Gary Zellar was born in Denver, Colorado, and was raised in Indiana. He spent quite a bit of time tramping in the woods of East Texas as a boy. He received both his BA and MA in history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He was fortunate in being able to do his doctoral work in the race and ethnicity of the American West under Elliott West at the University of Arkansas, and was doubly fortunate to work closely with Daniel F. Littlefield Jr., one of the pioneers in the study of African-Indian relations at the Native American Press Archives at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock,. His dissertation, “‘If I Ain’t One, You Won’t Find Another One Here:’ Race, Identity, Citizenship and Land: The African Creek Experience in the Indian Territory, 1830-1910,” won both the Oklahoma Historical Society’s 2004 award for the best dissertation and the Phi Alpha Theta /Westerners International award for the best dissertation in history of the American West for 2004. The University of Oklahoma Press will publish a book based on the dissertation, Estelvste:African Creeks and the Creek Nation in 2006. In addition, Prof. Zellar has published several articles and given numerous presentations dealing with the history of the estelvste. He is currently teaching adjunct history for Montgomery College and Angelina College in Texas and working on a manuscript dealing with the Civil War in the Indian Territory and joyfully engaged in raising his two children.

Europe Speaking to America through Africa: The African Creek Role in Introducing Christianity into the Creek Nation

In the late 1840s an Arkansas minister visiting the Indian Territory Presbyterian mission at Coweta in the Creek country found himself officiating at the funeral services for a Creek devotee. As the Rev. Green conducted the service, he was struck by the fact that his words had to be translated to the Indian congregation through an African Creek interpreter named Robert Johnson. He marveled at the idea that “Europe should be speaking to America through Africa.” What the Reverend did not know was that until very recently the members of the congregation at Coweta were principally African Creeks and that African Creeks had been instrumental in forming the first churches in the Creek Nation as well as providing the first preachers. In fact, the idea that he was speaking before a congregation that was primarily Creek Indians up until that time was unusual. The situation that Rev. Green encountered in the Creek Nation evolved can tell us much about the unique nature of race relations and the evolution of slavery in the Indian Nation during the early years of the nineteenth century while the Creeks still occupied their lands in Georgian and Alabama and after their removal to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. The African Creeks played a key role in bringing Euro-American cultural values into the Indian nation, particularly Christianity. Through doing so, they facilitated the absorption of other Euro-American ideas as well, including white racial attitudes and ideas regarding commercial agriculture and the use of slave labor that had enormous consequences for African Creek status and identity in the Indian nation.1

People of African descent had lived among the Indian peoples of the Southeast since Spanish explorers/conquistadors made contact with the Mississippian chiefdoms in the early sixteenth century. Several black slaves escaped de Soto’s expedition in 1540 and found refuge among the Indians. Extended contact between Africans and Creeks did not begin however, until after English settlers began to bring black slaves into South Carolina during the later part of the seventeenth century and after the Georgia colony adopted slavery in 1750. While contact between Africans and Creeks during the first half of the eighteenth century increased, the number of runaway slaves seeking refuge in the Creek country remained small. Spanish Florida offered a more secure haven and during this period and the Creeks generally cooperated with British colonial officials in returning the fugitive slaves if it suited their purposes. After Florida was transferred to British control under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and the Spanish protection for runaways was cut off, the Indian lands west of the Proclamation line became a more alluring destination for fugitive slaves. During the American Revolution the number of slaves fleeing Loyalist and Patriot plantations in South Carolina and Georgia for safety in the Creek country increased. Also, the British offered captured slaves from Patriot Americans as “King’s Gifts” to Creeks in reward for their cooperation with the British war effort.2

The exact status and identity of the Africans in the Creek country during this early period varied considerably. One thing is clear: their condition bore little resemblance to that of black slaves on colonial plantations. Some evidently had status as members of the tribe through intermarriage or adoption. Some were held as “slaves” in a sense that offered considerable latitude in living and work arrangements. They were not bound to a plantation work regimen; rather, they worked as domestic servants, worked Creek communal agricultural lands, or looked after their Indian “master’s” cattle, horses, or pigs and rendered their master his due at harvest time. The largest group of African Creeks were those held as slaves by the descendants of the English/Scottish traders who had come into the Creek country in the years before the American Revolution. In some cases, the work and living conditions for the African Creek slaves held by these Creek families approximated conditions found on colonial plantations. These development-minded families were adopting a type of frontier plantation commercial agriculture, securing titles to slave property and embracing a European patrilineal inheritance system. The native Creek influence continued to be strong in many of these crosscultural families, however, and most of the “slaves” were raised on a basis of near equality within extended families that included African, Indian and Euro-American elements.3 Thomas S. Woodward, a crossed cultural slave holder, trader, and long-time resident on the Creek country, described the slavery system that developed among the Creeks:

Indian Negroes generally have a double advantage . . . over those raised among the whites. They are raised to man or womanhood with their owners; and in many instances they are better raised [than those among the whites] always on an equality. They [The African Creeks] speak English as well as the Indian language. Nearly all of them, at some time or the other, are used as interpreters, which affords them an opportunity to gather information that many of their owners never have.4

The African peoples who came into the Creek country--whether as free blacks, runaways, or slaves--brought with them skills that made them valued members of the Creek community. New agricultural methods, blacksmithing, carpentry, gun and trap repair were all skills that lessened dependence on Euro-American trade goods. Perhaps the most important skill that the Africans brought was cultural: the ability to speak and understand English, as well as comprehend the nuances of Euro-American cultural attitudes. As the contact with white settlers increased, so did the African Creek role as cultural brokers in the cultural equation that emerged in the Southern borderlands during this period.5

A rare firsthand narrative of a runaway slave that took refuge in the Creek country in the years before the American Revolution is contained in An Account of the Life of Mr. David George. Interestingly, George’s narrative also describes his work in the Indian deerskin trade and the key role he played in founding the first African American Baptist church in North America at Silver Bluff, South Carolina. George had fled a cruel master in Virginia in the early 1760s and was captured by a Creek chief known as the Blue Salt King of Cusseta after George ducked into the Creek country to avoid capture. George worked for the Creek chief for about five months and described his experience as a Creek slave saying, “I made fences, dug the ground, planted corn, and worked hard, but the people were kind to me.” The chief then received word from George’s Virginia master that there was a reward for George’s return. After George caught wind that Blue Salt had accepted some “rum, linen, and a gun” for his return, he fled further into the interior and lived among the Natchez for several years. While living there under the Natchez Chief Jack, George was hired to work in the deer-skin trade by one of George Galphin’s subordinates. Galphin was one of the principal traders doing business with the Creeks before the American Revolution. After about five years of working in the interior and making many five hundred mile journeys to Galphin’s Silver Bluff settlement, George asked Galphin to allow him to work at Silver Bluff. Galphin agreed, and it was there that George was converted, and together with several other Galphin slaves, among them George Liele, Jesse Peter (Galphin) and Henry Francis (who was said to be part Indian and African), organized the Silver Bluff Baptist Church, housed in Galphin’s mill house. While there is no record that the Silver Bluff Church organized missionary activities into the Creek country, the Silver Bluff settlement was a major entrepot for trade into the interior, and the Galphins’ slaves were intimately involved in both the Indian trade and in organizing the Silver Bluff Church. The coming of the American Revolution disrupted the Galphins’ trading activities and the activities of the Silver Bluff Church, scattering the church’s adherents. Other African American slaves were funneled into the interior by the British as “gifts” to the Creeks for cooperating with the British war effort, and it is probable that some of the so-called “King’s gifts” were converted Baptists who came forward when American missionary efforts began in the Creek country in the early nineteenth century.6

In the years after the American Revolution, American settlers poured into the Southern borderlands pressuring the Creeks and other Indian peoples for land. During this period the deerskin trade on which the Creeks had become dependent for income to buy trade goods and other items from Euro-American traders was collapsing due to the declining deer population. Consequently, some Creeks, especially the descendants of Indian traders and Creek women, began to turn increasingly toward commercial agriculture to sustain the lifestyle they had become accustomed to. This trend coincided with the plans of the United States government to “civilize” the Creeks and convert them into yeomen farmers who would then voluntarily sell their excess lands to American settlers. Accordingly, President Washington appointed Benjamin Hawkins United States Indian Agent to the Creeks and Superintendent for the tribes south of the Ohio River in 1796 to put this plan into effect. Hawkins first established the Creek Agency at the Creek town Coweta Tallahassee on the Chattahoochee River on the eastern edge of the Creek country and took up his work with missionary fervor. Hawkins established a model farm and a blacksmith’s shop at the agency and attempted to instruct the Creeks in civilizing benefits of “regular husbandry,” the mechanic arts, as well as spinning and weaving. Hawkins wanted the Creeks to abandon their communal fields and attempted to inculcate them with the idea of private land holdings. Of particular concern to the agent was the Creek’s failure to “properly manage their slave property.” He later moved his headquarters farther east to a location on the Flint River where he established a much larger plantation operation that included saw and grist mills, a tan yard, a hatters’ shop, a boot and shoemaker, a tin man and cooper, and a cabinetmaker and wheelwright.7

As part of the civilization plan, Hawkins accepted the application of two Moravian missionaries, Burkhard Peterson and Johann Christian Karsten to come into the Creek country late in 1807. Hawkins himself was not a religious man. Peterson generously described him as “a skeptic,” and he doubted the effectiveness of missionary activity in inducing the Creeks to adopt the yeoman farmer lifestyle. Peterson and Karsten were skilled artisans, however, and Hawkins allowed them to come into the Creek country as “mechanics,” not as missionaries. Hawkins also agreed that the two could proselytize in their spare time, as long as it did not incite the Creeks or interfere with carrying out the civilization program. Peterson and Karsten opened a tinsmithing shop at the agency plantation and with the help of two Hawkins slaves built a cabin nestled in the row of slave cabins at the agency. While Creeks and African Creek slaves showed some interest in tinsmithing and metal working, Peterson and Karsten’s religious missionary activities got off to a slow start. Almost a year passed before anyone came forward to hear about Christianity.8

The first people who showed an interest in the Moravians’ proselytizing were African Creeks. Peterson said that one of the Negroes “who had been loitering about for some time asked us to read from the Bible. He asked to hear the story of creation.” While the missionaries’ first encounter with a potential convert ended with the man falling asleep during the reading, he did return later with another African Creek friend. After this second encounter, the only visitors the missionaries had for some time were groups of Indians and blacks dropping by during the Christmas season to enquire whether they served liquor during the holidays.9

Peterson and Karsten had little luck with Creek Indians. The missionaries pronounced that their encounters with development-minded Creeks like William McIntosh, Peter McQueen, Alexander Colonels, Timothy Barnard and others were completely unsatisfactory from a spiritual viewpoint. They appeared to be more interested in commerce than in spiritual matters and when pressed about their understanding of religious questions, their typical response was, “Yes, I know.” Colonels elaborated on the Creek attitude:

You white people have the Old Book from God. We Indians do not have it and are unable to read it. But I have heard much of it from our Old Chiefs, the same Word of God of which you spoke here. The Indians know it without a book; they dream much of God, therefore they know it.

Among other, less-acculturated Creeks, the missionaries ran into the same indifference to Christian doctrine, which was compounded by the idea that there was no Creek analogous concept for the doctrine of “original sin” that the missionaries found central to conveying an understanding of Christianity. An earlier encounter between the English traveler and chronicler John Pope and town chief Little King of Broken Arrow illustrates the Creek distance from even the idea of a being known as “the devil.” When Pope asked Little King about the existence of “the devil,” Little King replied to Pope “with emotions of contempt. . . There is no devil. God Almighty is too much a gentleman to keep bad servants about him.’”10

In spring 1811 the missionaries finally made a breakthrough. A black man named Phil, one of Benjamin Hawkins’ slaves, came to them and implored them to delay the services until he returned from the fields. Phil came to the service, and the next week fourteen other African Creeks and Hawkins blacks attended. On Easter Sunday 1811 twelve African Creeks listened to the Resurrection story and Peterson said that one elderly black woman was moved to tears while others could be overheard murmuring among themselves, “that is the right doctrine, it is the true word of God.” Peterson and Karsten learned that Phil could read and write and had that he had been baptized twice, first by the Baptists and later by the Methodists before Hawkins brought him to the Creek country. Another Moravian minister warned them that Phil had preached among the African Creeks several years before their arrival and had been forbidden to preach by Hawkins, because he had caused such an uproar among the slaves. One of the Creek slave owners had complained to Hawkins that Phil’s fiery apocalyptic preaching had made his slaves “sullen and crazy.”11

Attendance at the missionaries’ meetings increased during the summer of 1811, but several incidents portended what the final outcome of their efforts would be. In late June a group of intoxicated Indians with bodies painted in ritual black and red surrounded the slave cabins at the agency and began to shriek wildly. They then attacked Hawkins’ house, and Hawkins responded in kind and seized one of the Creeks. The Indian told him that the attack was in revenge for the executions that Hawkins had ordered the Creeks to carry out against their tribesmen who had been accused of murdering white settlers intruding on their lands. The incident was indicative of the friction that was developing within the tribe regarding how to handle the increasing white intrusion on Creek lands and Hawkins’ civilization program. By the end of the summer, the Creeks would be visited by missionaries of another sort, Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader of a pan-Indian movement, and prophets guided by Tenskwatawa, the spiritual guide of the movement. The stage was being set for the Red Stick War of 1813-14, which would not only drive the Moravian missionaries from the Creek country, but also begin the process that led to the Creek removal from their ancestral lands. Significantly, Lorenzo Dow, the Methodist itinerant preacher, also made an appearance in the Creek country in October 1811 and preached to a group of African Creeks, although Agent Hawkins objected strenuously.12

Meanwhile, that summer Phil took up his preaching activities once again, although forbidden to do so by Hawkins. He told the missionaries that he had heard God speak to him telling him to go to the desert and pray. He found a secluded spot in the woods, where he prayed and fasted and brought other African Creeks with him. Peterson reproved him for “misleading the Negroes” with false sermons and prayers, but Phil angrily replied that he had perfect wisdom and understood the word of God better than the missionaries. After this confrontation Phil advised the African Creeks to turn away from the missionaries’ meetings and began to hold services at his cabin. He pronounced his master, Agent Hawkins, “irredeemable” and began a campaign against the white blacksmith at the agency, whom he declared judgment against as a murderer. Up to this point the missionaries had kept Phil’s preaching activities in confidence so as not draw Hawkins’ attention. Phil’s public declarations and activities could not be concealed and Hawkins’ wife, Lavinia Downs, had Phil tied to a tree and given fifty lashes for insolence, disobedience, and “meddling in affairs of white people” at the agency. After Phil’s punishment he was forbidden to attend religious services, and African Creeks once again returned to the Moravians’ meetings saying that they had no part in the black prophet’s behavior.13

Peterson and Karsten’s missionary efforts came to end with the outbreak of the Red Stick War in 1813. Indeed, their efforts, as part of the wider plan to “civilize” the Creeks, was one of the main reasons why the insurgent Creeks went to war in the first place to prevent further erosion of traditional cultural practices and to wrest control of tribal affairs from the emerging class of propertied Creek elites who were increasingly adopting Hawkins’ civilization program. The presence of greater numbers of African Creek bondsmen in the Creek country employed in production agriculture was indicative of the cultural erosion and class distinctions. But the missionaries’ lack of success with Creek Indians was offset in part by the inroads they made among the African Creeks. The African Creeks’ ability to understand English, as well as the cultural context of the Christian message, aided the missionary efforts, but accepting the Christian message posed a dual dilemma for African Creeks. On the one hand was the often heard objection of slave owners everywhere, that the Christian message, no matter how it was fashioned, was essentially a liberation theology that led slaves to disobedience. This was the objection most often voiced by the more acculturated Creeks who readily adopted Hawkins’ civilization program. On the other hand, those Creeks who retained more of the Creek cultural belief system objected to Christianity because of its corrosive effect on Creek traditions, those ideas and practices that were responsible for the social fluidity and the lack of racial antipathy that African peoples experienced in the Creek Nation. In spite of this dual dilemma, the African Creeks continued to provide the fertile ground necessary for Christian missionary activity among the Creeks.

Following the Red Stick War, which devastated the Upper Creek towns and forced the Creeks to cede more that half of their territory to the United States, the waves of revival and missionary activity that swept through the frontier areas of the United States during the Second Great Awakening appeared in the Creek country. In November 1817 the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions dispatched two missionaries attached to their Mississippi Association, the Rev. Thomas Mercer and Benjamin Davis, to the Creek country. Arriving at Tuckabatchee, the missionaries consulted with Big Warrior (Tustennuggee Thlocco), the head chief of the Upper Creeks, and gained his approval to preach and establish a school. They baptized William, one of Big Warrior’s African Creek slaves, and ordained him as a preacher. They then moved on to Alexander Colonel’s settlement fifteen miles to the east where they preached to a mixed congregation of Creeks, whites and African Creeks. The next day, November 12, 1817, they baptized seven African Creeks, four men and three women. The seven came together to establish the first church in the Creek country, the Creek African Church, with a man named Charles as the pastor, and another African Creek named Tyler, as deacon. The missionaries related that Charles had a “happy facility for communicating his ideas, both in Creek and English,” and further that “these Negroes were raised among the Creeks and received their knowledge of Christianity from a religious slave who belonged to Col. Hawkins, the former agent.” The religious slave mentioned was most likely Phil, but there is no record of what became of the black prophet.14

The outbreak of the First Seminole War in December 1817 interrupted further missionary activities for a time. In 1821, the Methodists, led by William Capers and Isaac Smith, gained permission from the Lower Creek chiefs to establish a school for teaching English, agriculture, and mechanics at what became known as Asbury Mission on the Chattahoochee River. The Baptist Board followed up on its mission work abandoned at the outbreak of the First Seminole War and established Withington Mission among the Upper Creeks near Tuckabatchee in 1822 for the same purpose. Rev. Lee Compere headed up the Withington Mission. The same admonishment against preaching also applied to the Baptists. Both missions were supported and approved by the Indian Office, administrated at that time by the Secretary of War. Church donations also funded the work and African Methodist and African Baptist congregations in South Carolina and Georgia gave their share of support.15

Part of the agreement that was not made clear, or which Capers chose to ignore after he arrived in the Creek country, was that the Creeks refused the missionaries permission to preach. As was the case with the other missions that came into the nation, the first people to come forward were African Creeks. Capers related this description to the Methodist Conference after his first encounters in late 1821:

There are many slaves among them who have been born and bred among them and many more who have been carried into the nation from the states. (They) all entertain the strongest predilection for us. They all speak our language and all acknowledge the divinity of our religion--and some whom I have seen and conversed with, were formerly the members of some church. I believe there are not fewer than 100 blacks in the neighborhood of Asbury; and in some other neighborhoods are still greater numbers. How strong are the claims of these people upon us! Among them, your missionaries will probably find the first fruits of their labors.16

Even after Capers was warned that Big Warrior and other Creeks were objecting to the missionaries preaching, they continued to do so among the African Creeks. Capers justified his actions in these words:

the number of blacks who attended our public preaching . . . the affecting interest which they generally took in the sacred service. . . and there being several of them already awakened, and the deep concern for the salvation of their souls, rendered it impossible to retrace our steps, unless upon absolute necessity.17

The absolute necessity came at a confrontation over the matter with the Upper Creek chief, Big Warrior and the Lower Creek leader, Little Prince. According to Capers, Little Prince had previously indicated that he would not object to the missionaries preaching. It is possible that he reversed his stand after listening to Big Warrior’s vehement objections in order to keep peace between the Lower and Upper Creek factions of the tribe. The Creek agent John Crowell also weighed in against the missionaries preaching, threatening to remove the missionaries and shut down the school if necessary. Although Crowell recognized the positive effects that mission schools had in acculturating the Creeks, he dismissed the religious component of the mission schools, saying, “preaching is fudge.” He also told the Rev. Capers that his primary objection to the preaching was the effect that preaching had on African Creek slaves, which he felt made them insubordinate.18 The missionaries pleaded their case with President Monroe and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and involved Georgia Governor Troup as well, all of whom refused to intervene, afraid of upsetting their plans for peaceful removal of the Indians beyond the Mississippi. Capers even tried a constitutional argument, saying the Creeks and Crowell had violated his constitutional right to religious liberty, to no avail. So, he retraced his steps, but only after receiving assurances from Indian Commissioner Thomas McKenney that after things had calmed down he could resume his conversion efforts. Left unsaid during the controversy was the fact that the preaching had been almost entirely directed toward African Creeks, as few Creek Indians attended the services. The school at Asbury opened in August 1822, and by the end of the year had thirty-three Indian students. While African Creeks provided interpreters for the schoolmasters, apparently there were no African Creek children at the school.19

Lee Compere had similar experiences in establishing Withington Mission. With the notable exception of Jonathan Davis, one of Compere’s Creek students at the mission school, the majority of adherents were African Creeks. The opposition to evangelizing was more violent in this section of the Creek country where the Baptist mission was located. After William McIntosh was executed in 1825 and the majority of the Lower Creeks associated with the McIntosh faction emigrated to the Indian Territory in 1827 and 1828, the traditionalist faction came to the fore in tribal affairs. Opothleyohola, the “Speaker” and spiritual leader of the Upper Creeks, led the opposition to the missionaries. Opothleyohola issued an order that any Creeks or African Creeks caught attending Baptist worship services would be whipped. It was no idle threat. The sentences were carried out with a ferocity that shocked Compere and his family. On one occasion, while Compere was away, a group of Indians burst into a meeting being held by Mrs. Compere, seized twenty African Creek men and women, tied them to a post in front of the mission and then one by one, “beat them unmercifully.” Compere sent John Davis, his star pupil and sole Creek convert, to consult with the Creek chiefs and attempt to convince them to lift their ban. The chiefs’ remarks implied that the whippings were not motivated by fear of slave disobedience, but rather by the effects that preaching would have on traditional Creek practices that were rapidly eroding under the onslaught of white intrusion. Davis reported that Yohola Micco, the Upper Creek Chief, told him, “if they allowed the black people the liberty then the Indians would go to hear the preaching, and the Kings of the Towns would lose their authority.” The Upper Creek leadership also resented the missionaries pressing them to remove to the Indian Territory as the Lower Creek McIntosh faction had done.20

After the whipping incidents both the Methodists and the Baptists concluded that it would better to close their missions in what remained of the Creek country east of the Mississippi and concentrate their energies among those Creeks who had emigrated to the west. Both missions were closed in 1829. However, on occasion Compere continued ministering to African Creeks until 1832 from a mission he opened south of Montgomery, Alabama.21

Missionary activities began in the Creek country west of the Mississippi in the early 1830s after McIntosh’s followers had settled in at the fork of the Arkansas and Verdigris Rivers in the Indian Territory. John Davis, who emigrated to the west in 1829, began preaching for the Baptists with the aid of a few African Creeks. Roley McIntosh, who succeeded his half brother William as chief of the Lower Creeks in the West, gave his consent. The Creek agent objected, however, fearing that it might ignite a replay of events in the East and impede further removal efforts. The Presbyterians, hiding out from their nearby Union Mission in the Cherokee country, were the first to constitute a church among the Creeks in the west. Once again, the African Creeks were the first to come forward, providing “black exhorters” to preach to the mixed congregations of blacks, Indian and whites. John Fleming and his wife opened a mission just south of the Verdigris River and also opened a school there in early 1833. Fleming reported that even the “black people” were anxious to see their children go to school, but it is unclear whether any African Creek children actually attended the Presbyterian school. Fleming was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and he put his education to work in studying the Muskogean language with the goals of learning the language so he could better communicate with adherents and possible converts but also translating the Bible and assorted hymns into Creek. He devised a Creek alphabet and soon published an elementary Creek reader containing Bible stories and hymns, which would become known as the first book published in the Indian Territory. 22

The Methodists were also busy with the new arrivals. Several of the converts from the Asbury Mission began proselytizing among the Creeks, among them a young Creek Indian named Sam Checote, and the church they established in 1831 was primarily composed of African Creeks. The Methodists also established a day school. But unfortunately, African Creek slaves were also the first to be punished for accepting the missionaries’ teachings. In spite of Roley McIntosh’s consent, some of the other Creek chiefs and white traders were “violently opposed to the work of God and threatened their slaves with stripes for attending meetings and in some cases have inflicted them.” 23

In summer 1832 the Baptists sent a missionary to the Creek country to aid John Davis in his efforts. David Lewis and his family arrived in the Creek country in August 1832 and shortly thereafter, Isaac McCoy, the noted Baptist missionary, Indian reform advocate, and explorer, joined Davis and Lewis. Together with three African Creeks named Jaky, Henry, and Murrrel, the missionaries established the first Baptist church in the Indian Territory, the Muscogee Baptist Church, on September 9, 1832. The church was located about one mile north of the Arkansas River near “the Point,” where the Verdigris River joins the Arkansas and about two miles west of the Creek Agency on the outskirts of the McIntosh Creeks’ settlement. In a short time the congregation at the church grew to sixty-three members, forty-two African Creeks, twelve Creeks and four whites, and the total number of people attending the Sunday services soared to more than 300, among them was Jane Hawkins, one of Chief William McIntosh’s daughters. Lewis and Davis had a 25’ x 30’ foot schoolhouse built with a cabin for Lewis and his family adjoining. Lewis described the buildings as “cheap, economical, plain and as strong as any for a thousand miles around.” After John Davis moved to the southern side of the Arkansas River in early 1833 to start another church, Lewis was left without an interpreter. Consequently, Lewis hired an African Creek man for the job, paying him $50 a year for his services. Lewis said that the man was a very good interpreter and “he is very acceptable among the Indians and a very pious man and a good preacher.” Lewis does not give the man’s name but only mentions that he was John McIntosh’s slave and a blacksmith by trade. Most likely he was an African Creek known as “Blacksmith Jack,” who had converted in the Old Creek country and had been preaching as one of the many “black exhorters” who continued on with the missionary work. The school Lewis established was a source of discouragement for the young minister because although he boasted of thirty “scholars” at one period, the students attended irregularly and were as reluctant to learn English as Lewis was to gain a command of Creek.24

Lewis’ mission fell apart in late 1834 under circumstances that caused a great deal of ill will among the Creeks toward the missionaries. According to McCoy, Lewis “apostatized” and reportedly had gotten an Indian woman “with child” and then left the Creek country without making arrangements for the child. But during his stay he had made inroads, principally among the African Creeks, and had established Sabbath schools for African Creek children.25 D. B. Rollin succeeded Lewis in December 1834 and ministered briefly before all missionaries were expelled from the Creek country in 1835. For several years clandestine meetings were led by African Creek preachers with the aid of John Davis. In 1837 another missionary, Charles R. Kellum, was sent to the Indian Territory by the Baptists, but opposition to missionary activity was so strong among the Creek chiefs that Kellum was obliged to remain in the adjoining Choctaw Nation, where the chiefs were more accepting of Christianity. Kellum described the Creeks as “very hostile to preaching” at the time; nonetheless, he sent messengers among the Creeks inviting them to come to the Choctaw country for camp meetings. Finally, in 1838 he eagerly responded to a call for missionaries to return to the Creek country, and Kellum revived the work among the Creeks in the Arkansas River settlements.26

Thousands of Upper Creeks arrived in the west that year and cultural/political tensions between the two factions were high. Even though the Upper Creek settlements were reported to be more opposed to preaching than the Lower Creeks, Kellum ministered for a year in the Upper Creek North Fork settlements and operated a school there for a time with some success. He said that the majority of the residents in North Fork were African Creeks and that half of them claimed to be free. But Kellum described North Fork as a heathen stronghold and despaired of making any headway. In the summer, during the traditional Creek poskita (Green Corn) ceremonies, the parents emptied the schools, so the children could attend the festivities. Although it shook Kellum’s Christian sensibilities to the very marrow to hear people, “howling like wolves and beasts of the forest” and imagining wild dancing throughout the night, the Creeks’ native worship (minus the dancing) probably had more in common with the fervor shown at evangelical camp meetings on the frontier than Kellum cared to admit.27

Kellum also was troubled by cultural degradation brought in to the Creek country by white traders. Brothels and whiskey shops lined the roads that criss-crossed the settlement and they were open even during the daylight hours, making Kellum reluctant to trade in the village. After returning to the Arkansas settlement, Kellum ran into opposition from Chief McIntosh, who now said that the preaching spoiled his slaves. McIntosh told Kellum that when he sent his slaves to work, instead they would sit under a tree and read “the book,” therefore-- “no more preaching in the nation.” Kellum still carried through with a school at the building put up by Lewis, which he named Ebeneezer Station. But continued hostility from some of the Creek leaders, the Creek agent, and white traders made his work difficult. In a meeting with the Creek Council some Creek Indians came forward to say that they were “free people and we want to go to the meetings.” Chief McIntosh relented but insisted that Kellum sign a paper that he would not preach to the black people. Kellum refused to sign any such document, and the door was closed to all missionary activity. Kellum was also troubled with financial woes. No money was forthcoming from the Baptist Missionary Society, and the Creek agent withheld the education annuity promised in the 1832 Treaty. The African Creek slaves sustained Kellum through the hard times, providing him with food, money, and friendship. Blacksmith Jack told Kellum, “ Bro Kellum when u’se in a strait, come stay (with us) and eat. All I have is the Lords.” In spite of the injunction against preaching to the black slaves, Kellum held midnight meetings and continued to find more adherents among the African Creeks. By early 1840, Kellum asked to be relieved. But, before leaving the Nation, he ordained two “black brethren,” Jake and Blacksmith Jack, to carry on the work.28

Two years later, when Kellum returned, he reported a revival led by Jake and Jack had drawn 1,000 Indian, black, and white worshipers to the meetings. At the meetings Jake would preach in the morning in English, and Jack sermonized in Creek in the afternoon. Jack reported that 100 had been baptized the previous Sabbath, the majority of them promising young Indians. For the first time, Indians began to outnumber African Creeks at the services and Jane Hawkins opened her home for meetings. Even the Creek Agent, James Logan, who had previously objected to preaching, praised the results of the African Creek ministers’ activities. He said that there was nary a jug of whiskey to be found in the nation. There were also frequent meetings in the Arkansas district and Benjamin Marshall, the largest slaveholder in the nation, encouraged his slaves to attend. Marshall said his Negroes were worth twice as much as they were before they became religious. Kellum said that at North Fork, “that Hell upon earth, there was a meeting nearly every night. 29

During this transitional period, as more Creek Indians began attending the Christian meetings, it was said the Indians preferred African Creek preachers over the white missionaries, even though the Creek agent and the white missionaries tried to convince them otherwise. Indeed, the white missionaries were troubled with the way that some of the “black exhorters” were interpreting Christian doctrine to include traditional Creek beliefs. For example, the missionaries frowned on the Creek custom of holding camp meetings throughout the night, similar to the poskita (busk) ceremonies. In the Creek meetings one could hear African American spirituals sung in Creek and New Testament scripture translated into Creek by African Creek preachers. One African Creek preacher was even criticized for leading new converts astray in the other direction by embracing Old Testament dietary laws and telling adherents that eating catfish was “unclean.”30

The fervor in the Upper Creek settlements on the Canadian came at a cost, however. According to the Choctaw missionary Sidney Dyer, there was but one person in the community who “feared God, an old colored brother named Jesse.” Jesse had been a member of the African Creek Church in the Old Nation, and he converted a Creek Indian named Joseph Islands, his brother William and the village fiddler, Harry Island, an African Creek. Harry Island would become one of the leading figures in the African Creek community, and he recounted the story of his conversion many times. According to Island, after he received God’s call, he summoned all his acquaintances to his cabin one day, proclaimed his conversion, smashed his fiddle, and foreswore whiskey. Harry’s conversion allegedly caused “much stirring of the spirit in the village.” Whiskey shops closed down and local traders said they had never seen a change so dramatic. Bro Jesse and the Islands continued their meetings, which drew a number of adherents, among them fourteen other members of the African Creek Church. Since the church now contained a number of Creek Indians, as well as African Creeks, it was decided to change the name to the Tuckabatchee Church. The stirring also attracted the attention of the traditionalist Creek chiefs. They announced that anyone attending the meetings of the “praying people” would be whipped. The penalties were carried out. The first martyr was Juba, an elderly African Creek, who was beaten nearly to death by a group of Creek lawmakers. But Jesse, Harry Island, and another African Creek preacher named Billy (Hawkins) kept the revival going in the Canadian district in spite of the persecution. Jesse himself received fifty lashes from an almost apologetic group of lawmakers in February 1845. The African Creek preacher submitted without struggle, which, according to Jesse, greatly puzzled his tormentors.31

Following Jesse’s whipping, the persecutions abated and finally ceased altogether. In late 1845 Creek agent James Logan reported that he had received a petition signed by a number of leading Creeks asking that missionaries be allowed to return to the nation and open schools. He also mentioned that the “children of color” attended Sabbath schools with Indian children. Chilly McIntosh, Chief Roley McIntosh’s nephew and the head warrior (or General) of the Nation, had been converted at one of the meetings in 1844, where he was seen “weeping like a child.” Chief McIntosh and other leading Lower Creeks all had joined a church by 1848. Finally, by 1848, most of the Lower Creek leadership, including Chief McIntosh, had joined a church. Opothleyohola and other traditionalist chiefs, on the other hand, continued to hold to the old ways. Tuckabatchee Micco, an Upper Creek town chief, asked Gen. E. A. Hitchcock (Hitchcock was sent to the Indian Territory to investigate frauds in Indian provisioning contracts in 1842) to please explain to him why the “black people” among them insisted on holding prayer meetings in spite of the persecutions. Hitchcock, of course, had no ready answer, but curiously their conversation was translated by an African Creek interpreter, who probably felt the time was not propitious to provide an answer either. Hitchcock had just visited a prayer meeting in North Fork where he described the mélange of people attending and the melding of cultures experienced at the meeting. In reference to the value of Creek religion versus the missionary’s message, Opothleyohola reportedly said, “A man will much more surely get to heaven by worshiping the brass plates than in any other way.” The brass plates were revered sacred objects, which, according to Creek belief, were given to the Tuchtabatchee Creeks by the Master of Breath for safekeeping. The plates signified the link between the divine and the earth and were still used in the poskita (busk) ceremonies during this period. Having stated his position, Opothleyohola and the other chiefs withdrew their objections to missionary activities, and the Creek Council mandated full toleration for missionary activities in 1848, as long as they had approval of the Council. The Methodists received permission and a contract to open a boarding school, which they named Asbury. The Presbyterians followed and opened the Tullahassee Manual Labor School and Mission in 1850. It was at Tullahassee where a whole generation of Creek leaders in the post-Civil War era received their training. The mission also played an important part in the African Creek education in later years.32

The days of persecution were over for the “praying people.” The Christian missionaries had won their forty year cultural battle with the aid of the African Creeks. From this point on, more Creeks began learning English at the mission schools, and there was less need for African Creek translators or interpreters. The African Creeks had played a key role in bringing Euro-American cultural values into the Indian nation. Through doing so, they facilitated the absorption of other Euro-American racial attitudes antithetical to the easy-going Muskogee racial perspectives and attitudes toward slave labor. As the métis families established their plantations and ranching operations in the west the “progressive” attitudes towards commercial agriculture and the use of slave labor first promulgated by Benjamin Hawkins came to fruition. These developments had enormous consequences for African Creek status and identity in the Indian nation.

The role as cultural brokers for transmission of the core belief system that powered Anglo-American culture also had its rewards for African Creeks that transcended the purely spiritual. As translators, interpreters, and preachers of Christianity, the African Creeks exercised power that was rarely accorded them in the traditional Muskogee Square Ground. Once they succeeded in transmitting the cultural message, however, Native Creek translators and preachers replaced the African Creeks. Mixed congregations were still a normal occurrence until the Civil War. African Creek preachers continued to have an impact in the Muskogee Christian community, but the African Muskogee power to influence events through this cultural avenue was diminished. In the African Muskogee community, however, as in African American communities in the states, the African Creeks organized their own churches, and these became focal points for their communities. Slaves and free African Creeks alike were members, and the preachers from the churches became important leaders in the African Muskogee community. These congregations would provide continuity and stability during the difficult and disruptive times to come.33

A cultural dialectic had been evolving for some years, the development of a separate African Creek identity within the confines of Creek Indian culture. The tradition of cultural integration had absorbed Hitchiti, Tuckabatchee, Alabama, or Yuchi peoples into the Creek web. Those peoples had retained their languages and separate identities, and at times the “pure” Creeks held them at a cultural/political arm’s length. Still, they were considered as part of the tribe. That tradition persisted regarding the African Creeks, but it was complicated by the intrusion of Euro-American values and ideas regarding race, slavery, progress, and civilization.


Endnotes

1. Mary Ann Lilley, Mrs. John B.Lilley Diary, 17-18, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

2. Daniel F. Littlefield Jr., Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period Until the Civil War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), 8, 10, 16-19, 26-27; J. Leitch Wright The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians of the Old South (New York: Free Press, 1981), 257; Wright, Creeks and Seminoles:The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogle People (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 84-85.

3. Wright, 94-95; Thomas S. Woodward Woodward’s Reminiscence of the Creek or Mucogee Indians, (Montgomery: Barett and Wimbush, 1859), reprint (Tuscaloosa: Alabama Bookstore, 1939), 108; Benjamin Hawkins, Letters of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796-1806 Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Vol. 9, (Savanah: The Morning News, 1916), 43, 48-49.

4.Woodward, 108.

5. Joel W. Martin, Sacred Revolt:The Muskogee’s Struggle for a New World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 73-74.

6. Walter H. Brooks, The Silver Bluff Church: A History of Negro Baptist Churches in America (Washington, D. C.: R. C. Pendleton Press, 1910), 10-12, 16-20, electronic edition courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, Documenting the American South,
http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/brooks/brooks.html; An Account of the Life of Mr. David George, electronic edition courtesy of Black Loyalists “http://collections.ic.gc.ca/blackloyalists/documents/diaries/george_a_life.htm.”

7. Ibid, 93-98.

8. Burkhard Peterson and Johann Christian Karsten, Partners in the Lord’s Work: The Diary of Two Moravian Missionairies in the Creek Indian Country, 1807-1813, Research Paper #21, translated and edited by Carl Mauelshagen and Gerald H. Davis (Atlanta: Georgia State College, 1969), 9-10.

9. Ibid, 19-20.

10. Ibid, 22-23, 30, 42-45, 53 (Alexander Colonel’s quote); Pope, John A. A Tour Through the Southern and Western Territories of the United States of North America: the Spanish Dominions, on the River Mississippi and the Floridas;the Countries of the Creek Nation and Many Other Uninhabited Parts, 1791. Reprint (New York: Charles L. Woodward, 1888), 54.

11. Ibid, 39, 53-54; Martin, 76.

12. Burkhard and Karsten, 55, 63; Martin, 116.

13. Burkhard and Karsten, 52-53, 55, 59. Phil did not elaborate on the nature of Hawkins’ transgressions that made him irredeemable, perhaps it was his common-law marriage to Lavinia Downs that was not solemnized until Hawkins fell deathly ill and was not expected to survive in 1812 when they married so that Lavinia could lawfully inherit Hawkins’ property.

14. The Latter Day Luminary, Vol 1, no 2 (May 1818), 91-92; American Baptist and Missionary Intelligencer, Vol 1, No 7 (July 1818), 374.

15. Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 223-225; William Capers, “Report Before the Bishops and South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church: Feb. 21,1822” (Georgetown: Wiayan Intelligencer, 1822),21-29, Gilcrease-Hargrett Collection, Manuscripts Division, Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American Art and History, Tulsa Oklahoma; The Christian Index, History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia (Atlanta: James P. Harrison, 1881), 93-98.One of the donations included a $20.00 (a considerable sum at the time) from Rev. Morris Brown in the name of Free African Society of Charleston. The donation was given in the same month the Denmark Vessey Conspiracy was discovered in Charleston. Rev. Brown was the head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and was reportedly an “advisor” to Vessey. At the time the plot was uncovered Brown was away from Charleston on church business and later made his way to safety in Philadelphia where he remained and was elected as the Second Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820.

16. Capers, “Second Annual Report of the Missionary Commission of the South Carolina Conference: Feb. 26, 1823,” (Midgeville, GA.: Grantland and Orme, 1823), 14-15, Gilcrease-Hargrett Collection, Manuscripts Division, Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American Art and History, Tulsa, Oklahoma; William Capers to John C. Calhoun, May 17, 1824 and John Crowell to John C. Calhoun, March 18, 1824, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs: 1824-1880, Creek Agency, Roll 219, fr. 35-43, 55-70, National Archives Microfilm Publication M234, hereafter cited as M 234 followed by frame number. It should be noted that Capers was no abolitionist and he made sure to reiterate to the Conference that his ministering among Black slaves emphasized obedience to earthly masters as well as to the “Heavenly Master.” Indeed, it is surprising that the South Carolina Conference would allow him to minister to Black slaves at all, even if they were tucked away in the Creek country, in the wake of the Vessey Conspiracy.

17. Capers, “Second Report,” 6.

18. Michael Green, The Politics of Indian Removal (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 64-66.

19. Thomas L. McKenney to Capers, May 24, 1824 and McKenney to Capers, July 9, 1824, M234, fr. 44-45, 50.

20. Lee Compere to Lucius Bolles, September 21, 1826, 2-5, Compere Journal, January 13, 1828, Compere to Bolles, May 19, 1828, Records and Correspondence 1800-1900; American Baptist Foreign Mission Society Records, Rev. Lee Compere 1826-1827, Creek Indian Mission, Withington Station, American Baptist Historical Society Microfilm Publication , Reel FM-98, hereafter cited by reel numbers FM-98 and FM-99.

21. Compere to Bolles, September 13, 1832, FM-98.

22. Issac McCoy, Periodical Acount of Baptists Missions in the Indian Territory (Shawnee Baptist Mission, Indian Territory: 1837), 39-40, Special Collections, Mullins Library, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville; Missionary Herald Vol. 26 (September 1830), 287, Vol. 28 (March 1832), 80, Vol. 29 (December 1833), 465.

23. Angie Debo, The Road to Disappearance:A History of the Creek Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941), 116.

24. David Lewis to Lucius Bolles, August 9, 1832, Lewis to Bolles, October 29, 1832, Lewis to Bolles, July 9, 1833, Lewis to Bolles, May 12, 1834, July 14, 1834, FM-99 ; James Buchanan, “Fountain Church,” Indian Pioneer History (Indian Archives Division: Oklahoma Historical Society Microfilm Publication, 1974), Vol 89, 299-303, hereafter cited as IPH, followed by volume and page number.

25. Lewis to Bolles, July 9, 1833, Lewis to Bolles, May 12, 1834, July 14, 1834, FM-99; James Buchanan, “Fountain Church,” IPH , Vol 89, 299-303. Isaac McCoy told Bolles that the school house and cabin Lewis had contracted to be built, rather than “economical” was exorbitantly expensive because, while the cabin may have been humble in appearance, Lewis was charged an outrageous sum by the contractors, who took advantage of Lewis’ trusting nature. According to McCoy Lewis later “apostatized”and caused a great deal of ill-will among the Creeks toward missionaries. Reportedly he had an affair with an Indian woman, “ had gotten her with child” and then left the Creek country without making arrangements for the child. McCoy, Periodical Account, 39-40; Kellum to Bolles, April 17, 1837, FM-99.

26. McCoy, Periodical Account, 40-41; Charles Kellum to Bolles, January 5, 1837, April 4, 1837, January 31, 1837, FM-99.

27. McCoy, Periodical Account, 40-41; Charles Kellum to Bolles, January 22, 1839, June 6, 1839, August 7, 1839, August 13, 1839, FM-99; J. Leitch Wright also comments on the possible parallels between Creek traditional religious practices and the fervor displayed at frontier camp meetings, see: Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 225-226.

28. Charles Kellum to Bolles, August 13, 1839 (Chief McIntosh quote) September 15, 1839, November 30, 1839 (Blacksmith Jack quote), January 26, 1840, August 1, 1842, FM-99.

29. Charles Kellum to Bolles, August 1, 1842, FM-99;.

30. Charles Kellum to Bolles, August 1, 1842, FM-99; E. C. Rough, “Henry Frieland Buckner,”Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 14, No. 4, (December, 1936), 459-460; Creek Agent (James Logan) Report, 1845, M234, Roll 923, fr. 842; Sigmund Sameth, “Creek Negroes: A Study in Race Relations,” (Master’s Thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1940) 16, 25; Mary Ann Lilley, Mrs. John B. Lilley Diary, 17-18, Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma, Norman. For insight into the melding of Creek traditions with Christianity after the Civil War until the 1970s, see Sharon Fife, “Baptist Indian Church: Thlewarle Mekko Sapkv Coko,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma Vol. 68, no. 4 (Winter 1970-1971), 450-466.

31. Proceedings of the Second Annual Meeting American Indian Missionary Association (Louisville: Buck’s Steam Power Press, 1844), 29-31, Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of the American Indian Missionary Association (Louisville: Monsaratt Press, 1845),32-34; Proceedings of Their Semi-Annual Meeting of the American Indian Missionary Society (Louisville: Monsaratt Press, 1845), 19-20, in Archives and Manuscripts Division, Thomas R. Gilcrease Institute of American Art and History, Tulsa, Oklahoma, hereafter cited as AIMA, followed by year and page number.

32. AIMA, 1848, 10-17; AIMA, 1849, 11, 17-21; Ethan Alan Hitchcock, Diary #26 February 1, 1842, Archives and Manuscripts Division, Thomas R. Gilcrease Institute of American Art and History, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Charles Kellum to Bolles, January 5, 1837, December 31, 1837, April 4, 1837, January 22, 1839, June 6, 1839, August 7, 1839, August 13, 1839 (Chief McIntosh quote) September 15, 1839, November 30, 1839 (Blacksmith Jack quote), January 26, 1840, August 1, 1842, FM-99; Charles Kellum to Bolles, August 1, 1842, FM-99;.Proceedings of the Second Annual Meeting American Indian Missionary Association (Louisville: Buck’s Steam Power Press, 1844), 29-31, Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of the American Indian Missionary Association (Louisville: Monsaratt Press, 1845), 32-34; Proceedings of Their Semi-Annual Meeting of the American Indian Missionary Society (Louisville: Monsaratt Press, 1845), 19-20, in Archives and Manuscripts Division, Thomas R. Gilcrease Institute of American Art and History, Tulsa, Oklahoma, hereafter cited as AIMA, followed by year and page number.

33. Baker and Baker, 83.

back to topback to top