The Beams Family: Free Blacks in Indian Territory

"The Journal of Negro History"
January, 1976, p. 17-35

The Beams Family: Free Blacks in Indian Territory

By Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr. and
Mary Ann Littlefield

  Removal of the Five Tribes - the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles - to the Indian Territory brought with it the extension of slavery to that territory.  That extension, however, was not attended by the political furor which would culminate a decade and a half later in the Compromise of 1850.  Although peculiar in that and other aspects of its practice, slavery in the Indian Territory had many of the characteristics of slavery in the states.  And like slavery in the white society, slavery among the Indians created the social by-product of the free black.  However, because of the racial, social, and cultural circumstances which were peculiar to the Indian Territory, the condition of free blacks there was anomalous, to say the least.

  Because of controversies over their presence in the Indian Territory, some free blacks became well known to the officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  One such group was the Beams family, who descended from William Beams, a white man who lived in the old Choctaw Nation in Mississippi, and Nelly, a slave.  Beams had married a Choctaw who died, leaving him with four children.  He then purchased Nelly - half black and half white - and her son Abraham, whom she had by a former master.  Beams had eight children by Nelly.  In 1823, Beams posted notices in prominent places in the neighborhood, stating his intention to manumit Nelly and her descendants, and he called on his creditors to present their claims if they had any. That done, he took Nelly and her children and grandchildren, then numbering thirteen, to Golconda, Pope County, Illinois, where on August 19, 1823, at a special term of the county commissioner's court, he freed them and executed a deed of emancipation to each of them - Nelly, Lotty, Rhody, Becky, Thomas, Emily, Gilbert, Martin, Hetty, Cunningham, Abraham, Nancy, and Sam.(1)

  Beams returned with them to his old home in the Choctaw Nation and announced publicly what he had done.   Five years later, he repeated the process of giving public notice of their emancipation, divided his estate among his Choctaw children, and settled permanently in Illinois, taking his black family with him.  After a little more than a year, he died.  His family remained in Illinois for a while and returned to the Choctaw Nation to take up residence at their old home. (2)

  In the winter of 1831, the State of Mississippi passed a law requiring all free blacks to register and obtain licenses to reside within the state.  In March, those of the Beams family who were old enough appeared before the county court of Madison County and gave satisfactory evidence of their "good character and honest deportment" and thus received licenses to remain in the state as "free negroes."(3)  In spite of this fact, however, in November 1832, the two surviving children by Beams' Choctaw wife - Jesse and Bettie Beams - made a contract with John B. Davis and Daniel Harvie, both white, to take possession of the Beams family, remove them to Louisiana, sell them as slaves, and give half of the proceeds to the alleged owners.  Davis and Harvie forcibly took possession of Martin, Nelly, Becky, Gilbert, Lotty and her children, Rhody and her children, Abe, Nancy and her children, and Mitchell.  They kept the Beams family for a year and were in the process of removing them when Greenwood Leflore, the Choctaw chief, interposed on their behalf and caused the civil authorities to liberate them.(4)

  The sale of mixed blood relatives was not frowned upon and was no doubt frequent among slave holders in Mississippi.  There is no evidence to indicate that slavery, as practiced by the mixed blood Choctaws, differed from slavery in the Southern white society.  More significant in this case, however, is that Jesse and Bettie Beams were Choctaws.  Emancipation of the blacks had taken place in a white man's court in Illinois, and there is no evidence that the Choctaws gave any official sanction to the act, except to observe the notices posted by William Beams.  Was the act, therefore, binding in the Choctaw Nation?  To a mixed-blood Choctaw on the verge of making a profit, it probably was not.  One thing is certain; the Choctaw members of the Beams family looked upon the black members as chattel.  Twenty years later, still with an eye toward making a profit Bettie made an attempt to gain title to them.(5)

  In the fall of 1833, the Beams family grew afraid because their friends among the Choctaws had emigrated to the Choctaw lands west of the Mississippi, and they had no one to protect them.  Therefore, they hired a white man named Stephen R. Wilson to guide them.  After a difficult and tiresome journey, they rejoined the Choctaws and settled near Fort Towson, Indian Territory.(6)  There they remained unmolested for a few years, but as more Indians were removed to the West, the number of free blacks increased, drawing the attention of avaricious slave hunters and traders.  Possession of the Beams family became the prime object of several of them.  In the second generation, they had blood relationship to the Choctaws, and by the mid-1850's the families numbered over fifty members.  Although they were recognized as free blacks by the Choctaws and allowed to live among them, they were pursued by slave hunters as were many other free blacks throughout the Indian Territory.  For two decades after 1836, they were constantly on guard against capture and ultimately sought in court to settle finally their right to freedom.  In most respects their situation was a typical one, and for that reason it can be looked upon as a case study of the condition of free blacks in the Indian Territory.  First, however, a survey of the Indian laws relating to free blacks is necessary.

  By the time removal was completed, the number of free blacks among the Five Tribes was surprisingly large.  Their population among the individual tribes varied according to the degree to which they were tolerated by the Indians. That toleration loosely corresponded to the severity of the slave codes of the tribes.  The difficulty in making generalizations about the Indians' attitudes towards blacks has been pointed out in a recent article by William G. McLoughlin.  Historians have come to contradictory conclusions, he says, because there is insufficient evidence.(7)  McLoughlin demonstrates in that article and elsewhere, however, that as time passed and the Indians were drawn into the national debate over slavery, principally through their agents and missionaries, slave codes among some of the tribes became more severe.(8)  Those slave codes, in most cases, had direct bearing on the attitudes towards free blacks.

  The greatest population, by far, was among the Seminoles.  Between 1838 and 1843, nearly five hundred blacks, both slave and free, removed with them.  Many were freed by voluntary acts of their Seminole masters.  Scores claimed freedom under the proclamation of General Thomas Jesup who, during the Second Seminole War, had promised freedom to all Seminole slaves who would separate from their masters and voluntarily surrender to the Army.  However, an opinion of the Attorney General in 1848 returned many of these to bondage.  Some, such as Abraham, Cudjo, Gopher John, and Toney Barnett were free by virtue of their assistance to the United States as informers, guides, and scouts.(9)  The Seminoles had no laws restricting the free blacks, who, like the Seminoles slaves, were allowed to own property and carry weapons.  They farmed rice and vegetables, and some had large herds of cattle.  Because they spoke English as well as the Indians' native tongue, several of the free blacks served as interpreters.(10)

  A number of free blacks also lived among the Creeks.  Decades before their removal to the West, the Creeks had written laws which provided for the manumission of slavery by individual owners.(11)  A census of 1832 shows that there were 21,762 Creeks and 502 slaves, with only a few Creeks owning more than ten slaves.  Included in the number of Creeks were several free blacks who were heads of households.(12)  The free blacks were removed with the Creeks, and by the time the Civil War began, some of them owned businesses such as boarding houses and stores.(13)  Others were blacksmiths and interpreters.  Except on the plantations of a few mixed bloods, slavery at first appeared to be a "convenience" to the Creeks.  Slaves were allowed to accumulate property by means of which they purchased their freedom, and there was little prejudice against intermarriage between Indians and blacks.  As time passed, efforts of the mixed bloods resulted in stricter laws regarding blacks.  Free blacks were subjected to property taxes; intermarriage was punished by whipping; aiding fugitive slaves was punished by fines and whippings; a man could free his slaves if he took them out of the nation; slaves were prohibited from owning property; and a school law of 1856 prohibited the employment of abolitionists.(14)

  There were fewer free blacks among the Cherokees, despite the large number of slaves among them.  In 1835, on the eve of removal, there were 16,543 Cherokees and 1,592 slaves.  By 1859, the number of slaves in the Cherokee Nation had reached 4,000.  Historians agree that slavery among the Cherokees was little different from that in the white South and that the status of slaves and free blacks declined as laws became more severe.(15)

  After removal, the Cherokees wrote a constitution in 1839 in which they admitted to citizenship descendants of Cherokee women and black men but excluded the descendants of Cherokee men and black women.  However, all persons of "negro or mulatto parentage" were excluded from holding public office.  A few days after adoption of the constitution, the Cherokee Council passed a law prohibiting free citizens from marrying "any slave or person of color" who was not a citizen.  Punishment could not exceed fifty lashes.  A convicted black male, however, received one hundred.  A law of 1840 prohibited free blacks, not of Cherokee blood, and slaves from holding improvements and other property in the nation.  Such property then held by blacks was ordered sold to the highest bidder.  The same law forbade free blacks to sell spirituous liquors in the nation.  An 1841 law created "patrol companies" to capture and punish any slaves caught off their masters' premises without a pass and to give up to thirty-nine lashes to any black not entitled to Cherokee privileges and found carrying a weapon of any kind.  The same council passed a law prohibiting the teaching of slaves and free blacks not of Cherokee blood to read or write.  In the aftermath of a slave revolt, the council of 1842 passed an act which ordered all free blacks, not freed by Cherokee citizens, to leave the nation by January 1, 1843.  Any who refused to leave were to be reported to the agent for expulsion.  The same act provided that if a Cherokee citizen freed his slaves, he was responsible for their conduct as free blacks.  If he died or left the nation, the free blacks were to give "satisfactory security" to one of the circuit judges for their conduct.  The act also stated that any free black found guilty of "aiding, abetting, or decoying" slaves to leave their owners was to receive one hundred lashes.  An 1848 law prohibited the teaching of any black to read or write.  An 1855 law prohibited the hiring of teachers with abolitionist sentiments, and finally in 1859, the Council passed an act requiring all free blacks to leave the nation.  This bill, however, was vetoed by Chief John Ross.(16)

  Fewer free blacks lived in the Choctaw Nation.  An 1831 census listed 17,963 Choctaws and 512 slaves. There were only eleven free blacks - "the children of Nelly Beams born in the nation."(17)  It was the mixed bloods who held the largest number of slaves.  From removal until 1855, the Choctaws and Chickasaws lived under one government, the latter having settled on the western lands of the former.  Choctaw laws prevailed.  In 1838, they forbade cohabitation with a slave, the teaching of a slave to read or write without the owner's consent, and the council's emancipating slaves without the owner's consent.  In 1844, they passed a law which said "that no free Negro unconnected with Choctaw blood should ever be allowed to draw any money from the Choctaw annuity."  After 1855, the Choctaws passed laws which reaffirmed the laws against intermarriage and emancipation of slaves by the council.  Others said that slaves brought to the Indian Territory would remain slaves, that owners should treat their slaves humanely, and that no person of African descent could hold public office.(18)

  A smaller number of free blacks lived among the Chickasaws, who before the removal period did not hold large numbers of slaves.  Outstanding exceptions were Chickasaws named Colbert, several of whom owned more than twenty and one of those owning one hundred fifty.  At the time of removal a great many Chickasaws sold their homes and the reservations which had been reserved for them under former treaties and invested their money in slaves whom they moved to the West.(19)  In their new country, the mixed bloods opened large plantations and farms and used their blacks in agricultural labor.  Generally, the relation between slave and master was relaxed, but there was little mixture of the races.  For the most part, the Indians treated their slaves humanely.  However, the Chickasaws emerged as "the aristocracy of the Five Civilized Tribes, who regarded their slaves in the same manner as white owners."(20)  In their constitution of 1855, the Chickasaws forbade the Council from emancipating slaves without the owner's consent.  In the late 1850s they passed laws prescribing harsh penalties for harboring runaways and providing for the exclusion of free blacks from their limits.  County judges were authorized to order such blacks out of their respective counties.  Those who refused to go were to be sold to the highest bidder as slaves for periods of one year, until they agreed to leave the nation. (21)

  As shown by this survey of laws relating to blacks, the status of free blacks among the Five Tribes varied. They held a rather high position among the Seminoles and to some extent among the Creeks; as the Civil War approached, however, that position declined among the latter.  The relations with free blacks among the other tribes were most complex.  While they generally accepted as citizens of their nations those blacks who were related to them by blood, they refused to give them full rights and privileges, such as holding public office.  Those not related by blood were tolerated but legislated against, and for the most part, the Indians would rather have been rid of them.

  Many of those designated as free blacks were as much of Indian descent as they were of African.  While the Seminoles and Creeks had no aversion to intermixture, the Choctaws and Chickasaws did.(22)  Although all of the tribes except the Seminoles passed laws against intermarriage, it took place.  The result was that the offspring of such marriages were always considered Africans by the Indians as the language of the laws indicates.  This fact adds to the complexity of their relations.  While the blacks were constantly made aware of their racial difference from the Indians, for the most part they were at one with them culturally.  They lived in the same manner, farmed the same crops, and spoke the same language.  That was particularly true of blacks such as the Beams family who had been born and reared among the Indians.

  The free blacks in the Indian Territory attracted slave traders and hunters from many of the Southern states, particularly Arkansas, the Republic of Texas.  Slave owners filed claims for title to many of them.  Some, no doubt, had valid claims to the fugitive slaves who took refuge in the enclaves of free blacks.  But most were speculators who saw the somewhat anomalous condition of the free blacks as an opportunity to make huge profits.(23)  The Indians generally tried to protect the free blacks related to them by blood,(24) but often stood by when slave hunters took others.  Since the Indians cared little for the blacks not related to them, unscrupulous men often abetted slave hunters by selling them fraudulent titles to the blacks or by apprehending the blacks themselves.(25)

  The fraudulent claim of John B. Davis, made by virtue of the contract with Jesse and Bettie Beams in Mississippi, plagued the Beams family in the Choctaw Nation.  In April 1836, Davis's agent came to the Indian Territory with his power of attorney.  William Armstrong, the Acting Western Superintendent of Indian Affairs, asked Martin Beams to come to the Choctaw agency and to bring all of the family's papers.  Martin brought evidence of their emancipation from the Court Clerk of Pope County, Illinois, and put it on file with Armstrong.   Davis's agent seemed convinced that the members of the Beams family were free and left the territory.(26)

  Thwarted in his attempt to capture the Beams family, Davis took the matter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs with the request that he refer it to Attorney General B. F. Butler.  The question involved was whether the President could cause fugitive slaves, who had taken refuge among the Indian tribes west of the Mississippi, to be apprehended and delivered by United States officers and agents to the rightful owners.  In question was the section of Article 4 of the Constitution, which said, in part, that "no person held to service or labor in one state under laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."  Butler decided that the clause referred exclusively to those parts of the Union which were duly organized as separate states.  Until specifically provided for by legislation from Congress, the Indian Territory was excluded from the clause.(27)

  The decision was handed down in August 1838, and the consequence of bureaucratic policy and the slowness of transportation was a delay in the order's reaching Armstrong.  Meanwhile, Davis had hired another agent to go to the Indian Territory, where he presented Armstrong with papers from the courts of Mississippi, attested to by the Governor of the state and giving full faith and credit to Davis's claim.  In the absence of instructions to the contrary, Armstrong directed the Choctaw chiefs and district captains to allow the agent to take the blacks.  With several other white men, the man went to the vicinity of Fort Towson and for several days tried to get possession of the Beams family.  They fled to the fort for protection, and Colonel Josiah H. Vose, commanding officer, granted it and sent the men back to Armstrong.(28)

  Having failed once more, Davis again brought what political influence he could bear in Washington.  In late 1838 and early 1839, in spite of the Attorney General's opinion, Commissioner T. Hartley Crawford ordered Armstrong to use his personal and official influence to arrest Nelly Beams and all of her descendants.  Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, who was himself a plantation owner in and native of South Carolina, issued the same order on January 6, 1839.  Armstrong followed instructions, warning the Choctaws not to interfere in the capture of the blacks and not to attempt to rescue them once they were taken.(29)

  Armstrong realized the difficulty of the situation.  In referring to the Beams family he said, "The population is a bad one in the Indian Country."  By that time, they numbered 25 or 30 and had intermarried among the Indians, which made it more difficult to gain possession of them.  He was aware that the Attorney General had decided that the War Department had no authority, except through the Indian nations, to arrest slaves in the Indian country.  However, he found no disposition on the part of the Choctaws to protect the Beams family except for those who had intermarried with them.  The Choctaw authorities looked upon free blacks among them as a bad influence, and according to Armstrong, had no objection to whatever course the government decided upon.(30)

  In March 1839, Davis and his new agent William B. Fowler came to Fort Smith, Arkansas.  From there they wrote to Brevet Brigadier General Matthew Arbuckle, Commander at Fort Gibson, that they feared for their lives in the Indian country and asked that the military capture the blacks and deliver them to Davis in Arkansas. Arbuckle refused.  However, he wanted Colonel Vose to use his influence to capture the blacks. If the Choctaw Light Horse police could be induced to capture them, Vose was to give Davis, his agents, and their captives a military escort out of the nation.  He was to act discreetly, for rumor of impending capture would send the blacks fleeing to Texas.  Arbuckle also directed Armstrong to do what he could to apprehend and deliver the blacks to Vose for confinement until Davis arrived.(31)

  Armstrong evidently recognized in Davis's "fears" for his safety an attempt to have the government do his dirty work.  This ruse was one often used by slave hunters.(32)  Armstrong denied that there was any danger.  He told Davis that it would be necessary for him to identify those he sought, but if he tried to do so, they would take flight.  Therefore, he gave Davis a letter to the chiefs and captains of the nation, asking them to aid him in apprehending the blacks.  He warned Davis to go alone, because a party of whites would cause difficulty.  Bloodshed was to be avoided, and in the event of resistance Davis was to report to Colonel Vose.(33)

  Davis and his party left the Choctaw agency for Fort Towson on March 8, 1839.  Armstrong had the Beams family's emancipation papers on file in his office where they had been since 1836.  To him there was no doubt that they were free, but he had been instructed to give Davis all the aid in his power to have them arrested.  He hid behind his orders, for like most agents in the Indian Territory, he had no sympathy for the blacks: "They are so mixed from mulattoes to Indians it is hard to tell what they are.  I am opposed to free negroes among the Indians and so are the Choctaws."(34)

  Vose, on the other hand, had been a champion of the Beams family.  He disagreed with Armstrong and was reluctant to follow orders.  He did not think the Choctaws would prevent by force the capture of the blacks, but neither would they aid in the capture.  Some of the family had Choctaw husbands or wives; they had lived in the neighborhood of the post since their arrival in the West and had been industrious and well behaved.  But they had gotten wind of this new attempt to take them, had been selling their improvements and what little property they had, and had made plans to leave the country.(35)

  When Davis and Fowler arrived at Fort Towson, they called in Chief Leflore to assist them and failing there, asked General Arbuckle himself to come so that hostilities might be prevented when they attempted to take the blacks.  Arbuckle refused on the ground that his presence would cause excitement and make the blacks run.  Meanwhile, the Beams family had fled, anyway, presumably for Mexico or to the Indian tribes of the Great Plains. (36)

  A month later, Armstrong received permission from Commissioner Crawford to use his discretion regarding the Beams family.  When Davis came back to Fort Towson in May, Armstrong ordered him to cease his activities.  By this time much excitement existed in the Choctaw Nation. The Beams family had scattered throughout the nation, hiding from Davis; two of the children had died from hunger and exposure.  There was much dissatisfaction among the Indians, who disliked white men scouting the nation looking for runaway blacks.  Armstrong proposed a compromise which he felt would be acceptable to the blacks, the chiefs, and, he hoped, to Davis.  It was to send one of the members of the family to Arkansas to have his freedom tried before the courts.  If the courts found that he was not free, then all those whom Davis claimed would be turned over to him.  In order for the compromise to be made, Davis would have to stop his attempts to capture the family.(37)  Of course, Davis rejected the offer and left the territory.

  Davis had spent the spring in the Indian Territory.  He was evidently too busy to remain there to try to recover the property he claimed.  Thus, in April, evidently to simplify the matter, he made out a bill of sale for his claim to Fowler and Robert Hamilton of Sevier County, Arkansas.  That Davis had arrived at some kind of understanding with these men cannot be doubted, for in December, 1839, Stephen Cocke of Mississippi went to Washington on his behalf and petitioned the Secretary of War to assist Davis in recovery of the blacks. Secretary Poinsett offered a sympathetic ear and was determined not to allow the Indian nations to become a refuge for runaway slaves who should be returned to the place from which they had escaped.  Cocke wanted Poinsett to inform the Indians that they did not have the authority to determine conclusively claims to blacks.  They were expected to aid in the apprehension of runaways so that they might be sent back to their owners.(38)  However, Poinsett was not willing to go that far.

  Nevertheless, Davis's agents made another attempt to capture the Beams family in March of 1840.  Several men from Sevier County, Arkansas, were hired to assist in their capture and delivery to the west bank of the Red River in the Republic of Texas.  On the night of March 27, a large party of whites attacked the home of Abraham Beams near Fort Towson.  Abraham was killed, receiving shots in the head, body and arm.  The attackers then searched the house and carried off three women - Hettie, Lotty, and Nancy Beams - and one child; one of the women was wounded in the thigh. In their flight, the captors left behind one very old woman (probably Nelly, the matriarch of the family, who was still alive at the time) and some very small children.  The captives were taken across the Red River where they were handed over to William Fowler, who wrote to Captain J. B. Clarke, the commander at Fort Towson, asking what the army would do if the Choctaws tried to rescue the Beams women.(39)

  This boldness angered Captain Clarke, who sent a detachment of infantry to the Red River where Fowler was camped.  However, he ordered them not to cross the river into the Republic of Texas. Leaving his troops in the Choctaw Nation, Captain Lewis N. Morris crossed the river and was politely received by Fowler in camp.  Fowler denied any wrong doing; he "did not feel that he had been guilty of any crime in attempting to recover his property!" His only regret was that Abraham had been killed. Morris could do nothing because of his orders to leave his troops in the Indian country.  Therefore, he warned Fowler not to enter the Indian Territory or cause anyone else to do so in pursuit of the Beams family.  He was informed that his being beyond the limits of the Choctaw Nation was the only thing which prevented Morris from taking him into custody.(40)  Thus, one member of the Beams family was dead, and four others were irretrievably lost.

  The incident resulted in a great deal of excitement among the Choctaws who were alarmed at the idea of armed parties of whites entering their nation and taking away defenseless women and children.  Armstrong issued orders that neither Davis nor any of his agents were to be permitted to enter the nation again.  To allow it would be to risk difficulties with the Choctaws.  Armstrong was still convinced that the members of the family were free but that they were defenseless before such men as Fowler and would never be guaranteed a fair hearing in relation to their freedom.(41)

  Meanwhile, Fowler had run into some difficulties with his captives.  When the citizens of Texas heard of the circumstances of their capture and the murder of Abraham Beams, they refused to let Fowler go farther into the country.  He was forced to travel down the Red River.  Somehow, however, he got to the vicinity of Nacogdoches and offered the Beams women for sale as slaves.  Some people in the area had known the Beams family in Mississippi and had a warrant issued for Fowler's arrest for kidnapping, at the same time beginning a suit for the freedom of the women.  Fowler's lawyer, with the aid of Stephen Cocke, claimed that the women were the offspring of illicit intercourse between William Beams and his slave Nelly and that they were slaves by virtue of an 1838 decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court.  In that decision, it was held that blacks alleged to be free by virtue of emancipation deeds executed in other states were slaves unless the deeds of emancipation had been made valid by a special act of the Mississippi legislature as was required by Mississippi law.  In spite of the fact that the Beams family had left Mississippi before the decision and that Mississippi law did not apply in the old Choctaw Nation, Fowler was acquitted, and the suit for freedom was dropped.  Fowler sold the Beams women, who were still in the Nacogdoches area as late as 1845.(42)

  Between 1840 and 1844, claims to the remaining Beams family were sold and resold until they were obtained by Isaac Herrick of Red River County, Texas, and Henry Cheatham of Hempstead County, Arkansas.(43)  In late 1844, Herrick went to the Choctaw Nation and applied to the leading and most influential men to help him.  A council was held and a resolution passed indicating that the blacks were the property of Herrick and that he had a right to take possession of them.  Herrick was able to identify and capture some of them, but he was arrested by troops from Fort Towson and taken to Washington, the county seat of Hempstead County, Arkansas, where he was charged with kidnapping.  As might have been expected, the court released him.(44)

  In January of 1846, Senator Chester Ashley of Arkansas took the claim of Herrick and Cheatham to Secretary of War William L. Marcy.  They claimed to be owners of "slaves Nelly, Rebecca, Gilbert, Lotty, Aiba, Nancy, Rhoda, Martin, Mitchell and the increase since the time they have been in the Choctaw Nation."  The result was an order to Armstrong to deliver the Beams family to Cheatham and Herrick, but there was a delay in the delivery of the orders to Armstrong, who died before any action could be taken.  In late 1847, through Ashley, Cheatham and Herrick renewed their efforts to obtain the Beams family.  They asked Commissioner William Medill to direct the new Superintendent Sam M. Rutherford to carry out the instructions to Armstrong.  This Medill did in January, 1848.(45)

  There is some evidence that all of the buying and selling of claims to the Beams family was questionable, for early in 1847, John B. Davis decided "to make one more effort to recover my negroes in the Choctaw Nation west."  He wanted the order for their delivery renewed by the Secretary of War.(46)  This appeal came in the midst of Cheatham's appeals for assistance from the Secretary, and there is no evidence that the two appeals were related.

  Neither Cheatham and Herrick nor Davis succeeded in their efforts, and the Beams family lived unmolested for the next few years.  In order to protect themselves against future attempts to capture them, they separated, part of them going to the Creek Nation where they were allowed to live as free blacks.  This group included Mary and her child Katy, Mitchell, Martin, Nelly and her children, David, Girt, Ezekiel, Mary (a second by that name), Eliza and six or seven children, and two other women.(47)

  These members of the family no doubt chose to go to the Creek country because the conditions of blacks were generally better there than in other areas of the territory.  The Seminoles with a large number of blacks had settled in the western part of the Creek lands.  Those blacks set about, as well as they could under the circumstances, to reestablish the kind of relationship which they had with the Indians before the Seminole war and removal.  They moved off to themselves, living in small groups, and began farming and raising livestock.  From their crops the slaves paid tribute to their masters.  In the Seminole district there were large enclaves of blacks, both slave and free, going about their everyday lives with a great measure of freedom.  Such practice was objected to by many governmental officials and some Indian leaders, who saw the enclaves of blacks as a dangerous attraction to runaways from surrounding Indian nations and states.(48)

  Knowledge of these settlements of blacks was widespread.  Greater attention was drawn to them in the summer of 1845, when at the request of General Thomas Jesup, military protection was granted to those who claimed to be free by virtue of having surrendered to the army in Florida.  Many blacks left the Seminoles and moved onto the military reservation at Fort Gibson. The post then became a focal point for many free blacks and runaways.  The Creeks continually complained, and complaints about blacks came as well from the Senecas and Cherokees.(49)  Except in cases where blacks were clearly runaways, the military officials tended to extend protection to those who asked for it.

  The Indians determined the restrictions under which blacks were permitted to reside in the nations.  When free blacks applied to the agents for permits to enter the territory, they were refused because they did not come under the Intercourse Law then in force.  Without legal guidelines, officials were left to their discretion concerning the protection they could extend to free blacks.  James McKissick, the Cherokee agent, put it as follows, and his logic seems to be that applied by military officers at Fort Gibson: "But most certainly in cases when persons of color are permitted to reside in the Indian country they have a just right to claim protection both as to their person and property and if the authorities of the nation give this privilege of residence, and withhold the protection, who is to offer relief? I am of the opinion that the authorities of the Military department partake more of executive discretion."(50)  An 1848 opinion of the Attorney General returned most of the blacks on the reservation to the Seminoles, but they again settled in towns of their own, and refused to disarm and be separated.  In the summer of 1850, many of them, including both slaves and free blacks, made a successful quest for freedom and went to Mexico.(51)

  It is little wonder that the Creek county appealed to the Beams family.  If nothing else, it put a greater distance between them and the slave states of Texas and Arkansas, the bases from which slave hunters operated.  But they could not escape.  In 1854 they received a heavy blow when, because of bureaucratic errors, some of Davis's agents succeeded in capturing seven members of the family.

  In late 1853, Davis had sought to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 on persons who escaped to the Choctaw Nation.  Stephen Cocke sought the influence of his fellow Mississippian, Jefferson Davis, who was the Secretary of War.  The matter was referred to the Attorney General's office for a decision.  On February 18, 1854, Attorney General Caleb Cushing decided that Attorney General Butler had erred in 1838 when he decided that the President had no authority to order the return of runaway slaves in the Indian Territory.  He overturned the former decision and said that Davis or his agents could lawfully enter the Choctaw Nation to claim any persons who owed him service under the laws of Mississippi.  If he met with obstacles, he could call on the United States authorities for assistance.  President Franklin Pierce approved the decision on March 6, and officials in the Indian Territory were so informed.(52)

  During the summer of 1854, William Houser, an attorney at Van Buren, Arkansas, and agent for Davis, made frequent applications to Thomas S. Drew, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Smith, for an order for the extradition of the Beams family.  Drew denied the requests because he had not received instructions from the Department of the Interior.  On July 23, the Choctaw Agent, Douglas H. Cooper, asked the Secretary of the Interior for instructions.  The Secretary failed to answer until September 11, at which time he told Cooper that if the Beams family were really fugitive slaves, it might be proper to give them up; if not, it was a different question.  Above all, before anything was done, Cooper was to investigate the facts.  He also directed Superintendent Drew not to take steps until further instructions.(53)  The delay in answering Cooper's letter was critical; by the time it was answered, several members of the Beams family had been captured.

  On July 27, Drew had issued an order to the Creek chiefs, in the absence of the Creek agent, to give all due assistance to Davis in capturing that part of the family living in the Creek Nation.  The order named Martin, Nelly, Becky, Gilbert, Lotty and her children, Rhody and her children, Abe, Nancy and her children, Rhoda and her children, and Mitchell.  Armed with that order, William Houser, James Woosly, Ephraim B. Bishop, Washington Duval, John Latta, and Alexander McKissick - all of Van Buren entered the Indian Territory.(54)

  They went to the Choctaw agency first where they showed the order to Cooper.  They also produced a letter from Jefferson Davis to Stephen Cocke stating that the Attorney General had decided that the Fugitive Slave Law applied to the Indian Territory.  Cooper refused to interfere because he had not received instructions from the Commissioner.  However, he did offer to bring suit, as Armstrong had done, to test Davis's case in court; Houser implicitly promised to do so.  Cooper was in the process of moving his agency office to Fort Towson; while he was enroute, Houser and his party went ahead of him.  They approached Colonel Harkins, a Choctaw district chief, and told him that the Attorney General had decided that the members of the Beams family were slaves and the property of Davis, showed him Drew's order to the Creek chiefs, and said that Cooper had promised to have those in the Choctaw Nation taken to Van Buren.  Harkins gave in and allowed William, the son of Nancy Beams, and Silas, the son of Lotty, to be taken to Van Buren before Cooper arrived.  From Fort Towson, Houser went to the Creek Nation where he succeeded in taking Martin (about 28 years old) and Mary Beams both children of Nancy - Mary's daughter Katy, Ellen (the daughter of Rhody), and David.  Martin was shot in the chest and badly wounded.  Mitchell Beams (about 35 years old), who had hid out, was sold on credit to Roley McIntosh, Chief of the Creeks, for $1000.  Houser also took a bond of E. B. Bright, residing at the Creek agency, for the delivery at any time of another Beams woman and three of her children.(55)  This latter man had been involved in a slave raid in the Seminole country in November, 1853, in which several were captured, run off to Arkansas, and sold.  The raiders were assisted by several members of the Creek Light Horse police, whose aid was secured with the knowledge of Chief McIntosh.(56)

  On his return trip to Van Buren, Houser stopped at Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital, and offered the blacks for sale.  It happened that Samuel A. Worcester, a missionary in the Cherokee Nation, was in town and recognized the Beams family, having at one time hired one of the men as a free hired man.  Worcester knew that the Beams family had been recognized as free blacks, so he went to the principal chief of the Cherokees; but the chief refused to interfere.  Then he went to the Cherokee agent, who went to Houser who showed him the order from Drew and the letter from Jefferson Davis to Cocke.  The agent was satisfied and said that he would not interfere, but he told Worchester that he or anyone else could sue for the freedom of the Beams family in Van Buren.  Worcester was not satisfied.  Believing the Beams family to be free, he complained to Jefferson Davis and asked for an investigation.  Davis denied having given any order in relation to the Beams family except to instruct the military officers to aid the civil authorities in the execution of the law if it became necessary.  He wrote, "I abhor any act which deprives a Freeman of his rights and perverts a constitutional law to such base purposes."(57)

  Worcester's complaint resulted in a demand upon Drew to explain his having issued the order to the Creeks without authorization from the Department.  Drew first said that no such orders came from his office and that they were a forgery.  He said that Houser, as agent for John B. Davis, and Bishop, a merchant at Van Buren, had called on him in July to see if instructions had come from the Secretary of the Interior to have the Beams family given up.  When Drew told them that they had not, Houser and Bishop asked for a permit to pass through the Indian Territory to the Red River on "other business," and Drew issued it. Drew laid the blame for the entire affair to the guile of Houser.(58)  Fortunately, the Cherokee agent had confiscated Houser's documents and had them on file.  He and the United States Commissioner at Van Buren certified them as containing the authentic signature of Drew.  Drew was confronted and finally admitted that he issued the orders, and the damaging evidence was sent to the Secretary of the Interior.(59)

  Drew then made a full statement on the matter. He had denied the repeated requests of Houser and Bishop for orders to arrest the Beams family.  On July 27, he was preparing to leave for southeastern Arkansas to visit his family, some of whom were ill; he planned to be gone a month.  Houser and Bishop repeated their request on that day.  They expected daily instructions from the Department which would allow them to enter the Indian Territory and arrest the blacks.  If the order came, they could operate through the Choctaw agent concerning the blacks there, but those in the Creek Nation were a different matter.  The Creek agent was gone, and there was no indication when he would return; Drew, too, would soon be gone.  If the order came in the absence of both of them, Houser and Bishop would have no means to capture the blacks in the Creek Nation, who would likely flee when they heard of the capture of those in the Choctaw Nation.  Drew then wrote the letter to the Creek chiefs, but he claimed that it was understood by Houser that the document was to be used only in the event that the expected instructions came from Washington.  Drew said that although the document was written on that contingency, it was written officially without any condition.  No copy was retained in his office, and Drew claimed that he merely forgot about it.  When he heard that Davis had taken the Beams family, he assumed that the proper orders had come from the Department.  When he heard of the letter to the chiefs, he searched his files and, finding no copy of such a writing, became indignant and declared it a fraud.  However, he recalled the whole matter after having heard Worchester's charges and having talked with Houser and Bishop.  Drew offered the weak defense of his preoccupation at the time with family matters and of the villainy of Houser.(60)

  Douglas H. Cooper, the Choctaw agent, was also indignant.  He had no doubts that the members of the Beams family were free.  The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had provided that any blacks claimed as runaway slaves might be carried before the United States Commissioner for examination, but it created great expense and hardship in the Indian Territory to send people hundreds of miles for preliminary investigation.  Cooper asked the Secretary to work toward having the Indian agents act as commissioners under the Fugitive Slave Law and do the work of preliminary investigation.  Otherwise, he said, "the door will be opened wide for fraud and wrong to the free colored persons, within the Indian country."(61)

  Meanwhile, the situation of the captured members of the Beams family had become more desperate, except for David who escaped enroute to Van Buren and returned to the Creek Nation.  Houser and his associates had told the blacks and the officers who had helped capture them that the blacks would have a fair and impartial hearing concerning their claims to freedom upon reaching Van Buren.  But once there, they found Davis waiting for them and decided to divide the property.  Woosly, a slave trader at Van Buren, claimed a fourth interest and took Ellen and Silas, buying Davis's claim to them.  Houser took Martin and William.  He sold Martin to Phineas H. White and Thomas B. Emerson, business partners at Van Buren, paying Davis his share of the proceeds, and sold William down the Arkansas River, beyond the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court at Van Buren.  Bishop took Mary and her daughter Katy and paid David his share.(62)

  When news of these transactions reached the Choctaw Nation, Cyrus Kingsbury, a missionary to the Choctaws, Sampson Folsom, and others - all friends of the Beams family - hired Josephus Dotson, an attorney from Mississippi then living with Cooper, to go to Van Buren and institute proceedings to establish the freedom of the family.  Cooper had supposed that the matter would lie summarily disposed of in the courts of Arkansas "under a writ of Habeas Corpus," but that was not the case.  Also, the members of the Beams family were in the possession of men of means who would make every effort to retain possession so that they would not lose the money they had invested.(63)

  When Dotson reached Van Buren in October 1854, he found that suit had already been brought for the freedom of two of the blacks.  When the authorities would not issue a writ of Habeas Corpus in the case, Dotson filed suit for the freedom of Ellen and Silas Beams, then in the hands of Woosly.  He also sent a messenger to the Circuit Judge, in Clarksville some fifty miles away, with a petition for the remaining members of the Beams family to sue as poor persons under Arkansas law.(64)

  The attorneys who had brought the original suit were William Walker and his partner Joseph James Green of Van Buren.  They had done so at the request of Bettie Beams, who with her brother Jesse had sold the family to Davis over twenty years before and who was in the Choctaw Nation west.  She had a copy of the bill of sale but claimed that Davis had never paid her anything on it.  Therefore, she had the suit brought for some of the blacks, saying that if the court decided that they were slaves, she had a claim to them.  Of course, the reverse was true; if they were declared free, then all were free because they were either among those emancipated by William Beams or had descended from them.  Walker and Green also succeeded in obtaining restraining orders to prevent the removal of the blacks beyond the jurisdiction of the court; William had already been sold by Houser to S. D. Strayhorne, a merchant at Dardanelle, Arkansas; Strayhorne, in turn, had sold William to William Fowler, the one-time agent of Davis, then in the southern part of Arkansas. Walker and Green, with Dotson's help, succeeded in getting the authorities to pursue William and brought him back.(65)

  The Beams family fared badly with their captors. Most of them had been free all of their lives and were not accustomed to the hard labor to which they were put by their "owners."  Thus, Walker succeeded in getting them released from their captors while their cases were pending and hired them out at a dollar a month.  Mary and her child Katy, who were ill, were boarded and put under the care of a physician.(66)

  After the first legal steps had been taken in behalf of the Beams family, Kingsbury and Folsom asked Commissioner George W. Manypenny to authorize the Choctaw Agent to pay for counsel to prosecute the cases and thereby secure a fair and impartial trial for the blacks.  After all, it was an administrative error on the part of the government that put them in their present situation.  Kingsbury and Folsom appealed for justice.  They said of the Beams family: "It is not surprising that a family living for sixty years among the Indians, and intermarrying with them, should become allied and attached to an extensive connection, both by blood & by the ties of friendship.  Several of them bear strikingly the lineaments of the Red People, and speak but imperfectly any other language.(67)

  Drew was instructed to hire the necessary counsel and make every effort to recover the members of the Beams family who had been sold and carried away.  Any reasonable expenses would be defrayed by the government.  It was decided that Walker and Dotson should be retained as principal counsel and that James P. Spring of Fort Smith should be retained to assist them.  The cases were docketed for the February, 1855, term of the Circuit Court at Van Buren, but because of the heavy docket, the cases were continued until the next session in August.(68)

  Meanwhile, there had begun a movement to remove Drew from office. Whether it resulted from his administrative error in the Beams case is uncertain; at least, he related it to the case.  He left office on April 17, 1855,(69) and was replaced by Charles W. Dean.

  It was not until the August term of 1856 when the cases of Mary and Katy Beams vs. E. B. Bishop and James Woosly and of William Beams vs. William Fowler were heard.  When the cases went to the jury, the verdicts were rendered immediately in favor of the Beams family.  The attorneys for the Beams family felt that the cases would be regarded as conclusive of the freedom of the whole family since identical arguments and the same proofs were to be used in all cases.(70)

  At the conclusion of these two cases, all of the members of the Beams family were allowed to return to the Indian Territory.  Walker and Green acted as securities for those whose cases were yet to be heard.  When those cases were heard in February 1857, verdicts were given in favor of the plaintiffs in the cases of Silas Beams vs. James Woosly and Benjamin Hartgraves and of Martin Beams vs. P. H. White and T. B. Emerson.  The case of Ellen Beams vs. James Woosly and Benjamin Hartgraves never came to trial because Ellen died before the case was finished.(71)

  It was not until late 1858 that all accounts were settled in relation to the suits.  The case of the Beams family was closed, and it ended more than two decades of fear and persecution as they struggled to escape slave traders and to protect their free status in slave territory.  Their struggle was typical in view of the anomalous position free blacks occupied in the Indian Territory.  It was also typical in that their condition was aggravated by political pressures brought to bear on officials by prominent white Southerners, as well as by the bureaucratic incompetence and pro-slavery attitude of many governmental officials in the Indian country.

  However, the outcome of the Beams case was remarkable in light of the temper of the times.  As the controversy over slavery gained momentum, most of the Indians became more openly opposed to the existence of enclaves of free blacks in the territory.  The Creeks were especially opposed to the blacks on the military reservation at Fort Gibson, who they said exercised "a most pernicious influence" on the slave population and on the more ignorant class of Indians.(72)  As demonstrated above, legislation against free blacks became progressively more stringent in most tribes.

  Enclaves of free blacks were also looked upon as dangerous by most governmental officials.  Marcellus Duval, the Seminole agent, felt that the Seminole blacks who claimed to be free should be turned over to the Indians as slaves or removed from the territory.  Yet there were so many of them that he felt that none of the states would take them for fear that their colony would become a harbor for runaway slaves.  Duval refused to present the problem in his annual report of 1846 because he was afraid it would be taken to Congress: "The consequences of the subject going into Congress anyone can foresee, and I desire to avert the calamitous excitement which it would cause, shaking the Union to its center - a perfect 'firebrand' to be thrown among the discordant & combustible materials on the floor of Congress."(73)  Similar views were expressed in 1849 by Superintendent of Indian Affairs John Drennen and General Matthew Arbuckle, commander of the Second Military Department at Fort Smith.(74)

  Of course, it was not just the good of the Indians that these and other officials had in mind.  Their complaints were not as much the results of actions of the blacks as of their own pro-slavery attitudes.  Duval, Drennen, and Arbuckle were all slave holders.  In fact, when the Civil War began, every civilian official of the Southern Superintendency of Indian Affairs was pro-slavery in sympathy.(75)  The control that these men exercised over Indian affairs in the Indian Territory as well as the actions of some pro-slavery missionaries must take a major part of the blame for the development of attitudes among the Indians which made their relations with blacks more and more like those of whites in the slave states.(76)  Even the Seminoles, who had long allied themselves with blacks, split their loyalties during the war.  After the war, a spokesman for the disloyal faction summarized what the Indians had learned from the whites: "We know the abolition of slavery to be a fact throughout the United States.  We are willing to recognize that fact by the proper acts of our Council.  But the proposition to 'incorporate' the freed negro with us on an 'equal footing with the original members' of the Seminole tribe is presented to us so suddenly that it shocks the lesson we have learned for long years from the white man as to the negro's inferiority."(77)  The other side of the controversy was presented to the Indians by missionaries such as Kingsbury and Worcester, whose voices were muted by the Indians' anti-abolitionist legislation.

  One might find it somewhat surprising that in the face of growing pro-slavery sentiment the Beams family's suit for freedom was instituted in an Arkansas court and brought to a successful conclusion.  But the case apparently had significance for people on both sides of the line.  The raid which had resulted in the capture of the family was only one of many that had occurred in the Indian Territory during the few preceding years, as the following examples will illustrate.  Some of the same whites involved in the capture and sale of the Beams family had been involved in a raid in the Seminole country in the summer of 1850. The excitement it created caused a number of blacks under the leadership of Gopher John to leave the territory and go to Mexico with the Seminole chief, Wild Cat.  There was another major raid in November 1853, in which a number of Seminole blacks were run off to Arkansas and sold.  A raid in the spring of 1854 resulted in the capture and sale of the family of George Noble, a free black and interpreter for the Seminoles.  In the summer of 1855, a raid near Fort Arbuckle in the Chickasaw Nation resulted in the capture of the family of Abraham, a free black who formerly had been interpreter for the Seminoles and was working at the fort.(78)

  In the early summer of 1856, a number of Arkansans made plans to form a company to buy up claims to blacks in the Indian Territory.  They would buy claims to free blacks as well as slaves.  One of their members bought a claim to a family of free blacks who had lived in the Indian country for years.  Only efforts by influential friends kept the purchaser from trying to enforce his claim.  Superintendent of Indian Affairs Charles W. Dean feared that unless the government took a hand in controlling slave hunting in the Indian Territory, the peace of the frontier would be jeopardized.(79)  To some observers the legal decision in the Beams case was a landmark.  As one contemporary put it, the issue of the case was "considered by legal men the more important as the vigorous manner in which it was prosecuted has put a stop to an extensive system of kidnapping, which was in contemplation along the Indian border."(80)

  By that time, however, many free blacks, including some members of the Beams family, had fallen victims to the hunters and had been sold as slaves.  Others had been killed.  Still others such as Gopher John had been forced to flee from the land of the people whom they knew best to the strange land of the Mexicans.  For them, the precedent had come too late.


(Click to see a transcription of document.)

  Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr. is an Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Mary Ann Littlefield is a member of the faculty in the Pulaski County Special School District.  

Beams mentioned in Mississippi records.

Posted by Lance Hall (

I have been unable to contact Mr. Littlefield in Little Rock, AR by post or email concerning my posting his article.
I hope he has no objections to this posting... I felt this was an important piece of work that needed to be shared with the Beams descendants today.