The Freedmen: Cow Tom of the Creek Nation

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A significant number of Afro-Americans escaped or fled from slavery and eventually settled in the West, where they were adopted by Indian tribes and accepted into the tribal structure as equals. Many even assumed roles of leadership. Cow Tom is one such individual. Creek Nation history cannot be written without the name of Cow Tom.

 

To do so is to negate the presence of the very man upon whom the leaders of the Muskogee Nation depended. His name will be omitted in many circles because of his African ancestry. However, his presence in the nation was there, and for those seeking the entire side of Muskogee Creek history, Cow Tom’s name must be there. To overlook his name, will be a subscription to the prevailing Afri-phobia that dominates the nation that wrote out the Freedmen in 1979, in an effort to follow Jim Crow sentiments of 100 years ago.

Cow Tom—like his couterparts, Harry Island and Sugar George, epitomized the energy, spirit and intelligence of the African leaders of the Muskogee Nation. Born approximately in 1810, Tom was a slave to the Muskogee leader Yargee of the Upper Creeks, in Alabama. As a young man, Tom was known to tend to the cattle of Chief Yargee, thus the name Cow Tom, was applied to him. 

In the 1830’s when the removal of the nations to the west occurred, Tom along with his family made the sojurn westward with Yargee. His family survived the relocation. He became close to Yargee, because unlike the chief, Tom was fluent in several languages, including the white man’s English as well as his native Muskogee. Before removal, Yargee, the chief, earned over $300 by leasing his slave Tom to the US Army that desperately needed interpreters. Tom was assigned to a white officer, and then later re-assigned to General Jessup, who was the officer entire of the military campaign in Florida. 

There were other black interpreters, but Cow Tom was described in the book by John H. Major as the Negro Creek upon whom General Jessup trusted the most. (1) It is stated that the African Creek -the Negro Indians were the basis of all official action, because “they were as important in any negotiation as the most exalted person present.” (2)

Tom was insightful, and he realized that it would be to his advantage and the advantage of all of the other blacks who lived among the Creeks to relocate from their southern white slave masters, and thus Tom made sure that it was clear to the military that the slaves were to move westward with the Creeks. Just as Abraham had done so for the Africans living among the Red Stick warriors who later became the Seminoles, Tom insured the safety of several hundred Africans who moved with the Creeks during the removal. 

After arrival in Indian Territory, Chief Yargee depended upon Cow Tom even farther. Although a cattle man in his youth, his job was that of a negotiator and interpreter for the chief. As the chief knew no English and had no interest in the language, the role of Cow Tom was critical, and made him even more valuable to the Chief. 

The military writer Ethan Allen Hitchcock kept a diary in 1842, and wrote about his experiences in Indian Territory. He spoke of Cow Tom often in the diary, noting how the Negro always spoke for the chief who knew no English. 

Tom eventually earned money, and was able to purchase his own freedom from the chief and that of his own family. As a free man, he thus began to receive payment for his services as an interpreter, earning more money that the highest paid blacksmith. He acquired land, and livestock of his own. 

Chief Yargee was part of the Upper Creek clan, who had little interest in mixing with whites. They were often in conflict with the Lower Creeks—–mixed blood Creeks who had intermarried with whites. The Lower Creeks had early on embraced the sentiments of their southern white neighbors before relocation. It would later be the Lower Creeks who would seek to expel the blacks from the nation, and who would immediately sign a treaty with the Confederacy to preserve their interest in black chattel slavery. 

The Lower Creeks, would constantly battle the presence of blacks in the nation, till the late 20th century, when they would successfully remove blacks from the nation by re-writing the constitution, and removing them from the books, in 1979. ( This only 10years after the turbulent Civil Rights movement that would also be felt in Oklahoma.) 

The Upper Creeks were the people around whom Cow Tom would live and thrive. The Upper Creeks were the more traditional people, who shunned contact with white settlers, and the Lower Creeks needed few black interpreters, as their English, was stronger, and their sentiments more aligned with white southerners.

At the time of the Civil War, many persons fled to Kansas, but Cow Tom managed to remain in the Territory, living almost in isolation from conflict. However, after the Battle of Honey Springs, many of the Confederate Lower Creeks settled in the area, bringing hostility with them. Cow Tom and his family moved to Ft. Gibson with other refugees. It was at Ft. Gibson, that Cow Tom became the Chief within the Muskogee Nation. Being among one of the few persons who spoke Muskogee fluently as well as English, all depended upon Cow Tom, the military officers at Ft. Gibson needed hiim to communicated with the refugees. The refugees needed him to talk to the white soldiers. He was not appointed chief, he assumed the role, and the role suited him well. No other tribal chiefs were present, and out of necessity, he assumed the role. 

In Kansas, the refugees there, also had need of an interpreter and a similar situation arose for Cow Tom’s close friend Harry Island to emerge also as an interpreter. The two of them even after the war ended were the two most critical interpreters upon whom the nation depended. Before the war, there was a distinction between the two people Creek and African, master and slave. After the war, among the Upper Creeks, they became one nation—the indigenous Creek having to rely now upon the Union soldier, who spoke only English. 

The former slave, having to live and find a new life among the strangers from the military or among those whom they knew from the Creek Nation. They became one people having been forced off their land making a new life in a War torn world. The soldiers had a need to conduct business in the camp in an orderly way, giving instructions to those who spoke no English——thus Cow Tom’s role was vital to all.

After the war, when the nation reassembled, Chief Sands appointed Cow Tom as an official chief. Harry Island was nearby working now as the official interpreter for the US Army. When leaders of the nation were sent to Ft. Smith to negotiate the official treaties of peace the Creek Nation was the only nation of 4 nations to bring blacks in an official role with them. 

Cow Tom was to have enemies among him however, since the Confederate Creeks had returned, under the direction of Sam Checote, Cow Tom, Harry Island and others would have to be abreast of all goings on, as these mixed blood Creeks were determined to remove all traces of black people from their nation. 

Their belief was in a racial superiority, and their influence was strong. Cow Tom, along with Ketch Barnett, and Harry Island had to make a trip to Washington, unknown to their Creek brethren to insure that their people would be treated fairly and included in benefits extended to the citizens of the Nation. A census had already been taken in the nation that excluded the Freedmen, so the three acted quickly and wisely and made their appeal in Washington, to insure benefits and inclusion of rights for the Freedmen. These rights would hold, until the late 1970’s when the nation would finally establish a modern apartheid rule eliminating people who had been a part of their nation for more than 180 years.

Cow Tom, Ketch Barnett and Harry Island were followed to Washington by a faction of Lower Creeks who would argue against integration of the blacks into the nation of their birth. The sentiment and fear was that the blacks would dilute the funds being directed to their nation. However, the Creek Freedmen received their citizenship, their land allotments and their status as citizens.

Cow Tom retired eventually to farm life and to his family life, and to his cattle business. He became the patriarch and the ancestor of the prosperous Simmons Oil Family of Oklahoma. The Oil magnate Jake Simmons is the grandson of Cow Tom. The legacy of this powerful African Creek leader, carried on through the tenacity, intelligence and insightfulness of his descendants.

The fastidiousness that many black Oklahomans have developed have emerged from the spirit of Cow Tom that inspired many African Creek, African Cherokee, African Seminole, African Choctaw and African Choctaws to succeed. It is to Cow Tom, Sugar George, Harry Island, and many many others, who created powerful legacies of human success, human dignity, and human pride. 

The citizenry in the Indian Territory of the Oklahoma Black Indians thrived due to the successes of Cow Tom, and much sel-esteem was instilled into Black Indian culture. Many have this sprit today, though the name Cow Tom has slipped away from household use.

Cow Tom died in 1874. He and his wife Amy are buried in the Cain Creek cemetery.