So how did people present themselves to the community?
Self-identity is one thing and then a perceived identity is another. When you’re talking about perceived identity, that’s usually a census enumerator who was going around from house to house and was usually white and male. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, for example, an entire Indian village was captured in the census records … [but] the enumerator didn’t get the names of everyone. They would just write the name of a person such as “Baptiste” and say “his wife, his son, his daughter” without giving them a name. So more than likely that enumerator was not comfortable going into the Indian village … and just did a count without interacting with the people themselves. I always ask people to research an [ancestor] throughout their entire lifetime, and if this ancestor is continually identifying themselves differently than a descendent might claim – in other words, this descendent is claiming the ancestor was a Native American, but throughout that ancestor’s life they are identifying themselves as black – then one has to really look and say “Hmm, was this person really living in a Native American community?” Or is it a way to explain a light complexion that makes the family feel better than acknowledging that maybe this person’s mother or grandmother was involved in a relationship against her will? Some people may want to disassociate their family from having a blood tie to a slave master.
And on the other hand you’ll find some white families who don’t want to acknowledge having a black ancestor in the family and will claim, “This complexion came from an Indian relative.” I always say if you are a serious researcher, you follow the records.
What documents and records are there for the Freedman of the Five Civilized Tribes?
For Freedmen of Oklahoma, the source is amazing. There is a microfilm publication at the National Archives that consists of Freedman enrollment cards [for] individuals who had been enslaved (or their parents had been enslaved) by citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes. Those individuals were eligible to receive land allotment. Data was collected on each person who was applying [for land], usually the head of the household, about where they lived and who their slave owner was.
These interviews took place in the 1890s and slavery officially ended in 1866 in the Territory. The reverse side of the enrollment card is the name of the person’s parents – the father’s tribal enrollment, the name of the father’s slave owner if the father had been enslaved. In many cases, particularly in the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation, you’ll find that the father was actually an Indian. Then, the name of the person’s mother and her tribal enrollment … and the name of the mother’s slave owner. If on one side of the card you have a husband, his wife and their children, and on the reverse side you get the names of their parents, that means you have three generations on one card. Then, there’s an interview packet that contains hundreds of reels of microfilm of the actual interviews: “Sam Walton, sworn in under oath, testifies as follows…What is your name? Were you a slave? Where did you live? Who was your owner?”
What was the purpose of these interviews?
These gave the Dawes Commission information to decide whether or not a family should get a land allotment. Land was held in common by the tribes, and Freedmen were members of the tribe after 1866, because they didn’t have anywhere else to go [and] that was their home since the 1830s. So they remained where they were, they spoke the language. But Oklahoma statehood was approaching, and before the rest of the land could be released for white settlers to come in, the [U.S. government] decided to take the land that was held in common by the tribes and redistribute it to the individual members – the Western tradition of personal property.
What has been the reaction of your family to your research? What have you found that has surprised them?
I think the biggest surprise for my brother and I, who remember Sallie … was that both of us knew someone who had been born a slave. She was born in the middle of the Civil War in 1863 and she died in 1961.