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Paula Bowen was shocked when she came across a passage about an 1842 Cherokee slave revolt in Indian Territory—present day Oklahoma—while doing research for her master’s degree at Arizona State University a few years ago. 

The story of over two dozen Black people locking their Cherokee Nation enslavers in their rooms and journeying south toward freedom in Mexico remains an obscure footnote within the history of Black resistance. 

“I said ‘wow, we had a slave revolt in 1842,” Bowen, an Oklahoma history teacher, told The Black Wall Street Times. “It’s opened up all of these other questions I had about our history in Oklahoma. It’s not in the books.”

Since then, she’s embarked on a journey to have the history of one of the largest slave rebellions illuminated on a global stage with help from the National Park Service.

1842 Cherokee Slave Revolt

Unlike tribal nations elsewhere on Turtle Island, the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek) that were forced on a death march to land that would become present-day Oklahoma engaged in the practice of human slavery.

The Oklahoma Historical Society contains a small paragraph describing the slave revolt of 1842, when over two dozens enslaved people of the Cherokee Nation, many from the Joseph Vann Plantation, fled Webbers Falls seeking freedom in Mexico.

cherokee nation slave revolt
Map of the 1842 Cherokee Slave Revolt

While immigrants today make the arduous journey through the Rio Grande river seeking safety and security in the U.S., the brave Black souls of the Cherokee Nation sought freedom on the other side.

On November 15, 1842, enslaved people who worked as farm laborers, maids and servants had enough of their forced servitude. In a largely peaceful act of resistance, they locked their enslavers in their rooms and took guns, ammunitions, food and horses as they made their way south.

“At daybreak the group, which included men, women, and children, headed toward Mexico, where slavery was illegal. In the Creek Nation the Cherokee slaves were joined by Creek slaves, bringing the group total to more than thirty-five. The fugitives fought off and killed a couple of slave hunters in the Choctaw Nation.”

Oklahoma Historical Society: SLAVE REVOLT OF 1842.

Dozens of men within the Cherokee Militia were sent by Capt. John Drew to capture them, an act authorized by the Cherokee National Council. At least five of the rebels were executed, with the rest forced to continue their forced labor.

Reconciliation in the Cherokee Nation

In retaliation for the slave revolt, the Cherokee Nation later ordered all free Black people out of the nation. The Cherokees had the largest number of enslaved people of any tribal nation at roughly 4,600.

It took a U.S. treaty signed with each nation after they partly sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War to end slavery there. Black Freedmen of the Five Tribes continue to fight for equal rights and citizenship. In recent years, the Cherokee Nation has become the only nation to grant full citizenship and benefits to Black Freedmen descendants.

The Cherokee Nation has made efforts reconcile with their sidelined relatives in recent years through museum exhibits and other initiatives, yet the history of the 1842 slave revolt is rarely mentioned, if ever.

A history unburied: Cherokee Slave Revolt to be added to national program

Meanwhile, Paula Bowen is contuinng her efforts to have this history told. She’s working with the National Park Service to have the history of the revolt included. Through legislation passed in 1998, NPS established a program called the National Underground Railroad Network. It memorializes the history of resistance to slavery and oppression.

“I said well this is the Underground Railroad, why isn’t this talked about,” Bowen told The Black Wall Street Times. “Because it broadens the ideology of slavery. It expands the story.”

Moving forward, Bowen is working on completing the requirements to validate her findings in order to have this history included in the larger program.

Bowen recently clapped back at State Supt. Ryan Walters at a forum in Lawton in July after he suggested the Tulsa Race Massacre wasn’t about race. As a woman who created the Black history curriculum in her district, albeit not without pushback, Bowen is unapologetic in her determination for students to learn the full truth.

“Our history is American history. You can’t confine it. You can’t contain it. It is what it is. And it will be taught, whether it’s in a classroom or on Tiktok. The truth can’t be stopped. You can try to contain it by enacting laws, but you can only do so much because the world is open.”

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

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