Enslavement and Identity Among the Cherokee

Sculpture depicting the signing of the Holston Treaty at Knoxville, Tenn.
Sculpture depicting the signing of the Holston Treaty at Knoxville, Tenn.

Nfutvol/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 

The institution of slavery in the United States long pre-dates the enslaved African trade. But by the late 1700s, the practice of enslaving people by southern Indigenous nations—the Cherokee in particular—had taken hold as their interactions with Euro-Americans increased. Today’s Cherokee still grapple with the troubling legacy of enslavement in their nation with the Freedman dispute. Scholarship on enslavement in the Cherokee nation typically focuses on analyzing the circumstances that help to explain it, often describing a less brutal form of enslavement (an idea some scholars debate). Nevertheless, the practice of enslaving Africans forever changed the way Cherokees view race, which they continue to reconcile today.

The Roots of Enslavement in the Cherokee Nation

The trade of enslaved people on U.S. soil has its roots in the arrival of the first Europeans who developed an extensive transatlantic business in the trafficking of Indigenous peoples. The practice of enslaving Indigenous people would last well into the mid-to-late 1700s before it was outlawed, by which time the enslaved African trade was well established. Until that time, the Cherokee had a long history of being subject to capture and then exported to foreign lands as enslaved people. But while the Cherokee, like many Indigenous tribes who also had histories of inter-tribal raiding which sometimes included the taking of captives who could be killed, traded, or eventually adopted into the tribe, the continual incursion of European immigrants into their lands would expose them to foreign ideas of racial hierarchies that reinforced the idea of Black inferiority.

In 1730, a dubious delegation of Cherokee signed a treaty with the British (the Treaty of Dover) committing them to return freedom seekers (for which they would be rewarded), the first “official” act of complicity in the enslaved African trade. However, an apparent sense of ambivalence toward the treaty would manifest among the Cherokee who sometimes aided freedom seekers, enslaved them themselves, or adopted them. Scholars like Tiya Miles note that Cherokees valued enslaved people not just for their labor, but also for their intellectual skills like their knowledge of English and Euro-American customs, and sometimes married them.

Influence of Euro-American Enslavement

One significant influence on the Cherokee to adopt the practice of enslaving people came at the behest of the United States government. After the Americans’ defeat of the British (with whom the Cherokee sided), the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Holston in 1791 which called for Cherokee to adopt a sedentary farming and ranching-based life, with the U.S. agreeing to supply them with the “implements of husbandry.” The idea was in keeping with George Washington’s desire to assimilate Indigenous peoples into White culture rather than exterminate them, but inherent in this new way of life, particularly in the South, was the practice of human enslavement.

In general, a wealthy minority of biracial Euro-Cherokees enslaved people (although some full blood Cherokees also enslaved people). Records indicate that the proportion of Cherokee enslavers was slightly higher than White southerners, at 7.4% and 5%, respectively. Oral history narratives from the 1930s indicate that enslaved people were often treated with greater mercy by Cherokee enslavers. This is reinforced by the records of an early Indigenous agent of the U.S. government who, after advising that the Cherokee take up enslaving people in 1796 as part of their “civilizing” process, found them to be lacking in their ability to work the people they enslaved hard enough. Other records, on the other hand, reveal that Cherokee enslavers could be just as brutal as their White southern counterparts. Enslavement in any form was resisted, but the cruelty of Cherokee enslavers like the notorious Joseph Vann would contribute to uprisings like the Cherokee Slave Revolt of 1842.

Complicated Relations and Identities

The history of Cherokee enslavement points to the ways relationships between enslaved people and their Cherokee enslavers were not always clear cut relationships of domination and subjugation. The Cherokee, like the Seminole, Chickasaw, Creek and Choctaw came to be known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” because of their willingness to adopt the ways of White culture (like the practice of enslavement). Motivated by the effort to protect their lands, only to be betrayed with their forced removal by the U.S. government, removal subjected Africans enslaved by the Cherokee to the additional trauma of yet another dislocation. Those who were biracial would straddle a complex and fine line between an identity of Indigenous or Black, which could mean the difference between freedom and bondage. But even freedom would mean persecution of the type experienced by Indigenous peoples who were losing their lands and cultures, coupled with the social stigma of being “mulatto.”

The story of the Cherokee warrior and enslaver Shoe Boots and his family exemplifies these struggles. Shoe Boots, a prosperous Cherokee landowner, enslaved a woman named Dolly around the turn of the 18th century. He raped her repeatedly and she had three children. Because the children were born to an enslaved woman and children by White law followed the condition of the mother, the children were enslaved until Shoe Boots was able to have them emancipated by the Cherokee nation. After his death, however, they would later be captured and forced into servitude, and even after a sister was able to secure their freedom, they would experience further disruption when they, along with thousands of other Cherokees, would be pushed out of their country on the Trail of Tears. The descendants of Shoe Boots would find themselves at the crossroads of identity not only as formerly enslaved people denied the benefits of citizenship in the Cherokee nation, but as people who have at times denied their Blackness in favor of their identity as Indigenous people.

Sources

  • Miles, Tiya. Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Miles, Tiya. “The Narrative of Nancy, A Cherokee Woman.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. Vol. 29, Nos. 2 & 3., pp. 59-80.
  • Naylor, Celia. African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.