Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Resistance Among America's Forgotten Slaves (Many Rivers to Cross Blogging Circle Response to Episode 2)

The second episode of the PBS series "Many Rivers to Cross" aired on Tuesday October 29th and the episode reflected several stories of how in an effort to be free there was resistance. The enslaved men and women brought to American had the same desire of the forefathers, as they wanted the freedom that burns in the hearts of all men and women. The episode presented the resistance that came with the boldness of Nat Turner, the leadership of Richard Allen, and even the heartbreak of Margaret Garner. Each story was different but all had the same theme---that of resistance!

I felt disappointed however, because as much as the episode presented, it still continued an ommission that involves part of my own family history and that of thousands of others.

About 1500 miles from the site of Nat Turner's rebellion,other acts of resistance among African slaves were taking place as well. The African slaves of Indian Territory had the same yearning in their breast to be free. And not long after the Trail of Tears took the Indians west in the 1830, hundreds of Africans still wanted what all men wanted--to live their lives, choose their spouses and raise their children. Yet historians from Howard to Harvard, from Washington to Cambridge, and from New Haven to New Orleans---most overlook the story of resistance among the slave-holding tribes of Indian Territory

1) The Great Runaway in the Cherokee Nation

In 1831 Nat Turner and a band of about sixty people created terror in their efforts to gain freedom. It is said to have been the largest slave rebellion in American history. Yet, less than a decade later several dozen slaves of Cherokee Indians had the same desire, simply to live freely.

The year was 1842 and one very prosperous Cherokee lived in what is now Webber's Falls, Oklahoma. His name was Joseph Vann, and he was the son of wealthy Cherokee Chief James Vann. Joseph  was said to have lived a very comfortable and lavish lifestyle in Indian Territory and many knew him by the nickname of "Rich Joe" Vann. With more than 200 slaves, his lifestyle was more than comfortable, and he made his living from cotton grown and picked by his many slaves.

Joseph "Rich Joe" Vann

One night in November 1842 slaves awakened several hours before daybreak. They locked the doors to the Vann mansion, and took every horse and mule, as well as many arms as they had access to and scores of them left. They had one goal--to get to Mexico and find freedom. While on route to the south, they rummaged through a general store and took more weapons and headed southward.

It would be over a day and a half before the Vann household could get enough reinforcements from Ft. Smith Arkansas to joint the Cherokee militia to track the runaways. But once in pursuit, the posse of Cherokees and whites from Arkansas were on the trail.

The Cherokee fugitive slaves were joined by additional slaves from the Creek Nation, and it is said that slaves from the Mackey and Talley plantation also joined them. While heading southward into the Choctaw Nation they met resistance and they engaged in skirmishes with several who sought to pursue them. Two of the slave catchers were killed. Eventually the Cherokee authorities caught up with the fugitives about 7 miles north of the Red River. And by this time, a party of more than 80 men closed in on the fugitives. After several exchanges of gunfire, the fugitives found themselves trapped in an area with little water, and by this time the women and children were exhausted, and they surrendered. It is said that five of the leaders were executed and the remaining male slaves were confined to work on the steamboats owned by  Rich Joe Vann.

Years later an article from the The Elevator, a newspaper in Ft. Smith Arkansas retold the story:

Article from Ft. Smith Elevator  February 5, 1897

2) The Seminole Resistance 1848
Life continued in bondage in Indian Territory in all of the slave holding tribes. And in spite of new restrictions established in the tribes after the 1842 Cherokee Runaway, the Seminole effort would end differently.

In 1848 a mere six years after the Cherokee Slave Revolt, about 100 slaves made a successful effort to leave Indian Territory and made it to northern Mexico. Lead by Seminole leaders John Horse and some traditionalist Seminole leaders, these Black Seminoles settled in Nacimiento, Coahuila, Mexico. Many would remain until slavery was abolished in the United States. Some later returned to the United States and settled near Ft. Clark Texas, where many of the men from this community were enlisted in the US Army and formed the now renowned Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.

John Horse, aka Gopher John, engraving by N. Orr
John Horse, Black Seminole Leaders

3) Persistent Runaways from Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations

Evidence of resistance among other slave holding tribes comes from two sources, newspapers, and military records. Newspapers throughout the Indian Territory would contain ads of runaway slaves. And even in nearby Arkansas newspapers one would find ads placed by prominent slave holders.

In 1851 the Choctaw Intelligencer was a bilingual newspaper published in the Choctaw Nation. Several ads pertaining to fugitive slaves can be found.

4) Single Slave Resistance, and the Burning of Lucy

More stories of resistance can be found including the story of one slave who admitted that he had murdered Robert Harkins his master. After confessing to the murder he implicated compliance of a female slave named Lucy, who denied any part in the murder. The slave who confessed then committed suicide and the woman Lucy, who was active in the Presbyterian church where slaves were permitted to worship, was burned alive by an angry mob. Hundreds were said to have come to witness the burning of the slave woman, in spite of others testifying to her innocence and doubtful evidence. The burning of the slave Lucy occurred in 1858. The incident went unreported for over a year to authorities, although hundreds who lived within a day's ride were said to have come to witness the burning of Lucy. 

In a Master's thesis from the University of North Texas, scholar Jeffrey Fortney Jr. tells the story that was suppressed for many years--that of the burning of the slave woman called Lucy.

5) Closer to My Ancestor's Home in Skullyville, Choctaw Nation
I often wonder how much my own ancestors who lived in the Choctaw Nation may have wanted to be free and whether they had heard of Lucy and how it may have touched them. After all, they were Choctaw slaves and Lucy, was also Choctaw. My gr. grandmother was not yet born when Lucy died, but her mother was alive as was her grandmother, and their lives had been in the Choctaw Nation since arrival in 1831.

 My family lived in Skullyville, and I am sure that Sallie's mother knew the people involved in the Choctaw slave uprising, that occurred on the Hall plantation not far from the Perry home in Skullyville. It was said that there had been talk in the vicinity that abolitionists were active in the northern part of the Choctaw Nation. Most of the details of the slave uprising are limited, but it is said that on the Hall Plantation, that an overseer had influenced the uprising, The name of only one person is generally mentioned, a Hall slave, who it is said actually assisted in squashing the uprising was Jake Hall.

As I reported in an article on another blog devoted the Choctaw Freedmen, the enslaved men on the Hall estate attempted to seize their freedom.  There they were met with resistance by members of the Hall family and the overseer. Several of the slave holder's family subsequently died in the altercation. Yet according to one of the stories from the Indian Pioneer Papers, Jake Hall the slave intervened in some way, and he was able to stop the fighting and prevented further bloodshed. Little else was mentioned about him, except that he died in the Civil War.

I kept reading that part in the interview about Jake Hall dying in the war, and I found not the "loyal slave", but a man Jacob Hall who as soon as the opportunity came, freed himself and enlisted in the US Colored Infantry. He became a soldier and a Freedom fighter. I told his story on another blog in the article "In Search of a Slave Called Jake, I Found a Soldier Called Jacob."

After last night's airing of Episode 2 of Many Rivers to Cross I was happy to see that the resistance and the resilience of the human spirit in the basic desire to be free was there among enslaved people.

But I must still ask the question of Dr. Gates and all of the historians----when will history reflect my people?
I know where the ancestors are from and I know that they resisted, but I must still ask---when will history reflect the stories of the enslaved in Indian Territory. No longer can they be ignored.

The were resilient, they resisted, and it is time to tell those stories!

(The African American Blogging Circle is a group of African Ancestored Genealogy Bloggers who are sharing their thoughts and opinions about African American history and told through their own personal lens. Their stories are told in response to the PBS Series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. )
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Terry LIGON said...

enjoyable read and I agree, it is time these historians fulfill the mission that Dr. Gates proclaimed at the outset; present a complete picture of African American history.

there are too many Ph.D's in this program to continue to ignore the rich and well documented history of Indian Territory and the Five Slave Holding Tribes.

Anonymous said...


The time has come for Mr. Gates to confront and deal with the African experience as it relates to the Indian Territories.

I see a six part series coming out of that topic, easily!

Justin Antonius said...

Wonderful research on this and it looks like a trove of information that could lead many different places. Good work.

Justin Antonius said...

Wonderful History you have collected on this. Really good work. I look forward to reading more.