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Trail Sisters

Freedwomen in Indian Territory, 1850–1890

Linda Williams Reese, with foreword by John R. Wunder

Publication Year: 2007

African American women enslaved by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek Nations led lives ranging from utter subjection to recognized kinship. Regardless of status, during Removal, they followed the Trail of Tears in the footsteps of their slaveholders, suffering the same life-threatening hardships and poverty.
            As if Removal to Indian Territory weren’t cataclysmic enough, the Civil War shattered the worlds of these slave women even more, scattering families, destroying property, and disrupting social and family relationships. Suddenly they were freed, but had nowhere to turn. Freedwomen found themselves negotiating new lives within a labyrinth of federal and tribal oversight, Indian resentment, and intruding entrepreneurs and settlers.
            Remarkably, they reconstructed their families and marshaled the skills to fashion livelihoods in a burgeoning capitalist environment. They sought education and forged new relationships with immigrant black women and men, managing to establish a foundation for survival.
            Linda Williams Reese is the first to trace the harsh and often bitter journey of these women from arrival in Indian Territory to free-citizen status in 1890. In doing so, she establishes them as no lesser pioneers of the American West than their Indian or other Plains sisters.

Published by: Texas Tech University Press

Series: Plains Histories

Title & Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. 7-8


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 11-12

This book—Trail Sisters—is a history of relationships, complex in-teractions that resulted from twin nineteenth-century mass movements of Americans to what is today Oklahoma. These were the unstoppable Euro-American settlements from the South Atlantic Coast westward and the ethnic cleansing of Native peoples from their homelands, a coerced westward movement now known as Remov-al. Also caught up in these brutal dislocations were black slaves and free African Americans. Admirably, it is the resultant multidimensional per-...

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pp. 13-14

The origin of this book began within the initial research for the chapter on Oklahoma’s black townswomen in my doctoral dis-sertation, Women of Oklahoma, 1890–1920, at the University of Oklahoma. I greatly appreciate the chair of my committee, Wil-liam W. Savage, Jr., and the other members, Robert Griswold, Paul Glad, the late Paul Sharp, and the late Norman Crockett, for allowing me the latitude to explore a broad landscape of ideas that has inspired my con-tinuing work as a historian and teacher. The Oklahoma Humanities ...


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pp. 17-24

A miniature reproduction of a painting made by the Cherokee art-ist Jeanne Rorex Bridges sits on my offi ce desk. The painting depicts two women in nineteenth-century dress striding forward toward the viewer. Their faces refl ect a blend of sorrow, strength, and determination. On the right is a Cherokee woman with one hand on her pregnant belly. Her other hand clasps that of an African American woman who carries a bundle. The painting is titled Trail Sisters. It has in-trigued me for some time. Both women are tired; both are carrying bur-...

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1. Living in Slavery

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pp. 25-55

The long trail leading to freedom in Indian Territory for enslaved women and men began with the removal of the Five Tribes from their homelands in the southeastern part of the United States. Whether Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, or Seminole, this process was forced upon them by the U.S. government and became a tragic nightmare that stretched from roughly the 1820s until, in some cases, after the Civil War. The wealth of the United States in the early nineteenth century lay in its land and natural resources. Native-born ...

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2. Surviving the War

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pp. 56-79

In the closing days of the decade of the 1850s, all of Indian Terri-tory became disquieted by the rumors of war. Old feuds and politi-cal competitions within the Indian nations that had not yet healed since the days of forced removal resurrected themselves. Indian peoples experienced divided loyalties between ties to the North and the South, but most hoped to avoid entanglement in what seemed an inevi-table collision. Within their families enslaved women and men quietly discussed the growing danger and the alternatives that might be open to ...

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3. Reconstructing Families

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pp. 80-104

...“I am glad slav ery is over and I do not want to see any more wars.”Reconnecting families was the fi rst crucial step in rebuilding the lives of the freedwomen and their de pen dents. So much had happened since the outbreak of the war to remove them from familiar surroundings. Slave sales, abductions, forced migrations to Kansas and Texas, and deaths from disease and battle had all contrib-uted to the disarray of the families of the freedwomen. Searching for their loved ones became their priority. Jim Tomm and his mother and ...

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4. Making a New Life

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pp. 105-127

...“I’se always been a workin’ woman, no matter where I is.”Chaney McNair’s remark in 1939 to a WPA interviewer makes a universal statement about the lives of freedwomen in Indian Ter-ritory. Working both inside their homes and in outside employ-ment became a necessity. To support their families as single heads of households or to sustain and supplement the income in two-parent families freedwomen used every skill they knew and grasped every opportunity they could to acquire new ones. If their children were ...

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5. Building Communities

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pp. 128-154

Immediately after the Civil War, the most important concerns for the freedwomen, regardless of their location, centered on the es-sential needs of survival: food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their children in the midst of postwar scarcity. Next came the desire to reestablish family ties and kinship networks. Finally, they sought to fi nd sustainable work and to build homes and communities. By the last decades of the century they were to realize, however, that the ongoing clash of interest groups, government policies, and immigration into In-...

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pp. 155-162

In rural places far off the main roads of Oklahoma one can fi nd the remains of the numerous communities that the freedwomen inhab-ited well into the twentieth century. They are mostly overgrown cemeteries and abandoned buildings. The staff of the Oklahoma History Center and the descendants of the freedmen have actively worked to reconstruct the history of African Americans in the state and to educate those who want to hear it. But the stories of the Indian Terri-tory freedwomen have been largely forgotten. At one end of the former ...

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Back Matter

...1. In addition to numerous articles, Littlefi eld’s early books include Africans and Seminoles, The Cherokee Freedmen, Africans and Creeks, and Chickasaw Freed-men. David A. Y. O. Chang, “Where Will the Nation Be at Home? Race, Nation-alism, and Emigration Movements in the Creek Nation,” in Miles and Holland, 3. Gibson, Oklahoma, 4, 64–65; Chavez, “Freedmen Vow to Continue Fighting ...


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pp. 163-178


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pp. 179-190


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pp. 191-200

E-ISBN-13: 9780896728110
E-ISBN-10: 0896728110
Print-ISBN-13: 9780896728103
Print-ISBN-10: 0896728102

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 22
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Plains Histories
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 868219616
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Trail Sisters