"No Right of Citizenship": The 1863 Emancipation Acts of the Loyal Cherokee Council

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Melinda Miller, U.S. Naval Academy
Rachel Smith Purvis, Yale University
Following the 1862 capture of Principal Chief John Ross by Union troops, Confederate General Stand Watie assumed control of the Cherokee Nation’s government. In February of 1863, Ross loyalists met at Cowskin Prairie to renounce the Cherokee treaty with the Confederacy and address the issue of slavery. They first called for compensated emancipation—something Abraham Lincoln had initially offered to border-states. However, the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves of rebellious master’s “forever free” and changed the parameters of emancipation for slaveholding unionists. Cherokee leaders decided to enact universal emancipation without compensation for the slaveholders and denied citizenship to the newly freed slaves. Reminiscent of the problems freedom unleashed in the United States, emancipation opened a Pandora’s box of problems for the Cherokee Nation. One hundred and fifty years later, the citizenship of the freedmen remains a divisive and controversial issue for Cherokee society and ultimately required federal intervention in 1866 and then again in 2012.

This paper will explore the events leading to the loyal council meeting at Cowskin Prairie in 1863 and the two emancipation acts passed by this council. Although most historians acknowledge the emancipation efforts of the Cherokee Nation, they rarely discuss the acts in detail. To better understand the process of emancipation in the Cherokee Nation, this paper will unpack the two acts of the loyal council in order to determine what these acts were intended to achieve and what impact they had. A comparative look at emancipation in the Cherokee Nation and the United States offers a new story of emancipation to the historical narrative. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of the legacy of the emancipation acts in the Cherokee Nation after the Civil War as well as the current controversy concerning the Cherokee Freedmen citizenship still debated in U. S. courts.

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