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The Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation (1842)

Map of the 1842 Cherokee Slave Revolt
Image Ownership: Public domain

The Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation occurred in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) when a group of 25 black slaves, mostly from the Joseph Vann plantation, attempted to escape to Mexico where slavery was abolished. The revolt began on November 15, 1842 when the Vann plantation fugitives gathered with slaves from other plantations near Webbers Falls in the Cherokee Nation.

The fugitives burglarized a store, taking horses, mules, several rifles, ammunition, and supplies for their escape to Mexico.  Once Cherokee officials discovered the escape, they sent a search party to bring them back. As the fugitives made their way southwest from the Cherokee Nation, they were joined by ten escaped slaves from plantations in the Creek Nation.  The Creeks joined the Cherokees in pursuit of the fugitives, confronting them near the Canadian River.  A battle ensued with two fugitives killed and twelve captured.  The remaining 21 escaped and continued to head for Mexico while their Cherokee and Creek pursuers return to their nations for reinforcements.

Fifteen miles west of the Canadian River, the fugitives met James Edwards, a white man, and Billy Wilson, a Delaware Indian. Edwards and Wilson, known fugitive slave hunters, had in their custody eight slaves, one man, two women, and five children who had previously escaped from the Choctaw Nation and were headed west to join the Plains Indians before being captured.  The Cherokee and Creek fugitives killed Edwards and Wilson, added the Choctaw fugitives to their group, and continued their journey to Mexico.

Noting the fact that fugitives from three of the five major nations in Indian Territory were fleeing the area and fearing a general escape by other black slaves in the Territory, the National Council of the Cherokees on November 17, 1842, authorized the Cherokee Lighthorse Militia to find and return the escapees and appointed John Drew as its Captain.  On November 21, 1842, Captain Drew left Webber Falls with 87 well-armed men in his command to pursue the 29 fugitives.  On November 26, they caught up with the fugitives near the Red River after they had become confused and disoriented on the high plains, disagreeing on whether to go south or west to Mexico.

Drew and his men captured the now 31 fugitives (two others joined the band as they traveled west), and brought all of them back to Webber Falls by December 7. After an investigation, the Cherokee Nation Council ordered five fugitive slaves to be held at Fort Gibson pending trial for the murders of Wilson and Edwards. After the trial they were executed.  The Council ordered the remaining fugitives to be returned to their Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw owners.  The Cherokee slave revolt was the largest slave rebellion in the Indian Territory and the only one that involved fugitives from different Indian nations.

“Cherokee Slave Revolt,” Oklahoma Historical Society,; “Cherokee Slave Revolt; Lest We Forget,; Daniel F. Littlefield and Lonnie E. Underhill, "Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation, 1842," American Indian Quarterly 3:2 (1977): Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998).


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