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Race, Land, and Migration after the Civil War

Kendra Taira Field

When Thomas Jefferson Brown finally decided to make his home in Indian Territory in 1870, he had been there many times before. For months he had been going in on day trips from Arkansas, his grandson mused more than a century later, learning the Muskogean languages and becoming familiar with the land, people, and opportunities for economic gain. In spite of national boundaries, promises of federal “protection,” and claims to Indian tribal sovereignty, the borders between the nineteenth-century United States and Indian Territory grew increasingly porous, especially following the Civil War. American settlers in and around the Territory were scrambling for more and more land, and soon economic and familial relationships across these boundaries began to flourish. During the late nineteenth century, settlement by “non-natives” was perceived as the greatest threat to sovereignty in the Territory.

While most early American settlers in post–Civil War Indian Territory were identified in government records as white, some were recorded as black or “mulatto,” the latter a category still prominent on the federal censuses of this period. One such settler, Thomas Jefferson Brown, was born in 1850s Arkansas to an African-American man and an Irish woman. In the course of the late nineteenth century, Brown married twice to African-American descendants of the Creek and Seminole nations. One hundred and sixty acres of land was allotted to each of his eight children due to their mothers’ presence on the U.S. federal Dawes rolls specifying tribal membership and land allotments for Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole citizens and freedpeople. This “white-looking” father secured more than a thousand acres of land, a school, church, and post office—a black and Creek settlement in Indian Territory, known as Brownsville. In so doing, he followed in the footsteps of African-American men who for centuries made their livelihood in Indian country, often by marrying and linking their fate to Indian and black Indian women, communities, and land. In this way, a degree of freedom could be achieved by distancing associations to southern slavery, by illustrating one’s proximity to Indian-ness, or by legitimizing one’s relationship to American national expansion and land.

While Brownsville is remembered by descendants today as a black settlement, perceptions of Brown when he first arrived in Indian Territory, in the 1870s, were less about his racial identification than they were about his national (or nonnational) identification; indeed, Brown was initially categorized in Creek national records as a “non-native” or an “intruder.” Brown’s experiences in Indian Territory and Oklahoma reveal that at the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was undergoing a seismic shift of self-definition from “nation” to “race,” and from Indian and American national projects to black and white national projects. Native American and black Indian women played critical roles in this transformation.

Brown’s migration to Indian Territory after the Civil War embodied an attempt to escape racism and claim freedom and American citizenship through the acquisition of land, and through relationships with Indians, especially Indian women, as a means to acquire that land. In this context, migration involved some African Americans distancing themselves from blackness and connecting themselves instead to the project of American national expansion.

From Growing Up with the Country by Kendra Taira Field. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Kendra Taira Field is associate professor of history at Tufts University.

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