Five Civilized Tribes


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The Five Civilized Tribes are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, (Muskogee) Creek, and Seminole tribes. These tribes were all originally from the Southeast Cultural Area and some of the first tribes visited by Europeans. These tribes adopted the European way of living earlier than most other tribes.

The term “Five Civilized Tribes” appears in the reports of the Indian Office as early as 1876, when the agent reported that each tribe had a constitutional government, with legislative, judicial, and executive departments, conducted upon the same plan as our State governments, the entire expenses of which, are paid out of their own funds.” However, at that time there was no court with jurisdiction to try cases where an Indian was one party and a citizen of the United States or a corporation was the other.

These five tribes differed from most others in the fact that their lands were held not on the same basis as reservations, but, by patents or deeds, with certain restrictions as to alienation and reversion, as well as other restrictions regarding timber, mining and grazing within their respective tracts.

Dawes Rolls

In 1893 Congress established a commission to exchange Indian tribal lands in the southeastern United States for new land allotments to individuals in Oklahoma. The Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes was called the Dawes Commission after its chairman, Senator Dawes. More than 250,000 people applied to this commission for enrollment and land. Just over 100,000 were approved.

The Dawes Rolls are very important for Native American Research for anyone who has native American ancestors who were from the five civilized tribes. The Dawes Rolls were and still are used to determine if people were Native American or not.

The Dawes Rolls, also known as the “Final Rolls”, are the lists of individuals who were accepted as eligible for tribal membership in the “Five Civilized Tribes”: Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles. The Rolls contain more than 101,000 names from 1898-1914 (primarily from 1899-1906). They can be searched to discover the enrollee’s name, sex, blood degree, and census card number.

The census card may provide additional genealogical information, and may also contain references to earlier rolls, such as the 1880 Cherokee census. A census card was generally accompanied by an “application jacket”. The jackets then sometimes contain valuable supporting documentation, such as birth and death affidavits, marriage licenses, and correspondence.

Today these five tribes continue to use the Dawes Rolls as the basis for determining tribal membership. They usually require applicants to provide proof of descent from a person who is listed on these rolls.

Indian Removal

The Indian Removal Act was signed May 26, 1830 by President Andrew Jackson. The Act initiated a policy of removal of American Indians tribes living east of the Mississippi River to land west of the river.

All of the Five Civilized Tribes lived in the Southeastern United States before the government forced their relocation under Indian Removal Act to other parts of the country, especially the future state of Oklahoma. This act, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in May, 1830, required that all Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River relocate to lands west of the river.

Over the next several decades the Five Civilized Tribes were relocated from their homes to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during a series of removals, authorized by federal legislation.

The title of the Chickasaw Nation to their lands in Indian Territory was obtained from the Choctaw in accordance with treaties with the United States, while that of the Seminole was obtained from the Creek tribe. The territory assigned to these five tribes within the limits of Indian Territory, in present-day eastern Oklahoma, was approximately 30,431 square miles.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the Five Tribes were divided in politics, with the Choctaw and Chickasaw fighting on the Confederate side, the Creek and Seminole supporting the Union, and the Cherokee fighting a civil war within their own nation between the majority Confederates and the minority pro-Union men.

Though the number of slaveholders was small, members of each tribe held black slaves. There were also free African Americans who lived with them, especially the Seminole. Many of these became known as Black Indians. Following the Civil War, the Federal government’s peace treaties with the tribes required the emancipation of slaves and guarantees of citizenship in each nation. These former slaves became known as tribal Freedmen, such as Cherokee Freedmen. However, determining the status of the freedmen within the tribes became a difficult one, even though, in the treaties of 1866, it was agreed that they should be subject to the same laws as the Indians and be entitled to a portion of the land and rights in differing in the different tribes.

The Chickasaw, for example, refused to automatically make their Freedmen citizens, instead requiring them to go through the same process as anyone else to gain citizenship. These requirements provided that citizens be born of a Chickasaw parent or to petition for citizenship if they were not a known blood Chickasaw. Due to their refusal to automatically make the former slaves citizens of their nation, the U.S. Government penalized the tribe by taking over half of their lands without compensation.

Cherokee Civil War Veterans in 1903

There were other issues within the tribes, such as school privileges, where in some tribes, the Freedmen had separate schools, and were restricted from receiving other privileges.

Though the United States government promised that all of the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes would be free of white settlement, this was not the case as thousands violated the policy.

In May, 1890, the lands of the five tribes were abolished, providing each member with an allotment of acreage and in 1893, the government opened the remaining land to outside settlement.

In 1907, the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory were merged to form the state of Oklahoma. All five of the nations of the Five Civilized Tribes continue to have a major presence there today.