Some Creeks had owned slaves prior to 1865, and by treaty they were required to adopt them into the tribe


Last Updated: 19 years

Pleasant Porter was elected principal chief on September 5, 1899, on a platform of compromise with the federal government. In addition to dealing with tribal dissension over the agreement, Porter also had to try to resolve the controversial question of the rights of the freedmen.

On December 13, 1899, he sent the Dawes Commission a copy of a law that limited citizenship to those who had been adopted prior to November 29, 1883, unless their names had been added to the rolls by “fraud, forgery, or unlawful use of money or influence.”67 The law also authorized a census to be taken from January 15 to March 1, 1900.

He followed up with a letter on December 26 in which he noted that “while there has never been in the Creek Nation a statute law upon this subject [citizenship], there have obtained from time immemorial well established rules and customs by which citizenship was determined.”

He pointed out that the U.S. government had approved and made payments based on tribal rolls ever since 1790 in clear recognition of the tribe’s right to determine citizenship but promised that the Creeks “will not object to citizenship being determined by such Commission as the Government may authorize to do so.”(68) Porter had a strong argument but the Supreme Court had already ruled that the Dawes Commission now possessed the power to determine citizenship.

Some Creeks had owned slaves prior to 1865, and the tribe was required to adopt them as freedmen by the treaty that restored U.S.-Creek relations after the Civil War. Although intermarriage and social acceptance was much more common among the Creeks than other tribes, there was widespread opposition to giving the former slaves citizenship rights and a share of the tribal land. 

The federal government’s insistence that the freedmen be enrolled was a constant source of contention between the tribal officials and the Dawes Commission and among the Creeks themselves. The identity of the slaves was a major point of disagreement. In 1867 J. W. Dunn, the Creek agent at Fort Gibson, prepared a roll of 1,774 blacks he felt were entitled to citizenship.

Tribal officials argued that many of these people had returned to the Creek Nation too late to take advantage of the treaty and others were “state negroes” who came with them to take advantage of economic opportunities. Full-bloods charged that officials of the three “colored towns” were always trying to include the names of these ineligible people on their town rolls. On August 4, 1896, the National Council was asked to establish a Special Census Commission to make a census of the “colored citizens.”(69)

Chief Justice T. J. Adams of the Creek Supreme Court issued a ruling on August 5, 1896, that the National Council could recognize any person entitled to citizenship but had no power to grant citizenship because that would vest a person with property rights at the expense of existing citizens. The ruling would have struck almost three thousand freedmen from the rolls, but they were too numerous and well organized to be denied.

The commissioner of Indian affairs sent the Dawes Commission a copy of the Dunn Roll on May 2, 1899, which it used as the basis for determining eligibility. On November 25, 1900, the “colored members” of the National Council suggested that P. Bruner, G. Jimmerson, and Robert Grayson be appointed as attorneys to represent them before the Dawes Commission.(70)

The Creeks continued to try to negotiate an agreement that would modify the terms of the Curtis Act. On January 30, 1901, Bixby wrote to Dawes, who was sick at home in Massachusetts, that an amendment suggested by Chief Porter to submit the Creek rolls to the tribe for revision would give “tricksters and the Creek Council an opportunity to inaugurate another carnival of corruption.”(71)

An agreement that was ratified by Congress on March 1, 1901, and by the Creek National Council on May 25, 1901, made no provision for review of the rolls but provided that no person could be enrolled after the ratification. Porter then wrote to the members of the National Council, urging them to “co-operate in seeing to it that all Creek citizens who have not enrolled come to Muskogee and enroll.”72 He did not want any citizen “even by reason of his own act, deprived of his proportionate share in the common estate of the Creek people.”(73)

Chief Porter may have been willing to cooperate with the Dawes Commission, but many full-bloods continued to refuse to have anything to do with it. Chitto (Snake) Harjo of Hickory Ground became widely recognized as the leader of the Snakes, the faction opposed to allotment. Armed with a copy of the treaty of 1832, he traveled around the Creek Nation from May to October 1890, speaking at “stomp dances” and other gatherings and encouraging Creeks not to allow themselves to be enrolled. In January 1901 a council was held at Hickory Ground, and the Snakes formed a separate government that was determined to maintain the “old treaties.” Similar groups formed among the other Five Civilized Tribes and the Dawes Commission began to worry that the Snake movement might grow.(74)

Conditions deteriorated when the” Snake Light Horse” started to enforce the laws of the opposition government. Beatings and threats of violence to both Creeks and the many whites living in the Creek Nation resulted. An almost hysterical fear of the Snakes reached near epidemic-proportions in some areas, and the U.S. marshal, Dr. Leo E. Bennett, called on the U.S. Army for help.

Chitto and ninety-six of his followers were arrested on January 27, 1901, on charges of conspiracy and tried in the U.S. court at Muskogee. Judge John R. Thomas accepted a plea bargain that resulted in a two-year suspended sentence to Fort Leavenworth. Bixby wrote to Dawes on January 30, 1901, informing him that “the alleged Indian uprising is about subsided. Marshal Bennett is now in the western part of the Creek Nation and recently captured Chitto Harjo, or Snake, and has him now in custody in Henrietta.”75

In 1905 Chitto Harjo met President Theodore Roosevelt, who explained to him that the old treaties had been changed, but Harjo told a Senate Investigating Committee in 1906 that he only remembered that “we shook hands and that was all.” In a long and rambling plea for honoring old agreements that even the translator had trouble following, Harjo pointed out that “I was here first, and Columbus first discovered me.”(76)

The Snakes continued to oppose allotment by harassing the Dawes Commission’s survey parties and avoiding the enrollment, but the fear of violence lessened. The Snakes resented the mixed-bloods who helped the commission. One Creek full-blood complained to a congressional committee that “they [the commissioners] would send the half breeds around— the half-breed Indians— they would go out and hunt for the names of the full-blood Indians without their consent, and they would take the names down and go present them before the Dawes Commission.”(77)

The Snakes could not halt the Dawes Commission’s work. On May 1, 1901, Chief Porter sent every member of the National Council copies of an order of the U.S. court at Muskogee requiring anyone “who has not presented himself for enrollment” to appear at Muskogee between May 7 and 15, 1901.

On July 22, 1901, Commissioner Needles informed Chief Porter that a field party would be at Eufaula on August 1 to enroll applicants and asked that the town officers be instructed to be present with their rolls.78 On August 1 Porter provided the commission with a list of members of Tulladega Town who had refused to enroll, and parties stayed in the field until October.

Porter sent Bixby a resolution passed by the National Council on December 2, 1901, that requested the Dawes Commission to withhold sending the rolls to the secretary of the interior for approval until the council’s attorneys had the opportunity to review the documents for fraud.79 President Roosevelt used his power over tribal legislation to disapprove the resolution on February 14, 1902.

The commission continued to work on the numerous applications that were pending. In July 1902 it opened an office at Okmulgee. On August 5, 1903, it was directed to determine the status of people whose names appeared on either the 1890 or 1895 rolls but who had not appeared before the commission. An office was opened at Okmulgee from November to December 1903 to search for these “Lost Creeks,” most of whom had not appeared because they had died before the start of enrollment. On June 16, 1904, a party was sent into the field to get information about full-bloods who had still refused to enroll.

On June 13, 1904, the secretary of the interior ordered that the Creek rolls be closed on September 1, 1904. Yet another party was sent out to look for “Lost Creeks” on June 16, 1904, and notices that the rolls were closing were published on June 24, 1904. The rolls were reopened to permit the enrollment of children born between May 25,1901, and March 4,1905. They were reopened a second time from April 26 to July 25, 1906, to allow enrollment of minor children who were living on March 4, 1906.(80)

Having tried for years to get copies of the Creek rolls and laws, the Dawes Commission had some measure of revenge when Commissioner Needles wrote Chief Porter on October 13, 1904, denying his request for copies of the “Dawes Rolls” because they were still incomplete and the commission might be subject to “some embarrassment” if it sent out an incomplete roll.81 Needles assured Porter that he could have “free access to the rolls at all times” but not a copy.

The Creeks tried again with a resolution passed on November 1, 1906, but the Department of the Interior advised Bixby that “no good reason exists why the Principal Chief … should be furnished with a copy of the approved roll” and instructed him to repeat the offer of free access in the commission’s office.(82)

The Dawes rolls were finally closed on March 4, 1907. After more than eleven years of work, the commission enrolled 18,702 Creeks including 6,807 freedmen.83 Each decision had to be sent to the commissioner of Indian affairs and then on to the secretary of the interior for approval, and many applications had to be reconsidered based on changing legal opinions of the attorney general.

Eventually everyone enrolled got either an allotment of land or a cash payment equal in value to the land they would have received if there had been enough to go around. In one of the great ironies of the whole allotment fiasco, many of the full-blood Snakes who refused to select allotments were arbitrarily allotted poor farming land by the Dawes Commission that happened to be on top of the Cushing Oil Pool.

Chief Porter characterized the destruction of the Creek tribal government through allotment as “the fiat of destiny” and lamented the “passing from old time and revered institutions … brought about by the change from communal land holding to individual holding.”84 In an August 24, 1907, letter to Acting Secretary of Interior Woodruff, Porter admitted that his people had fought the changes “in every manner conceivable short of open resistance” and observed that “the destiny of the Creeks is their absorption with the white race as citizens of the United States.”(85)

The “Crazy Snake Movement” of 1900-1901 resulted from a “clash of cultural values over land” that has still not been resolved.86 David Hodge, who struggled to interpret Chitto Harjo’s words to the senators who visited Indian Territory in 1906, pointed out one of the basic causes of the allotment debacle.

He noted that “the system of communication between these full-bloods and whites has led very largely to the present condition of misunderstanding on both sides, for you as utterly fail to understand them as they fail to understand you.”(87)

Everyone involved in this sad story spoke at length, and sometimes even eloquently, but often failed to communicate.

The entire enrollment process was a complicated and often bitter struggle for both recognition and riches. The many parties involved had multiple motives and perhaps hidden agendas behind their public statements. Nothing in the Dawes Commission’s world was ever simple. They saw their task not as judging the merits of claims but measuring those claims against a complex set of eligibility criteria based on confusing and constantly changing legal opinions and court rulings.

For a researcher seeking truth, the voluminous enrollment records are open for inspection. Each case, particularly those for rejected applicants, presents a mystery that almost defies solution. Witnesses often gave vague or even conflicting versions of such basic things as names, ages, locations, relationships, and sequence of events. The enrollment of Creeks presented a particularly difficult challenge because of frequent name changes, inability to speak or read English, and official records that were a shambles. Was anyone telling the truth, or was everyone telling the truth as they perceived or remembered it? Anyone who tries to answer that question today can appreciate the almost impossible mission of the Dawes Commission.

The story of the Dawes Commission’s struggle to identify and enroll the Creeks provides many insights into the workings of a bureaucracy faced with an almost impossible task. It also illustrates a fundamental clash of cultures that was exacerbated by tribal factionalism and basic human resistance to change. Perhaps it is also a warning that even good intentions can have unintended consequences and produce a legacy of distrust and controversy.

(A 4 part article)<1> 2> ><3> <4>


Kent Carter is the regional administrator of the National Archives and Records Administration-Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas. He received his B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Cincinnati and has been with NARA since 1973.


1. There are a number of studies of Indian policy. Perhaps the most readable is William T. Hagan, American Indians (1961). Two excellent works on the post-Civil War reform movement are Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880- 1920 (1984) and Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865-1900 (1976).

2. Prucha, Indian Policy in Crisis, p. 232.

3. See Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (1982), p. 163, and D.S. Otis, The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands (1973), which notes on page 141 that “individual land ownership was supposed to have some magic in it to transform an Indian hunter into a busy farmer.”

4. W. David Baird, “Are The Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma ‘Real’ Indians?” The Western Historical Quarterly (February 1990): 5-18.

5. Section 16 of 27 Stat. L. 645. Although the 1887 law is often referred to as the Dawes Act, it had really nothing to do with the establishment of what became known as the Dawes Commission.

6. Harjo was also known as Eufaula Harjo or Wilson Jones.

7. Testimony of Pleasant Porter in Creek Enrollment Case #2, entry 53A, Records of the Five Civilized Tribes Agency (FCTA), Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75, National Archives- Southwest Region, Fort Worth,TX (hereinafter cited as RG 75, NA-Southwest).

8.Angie Debo, And Still The Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (1940), p. 37.

9. See Angie Debo, The Road to Disappearance (1941), p. 103. A copy of the 1859 roll is in entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA23, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

10. Senate Report 5013, p. 345 (hereinafter cited as SR 5013).

11. Some of the records of these Creek courts are in the custody of the Oklahoma Historical Society and have been reproduced on microfilm there as CRN, rolls 1-20.

12. See entry 54, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

13. Entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA12, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

14. Entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA46, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

15. Act of National Council of October 29, 1890, Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) microfilm CRN, roll 5.

16. Entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA207, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

17. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p. 333.

18. Jeffrey Burton, Indian Territory and the United States, 1866-1906 (1995), p. 7.

19. D. M. Browning to Dawes, Nov. 28,1893, OHS microfilm DC, roll 72.

20. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p. 347.

21. Statement of Eufaula Harjo to Select Committee to Investigate Matters Connected with Affairs in the Indian Territory, SR 5013, 59th Cong., 2d sess., p. 89.

22. Ibid. p. 93.

23. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p. 346. The term “by-blood” refers to any citizen whether full or mixed blood. Former slaves were always admitted as freedmen even if they had “Indian blood” resulting from an interracial marriage. The Creeks refused to confer any citizenship rights on whites who intermarried with Creeks.

24. Entry 54, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest, contains an incomplete version of this census.

25. Entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA12, RG 75, NA-Southwest. There is also a supplemental roll of persons who were omitted.

26. See testimony of Ellis Childers in case 1, entry 60A, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

27. Entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA12 and 7RA45, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

28. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p.358. See entry 115-6, RG 75, NA-Southwest, which includes some of the dockets and record books of the Dawes Commission.

29. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p. 361.

30. 29 Stat. L. 321.

31. Ibid.

32. A. P. McKellop to J.H. Lynch, OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

33. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

34. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

35. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p. 333.

36. Entry 54, FCTA, microfilmed as 7RA69, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

37. See entry 60AA, FCTA for a docket and index of the cases, entry 60A for the case files, and entry 69 for the decisions, RG 75, NA-Southwest. The affidavits and briefs in the case files provide a wealth of information about tribal politics and operations of the various citizenship commissions.

38. Entry 60A, case 1, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

39. Ibid.

40. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

41. Ibid., Oct. 7, 1897.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Debo, The Road to Disappearance, p. 372.

46. Entry 32, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

47. 30 Stat. L. 495.

48. Ibid.

49. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 1.

50. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid. Abe Kernals was appointed to the Committee on June 8, 1899, as a replacement for McNac,and Sue M. Rogers replaced Moore on August 9, 1899.

53. Report of Apr. 15, 1899, to the secretary of the interior, OHS microfilm DC, roll 4.

54. See entry 52, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest. The cards have been microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M1186, Enrollment Cards for the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914. There is an earlier set of Creek cards (entry 124) arranged by town. There are no “application jackets” that match each enrollment card for the “Creeks By-Blood” or “Freedmen” as there are for the other tribes, but there are 1,213 “enrollment cases” that relate primarily to freedmen or to some of the persons who were rejected. Application jackets for persons enrolled as “Newborns” or “Minors” have been microfilmed as M1301, Applications for Enrollment of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898-1914. A database of all the names appearing on the census cards is available at the National Archives-Southwest Region.

55. OHS microfilm DC, roll 66.

56. Entry 37, FCTA, Annual report for 1898, p. 4.

57. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4. The Creek National Council initially refused to pay but eventually reimbursed the members.

58. OHS microfilm DC, roll 4.

59. OHS microfilm DC, roll 11, vol 29, p. 391.

60. OHS microfilm DC, roll 66.

61. Bixby to Hodge, entry 32, FCTA, RG 75, NA-Southwest.

62. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

63. Ibid.

64. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4: Mary Escoe case, Sarah E. Baker case, etc., cases 454, 456, 466, 537, 538, and 461. The Escoe case was the most famous. She and fifty others had been admitted by an act of the National Council on October 26, 1879, but then stricken by the Creek Citizenship Commission in July 1896.

65. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4. This is the Stephens case decided May 15, 1899. See 174 United States Reports, p. 445.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid. The law was disapproved by the President of the United States on April 18, 1900, because the Dawes Commission was already taking a census.

69. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 1. See also Daniel F. Littlefield, Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War, Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, No. 47 0069-9624 (1979) for a detailed study of the freedmen.

70. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

71. OHS microfilm DC, roll 7, vol 20.

72. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

73. Ibid.

74. See Kenneth McIntosh, Chitto Harjo, the Crazy Snakes, and the Birth of Indian Political Activism in the Twentieth Century (1993).

75. OHS microfilm DC, roll 9; US. v. Chitto Harjo, Crazy Snake, U.S. Court at Muskogee, criminal cases 5581-5584, Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21, NA-Southwest Region.

76. SR 5013, p. 1248.

77. Eufaula Harjo, SR 5013 p. 91.

78. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

79. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4, letter number D3557-902.

80. 33 Stat. L. 1048 and act of April 26, 1906, 34 Stat. L. 137.

81. OHS microfilm CRN, roll 4.

82. Department of the Interior to Tams Bixby, Dec. 18, 1906 (ITD 25282-1906), entry 43, FCTA, NA-Southwest Region.

83. Another sixty-two names were eventually added by an act of Congress of August 1, 1914.

84. Porter to W.A. Duncan, Mar. 2, 1907, entry 43, FCTA, NA-Southwest Region.

85. Entry 43, FCTA, NA-Southwest Region.

86. McIntosh, Chitto Harjo, Crazy Snake, p. 40.

87. SR 5013, p. 1253.