop and pull over to the side of the road. He said that some of the Cherokee farmers down in Georgia bought slaves to work on their farms and in their kitchens.  And some of those Cherokee Indians took their slaves with them to the Oklahoma Territory……along the Trail of Tears

Well, I was stunned.  I was shocked.  I was surprised.  I was angry.  I didn’t believe what I was hearing. I was always taught that escaped slaves would frequently seek refuge in Native American villages but this was something entirely new to me.

I listened to the recording again and again.  Then I started to check it out.  I started looking for proof that this story was true.  I searched through a lot of history books.  I studied records at the United States Archives in Washington, DC.  My wife and I traveled to Georgia and then Oklahoma to find out more about American Indians owning Black slaves.

You might want to look up this story for yourselves.  You might want to Google a book called RED OVER BLACK.  That book tells the story of slavery in the Cherokee nation.   You will also find that not only Cherokee but many Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek farmers also bought and sold Black slaves.

The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Creek families lived all across Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi for years and years. They thought that if they imitated their white neighbors, that the white people would allow them to stay on their ancestral lands. 

But even though they tried to imitate their white neighbors in every way, their strategy didn’t work.  They dressed like white people, built houses and towns, adopted the language, started a newspaper, started a legislature like the United States Congress.  They were even called the FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES.  No matter.  All of the five civilized tribes had to walk or ride wagons all the way to the Oklahoma Territory, 800 or 900 miles away.  Oklahoma wasn’t even a state yet. Just a Territory.  And some of the American Indians took their slaves with them to the Oklahoma Territory……along the Trail of Tears.

In doing this research, I came across another part of the Trail of Tears story.  Along the way toward the west, some of the Cherokee refugees escaped and disappeared.  And the place where they disappeared was directly across the river from the town I grew up in…Florence, Alabama.  Florence is located on the bank of the Tennessee River, and my great, great, grandparents are buried in the cemetery in Florence, Alabama.  They were slaves, Louis and Amanda.  I don’t know much about them, but I have visited their graves there in Florence.

So I asked myself, What If?  What if one of the escaping Cherokee ran into Louis and Amanda?  And wouldn’t that be an interesting story?  So I started writing the story as historical fiction.  My historical novel is called THE CHEROKEE AND THE SLAVE. The Cherokee is Eagle Hunter, a fictionalized character, and the slave is my Great-great-grandmother, Amanda.

Louis and Amanda’s names will hardly make the history books.  But they are important to me, and I hope they will become important to you as well.