Oklahoma Was The Last Place To End Slavery In America
Slavery in Oklahoma has always been a contentious and relatively unknown bit of history among the people that live here. When teaching American history on the topic in schools, that story usually takes place in states like the Carolina's, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas, but Oklahoma played a larger part than most learn about.
When it comes up in conversation, the go-to is "Oklahoma was never a slave state" and we talk about how it was never part of the South, but it's a technicality. Oklahoma didn't come around until 1907, but slavery was alive and well in Indian Territory and it lasted longer here than anywhere else in the country.
The backstory to the timeline is as such. President Lincoln delivered his emancipation proclamation to end slavery in 1863. This is what lead to the American Civil War. After the war, congress ratified the 13th Amendment to constitutionally end slavery in the United States, but Indian Territory wasn't a united state.
In the early 1800s, America was deeply in bed with those participating in the African slave trade. This is the history that we're all taught, real atrocities. While the focus is mainly thrust upon the deserving and overwhelming majority of white slave owners, the American Indian was also involved in this trade.
Slavery wasn't anything new to these lands when Europeans arrived here. It was commonplace in pre-colonial America. Tribes often took hostages from other tribes as well as invaders, such as Spanish conquistadors, and forced them into servitude. Native American's purchased a fair number of African slaves too because it was socially acceptable in that day.
When the Indian Removal Act was signed in 1830, it forced hundreds of thousands of native peoples to relocate to the Indian Territory. Since slaves were property, they came with the tribes.
If you've had Oklahoma history growing up, you're probably rolling through your rolodex of memories thinking about how southern slaves escaped to Indian Territory and were accepted as free men. This is true, but slaves owned by the tribes remained legal property even after relocation. This seemed beyond hypocritical but it is the simple true history.
Even though Indian Territory wasn't a state to be involved in the American Civil War, several tribes signed treaties with the Confederate States of America, sending some 20,000 tribal citizens to fight alongside the Southerners... but why?
While it's easy to arrive at a conclusion that it was a move to strike back at a government responsible for atrocities against America's indigenous peoples, scholars agree that it was more than likely a handful of politically powerful slave-owning native citizens that struck the alliance.
Truth be told, slavery deeply divided the tribes according to History.com. Many were fans of abolishing slavery and creating a native republic, a stand-alone country in middle America... but as it remains today, it's the few that hold all of that power. In order to protect profits and land rights, ten tribes signed on the dotted line.
As the war ended and America ended slavery, the announcement famously took its time to be received in the furthest state from Washing DC. Now America celebrates the Texas announcement of freedom for all as Juneteenth, but slavery didn't end in Indian Territory when it ended across America. It actually lingered on for a whole year after Juneteenth.
The story of Oklahoma's history of slavery picks up here with the main focus being that of the Five Civilized Tribes.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, with new federal treaties dangling in the balance, three of these five tribes immediately complied with the federal requirement to emancipate their slaves. The Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek tribes did so without hesitation. The Choctaw and Chickasaw people did not.
From their point of view, the Choctaw and Chickasaw were sovereign nations who governed themselves. They were not American citizens, nor were they living in the American country, so the slave population belonged to them beyond federal oversight, but it's not that simple.
The treaties that were proposed to the tribes in Indian Territory were focused on punishment for supporting and aiding the Confederacy. These were the main conditions set in the new treaties.
Tribes would cede roughly half of their lands back to federal authorities.
This land would then be made available to the railroads, as well as given to other tribes the government was moving into the territory.
Western territory lands would be opened up for American settlement.
Any previous treaty violation would be expunged.
Tribes would immediately free their slaves and adopt them as tribal citizens.
Slavery lasted roughly nine months longer in Indian Territory than it did across the rest of America. And while this may be the abridged and simplified short story of Oklahoma history, the story of slavery's the last stronghold in America shouldn't be forgotten. I trust you can Google the whole story yourself.