Betty Robertson - Cherokee Freedwoman

Mrs. Betty Robertson was interviewed in the fall of 1937. She was admitted to the Cherokee Nation through the Dawes Commission on Cherokee Freedman card no. 117. Her father Caleb Vann was African born and one of those who led the Cherokee Slave Revolt of 1842. He was killed when the boat the Lucy Walker exploded killing himself, his master and other fellow slaves. He is one of the few slaves whose name has ever been identified as a participant in the Cherokee Slave Revolt. The many times that Betty Robertson's family attempted to flee from bondage speak to their spirit and determination for freedom, though freedom would not come to the family till the War's end.

I was born close to Webbers Falls, in the Canadian District of the Cherokee Nation, in the same year that my pappy was blowed up and killed in the big boat accident that killed my old Master.

I never did see my daddy excepting when I was a baby and I only know what my mammy told me about him. He come from across the water when he was a little boy, and was grown when old Master Joseph Vann bought him so he never did learn to talk much Cherokee. My mammy was a Cherokee slave, and talked it good. My husband was a Cheroeke born negro, too, and when he got made he forgit all the English he knowed.

Old Master Joe had a mighty big farm and several families of negroes, and he was a powerful rich man. Pappy's name was Kalet Vann, and mammy's name was Sally. My brothers name was Sone and Frank. I had one brother and one sister sold when I was little and I don't remember the names. My other sisters was Polly, Ruth, and Liddle. I had to work in the kitchen when I was a gal, and they was ten or twelve children smaller than me for me to look after, too. Sometime Young Maser Joe and the other boys give me a piece of money and say I worked for it, and I reckon I did for I have to cook five or six times a day. Some of the Master's family was always going down to the river and back, and every time they come in I have to fix something to eat. Old Mistress had a good cooking stove, but most Cherokees had only a big fireplace and pot hooks. We had meat and, bread, rice, potatoes and plenty of fish and chicken. The spring time give us plenty of green corn and beans too. I couldn't buy anything in slavery time, so I jest give the piece of money to the Vann children. I got all the clothes I need from old Mistress, and in winter I had high top shoes with brass caps on the toe. In the summer I wear them on Sunday, too. I wore loom cloth clothes, dyed in copperas what the old negro women and the old Cherokee women made.

The slaves had a pretty easy time I think. Young Master Vann never very hard on us and he never whupped us, and ole Mistress was a widow woman and a good Christian and always kind. I sure did love her. Maybe old Master Joe Vann as harder, I don't know, but that was before my time. Young Master never whip his slaves, but if they don't mind good he sell them off sometimes. He sold one of my brothers, and one sister because they kept running off. They wasn't very big either, but one day two Cherokees rode up and talked a long time, then young Master came to the cabin and said they were sold because mammy couldn't make them mind him. They got on the horses behind the men and went off.

Old Master Joe had a big steam boat he called the Lucy Walker, and he run it up and down the Arkansas and the Mississippi and the Ohio river, old Mistress say. He went clean to Louisville, Kentucky and back. My pappy was akin of a boss of the Negroes that re-run the boat, and they all belong to Old Maser Joe. Some had been in a big run-away and had been brung back, and wasn't so good, so he keep them on the boat all the time mostly. Mistress say old Master and my pappy on the boat somewhere close to Louisville and the boiler bust and tear the boat up. Some Negroes say my pappy kept hollering, "Run it to the bank! Run it to the bank!" but it sunk and him and old Master died.

Old Master Joe was a big man in the Cherokees, I hear, and was good to his Negroes before I was born. My pappy run away one time, four or five years before I was born, mammy tell me, and at that time a whole lot of Cherokee slaves run off at once. They got over in the Creek country and stood off the Cherokee officers that went to git them, but pretty soon they give up and come home. Mammy say they was lots of excitement on old Master's place and all the Negroes might scared, but he didn't sell my pappy off. He jest kept him and he was a good Negro after that. He had to work on the boat, though, and never got to come home but once in a long while.

Young Master Joe let us have singing and be baptized if we want to, but I wasn't baptized till after the War. But we couldn't learn to read or have a book, and the Cherokee folks was afraid to tell us about the letters and Negroes because they have a law you go to jail and a big fine if you show a slave about the letters.

When the War come they have a big battle away west of us, but I never see any battles. Lots of soldiers around all the time though.

One day young Master come to the cabins and say we all free and can' saty there lessn' we want to go on working for him just like we'd been for our feed, an clothes. Mammy got a wagon and we traveled around a few days to go to Fort Gibson. When we git to Fort Gibson they was a lot of Negroes there, and they had a camp meeting and I was baptized. It was in the Grand River close to the ford, and winter time. Snow on the ground and the water was muddy and all full of pieces of ice. The place was all woods, and the Cherokees and the soldiers all come down to see the baptizing.

We settled down a little ways above Fort Gibson. Mammy had the wagon and two oxen and we worked a good size patch there until she died, and then I git married to Cal Robertson to have somebody to take care of me. Cal Robertson was eighty-nine years old when I married him forty years ago, right on this porch. I had on my old clothes for the wedding, and I ain't had any good clothes since I was a little slave girl. Then I had clean warm clothes and I had to keep them clean too!

I got my allotment as a Cherokee Freedman, and so did Cal, but we lived here at this place because we was too old to work the land ourselves. In slavery time the Cherokee Negroes do like anybody else when they is a death---jest listen to a chapter in the Bible and all cry. We had a good song I remember. It was "Don't Call the Roll, Jesus Because I'm Coming Home." The only song I remember from the soldiers was" "Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour Apple Tree," and I remember that because they said he used to be at Fort Gibson one time. I don't know what he done after that.

I been a good Christian ever since I was baptized, but I keep a little charm here on my neck anyways to keep me from having the nose bleed. Its got a buckeye and a lead bullet in it. I had a silver dime on it, too, for along time, but I took it off and got me a box of snuff. I'm glad the War's over and I am free to meet God like anybody else, and my grandchildren can learn to read and write.

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