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Finding a Cherokee Freedman Ancestor

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Location: Cherokee Nation, Indian Territorymap
Surnames/tags: Native Americans Cherokee
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The Cherokee “Freedmen” are Black people who lived in the Cherokee Nation at the beginning of the Civil War, both free and formerly enslaved, who met the criteria of the 1866 Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty to qualify as “Cherokee Freedmen.” When the Civil War came, some Black and/or enslaved people remained in the Cherokee Nation, but many simply left Indian Territory and went to Kansas, which had just been admitted to the Union as a free state. Others went to different parts of Indian Territory that were not so involved in the war. Some were taken to Texas by their enslavers. Cherokee Nation officially abolished slavery in 1863 and at the end of the war some of the Black people who had lived in the Cherokee Nation at the beginning of the war returned.

In July,1866 the Cherokee Nation signed a reconstruction treaty with the United States which included provision for both formerly enslaved and free Black people, who became known as the Cherokee Freedmen.

The treaty reads in part: "The Cherokee Nation having, voluntarily, in February, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, by an act of the national council, forever abolished slavery, hereby covenant and agree that never hereafter shall either slavery or involuntary servitude exist in their nation otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, in accordance with laws applicable to all the members of said tribe alike. They further agree that all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees: Provided, That owners of slaves so emancipated in the Cherokee Nation shall never receive any compensation or pay for the slaves so emancipated." - Article 9 of The Treaty Of 1866

Only people who could show that they had lived in the Cherokee Nation prior to the War and either remained or returned to the Cherokee Nation by the January 16, 1867 deadline were accepted as Freedmen by the Cherokee Nation.

Where to look for a Freedman ancestor:

The 1910 United States Federal Census is the first census taken after Oklahoma statehood.

In 1900 a special census was taken in Indian Territory in preparation for statehood. That census included everyone living in the Nation regardless of race.

In 1898 the Dawes Commission began its’ work - for the second time - in the Cherokee Nation. The purpose of the commission was to identify people in Indian Territory who were eligible for an allotment of tribal lands when Oklahoma became a state. The information collected by the Commission was recorded on Dawes Cards and application packets and usually include lots of detail on a person or his or her family -- residence, age, gender, relationships, parents’ names, and which previous rolls included the person. Freedman cards also include the name of the enslaver.

Dawes applications contain more detail and often have other records, such as marriage certificates, attached.

A printed list of the Cherokee Freedmen on the Dawes Final Roll is digitized at the National Archives. About 4500 Cherokee Freedmen (and/or their descendants) were accepted by the Dawes Commission. This list includes only the Dawes number and only includes those who were approved. index to listing at Dawes

Each person on the Dawes has both a card/application number and a roll number. In general, all members of a household share a card, each individual has a roll number. Cards are grouped into categories - Freedmen, Freedmen Minors, Freedmen Newborns, Freedmen Rejected, Freedman Denied. Dawes cards and packets are digitized at Ancestry and Fold3 ($) Dawes cards are digitized, but not indexed, at FamilySearch. (Enter "Cherokee Freedmen" as keywords in the catalog search form)

The basis for enrollment on the Dawes for all Cherokee citizens (which included intermarried whites, Adopted Shawnee, Delaware, and Freedmen) was the 1880 Cherokee Census, but there are many other censuses and payment rolls which were created between 1880 and 1897.

The 1897 Freedmen Payment roll is a list of Cherokee Freedmen who were entitled to participate in an award by the U.S. Court of Claims. The microfilmed roll is a duplicate copy used by Agent Dew M. Wisdom, who completed the work of making payments that was begun by Special Agent James G. Dickson. Entries for individuals give various identification numbers, name, age, sex, amount due, and sometimes other information.

The "Wallace Roll" is a list of Cherokee Freedmen eligible to receive a payment authorized by an Act of Congress in 1888. The roll was based on an 1883 Freedman Roll which the Cherokee Nation had rejected. The Wallace Roll includes lists of "authenticated" Freedmen from the 1893 list, a list of people who died between 1883 and 1890, a list of people added by Wallace, and a list of "free Negroes."

Wallace apparently missed a lot of people, so there are later supplements to that roll, and in 1895-96 the Kern-Clifton Roll, supposedly more inclusive, was created. The Kern-Clifton roll includes name, position in family, age, sex, district of residence, and other information. There are sections for “authenticated” and “contesting” Freedmen and their descendants.

Access Genealogy also has a searchable index for the Kern-Clifton Roll. Ancestry has both a typed index and a typed transcript of the census itself. has digitized many of the Freedman rolls 1867-1897 beginning at Freedman

The 1880 census was the first comprehensive census taken after the Civil War. It was used as the baseline for the Dawes Commission for all applicants Cherokee, Freedman, or white since it was much more accurate and complete than the 1867 Tompkins Roll. The Freedmen were enumerated along with everyone else, but then they were validated as meeting the 1866 requirements and a separate list of “authenticated” Freedmen was created. The 1880 Cherokee census is digitized at Ancestry ($) and FamilySearch (access limited to Family History centers).

In 1867 the first post-War Cherokee Nation census, called the "Tompkins Roll" was taken in conformance with the 1866 Treaty which included the Freedmen. Unfortunately that census missed many people, both Cherokee and Freedmen and the microfilm images are very hard to read. The Tompkins Roll is digitized at Ancestry ($) Tompkins

The 1860 United States census included some people in Indian Territory, both whites and Indians. The general census only enumerated whites living in Indian Territory, but the Slave Schedule included both white and Cherokee enslavers. See: 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules, State: Arkansas County: Indian Lands . This census is the first record of enslaved people in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. It doesn’t give names, but does list ages and genders which can sometimes be correlated to known individuals.


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