Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice: Commemorating “The Great Escape” in 1861-62 of Indians and Blacks into Kansas

Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice: Commemorating “The Great Escape” in 1861-62 of Indians and Blacks into Kansas

Negro History Bulletin
Jaunary-December 2001

Willard B. Johnson

My heart raced and emotions surged before I consciously grasped the meaning of what I was reading in that footnote. Reading all the footnotes had become routine for me, because ages ago I learned that important information about my people and my interests would more often than not be buried there, if mentioned at all. But, here was something really startling to me—mention of Humboldt, Kansas. That tiny southeast Kansas town had been the lifelong hometown of my grandmother, Gertrude Stovall (who was 101 years old when she died in 1990), and it is where I plan to be buried, amidst five previous generations of my mother’s family. Here it was being specifically proposed as the place for an event that, had it occurred, might very significantly have impacted if not altered American history during the Civil War.

The footnote quoted a letter to President Lincoln from emissaries of Opothleyahola, a legendary leader of the traditionalist faction of the Muskogee Indians (whom the whites called “Creeks”). I had come to focus on this leader in my quest to understand the famous “Trails of Tears” over which almost all of the Indians of the southeastern states had trekked when they were forced out of their traditional homeland to “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma).

In the letter, the Native American leader was proposing to convene all the mid-western Indian tribes in a gigantic General Council meeting, to demonstrate their continued loyalty to the Union and to secure enforcement of the treaties that his people had signed with the United States government decades before. Now they needed to meet to make good on those pledges. Of all places, Opothleyahola proposed to hold that meeting in Humboldt!

In researching the story behind this note, I was able to tie together many disjointed strands of family and folk history. The answers to questions such as why it was that so much of the black family folklore of this region spoke so vaguely of having Indian connections; how it was that some of our black families seemed to have been among the first settlers in that area of Kansas; how it was that some spoke of having come through Indian Territory; and why and how it was that after the Civil War so many black families returned to or stayed in Indian Territory became more clear.

Understanding the connections between African Americans and Native Americans is difficult and sometimes painful because these connections were quite complex and ranged from marriage, brotherhood, and adoption into families, to Indian enslavement of blacks. That many African Americans had shared the suffering of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears had come to my attention through the writings of a family friend, former Cherokee principal chief, Ms. Wilma Mankiller.  Many of the blacks who were forcibly relocated with the Indians were natural or adopted family members, or incorporated communities, but perhaps as many as four thousand of them had been slaves.  They shared all the ordeals of the removals…

…In pursuit of information about my own ancestors I was struck by several features of the 1860 federal census rolls for Arkansas, which includes the schedules for Indian Territory. Most notably, nearly all the Creek Indians were listed as “Black.” Would that designation have today’s significance?

I had read about extensive African and Creek mixing. After all, it was probably to the Creeks that blacks had escaped as early as 1526 from L. Vasquez deAyllon’s shipwrecked settlement on the Carolina coast. I had read about the ancient Creek migrations from the Southwest, where the indigenous populations were considerably darker than the Cherokee and other Iroquoian speaking peoples of the East, and may have mixed with Africans during early Spanish exploration and colonial times, as seems evident among Mexican populations, and some say even well before that! But could such mixing have been so extensive as to affect the majority of the Creeks?

I began to suspect these particular white census enumerators impulsively listed persons of dark complexion simply as “black.” This would not necessarily reflect the standard “one-drop” American practice and imply “African.” Moreover, many of the dark Creek Indians have very straight hair, so I became skeptical.

Another interesting feature of the census for Indian Territory was the special note by the enumerator that the Seminoles refused ever to allow a listing of “slaves”; it seemed to be a reaffirmation of the earlier removal-treaty negotiation experience. However, the Seminoles, whose Nation arose out of a significant social, political, and genetic integration of persons of Native American and African American background, were not all listed as “black.” Perhaps the color designations for the Creeks were valid clues to their identity after all.

The key breakthrough in this genetic conundrum came with an examination of an adjutant general’s descriptive record of the First Indian Home Guard Regiment, where color designations were quite nuanced. Seven variations were used, from “light,” to “Indian,” through “red” and “copper” to “black” and “Negro” and even “African.” The majority did not fall on the darker end of this range, but I did count about fifty persons in the last three categories…

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