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  • "An Equal Interest in the Soil":Creek Small-Scale Farming and the Work of Nationhood, 1866–1889
  • David A. Chang (bio)

One day in 1866 the McIntosh family learned that they were free. Prior to that day Jackson and Hagar McIntosh and their eight children had labored for their owner, Roley McIntosh. He was the micco (generally translated as "king") of the town of Coweta in the Creek Nation in present day Oklahoma. Roley McIntosh, like some of the wealthiest men in the nation, had taken up arms for the Creek faction that had allied itself with the Confederacy in the American Civil War. The nation was split as another faction fought alongside Union forces. When Roley McIntosh's side lost and a treaty of peace with the United States emancipated Creek slaves, he sent word that Jackson and Hagar McIntosh, their children, and his other slaves were freed. The good news did not stop there, however. More than six decades later one of the McIntosh daughters, Nellie, would still recall hearing the momentous news that "we . . . can take up some land for our own selves."

After the war the McIntoshes stayed on the same land they had once farmed for their master. The land they farmed became their own because of the nature of Creek citizenship and land tenure.1 The 1866 treaty of peace between the federal government and the Creek Nation (also known as the Muskogee Nation) declared that freed slaves were full Creek citizens. Moreover, the treaty explicitly stated that black Creek citizens would enjoy "an equal interest in the soil."2 Black people constituted about 13 percent of the nation of 14, 300 people—about 1,780 former slaves and at least 60 people (certainly many more) who were free prior to the war.3 The treaty meant that they could carve farms out of the national lands just as other citizens could. All lands belonged to the nation as a whole, but Creek farmers enjoyed exclusive use (usufruct) rights over the land they tilled and planted. [End Page 98]

This culturally embedded legal and economic structure, combined with lessons drawn from the Creek oral tradition, favored a remarkable result: in the 1870s Creek citizens of different races built an alliance that defended a vision of the Creek Nation as multiethnic and cosmopolitan. Though many had cultural and social distinctions from other Creeks, the freed slaves were, in the eyes of Creek law, "colored Creeks." Black Creeks and Creek conservatives who were not black joined forces to defend their access to the common lands, and that defense was tied to a broad vision of the Creek Nation.4 The alliance between black Creeks and conservative Creeks upheld two fundamental notions: that being Creek meant belonging to a polity, not a race, and that the lands must be defended as national property available to all who were part of the nation.

For this Creek alliance the nation had a dual nature. It was both a sovereign polity and land. To defend one was to defend the other. Furthermore, for this alliance the Creek Nation was composite, made up of different kinds of people with different racial and cultural backgrounds. This sense of nationhood was sanctioned by Creek history as preserved in the oral tradition and built into the structure of Creek government. This Creek sense of the dual nature of nation and the composite nature of their own nation helps us to understand the central place that the defense of land and efforts to regain lands have occupied in the history of indigenous American nations. It also helps to establish what was lost when the federal government forced allotment on Native nations. Once land was divided, less remained to unite the complex polities Americans call "tribes."

An interracial alliance upholding a composite nationhood is hardly what one might expect to find in the Creek Nation in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, it confronted another form of Creek nationalism that has rightly received scholarly attention in recent years. Claudio Saunt has demonstrated how, in the period stretching from the late eighteenth century to the 1810s, Creeks who embraced plantation agriculture and black chattel slavery built a Creek...


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