The Cherokee Freedmen Collection housed at Cushing Memorial Library and Archive is composed of written interviews of African Americans and Native Americans conducted by the United States Department of the Interior’s Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. The Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes also became known as the Dawes Commission, after its chairman Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. The interviews, testimonies, and affidavits relate to the applications of African Americans that were denied enrollment as Cherokee Freedmen during the Dawes Commission. The collection encompasses over 500 documents from 30 different applications affecting over 100 people. Most of the documents are filed with their original envelopes. The documents in the Cherokee Freedmen Collection are dated from 1900 to 1907. Most of the hearings were conducted at Fort Gibson or Muskogee, Oklahoma. There is a high degree of intertextuality between the files regarding people and places mentioned.
In addition to the interviews, there are also interdepartmental letters between various commissioners and the Secretary of the Interior, and notices to applicants and their lawyers. The collection offers a primary source on the arbitration involved in the decision of who did and did not count as Cherokee Freedmen, as well as frontier life in general both before and after the war. The language used vividly reveals the prevailing racial attitudes of the day, chiefly toward African Americans and Native Americans; casual use is made of pejorative terms, and open prejudice is occasionally voiced. All of the applications that are contained within the Cherokee Freedmen Collection housed at Cushing Library were rejected, denying the applicants citizenship to the Cherokee Nation.
In 1866, each of the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles) that had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War entered treaties with the United States to abolish slavery in the Native American Territory and established provisions that addressed the status and rights of the freed slaves and people of African descent that lived among the Five Tribes. Since the Cherokee Nation sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, the United States’ punishment for the Cherokee Nation was to give “all the rights of a native Cherokee” to all freed slaves who still lived within the Cherokee Nation.
In 1877, the Dawes Act (also called the General Allotment Act) was passed under President Grover Cleveland, allowing the federal government to break up tribal land to try to force Native Americans to assimilate. The federal government took the 150 million acres of land that was already controlled by the tribes. The commission's mission was to divide tribal land into 160-acre plots which were then divided among the members of the tribe. As part of this process, the Commission either accepted or rejected applicants for tribal membership based on whether the tribal government had previously recognized the applicant as a member of the tribe and other legal requirements. Applicants were categorized as Citizens by Blood, Citizens by Marriage, Minor Citizens by Blood, New Born Citizens by Blood, Freedmen (African Americans formerly enslaved by tribal members), New Born Freedmen, and Minor Freedmen. Once the land was divided amongst the citizens of the Native American Nations, the United States government sold the surplus tribal lands to non-Native Americans for a profit.
Many of the testimonies include personal histories, sometimes dating as far back as the 1830s, and great detail is given on the moving of slaves to and from the Cherokee Nation during the Civil War. Notable pieces include accounts of runaway slaves returning to their separated families, individual reactions to Emancipation, and a letter directly to the Secretary of the Interior personally written by an applicant, requesting that her case be re-opened. The letter, polite and heartfelt but clearly frustrated, is spelled phonetically. Many of the applicants in the collection are related to one another. For example, Henry Albert is the son of Martha Albert, who was a freed slave of the Cherokee Nation. Henry Albert was over the age of 21, he had to apply to be enrolled as a Cherokee Freedmen for himself and his children. Since Henry was born free, most of the information contained within the file is based on his mother, Martha Albert’s testimony, and other witnesses who testified on her behalf or on behalf of the Cherokee Nation. The investigation on whether Martha Albert was truly a freed slave of the Cherokee Nation or not determined whether or not her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews would also be eligible to be enrolled as Cherokee Freedmen. The files of Henry Albert, Barnes Family, and Lula Knalls all contain copies of Martha Albert’s testimonies. Another interesting letter that allowed for the subject listing to include "Leonid Meteor Showers" refers to one elderly woman's age which was determined by the fact that she was 16 "the year the stars fell". The commissioner noted that that was in 1832, and he was there himself. The following year, '33, was the year that the Leonid shower was officially "discovered” and caused something of a panic in the eastern US; no one knew what meteors were, yet!
Several of the locations mentioned were Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Fort Smith, Arkansas. As well as Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, and Goingsnake District, now Adair County, Oklahoma, which was the location of the Goingsnake Massacre. Occasionally the communities cited in the interviews have since become ghost towns, been absorbed into larger cities, or changed names. Many of the testimonies also included interviews with both Confederate and Union soldiers.
A few historical figures were involved in the Cherokee Freedmen trials. Namely, Ethan Allen Hitchcock served as the United States Secretary of the Interior under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt from 1899 to 1907. Also, the attorneys for the Cherokee Nation, James Davenport and W.W. Hastings (in all likelihood, William Wirt. referenced as "W. W. Hastings" in transcripts, but a William Wirt Hastings, of Cherokee heritage and from Oklahoma, was an attorney who worked in private practice, as the attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, and then as the national attorney for the Nation from 1907. The dates do match up, and there is a W. W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, given by William Wirt when he was in Congress, as a gift) both of whom later served as U.S. Representatives for Oklahoma.
The affidavits, correspondence, and any support materials are arranged in alphabetical order by the surname of the applicant. Note: File 22 is in critical need of preservation.
United States. Department of the Interior.