Thursday, September 7, 2017

History Rewritten - 11

Perusing newspapers and magazines from the 19th century always leads to unexpected treasures…such as these consecutive articles in an 1817 edition of The Literary Panorama and National Register.  The first story reveals one incident of Cherokee involvement in the slave trade.  Of course, many 19th century Cherokee leaders were wealthy, mixed-blood plantation owners living in Georgia, and slavery was part of that lifestyle. (See note below)

White Slaves in Georgia

Milledgeville, (Geo.) June 12.- Two persons armed, by the names of —Strobo and John Costello, were on their way, passing through the county of Jasper, on the 28th ultimo, inquiring for the road leading into the Cherokee nation, having in their custody five Spaniards in sailors' dress, whom they say it is their intention to sell to the Cherokees.

On inquiry, they say they purchased them in Telfair county, and that one of the two paid part down and gave his note for the balance of the consideration money, to which the other is a witness.-But the unfortunate persons in custody, intimate, in terms hardly intelligible, not being able to speak English, that they are from Europe, and being strangers in Pensacola where they landed, were decoyed by these two Americans out of town by fair promises; and having got them into their power,  confined them in such a manner as to render resistance useless. “In this manner, it appears they have been driving these men on foot, (they on horse back and well armed) through the country—a country too, boasting of its liberties, and of the sacred rights of hospitality!

There is nothing in the appearance of these Spanish prisoners that indicates any mixture of African blood in their veins.

The second article recounts the discovery of mummified remains in Kentucky.  Actually, during that time period, numerous well-preserved bodies were found in the caves and caverns of the Cumberlands and Central Appalachians.

MEMORANDUM of ANTIQUITIES. [From the New Jersey Journal.]

In autumn, 1810, was discovered in a cave, in Warren county, on the waters of the Caney Fork of Cumberland River, by a man who was collecting copperas and alum, a nicely wrought box of cane, which was under a small declivity in the cave, and completely covered with an incrustation of petrifaction supposed to be from the dropping and oozing of the water from the surrounding rocks.  

The cane box was entire, and appeared to have underwent but little decay from antiquity.

Upon examining the contents, there were in it complete carcases of two human persons, one a male and the other a female— the male much the largest, but they were both thought to be fully grown.

They were in the first instance, wrapped with a coarse hempen twilled wrapping, which had been nicely woven in a twilled texture, and though having laid almost time immemorial, contained considerable strength.

In the second place, they were wrapped in a nicely wrought texture of plumage of a light brown color, tipped or tinged with a beautiful red and yellow, of a very fine, soft, texture.—Those plumages were tied nicely together with small hempen cords, in such a manner as to make one close strong covering.

Enveloped in those coverings or wrappings were the carcases; they were laid in a contracted position on their backs, their legs drawn up and their knees elevated. The whole of these carcases appeared dry, s somewhat resembling tanned leather, and nearly of the same colour.  All moisture had entirely escaped from them—their bones had a yellowish complexion, but remained entire—their hair of a dark brown colour, fine and strait, but entire.  Neither any part of the coverings or wrappings shewed any signs of petrifaction, though the cane box in which they were contained was completely incrusted with a thin shell of petrifaction.

Of what race these persons could have been, no person has heretofore pretended to form a conjecture, but one thing is certain, that they were of some race who had the knowledge of spinning and weaving; therefore we may conjecture, they were in some degree in a state of civilization. Inquiries have been made of the neighbouring ab-origines of the woods, whether they have any knowledge of any people of this description, or whether they have any knowledge of this manner of burial, or repository of the dead, practised by any of the Indian nations, to which they answer, they have not; but one thing is remarked by the ancient Cherokees, that a tradition has been handed down to them by their forefathers, that part of the country near where those carcases were found, was noted as a battle ground, where the ancient Cherokees and Shawnee Indians had many hard battles, or usually met and had their fights.

The Warren County couple were not entirely unique.  Arthur C. Aufderheide describes similar discoveries in his book, The Scientific Study of MummiesCambridge University Press, 2003.  

For instance, Lost John was the best known of the Kentucky cave mummies.  Approximately 2200 years ago, the 45-year-old entered Mammoth Cave to collect gypsum crystal from the ceiling of the limestone cave.  Carrying a brush torch, hammer and bag, he crouched under a ledge and started chipping away at a crystal.  Suddenly, a huge slab on the cave roof collapsed, crushing Lost John.  He was not found until 1935, when the National Park Service lifted the six ton rock, uncovering his desiccated body, dried to a leather-like consistency.


Tiya Miles is chairwoman of the Department of Afro-American and African Studies, and professor of history and Native American studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of "Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom" and "The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story."  She is also the winner of a 2011 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

In her work she has pointed out that:

The Cherokee Trail of Tears that relocated thousands of Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), was also a Black migration. Slaves of Cherokees walked this trail along with their Indian owners.

You’d think this would be obvious and undeniable.  But Miles has encountered objections when sharing this piece of the story:

Although Black presence on the Trail of Tears is a documented historical fact, many have willed it into forgetfulness.

Some African Americans avoid confronting the painful reality of Native American slave ownership, preferring instead to fondly imagine any Indian ancestor in the family tree and to picture all Indian communities in the South as safe havens for runaway slaves.

Some Cherokee citizens and Native people of other removed slaveholding tribes (Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) have also denied this history, desiring to cordon off forced removal as an atrocious wrong that affected only Native Americans. By excluding Blacks (many of whom had Native “blood”) from a claim on this history, these deniers also seek to expel the descendants of Freedmen and women from the circle of tribal belonging. For it is the memory of this collective tragedy, perhaps more than any other, that binds together Cherokees who draw strength from having survived it.

As a researcher whose work focuses on African-American and Native American histories, I have encountered this resistance. A few years ago, I spoke on the subject of Blacks in the Cherokee removal at a conference of the National Trail of Tears Association. One member of the audience, a Cherokee instructor of Cherokee history, insisted that this was an historical event only for Cherokees, a story that rightfully belonged to them alone. This is a view shared by a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who reportedly implied in a published remark that descendants of Freedpeople do not deserve tribal rights because they did not suffer the collective trauma of removal. The Trail of Tears is a sacred story to the Cherokees, as in special and set apart. It carries a meaningful lesson across time and space—about greed, injustice, and the perseverance of a people staring into a bleak and unknown future. However, a potent story shared with others is not necessarily diminished by the sharing; it might instead grow stronger in its ability to enlighten.

For Black History Month, I collected the opinions of individuals rarely asked about their view of the Trail of Tears: descendants of slaves owned by Cherokees. Common themes in the responses I received were pain at having their history publicly denied and pride in their ancestors’ ability to survive multiple trials.

Kenneth Cooper, a Cherokee Freedmen descendant and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has researched his family history through oral and documentary methods, has a great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Still, who walked the Trail of Tears. Cooper said, “At least one of my ancestors was on the Trail of Tears—by double compulsion. The U.S. troops compelled his mixed-white Cherokee owner, who compelled my ancestor to come and, presumably, provide for his needs.”

Terry Ligon, a descendant of Choctaw and Chickasaw slaves who writes a blog about the topic, was frustrated because “the typical story about the ‘Trails of Tears’ speaks to the horrors of uprooting ‘Native Americans’ from their homes...[while] the story that rarely gets told is the tears shed by people of African descent who were enslaved within these same tribes of ‘Native Americans.’”

Olon Dotson, a professor of Architecture at Ball State University, said his great-great-great- grandmother, Betty Mantooth Teichmann Childers Starks, was born to an enslaved woman en route on the Trail of Tears. When Dotson found out about this hidden chapter of his family’s history, he felt “angered and betrayed,” and his anger was not only directed at Indians. “The feeling of betrayal,” he said, “was derived from the customary portrait of American history, as taught and understood, which paints the Five Civilized Tribes merely as victims of cruel and racist policies with little or no mention of the African American experience in the context. I was prepared to pounce on any African American who felt compelled to express pride in their Native American heritage at the expense of their African blood.”

Some descendants expressed no outrage, but simply wanted the experience of their ancestors to be remembered and respected. Olive Anderson, a descendant of slaves owned by the Cherokee Vann and Bean families, feels proud of her ancestors’ bravery, both during Removal and the Civil War, when her great great grandfather, Rufus Vann, fought with the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. “Let it be known,” she said, “that our ancestors walked, fought, loved and died to make this country what it is today.”

The Trail of Tears is an epochal moment not only in Cherokee history, but also in Black history. Descendants of slaves owned by Native people therefore claim this story as rightful heirs. Kenneth Cooper concluded in his remarks to me: “I don’t see how Cherokees...can separate the history of the tribe from the history of the Freedmen; they are irrevocably intertwined, before, during, and after the Trail of Tears.” The intertwined histories of Freedpeople and Cherokees, of African American history and Native American history, of all groups in this great and varied nation of ours, is a historical reality that may prove to be one of our greatest strengths.

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