Slave “Revolt” in Cherokee Nation 1842

This week I was trying to research into Cherokees who were abolitionists. Instead, I came across an interesting article that covers Cherokee and Creek African slaves who attempted to escape to Mexico. In an attempt to escape the horrors of the indigenous plantation, this event became known as a slave revolt. The article “Slave Revolt in Cherokee Nation 1842” by Daniel Littlefield described how a simple escape turned into the murder of two travelers on the plains. Littlefield argued this event revealed the true color of the Cherokee leaders and confirmed their commitment to the institution of slavery. He described the Cherokee Nation as no different from the surrounding slaveholding areas described how African slaves had “no increased freedoms under their Cherokee masters” (123). This event of rebellion towards Cherokee slave owners created a domino effect of strengthening the slave code laws. The Cherokee slave laws had progressively gotten worse from the time of removal to the 1842 revolt. The revolt only increased the brutal treatment of slaves and strengthened the Cherokee leaders’ fears of black freemen in their society. Littlefield’s research analyzed how the slave code adopted the worst features of Southern black slave codes that included punishments also included black freemen. Some of the laws included

An 1819 law stated that no contract or bargain could be entered into with a slave without the master’s consent. A law passed in 1820 said that anyone who traded with a slave without his owner’s permission was bound to the legal owner for the property or its value if the property traded proved to be stolen. The same law stipulated a fine of fifteen dollars for masters who allowed their slaves to buy or sell spirituous liquors; any slave found selling them without the consent of his owner was to “receive fifteen cobbs or paddles for each offence, from the hands of the patrolers of the settlement or neighborhood in which the offence was committed.” The law permitted every settlement to organize “a patroling company.” A law of 1824 forbad the intermarriage of slaves and Indians or whites. An Indian or white male violating the law received fifty-nine lashes, and an Indian or white woman received twenty-five lashes. Finally, another law of that same year made it unlawful for slaves to own horses, cattle or hogs, and provided for the confiscation and sale of such property still held by slaves twelve months after the passage of the act. Such was the slave code of the eastern Cherokees before their removal to the West.

The slave laws also prohibited slaves from owning any kind of property and required those who had property to sell it within six months. There was a punishment of sixty lashes for any black caught gambling, being intoxicated, or abusing a free person (124). The punishments of crime varied from white, “full-blood” and freedmen. The most severe punishments were equally given to anyone of African descent regardless if they were a slave. An example of the severity was sexual assault laws that stated “An 1839 law stated that Indians convicted of rape were given one hundred lashes, while blacks convicted of the “offense against any free female, not of negro blood” hung” and “up to fifty lashes for any free male or female citizen who married ‘any slave or person of color not entitled to the rights of citizenship,’ and one hundred lashes for ‘any colored male’ convicted under the act… a fine of five to twenty dollars for an Indian convicted of disrupting a church service, and thirty-nine lashes for ‘any negro slave’ convicted of the same offense” (124). Freedmen and slaves could not own or possess any weapons, especially firearms. The most significant aspect of these laws was they did not just outline brutal treatment of slaves but also freemen and “mulattos” not of Cherokee blood.

A question Littlefield asks is who were these free blacks who needed to be legislated against? Why were they so feared in Cherokee society? He argued the Cherokee were fearful of this small population because of their freedoms in the Seminal tribes. The Seminoles had no slave laws and in Florida, free blacks tended to live in peace in separate villages in Seminole Indian country. In the west, the Seminoles allowed their slaves to own horses, property, and carry weapons. The Cherokee hated this because they feared the Seminole’s lenient laws would influence their slaves to revolt. And some of their fears came true in 1842 when some Seminoles assisted in the escape of a small group of Cherokee slaves. The Cherokee saw the Seminoles as influencers of rebellion. Littlefield believed this helped shape their ideologies about the treatment of freemen as instrumental to the attempted escape. This resulted in “An Act in regard to Free Negros” that declared all free blacks, except those by Cherokee Citizens, that they were to leave the limits of the Cherokee Nation by January 1, 1943 (127).

The most significant event that came out of this “revolt” was the precedent set for the court trials of slaves and black freemen in Cherokee territory. In January of 1843, bills of murder were drafted of two of the slaves in the revolt who killed the travelers took place. They went before the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Arkansas at Little Rock. Both were found guilty of murder but the trial was dismissed from lack of jurisdiction. It was ruled by Judge Thomas Johnson that the case of the United States v. Moses contained crimes between Indians and their property; therefore could not be punished under the laws of the United States (129). Cherokee slaves were seen as nothing more than property and any crimes were subject only to native courts. An incident like this slave revolt adds another layer of complexity to the Cherokee Civil War story. It is interesting how the United States Government did not want to intervene with the affairs of Cherokee slave owners. I wonder if it is because of the politicians in power who favored slavery or if they just did not want to deal with the tribes’ internal issues. It would be interesting to see if there were other court cases like this that the United States Government stayed out of.

Another complex part of this article is the role of the Cherokee Chief, John Ross. Ross was in favor of the slave hunters tracking down the runaways, even though later he would oppose fighting in the Civil War. His decision was based on the notion that “The resolution relieved the Cherokee Nation of any personal responsibility if the blacks resisted arrest and were killed” (122). His decision disregarded the lives of those who were fighting for freedom, just like he did during Indian Removal. For next week I want to begin to focus on the split within the Cherokee Nation by focusing on the antiwar effort and how it changed the political or cultural environment of the nation.


Littlefield, Daniel F., and Lonnie E. Underhill. “Slave ‘Revolt’ in the Cherokee Nation, 1842.” American Indian Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1977): 121.

2 Replies to “Slave “Revolt” in Cherokee Nation 1842”

  1. Nathaniel Jarvie

    I really like the map. Since I’m also a Geography major, that caught my attention right away. Its easy to understand, which is really important, having seen some maps which are simply atrocious.

  2. Robert M Brangan

    I wonder how cruel the Cherokee were to their slaves in comparison to wealthy whites. There tends to be quite a common trend in history were those who were low on the social totem pole punch down even harder on those below them. You can see this with the New York Irish at this time, a group who rioted rather than be drafted to fight a “black man’s war.” The cruelty shown by the Cherokee could definaltly be another example of this, along with their pre-colonial tribal identity mixing and attempting to integrate with white society.

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