Sarah Wilson - Cherokee Freedwoman
In contrast to the experiences of Lucinda Vann who was a house slave,
Sarah Wilson speaks of her painful life lacking joys of childhood, in the
Cherokee Nation. She speaks in an articulate manner about the pains of a life
full of toil and lacking in pleasures, and although she was a child and did not
understand much of what she saw, her mother clearly suffered intensely and
resisted losing dignity, choosing to call her child the name she had chosen for
her, and refusing assistance from the Cherokee slave master, once the family was
I was a Cherokee slave and and now I am a Cherokee freedwoman, and besides that
I am a quarter Cherokee my own self. And this is the way it is.
I was born in 1850 along the Arkansas River about half way between Fort Smith
and old Fort Coffee and the Skullyville boat landing on the river. The farm
place was on the north side of the river on the old wagon road what run from
Fort Smith out to Fort Gibson, and that old road was like you couldn't hardly
call a road when I first remember seeing it. The ox teams bog down to they
bellies in some places, and the wagon wheel mighty nigh bust on the big rocks in
I remember seeing soldiers coming along that old road lots of times, and
freighting wagons and wagons what we all know carry mostly whiskey, and that was
breaking the law, too! Them soldiers catch the man with that whiskey they sure
put him up for a long time, less'n he put some silver in they hands. That's what
my Uncle Nick say. That Uncle Nick a mean Negro, and he ought to know about
Like I tell you, I am quarter Cherokee. My mammy was named Adeline and she
belong to old master Ben Johnson. Old Master Ben bring my grandmammy out to that
Sequoyah district way back when they call it Arkansas, mammy tell me, and God
only know who my mammy's pa is, but mine was old Master Ben's boy, Ned Johnson.
Old Master Ben come from Tennessee when he was still a young man, and he bring a
whole passel of slaves, and my mammy say they all was kin to one another, all
the slaves I mean. He was a white man that married a Cherokee woman, and he was
a devil on this earth. I don't want to talk about him none.
White folks was mean to us like the devil, and so I jest let them pass. When I
say my brothers and sisters I mean my half brothers and sisters, you know, but
maybe some of them was my whole kin anyways, I don't know. They was Lottie that
was sold off to a Starr because she wouldn't have a baby, and Ed, Dave, Ben, Jim
My name is Sarah now but it was Annie until I was eight years old. My old
Mistress name was Annie and she name me that and mammy was afraid to change it
until old Mistress died, then she change it. She hate old Mistress and that
Lottie's name was Annie too, but Mammy changed it in her own mind but she was
afraid to say it out loud, a feared she would get a whipping. When sister was
sold off Mammy tel her to call herself Annie when she was leaving but she call
herself Lottie when she git over to the Starrs. And she done it too. I seen her
after that, and she was called Lottie, all right.
The Negroes lived all huddled up in a bunch in little one-room log cabins with
stick and mud chimneys. We lived in one, and it had beds for us children like
shelves in the wall. Mammy used to help us up into them.
Grandmammy was mighty old and Mistress was old too. Grandmammy set on the
Master's porch and minded the baby mostly. I think it was Young Masters's. He
was married to a Cherokee girl They was several of the boys but only one girl,
Nicie. The old Masters's boys were Aaron, John Ned, Cy and Nathan. They lived in
a double log house made out of square hewed logs, and with a double fireplace
out of rock where they warmed theirselves on one side and cooked on the other.
They had a long front porch where they set most of the time in the summer, and
slept on it too.
There was over a hundred acres in the Master's farm, and it was all bottom land
too, and maybe you think he let them slaves off easy! Work from daylight to
dark! They all hated him and the overseer too, and before slavery ended my
grandmammy was dead and old Mistress was dead, and old Master was mighty feeble
and Uncle Nick had run away to the North soldiers and they never got him back.
He run away once before about ten years before I was born, Mammy say, but the
Cherokees went over in the Creek Nation and got him back that time.
The way he made the Negroes work so hard, old Master must have been trying to
get rich. When they wouldn't stand for a whipping he would sell them.
I saw him sell a old woman and her son. Must have been my aunt. She was always
pestering around trying to get something for herself, and one day she was
cleaning the yard he seen her pick up something and put it inside her apron. He
flew at her, and cussed her, and started like he was going to hit her but she
just stood right up to him and never budged, and when he come close she just
screamed out loud and run at him with her finger struck straight and jabbed him
in the belly. He had a big soft belly too, and it hurt him. He seen she wasn't
going to be afraid, and he set out to sell her. He went off on his horse to get
some men to come and bid on her and her boy and all us children was mighty
scared about it.
They would have hangings in Ft. Smith courthouse, and old Master would take a
slave there sometimes to see the hanging and that slave would come back and tell
us all scary stories about the hanging.
One time he whipped a whole bunch of the men on account of a fight in the
quarters, and then he took them all to Fort Smith to see a hanging. He tied them
all in the wagon, and when they had seen the hanging, he asked them if they was
scared of them dead men hanging up there. They all said yes, of course but my
old Uncle Nick was a bad Negro and he said, "No I ain't afeard of them nor
nothing else in this world," and old Master jumped on him while he was tied
an beat him with a rope and then when they got home he tied old Nick to a tree,
and took his shirt off and poured the cat-o-nine tails to him until he fainted
away and fell over like he was dead.
I never forget seeing all that blood all over my uncle, and if I could hate that
old Indian any more I guess I would, but I hated him all I could already I
Old Master wasn't the only hellion neither. Old Mistress just as bad, and she
took most of her wrath out hitting us children all the time. She was afraid of
the grown Negroes. Afraid of what they might do while old Master was away, but
she beat us children all the time.
She would call me, "Come here Annie!" and I wouldn't know what to do.
If I went when she called "Annie" my mammy would beat me for answering
to that name, and if I didn't go, old Mistress would beat me for that. That made
me hate both of them, and I got the devil in me, and I wouldn't come to either
one. My grandmammy minded the Master's yard, and she set on the front porch all
the time, and when I was called I would run to her and she wouldn't let anybody
When I was eight years old, old Mistress died, and Grandmammy told me why old
Mistress picked on me so. She told me about me being half Mister Ned's blood.
Then I knowed why Mister Ned would say, "Let he alone, she got big blood in
her," an then laugh. Young Mister Ned was a devil, too. When his mammy died
he went out and "blanket married". I mean he brung in a half white and
half Indian woman and just lived with her.
The slaves would get rations every Monday morning to do them all week. The
overseer would weigh and measure according to how many in the family, and if you
run out you just starve till you get some more. We all know the overseer steal
some of it for his own self but we can't do anything so we get it from the old
Master some other way.
ONe day I was carrying water from the springa dn Ir un up on Grandmammy and
Uncle Nick skinning a cow. "What you all doing?" I say and they say
keep my moth shut or they kill me. They was stealing from the Master to piece
out down at the quarters with. Old Master had so many cows he never did count
I guess I wasn't any worse than any the rest of the Negroes, but I was bad to
tell little lies. I carry scars on my legs to this day where Old Master whip me
for lying, with a rawhide quirt he'd carry all the time for his horse. When I
lie to him he just jump down off'n his horse and whip me good right there.
In slavery days we all ate sweet potatoes all the time. When they didn't measure
out enough of the tame kind we would go out in the woods and get the wild kind.
They growed along the river sand between where we lived and Wilson' Rock out
west of our place.
Then we had boiled sheep and goat, mostly goat, and milk and wild greens and
corn pone. I think the goat meat was the best, but I ain't had no teeth for
forty years, now, and a chunk of meat hurts my stomach. So I just eats grits
mostly. Besides hoeing in the field, chopping sprouting shearing sheep, carrying
water, cutting firewood, picking cotton, and sewing, I was the one they picked
to work Mistress little garden where she raised things from seed they got in
Fort Smith. Green peas and beans and radishes and things like that. If we raised
a good garden she give me a little of it, and if we had a poor one I got a
little anyhow even when she didn't give it.
For clothes we had homespun cotton all the year round, but in winter we had
sheep skin jacket with the wool left on the inside. Sometimes sheep skin shoes
with the wool on the inside and sometimes real cow leather shoes with wood
peggings for winter, but always barefooted in the summer, all the men and women,
Lord, I never earned a dime of money in slave days for myself but plenty for the
old Master. He would send us out to work the neighbor's field and he got paid
for it, but we never did see the money.
I remember the first money I ever did see. It was a little while after we was
free, and I found a greenback in the road at Fort Gibson and I didn't know what
it was. Mammy said it was money and grabbed for it, but I was still a hell cat
and I run with it. I went to the little sutler store and laid it down and
pointed to a pitcher I been wanting. The man took the money and give me the
pitcher, but I don't know to this day how much money it was and how much was the
pitcher, but I still got that pitcher put away. It's all blue and white stripedy.
Most of the work I done off the plantation was sewing. I learned from my Granny
and I loved to sew. That was about the only thing I was industrious in. When I
was just a little bitsy girl I found a steel needle in the yard that belong to
old Mistress. My mammy took it and I cried. She put it in her dress and started
for the field. I cried so old Mistress found out why and made mammy give me the
needle for my own.
We had some neighbor Indians named Starr, and Mrs. Starr used me sometimes to
sew. She had nine boys and one girl, and she would sew up all they clothes at
once to do for a year. She would cut out the cloth for about a week, and then
send the word around to all the neighbors, and old Mistress would send me
because she couldn't see good to sew. They would have stacks of drawers, shirts,
pants and some dresses all cut out to sew up.
I was the only Negro what would set there and sew in that bunch of women, and
they always talked to me nice and when they eat I get part of it too, out in the
One Negro girl, Eula Davis, had a mistress sent her too, one time, but she
wouldn't sew. She didn't like me because she said I was too white and she played
off to spite the white people. She got sent home, too.
When old Mistress die I done all the sewing for the family almost. I could sew
good enough to go out before I was eight years old, and when I got to be about
ten I was better than any other girl on the place for sewing.
I can stlil quilt without my glasses, and I have sewed all night long many a
time while I was watching Young Master's baby after old Mistress died.
They was over a hundred acres in the plantation, and I don't know how many
slaves, but before the War ended, lots of the men had run away. Uncle Nick went
to the North, and never come home and Granmammy died about that time.
We was way down across the Red river in Texas at that time, close to Shawneetown
of the Choctaw Nation, but just across the river on the other side in Texas
bottoms. Old Master took us there in covered wagons when the Yankee soldiers got
too close by in the first part of the War. He hired the slaves out to Texas
people because he didn't make any crops down there, and we all lived in kind of
camps. That's how some of the men and my uncle Nick got to slip off to the north
Before freedom we didn't have no church, but slipped around to the other cabins
and had a little singing sometimes. Couldn't have anybody show us the letters
either, and you better not let them catch you pick up a book even to look at the
pictures, for it was against a Cherokee law to have a Negro read and write or to
teach a Negro.
Some Negroes believed in buckeyes and charms, but I never did. Old Master had
some good boys, named Aaron, John, Ned, Cy and Nat, and they told me the charms
was no good. Their sisters Nicie told me too, and said when I was sick just come
and tell her.
They didn't tell us anything about Christmas and New Year though, and all we
done was work.
When the War ended we was still in Texas, and when old Master got a letter from
Fort Smith telling him the slaves was free he couldn't read, and Young Miss read
it to him. He went wild and jumped on her and beat the devil out of her. Said
she was lying to him. It near about killed him to let us loose, but he cooled
down after a while and said he would help all get back home if we wanted to
Mammy told him she could bear her own expenses. I remember I didn't know what
"expenses" was, and I thought it was something I was going to have to
help carry all the way back.
It was a long time after he knew we was free before he told us. He tried to keep
us, I reckon, but had to let us go. He died pretty soon after he told us, and
some said his heart just broke and some said some Negroes poisoned him. I didn't
Anyways we had to straggle back the the best way we couldn't and me and mammy
just got along one way and another till we got to a ferry over the Red River and
into Arkansas. Then we got some rides and walked some until we got to Fort
Smith. They was a lot of Negro camps there and we stayed awhile and then started
out to Fort Gibson because we heared they was giving rations out there. Mammy
knew we was Cherokee anyway, I guess.
That trip was hell on earth. Nobody let us ride and it took us nearly two weeks
to walk all that ways, and we nearly starved all the time. We was sking and
bones and feet all bloody when we got to the Fort.
We come here to Four Mile Branch to where the Negroes was all setting down, and
pretty soon Mammy died.
I married Oliver Wilson on January second, 1878. He used to belong to Mr.
DeWwwitt Wilson of Tahlequah, and I think the old people used to live down at
Wilson Rock because my husband used to know all about that place and the place
where I was borned. Old Mister DeWitt Wilson give me a pear tree the next year
after I was married, and it is still out in my yard and bears every year.
I was married in a white and black checkedy calico apron that I washed for Mr.
Tim Walker's mother Lizzie all day for, over close to Ft. Gibson, and I was a
sure a happy woman when I married that day. Him and me both got our land on our
Cherokee freedman blood and I have lived to bury my husband and see two great
grandchildren so far.
I bless God about Abraham Lincoln. I remember my mammy sold pictures of him in
Ft. Smith for a Jew. If he give me my freedom I know he in Heaven now.
I heard a lot about Jefferson Davis in my life. During the War we hear the
Negroes singing the soldier song about hang Jeff Davis to a apple tree, and old
Master tell about the time we know Jeff Davis. Old Master say Jeff Davis was
just a dragoon soldier out of Ft. Gibson when he bring his family out here from
Tennessee, and while they was on the road from Fort Smith to where they settled,
young Jeff Davis and some more dragoon soldiers ride up and talked to him a long
time. He say my grandmammy had a bundle on her head, and Jeff Davis say,
"Where are you going Aunty?" and she was tired and mad and she said, I
don't know, to Hell I reckon," and all the white soldiers laughed at her
and made her that much madder.
I joined the Four Mile Branch church in 1879 and Sam Solomon was a Creek Negro
and the first preacher I ever heard preach. Everybody ought to be in the church
and ready for that better home on the other side.
All the old slaves I know are dead excepting two, and I will be going pretty
soon I reckon, but I'm glad I lived to see the day the Negroes get the right
treatment if they work good and behave themselves right. They don't have to have
no pass to walk abroad no more, and they can all read and write now, but its a
tarnation shame some of them go and read the wrong kind of things anyways.