Cherokees and Freedmen Descendants: A Shared Past

DuWayne Smith

There has been a lot of discussion about the Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants, but most of the talk centers upon Cherokee Nation sovereignty and the rights of Indian nations to determine their own membership.

When looking at only the issue of sovereignty, we dismiss the shared past of the Cherokee people and the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen. We dismiss both the history of Cherokee slavery and the colonial manipulation surrounding the creation of the Dawes Rolls, the center of much of the current controversy.

Tiya Miles, Professor of History, University of Michigan, has written an excellent book on this shared past of slavery, kinship and citizenship, entitled Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family In Slavery and Freedom (University of California Press, 2005).

Ties That Bind is the story of the Shoe Boots family, a Cherokee family and their descendants (mixed Cherokee and African ancestry). Captain Shoe Boots was a legendary, full blood Cherokee warrior who was among the first in the Cherokee Nation to acquire African slaves. His first slave, bought or captured from a European/American slaveholder around 1800, was named Doll. At first master and slave, Shoe Boots (or Tarsekayahke) and Doll later became lifelong partners. The couple had five children.

Captain Shoe Boots was a war hero and had become a member of a small group of property owners, well known and respected by leaders of the Cherokee Nation. He later became concerned that his mixed-race black-Cherokee children would not become citizens of the Cherokee Nation because of their slave status, and in 1824 he wrote and petitioned the Cherokee Nation’s governing board: “Being in possession of a few Black People and being crost in my affections, I debased myself and took one of my black women by the name of Doll. By her I have had these three children . . . My desire is to have them as free citizens of this nation.”

The three children born before his petition of 1824, Elizabeth, Polly and John did become Cherokee citizens, through special consideration, before Shoe Boots died in 1829. Two younger children, William and Lewis, born after 1824, did not become citizens. Doll Shoe Boots would die in 1860 as a free woman. Her daughters, Elizabeth and Polly, both Cherokee citizens, would marry Cherokee men. Younger son, Lewis, would disappear from the Cherokee records, and his brother William would later petition the Cherokee government for citizenship.

After the Civil War, a large number of intruders, both black and white, settled illegally in Cherokee territory. The Cherokee government was overwhelmed and needed to establish a strategy to maintain identification of its citizenry. After the establishment of the Cherokee Supreme Court in 1869, the eventual development of a citizenship court and commission was completed ten years later. It was before this court that William, youngest son of Captain Shoe Boots, would apply for citizenship in 1887. At time of application, all seven of his children shared his surname, Shoe Boots.

William’s application, after lengthy deliberation, was denied. The Cherokee Commission on Citizenship recognized that William Shoeboot “was the son of old Shoeboot”, but the application was denied because Captain Shoe Boots, William’s father, did not appear on a roll of Cherokee citizens developed in 1835. Of course, there was a reason he was not listed since the elder Shoe Boots, or Tarsekayahke, died in 1829. This legalistic and bureaucratic decision precluded William’s seven children, and their children, from Cherokee citizenship based upon blood descent.

As Tiya Miles states, “the Dawes Roll of 1898 – 1914 and the Guion-Miller Roll of 1909 – 1910, major censuses of Cherokees compiled by U.S. Government officials, does not include any people named Shoeboots.”

While William Shoeboot was denied citizenship by the Cherokee citizenship court/commission in 1887, his children would not be listed on the Dawes Rolls as Cherokees “by blood” a little over a decade later. The Dawes commissioners found that William and his children were clearly black, and not Cherokee.  As Miles indicates, “the commissioners invalidated three generations of a family’s history, expunging them from the political body of the Cherokee Nation.”

When researching her book, Tiya Miles found that some African-American and Native people were not too receptive to her project.  She says in the introduction to her book, “it seemed that black slavery with Native American nations was an aspect of history that both black and Native people have willed themselves to forget.”

The historical Freedmen have frequently been depicted as one-dimensional, as if they were cut out of cardboard and propped up for view.  New efforts at public education, such as Ties That Bind, are giving us a multi-dimensional and in depth look at this ongoing controversy in the Cherokee Nation.  Perhaps this book, with others, will promote a more reasonable dialogue regarding race and historical relationships in this country.

DuWayne Smith is retired from the U.S. Department of Labor where he was a manager of disability and rehabilitation programs.  He was a Vista Volunteer and teacher in Native communities during the 1960s and early 1970s, received an M.Ed. in Indian Education from Arizona State University in 1968, and continues to have an interest in Indian Country.

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ppmickey's picture
Dear Beaver, Ouch. I am so sorry you feel the way you do. I was born blonde with blue eyes which slowly changed to green and my hair darkened at puberty. I am only part Cherokee, not sure what percentage yet, but had spent two weeks on the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Reservation in the late 1960's with the Methodist Youth Fellowship fixing up our mission, bringing books for mothers to read to their children. I didn't know then that I was part Cherokee, but had gone through an adoption ceremony with a full-blooded Cherokee that used to take care of me when I was young. He said he would have been chief had his family not had to flee their land. He went through an elaborate and beautiful ceremony with me and claimed me to be his adopted Cherokee daughter who would have been a princess. I know this probably sounds silly to many people, but to a young child, I took this ceremony deadly seriously and was so proud. It wasn't until this year that I found out my paternal grandmother was either 100 percent or half Cherokee. When I had been on the reservation, I shared my adoption story with the Cherokees I had the honor of meeting. They accepted me as one of their own and I was even asked to come to dinner at one of their homes. I was so honored and have always loved the Cherokees. It was my favorite Mission that I went on with the Methodist Youth Fellowship and to just this year find out I am by blood part Cherokee I accept with honor. I was treated with kindness and love on the reservation. I never saw any discrimination, arrogance or anything like that. I am sorry for your experiences being so negative. Peace to you. ppmickey
wisgriz's picture
Are the views of Duwayne Smith, Steve Russell, and Tiya Miles turning into their own "BULLY PULPIT" on the topic of the Freedmen. For Mr. Smith to assume that the present Cherokee would dismiss the issue of slavery and the past policies of the Dawes Act which affect's the Cherokee is condescending and insulting. The past does affect the present Cherokee and their identity as a sovreign entity. Mr. Smith you refer to "WE" in your article on ICT. Don't include me under "WE", I'm a believer in SOVREIGNTY. It's our identity as Indian people. Your views have an effect on non-native people who have a sincere desire learn about as a people. I believe the Cherokee did their work in accordance to their laws of their constitution. Maybe you need to read the 1866 Treaty the government made with the Cherokee. It will enhance your view of what the Cherokee have made decision's regarding. Have you ignored this document? How can you be a scholar and ignore something inportant like a treaty. Wisgriz
beaver's picture
The Cherokees became American in their hearts several generations ago. Today they look no different than their Caucasian neighbors. They also share racist attitudes with their White neighbors. Their actions - like booting out Black Cherokees off their Nation - are also similarly racist. If you look at the Indians who police other Indian tribes, almost every single one of them, without exception, is a White Cherokee with less than a drop of Indian blood in them. Their actions go contrary to what is advocated by UNDRIP. When I visited my grandson at Princeton, all the other Indian students I met at Princeton were White blondes from the Cherokee Nation (they were White blondes, not even White brunettes). I spend a week with these students and heard comments like "I don't want to waste my life living on a reservation," "There's no way I am going to marry an Indian," "Why should I suffer working on a reservation when I can make millions elsewhere," or "Learning Spanish makes more sense and I don't see the reason why I should learn Cherokee." I also spent an entire summer with the Cherokees on their own soil. Almost every single Cherokee I met was Caucasian and incredibly arrogant. The Cherokees want to control and regulate other Indian nations. In the interest of the survival of other Indians, we need to stop thinking of Cherokees as Indian and we need to recognize them for what they are today - arrogant, White Americans. The very people who conquered and colonized us. We need to realize Cherokees today are White Americans for the survival of other Indian nations.
shotwell77's picture
Thanks for sharing the story of Shoe Boots. Daniel Horsechief won Grand Prize at the Cherokee National Holiday art show this year with an amazing portrait of Shoe Boots and two of his children. Nancy Ward became the first Cherokee woman to have an African-American slave, acquired from the Muscogee Creeks, after the 1755 Battle at Taliwa – a half-century before Shoe Boots. In such an emotionally charged issue, basic standards of scholarship should but be abandoned.
rozjohnson's picture
There were many, many Native American and African American unions out of love and mutual respect and social dependency. Many black Americans today show signs of Native ancestry more than African ancestry. In my family, the choice was made many generations ago to identify as black, a.k.a. mulatto or negro and not white. Historically, the state of Virginia did not recognize Native American as a race in the census until 1919. So our ancestors were forced to choose--white or mulatto/negro. These people married, owned land, and worked farms together as free people. They even had their own schools. I don't think it is a fair to the black race or to our country's history to portray Native and Black American unions to only be born out of slavery.
kanigakolaha's picture
It is very fortunate that your grandson has the opportunity to attend a university as prestigious as Princeton. Hopefully his education will enlighten him, make his life better, and provide him a solid sense of argument logic. It seems you yourself do not possess this. Your comment is a simple blanket statement, and lumping in "all" Cherokees in your description does a disservice to all Cherokees, regardless of physical traits and political views. Cherokees are a very diverse group of people. It is true there are Cherokees that have white phenotypical traits, including the white skin and blonde hair you speak of in your statement. However, not all Cherokees look the way you describe. There are light skinned Cherokees, dark skinned Cherokees - there are Cherokees of many ethnic mixes. But pinning the issue on skin color is unproductive. I am a full-blood citizen of the Cherokee Nation and many in my family still retain our language and culture. My family is not unique in this fact either. For all the imperfect history surrounding blood quantum and phenotypical issues, jumping to the conclusion you did based on your exposure to some students at Princeton and your "summer" among us shows faulty logic. The Princeton population is not an adequate representation of the Cherokee population whether it be in Oklahoma or among the Eastern Band Cherokee in North Carolina. The values of the particular Cherokees you met at Princeton are obviously very different from the values of Cherokees elsewhere. While the Freedmen issue is a contentious and on-going drama, you also must understand that not all Cherokees agree in one huge bloc. There are many opinions on the issue. While your encounter with Cherokees may have been with some of the more acculturated among us, it is quite unfair to characterize all of us into one lump of, as you say, "arrogant, White Americans." You are entitled to your opinion, but I would hope you reconsider before you decide to lump people into blanket statements.
duwaynesmith's picture
Roz Johnson, I totally agree with you that black and Indian unions should not be viewed as happening only within the confines of slavery. The story goes way back to the Jamestown colony when the first Africans arrived there in 1619. Both Indians and blacks had to finally face the same English racist attitudes, and unions between the two peoples began even before black slavery was institutionalized. It is part of American history, and Tiya Miles tells just one part of the much bigger story.
chatamaroon's picture
I met Tiya Miles, and bought her book. She keynoted at a conference on First Nations and African-American experience, that we both presented at. While I have a grandfather on the Freedmen roles, and family lore indicates all 8 of my great-grandperents, were Chata, I have not chosen to get the card, though a Cherokee friend, encourages me to do so. He voted against expelling the Freedmen from the tribe, and acknowledged that his family had slaves. He characterized the "slaves" as translators that the Cherokee used when dealing with whites. Being that Africans had extensive dealings with both Native Nations and Europeans before Contact, this was an astute move. Not so astute was not recognizing the memetic virus of White Supremacy, and inoculating the nations against it. Just like you need a science of microbiology to detect small pox blankets, and HIV, so you need advanced science to detect multilevel race and other isms. Instead of maintaining an Indigenous version of Sovereignty, free of gender, racial, class, and spiritual bias against other of your relations, Natives accepted the White Supremacist model, which could exclude any number of "relatives", particularly if it meant economic gain for the few, at the expense of the many. This skill of recognizing power inequities, does not simply mean you are able to read the fine print on a treaty, and detect the falsehoods and treble meanings within the language, it also means you are able to recognize the ill intent and prepare for it, teach it to the young, make a culture of resistance and freedom. Part of what the Cherokee were rejecting, is an African analysis of history, and strategy. Before about 800 years ago, Europeans weren't always promoters of race and other isms. But they were steeped in a reworked African-based religion, whose African adherents still to this day, never led wars, never did genocide, never believed in racism ordained by God, and I'm referring to Christianity as the African religion in question, changed from its original roots, its story changed to justify what happened here, as Gods will. As Chataranga in India, became satranj among the Moors, and was renamed by Europeans chess, the rules changed as well as the players, and of course the story. By becoming part of the 5 Civilized Tribes, accepting Western clothing, religion, agricultural technology, and expecting humane treatment from people who don't see you as equally human. Tiya Miles talked about this in her lecture, about marriage attitudes, where Cherokee informants said that it was most preferable to marry a Cherokee, then another Native Nation, then a White person, but that Mexicans, and African-Americans "debased, and diluted" the blood. (But white people improve it, by implication) An interesting adaptation of Moorish horsebreeding techniques, this blood quantum thing, never intended in its original culture to apply to human beings. I think of this as Trojan Horse warfare, in which a weapon is disguised as a gift. Africans were at Troy, cinematic depictions to the contrary, and so we recognized this tactic in all its manifestation. In order to defuse the weapon, you have to understand that it is a weapon and how to defuse it, deconstruct it, and reconstruct it to increase the peace. Native Elders recognized the threat of the Bible, The Bottle, and the Casino, all of them Trojan Horses. Certainly Natives had spirituality, alcohol technology, and gambling, but not in addictive ways, and certainly we'd be hard pressed to find racism here before 1492. So what could induce the Cherokee to abandon tens of thousands of years of civilization for a civilization barely 1000 years old? So blond haired Cherokees, deriding the reservation, or their marrying "red" skinned kin, would not be a surprising outcome. Sovereignty means the right to decide, even make mistakes, indeed, continuing to make mistakes. Perhaps a deeper and older wisdom might be found.
chatamaroon's picture
I think there is a longer history of alliances between those Native to this continent Turtle Island, and those Native to Alkebulan, which the Greeks named Africa. Slavery doesn't define our relationship, I think the pyramids are a better example, as well as the many African / Native alliances against slavery and colonialism. Maroon, I'm told is a Taino word which means wild and free, and has been applied to first generation Native / African genetic and cultural hybrids. Africans did not need to come to America for gold, we brought our own gold. We gave it to the Taino, who gave two gold spearpoints of guanin (14 carat gold) to Columbus, (recorded in his second voyage log(. The King of Portugal confirmed the African origin of the gold, and seconded what the Natives had themselves told Columbus, that the gold came from these Black people from South across the Water. Recognition has to go both ways, both underlying unity, and divide and conquer strategies. My family was dark enough to pass for black, (Dawes' Darky Tent) so rather than go with the other Chata, on their Trail of Tears, we went into all black towns in the South...the choice was clear...Ku Klux Klan, or the Cavalry? Even if they are both supported by the same racist government, the Klan will leave you alone, except for when you stray from your "place". My family tends towards he uppity. We taught others to stray, and thus have been fighting the Klan and their Kavalry cousins in Kongress, the Chamber of Kommerce, as well as the other places they are found. Out of mutual love and respect Africans and Natives joined together, also with Whites, to fight mutual oppression and to form free communities. Power is history that is remembered, known, and recreated.