This collection is composed of written interviews of African Americans and Native Americans conducted by the Department of the Interior's Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. The interviews, testimonies, and affidavits relate to applications of African Americans denied enrollment as Cherokee Freedmen during the Dawes Commission. "An act of Congress approved March 3, 1893, established a commission to negotiate agreements with the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee Indian tribes. The commission became known as the Dawes Commission, after its chairman Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. The commission's mission was to divide tribal land into 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.
The collection encompasses around 140 documents from 42 applications affecting over 100 people. Most of the documents are with their original envelopes, all but one of which is dated within a month of each other in 1904, though the documents themselves range in date within a six-year span. The majority of the hearings were conducted at Fort Gibson or Muskogee, and many of the applicants were either related or testified on one another's behalf. There is a high degree of intertextuality between files in regard to 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.
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. Another interesting letter that allowed for the subject listing to include "Leonid Meteor Showers" refers to one elderly woman's age 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, such as Armstrong's Academy, Concharta, OK, and Doaksville, OK, were involved in the war, and both Union and Confederate soldiers are among those interviewed. Doaksville was the site where the last remaining Confederate general, a Cherokee, surrendered. Also mentioned is Tahlequah, OK, the capital of the Cherokee Nation and location of the racially-motivated Going Snake Massacre. Several historical figures come into the documents, namely two of 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. Briefly included is Judge Isaac Parker, known as "the hanging judge" of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Parker tried several well-known outlaws, including Crawford "Cherokee Bill" Goldsby. Occasionally the communities cited in the interviews have since become ghost towns, been absorbed into larger cities, or changed names.
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.