Sunday, January 1, 2017

Who Were The Men Along the Wall?

(Courtesy, Oklahoma Historical Society)

Many of us have seen the image above, reflecting a group of Chickasaw Freedmen appearing at a hearing in front of officials of the Dawes Commission. The group of people being interviewed are one side of the large desks and commission officials are recording data from the other side of the desks. The applicants are seated in front of the desk and in the background another group of applicants are seated in front of a second desk in front of them. But on the far right, three men, all of African descent are seated. These men are attired in suits, setting them apart from the applicants.

Who were those men? And what was their role at the hearing?

I recently realized that the men were part of a group of Chickasaw Freedmen leaders, and they had been selected at the convention in 1898 to be present when Chickasaw Freedmen appeared in front of the Dawes Commission. And the answer as to why they were there is found among the conference proceedings of the Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen convention held in Pickens county.

The convention was lead by a group of Freedmen leaders, whose name should be remembered for the roles they played in the communities of Chickasaw and Choctaw Freedmen. (Many of these communities are now part of the southern part of Oklahoma, today.) The meeting that unfolded in August 1898, was an impressive one, and the status of Freedmen, both Choctaw and Chickasaw were addressed, though most of the issues evolved around the status of Chickasaw Freedmen, the last of the Five Tribes once-enslaved people who remained in the Territory, without citizenship, rights, and education.

But, it would not be until I examined the proceedings of the 1898 meeting that a possible answer to the question about the men along the wall.

National Archives II Record Group 48
(Stack 150, Row 9, Compartment 15, Shelf 1
Chickasaw Nation , Indian Territory, August 4th and 5th, 1898

It was clear what their roles were at the Dawes hearing. At the 1898 convention it was resolved at that there would be a panel of elected men, "to attend the sittings of the commission to the Five Civilized Tribes while said commission shall be engaged in the enrollment of the Chickasaw Freedmen, and render all Chickasaw Freedmen applying for enrollment, and the attorneys representing them under contracts of the Chickasaw Freedmen's Association, all the assistance in their power to them and that .........(illegible).........said Commission up the roll of the Chickasaw Freedmen to be made by said commission. 

1. Charles Cohee              2. Henry Gaines
3. Mack Stevenson           4. Solomon McGilbry
            5. Nelson Eastman
                Samuel Jones    

Their names appeared clearly and legibly. They were leaders who were elected by their neighbors and constituents to be representatives for them, at the 1898 convention and to appear at the Dawes Commission hearings.

Among those who signed on one of the more significant resolutions were, Charles Cohee, Henry Gaines, Mack Stevenson, Solomon McGilbry, Samuel Jones and Nelson Eastman (name later struck from document).

However, it was also noted that a separate committee of three were also selected to have an active role at the Dawes hearings.

National Archives II Record Group 48
(Stack 150, Row 9, Compartment 15, Shelf 
                                         R E S O L U T I O N

RESOLVED that the chairman of the committee appoint a committee of three persons, whose duty it shall be to arrange terms, and to sercure tents an other necessary camping outfits to be used by the committee of enrollment while attending the sittings of the commission to the Five Civilized Tribes.

        1. Charles Cohee              2. Lee Newsberry
                                        3. Nelson Eastman


H. A. Stephenson (signed)                    Charles Cohee (signed)
Secretary of the Convention                   Chairman of the Convention

It is not clear whether any of the men whose names appear above were part of the team of the three men along the wall or not. And because there are a good number of images of Charles Cohee that have survived time, it is doubtful that he is one of the three men above. Could the three be among the other names appointed by the chairman?

Quite possibly, and it is also documented that occasionally the men did testify on behalf of the Freedmen as well, when extensive interviews were taken.

Among the more involved interviews were those in which there was a question of a blood tie to the tribe that Freedman may have had. Some were truly bi-racial having one Indian parents and one black parent. The mixed status was often treated differently with Freedmen and most, even with an Indian parent, would be placed on the "Freedman" roll, citing a convenient practice of giving status to the applicant- the same status of the mother. And since most mother's of bi-racial Freedmen were of African Ancestry, they were given "non-Indian" (aka black) status regardless.

Being put on rolls "by blood" thus guaranteeing that they would receive larger allotments of land because of a blood tie to Indians. And the irony of allotting less land to Freedmen was somehow deemed acceptable as if the African blood of their former slaves somehow merited their being treated differently, and put them and their descendants into a "lesser" status forever with the tribe.

Beyond a basic sentiment of southern anti-black racism towards the their former slaves, came the demographics. Chickasaw Freedmen, along with those Choctaw Freedmen living in their vicinity, constituted a larger number, and there was a fear of a black "domination" should Freedmen be given rights such as voting rights.

The men along the wall, however, are liklely to have been 3 of several "good men" who were elected at the convention and by the people, to speak for them, when required. Among the representatiaves and active participants in the Freedman Convention of 1898, came numerous "good men". And thankfully, we have several of their names. 

They were Charles Cohee, Lee Newsberry, Nelson Eastman, Joseph Murray, Richmond Prince, William Pickens, Robert Anderson, William Alexander, Newton Burney, Henry Clay, George Stevenson, Ben Williams, William McKinney,  Mack Stevenson, Henry Gaines, Solomon McGilbry, and H. S. Stevenson.

The men against the wall were most likely from among these "good men." The task make me in the future for descendants to come forth with evidence such as family images to identify the three good men along the wall.


  1. I compliment you on your wonderful research skills, and story telling.

  2. Fascinating details of this important commission & people/roles. The history is quite unknown to me.

  3. I received an enrollment and application for our family side of my Grandmother. We are kin to Henry Gaines, part of the Chicksaw Freedmen. My Grandmother was Irma Blackburn and her Archie Williams and his Grandfather was Henry Gaines. I feel so proud that he was part of the participants and attended the Dawes Commission.

  4. I found my Great Grandmother on the Chickasaw Freedmen roll. What should my next step be in claiming this part of my family history? If anyone help me in getting information or steer me in the right direction, I'd be grateful.