Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Nominal Slaves" in the Choctaw Nation

Source: Slave Schedule 1860 Choctaw Nation, Kiamichi County
Lands West of Arkansas, 1860 Slave Schedule
Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands, National Archives for the State of Arkansas,  RG 105 Reel 53, Arkansas
Accessed online at Internet Archive

While working on a project studying slave holders in the Choctaw Nation, I noticed that there were a few slaves who were identified in Choctaw country as "nominal" slaves. The term "nominal" slaves suggests that these were persons who were recorded as  "enslaved" but who had certain privileges unavailable to others in the same state, township, or region. Slaves from Indian Territory are recorded at the end of the collection of Arkansas slave schedules that were microfilmed in the 1970s. 

Nominal slaves often had rules that were unique and that applied to them, and their fragile status. One might assume by the term "nominal" that they were enslaved in name only. However, when looking at some of the rules, it is evident that their status was still closely guarded and noted by all parties around them. A good example comes from the Georgia state archives, were some of the laws that affected "nominal slaves" in that state were spelled out. 

"Supreme Court Decision states that a slave can be removed to another state by the executor(s) of the will to be set free providing all estate debts of the late owner have been paid....An Act to prevent free persons of color from being brought into the state. Penalty is to be sold back into slavery. Those aiding free blacks coming into the state will be fined at least $1,000 and face possible imprisonment. Burden of proof rests on the free black." (1)

In the case coming out of Indian Territory, at first I noticed that there were a few isolated slaves, who were said to have been "nominal" slaves. 

In this case, an elderly man said to be 100 years old and blind was recorded as a "nominal" slave. In his case he was most likely a slave only in name, as an elderly man who was vision impaired would have been able to perform little if any work for the Choctaw slave holder. 

I continued to look through the pages reflecting the enslaved, and I was surprised when I found the slaves of Susan Colbert of Kiamichi (often written Kiamitia). There was a fairly large group of slaves and their status was clearly spelled out on the document.

In addition a small notation pertaining to these slaves was recorded on the side margin:

The notation reads:

"Twenty four of these negroes marked Nominal Slaves were sold into slavery for term of twenty five years to avoid being expelled from the Nation, by an act to that effect) and were bought  by James Colbert. Mr. F. R. James thinks the sale was made in 1848."

Scholar Loren Schweninger wrote an interesting article about nominal slaves. His studies indicated that s, “While the precise number of these master-less slaves remains a matter of speculation, contemporaries in some cities believed they represented a sizable population group, at least as large as the legally free Negro population. (2) 

In the case of Choctaws, there was not a large number of free Negroes living in Choctaw communities. The largest group was the the Beams family, and their stories were well documented by Daniel Littlefield. Their status was fragile, since slave catchers continued to haunt them for over thee decades even in Indian Territory.

Now nothing suggests that the nominal slaves listed on the 1860 slave schedule actually had much freedom, but as "nominal" slaves and with the notation being made it is clear that there was some kind of distinction between them and other slaves, even though they were listed as slaves of Susan Colbert. (Her name was on the bottom of the previous page.) On the same document there are tick marks that suggest that they may have been out of the area, because the column used to reflect "fugitives" were also clearly marked on the same slave schedule.

A very interesting listing of a slave came from Blue County in the Choctaw Nation, and it reveals another kind of relationship that existed between some slaves and slave holders. Note the following entry, shown below, where there was a slave of Emily Lucas. The one slave she owned was described as a mulatto male about 26 years old.  There is an asterick ( * ) next to the entry bearing the slot representing the enslaved man.

At the bottom of the page of this slave schedule, is an explanation, and it is a fascinating note about the man written by the census enumerator.

Slave Schedule 1860 Choctaw Nation, Blue County
Lands West of Arkansas, 1860 Slave Schedule

Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands, National Archives for the State of Arkansas, 

RG 105 Reel 53, Arkansas 

Accessed online at Internet Archive

It reads: 

"This slave, I am informed was born free, but gave his half sister (who is a white woman and wife of a Choctaw) a bill of sale for himself for 99 years that he might remain in the Choctaw Nation."

In this case the free born man, wished to remain near his family and therefore allowed his half sister to "own" him, so that he would not be expelled from the community where he had always lived. His desire to be close to family was strong, and it appears that as a free man living and working on his own, he might not have been able to do so. So he is enumerated therefore as a slave to his own sister.
Choctaw leader Israel Folsom's slaves were also enumerated in with an interesting note. Apparently he did not wish to reveal details about his slaves.

Slave Schedule 1860 Choctaw Nation, Blue County
Lands West of Arkansas, 1860 Slave Schedule

Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands, National Archives for the State of Arkansas, 

RG 105 Reel 53, Arkansas 

Accessed online at Internet Archive

The notation about Israel Folsom reads:

"Refused to answer and filed is objections in writing, which are herewith submitted. I have however obtained the accompaniing (sic) description of his slaves from other persons, which I have good reason to believe is in the mean, correct, and I trust will be satisfactory."
                                                                                              E.G. Corder
                                                                                             Asst. U. S.

Israel Folsom

It is not clear why Folsom refused to have the slaves described, or what reasons that he gave.

Were they also nominal slaves?

Was there possibly a relationship that went beyond master-slave with the families reflected? 

Was his gesture to not provide data one of self focus or to be seen as a protective effort? 

There are no clear answers in this case. And, the written objections shared by the enumerators, are most likely lost to time, considering the passage of time, and the time between data collection and the preservation of the records in the late 1970s.

However, slavery among Choctaws is one of the lesser studied subjects in western frontier history. It is also not studied as an aspect of Oklahoma history, of African American history, nor of Indian Territory history. It is also noted that nothing reflecting black chattel slavery appears on any official Choctaw sites, but this is not uncommon to among the five slave-holding tribes and their websites. Slavery is, in fact never mentioned as part of the history of what would become Oklahoma. But it did happen nevertheless, and the occurrence of the institution of slavery is still worthy of study, and hopefully within more years, the works of scholars like Dr. Jessie Shrier (who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Choctaw slaves), will be seen more frequently.

Included among those works yet to be seen will hopefully be slavery in all of its many complexities, including nominal slaves in the Choctaw Nation, and among the other slave holding tribes.

1. (GL 1855 Vol 1 Page 539 Sequential # 537) 1859

2.  Loren Schweninger. Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 34.

3. Littlefield, Daniel "The Beams Family: Free Blacks in Indian Territory", Journal of Negro History January 1946, p 17-35