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Cherokees and Freedmen Descendants: A Shared Past

A column by DeWayne Smith about Cherokee Freedmen, focusing on a book called Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family In Slavery and Freedom.

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 inpossession 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.

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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.