Chattel Slavery in the Cherokee Nation

Melanie working in library

Funding Source




Project Summary

The goal of my history thesis is to explore how legal institutions and acts contributed to, and evolved alongside, the development of chattel slavery in the Cherokee Nation in the early nineteenth century. During this time, the idea of “civilization” became exceedingly popular as the United States sought to expand westward; the “vast” and “uninhabited” wilderness, then populated by “savages” who knew nothing of agriculture, democracy, or Christianity, would be better used for small farmers to live on, thus ensuring the continued success of American democracy. This resulted in Indian Removal – the forced migration of indigenous people in what is now known as the American South across the Mississippi River. The Cherokee Nation embarked upon a process of nation-building, writing a Constitution, creating a new legislative government, and adopting elements of white American culture. It began private property ownership, created a written syllabary, which allowed for publications in the Cherokee language, and criminalized intermarriage between blacks and Cherokee. It also adopted a new institution of chattel slavery.

I spent two weeks in Tahlequah, Oklahoma - the capital of the Cherokee Nation - this summer, visiting various archives and museums. At the Gilcrease Museum Archives, I examined the John Ross papers and the John Drew papers, the former of which was the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1826-1866 and the latter a prominent representative, soldier, and officer, and served in the capacity of a lawyer. Both owned slaves. I also took the time to visit the Cherokee Heritage Center, which, in addition to its archives, is home to a number of exhibits, historic reconstructions, and educational programs dedicated to preserving Cherokee culture, history, and art. Some other museums I visited included the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum and John Ross Museum. By looking at bills of sale of enslaved people, acts of National Council, and more, I was able to develop a better understanding of how chattel slavery was facilitated by the changes happening to the legal institutions of the Cherokee Nation at the time.

Finally, traveling on my own to a new location for two weeks really contributed to my personal growth; having to face challenges as they arose and being on my own has shown me that I am a lot more self-sufficient than I previously thought. As I embark upon the thesis writing process this semester, I will certainly be utilizing the documents, materials, and skills I have acquired this summer.