A Little History

Oklahoma Slave Narrative

  Chaney McNair

My parents came from Georgia with the Cherokees. They came by boat I spect. I didn't know much about 'em, can't even remember my mother, she died when I'se so young. She belonged to Vina Ratliff. My father must have belonged to John Drew but he was sold and sent to Mississippi long before the war. I'se born in 1852 down below Tahlequah on the Ratliff Plantation. Yes, I'se born a Ratliff. I remember the big log house of my marster and the little one the slaves lived in. I got into Mart McCoys hands somehow. There was an attachment or bond or something. He was a sheriff down near Dwight Mission. I couldn't tell how come, we slaves didn't know nuthin' anyhow. Then Marster Ratliff got me back again. I'se there for a while and then sold to William Penn Adair . I remember the old Adair plantation. Marster Adair had his first wife then. They lived in a double log cabin. There was two big rooms with an entry in between. Didn't you never see a house with an entry? Well you go in just like this: - I walk in entry, I go this way and there's the door of one room, then I go that way and there's the door of the other room. You ask why they didn't have no bigger house. Why, they couldn't have done no better. They hadn't had time. They was drove here in '35 and I lived there in '62. They hadn't had much time to build much house, but it was warm. Them two rooms had rock fireplaces with a big rock hearth. They had big mantleboards like. You don't see none no more. They cooked on the kitchen fireplace; baked the bread in a skillet laid in the coals. Everybody had fireplaces; I never seen no stove till I got free up in Kansas. The bedsteads had curtains all around, I remember that too. And there was a trundle bed for the children. You slide it under the big bed in the daytime. Never see them no more either. Marster William had about ten slaves. I remember the names of five, Francis , Margaret , Tobe , and Bean , not countin' myself. Francis and Margaret washed, spinned and weaved. They wove lots and lots of goods. Didn't you never see no weavin'? They carded the wool first, make roll, then they put it, the cotton, on a wheel and spin it round and round like this. They use their feet too. They made bed-spreads, sheets, jeans for pants. Oh, we ain't no count now; we don't know how to do nothin'. We lived in the Joe Martin community. I've heard tell how mean he was. Lots of theCherokees had slaves. There was the Adairs , William Penn , my marster, Frank , John and George Washington , the Martins , the Drews , and old Dick Sanders . Most of the Cherokees was good to their slaves, but old Joe Martin wasn't. My last marster, William Penn Adair, was tall, slender man. He was pretty good looking, smart lawyer. Most of the time he was good to his slaves but crossed up with us sometimes. Mistress Sarah , his wife, she was good to us, yes, awful good to us. Them Adairs was all smart people. I used to go and visit old Aunt Suzanna McNair (she was a Bell) . We liked to talk over old times. Washington Adair got shot one time. His home was just a little way from marster Williams , all live close together. Well he set up his gun some way and it fell, shot him right through the leg. You just talk to some of his grandchildren. They tell you I'se tellin' the truth. We had plenty to eat on marster William's plantation,  lots of wild stuff, turkeys, deers. We had a big smoke house where all the meat was kept. Kill forty or fifty hogs at one time. Livin' was good in them days, plenty of it. Folks don't know now what good things are. I'll say they don't. No more wild turkey, cooked on the hearth. Only rich folks can buy ham now, and store ham ain't like what we used to have. I never seen a lamp till I went to Kansas. Francis and Maragret would spin and weave by candlelight and now folks car even see by 'lectric light without they got their glasses on. We ain't no count no more. You ask me did I feel bad when my father was sold? I don't know if I did or not. I had to make the most of it, slaves did. They come and take you anytime, maybe husband, maybe children. When the war came on there's lots of fightin'. They broke up pretty much, this country. The North they got in power, you know how it is in a war. I'se nine or ten years old then. The Northern soldiers came and took Marster Williams prisoner and all us slaves up to Fort Scott, Kansas. I remember it. They come to the house one day and say, "You all get ready to go north." It was June in 1862. They take us in wagons and on horseback. They went to different plantations and take as many slaves as they could get. They did a lot of robbin' too; took an awful lot of stock. I can't remember going hungry on the trip, but we had an awful time gettin' water. Sometimes we drink muddy water out of the creeks. Don't know how long it took us, see I'se just a little girl, but I do remember how tired I got and sleepin' under a wagon at night. I didn't know what it's all about. Marster William was kept prisoner up there a while and then paroled. He came on back to the territory and was a colonel in Stand Watie's regiment. I've heard tell that he made a wonderful speech. Marster William , he was smart man. What did I do in Kansas during the war? They worked me out. I worked so many places, can't remember them all. I'll have to tell you a joke on myself, just to show you how ignorant I was. I didn't know nothin' cept what I'd learned on Marster William's plantation. First place I went the woman say, "You make a fire in the stove". I'd never seen a stove. I walked round and round that stove, didn't even know what it was. There wasn't no wood to make a fire with. All I could see was a pile of black rocks in a pail like. That woman say, "you no good, you can't even make a fire." I twisted my handkerchief up and came home cryin' to my sister. She say, "What you all come home for", and I says, "I can't make no white folks fire, I can't make no fire with rocks". She sent me back and the woman taught me how to make a fire in the stove with coal. Next day she say, "You put water in the reservoir, so it won't get dry." Lord, I'd never seen no reservoir. I looked around, but I couldn't see nuthin' goin' dry. Then she tell me to go put somethin' in the frigerator so it keep cold. I didn't know what a frigerator was. One day she give me some eggs and milk and stuff and say, "Now you malgamate this here." She mean mix it up, beat it, like this. How I know what malgamate mean? I didn't know white folks language. She tell me to go clean the lamps; I never seen no lamp before. Now you will laugh. One time after I'd been in Kansas quite a while I thought I'se educated in white folks ways, but I wasn't. I went to a new place to work. That woman says, "First thing you go and do something in the upstairs chamber". I can't remember what. I looked and looked and I couldn't find no chamber. How's I to know she meant the upstairs bedroom? They used so much different language, those northerners, I thought I'd never learn it. They tell me to go cook something in the spider. I always thought a spider was a varmint. They'd say, fortnight for two weeks, and shillun for I don't remember what, money of some kind. I never had no money so I don't remember how much it was. Yes, and they tell me go put something on the balcony. I didn't know what a balcony was. There was an army doctor named Dr. Redfield , he doctor us all when we get sick.
I got free while I'se in Kansas. We all knowed it was comin'. The colored folks never worried after they got up north. Which do I like best, the northerner or the southerner people? Now you ask me something I don't know how to answer. I like it the way I is, free. It's a good thing, freedom. Do I like the northern folks  if I should go back to Ft. Scott, they'd have to haul me away, I'd die a cryin'. They was awful good to me up there. And I bet all those old timers are gone. And do I love my folks here? Well, I'se born down here, here's where I belong. You know how it is, when you go away from where you first belong, seems like something call you back. After the war was over we colored folks all had to go back to prove up; tell where you come from, who you belong to, you know, so we get our share of land. The government made a treaty with the Cherokees, if all the slaves come back they give 'em Cherokee citizenship, but we had to be back by '66'. I came to Melvin in a wagon. I drawed some money once and some land too. Later on. After a while I went back to Ft. Scott to work, I like it there so well. I'se always been a workin' woman, no matter where I is. In 1889 I came to Vinita and I been here ever since. I met up with Columbus McNair and he courted me. Oh, it was so foolishly, I can't tell about it. We got t' goin' to dances and then after while I married him. Before the war he belonged to Joe Martin' s sister, she was Hooley Bell' s aunt. Oh, them old-time dances, I could die a cryin' thinkin' of 'em. I'd put on my Sunday dress and Columbus would come and took me. There was awful lot of good violin music. Don't know how they learned it, but you know how colored folks can play. We'd dance the Georgia Minstrel. Didn't you never see the Georgia Minstrel? They don't never dance it anymore. They danced it with their feet and twist just like this. Sometimes we dance on a platform; sometimes just on the ground. Yes, I belong to a church. I'se been a Methodist member since long time ago. I was baptized in the creek, cause I wanted to. We had awful good baptizings. We's baptized with the water and the spirit; put you clear under. Now they just sprinkle little water on you and there ain't no spirit to it. We had nicer funerals too; they was more serious. Now, when someone die they pull 'em out the house before they's cold. I've heard folks say that these undertakers now don't even take off your underclothes. They just put on your outside dress and your body not even clean. When I die, lady, I want 'em take off all my clothes and wash me clean like they used to and then put on clean clothes from my hide out. They used to sit by 'em. They don't do that no more. Now, people isn't decent, no shame. Wimmen don't keep themselves like they used to. They'd go round with nothin' but a bracelet and a necklace and call theirselves dressed. Aunt Chaney gettin' old now. I'se seen one war but I hope I never sees next one. Another war come, they throw poison gas on us, burn us up. But it's comin'; Lord, yes, it's comin'. The scripture says, "There'll be war and more war." But we just keep on a goin' anyhow. One generation dies off and another one comes on, just like a crop of beans. But God has give us a big promise. He give us what we ask for; if we ask for more, he goin' give us more. Does I believe in Spirits? Sure I do. This old flesh and bones goin' back from what God made it, but our spirits never die. Sometimes the spirits of folks what's dead come back. I've heard of haunted houses where there was rappin's and the like, but I never did hear any myself. Tell you what I did see once, more than once. Back in Ft. Scott where I worked there's a little girl, beautiful little girl with long curls. I wondered why God made me black and ugly and that little girl so white. Before I left she died, I saw her lyin' in the casket. Longtime after she came to me in a dreamlike. I saw a little girl with curls, all dressed in white. Seemed like she was here a minute, then she walked out the door and was gone. She come more than once and stand right here in that door. Sometime that little girl goin' come back all dressed in white and take old Aunt Chaney out the door and I won't never come back. All just as Aunt Chaney gave it with the exception of the "Crop of beans." It sounded to me like peas or beans, maybe you can remember Mrs. Howland . I have had to change the order of things. In the interview she went out the door right at first. If the project continues I will send you some material on the Drews and William Penn Adair ; both were prominent Cherokees.

I am eighty-five years old, being born in slavery, near Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation, June 1852. My father and mother belonged to Dick Ratcliff , who lived southeast of Tahlequah, at a place called "Caney", and did his trading at Tahlequah. Dick Ratcliff was the father of four sons and two daughters as follows: Daniel , Abe , Billie and Alex and Charlotte and Lydia . Mr. Ratcliff was a very old man and his sons did all the bossing of the slaves about the field work. We raised wheat, corn and Hungarian Millet, and we gathered the blades off the corn and bound them in bundles for fodder, to take the place of hay as there was no wild hay growing near. We had plenty to eat, good horses to ride and plenty of good whiskey to drink. Our masters were kind to us here in the Indian country and there were no restrictions set as to how much work we should do in a day. I was told that down in Texas the slave owners set a rule that each slave was to do so much work each day and any who failed to come up to their rule received so many lashes when night came. Old man Ratcliff's hobby was to have us little "Niggers" around him, sing "Polly Put The Kettle On", and many other old time songs and watch us dance. He would also have us wrestle, run races and do a lot of other foolish things to amuse the little ones, while the old folks were in the field.
My father was sold to John Drew , a neighbor, before I was born, but he was allowed to come home every week. He had ten children, of which I was the youngest, and the only one now living. My two oldest brothers were sold and I never heard of them anymore. Up to the time my father was sold, he went under the name of Bob Ratcliff , after he was sold he changed his name to Bob Drew , but my mother was still a Ratcliff .

When I was ten years old my master sold me to Col. William
Penn Adair , a very famous Cherokee lawyer who lived at Greenbriar, on Grand River, east of Adair, in Cooweescoowee district. They just took me over there and left me and I didn't know I had been sold for a long time afterward. Dick Ratcliff had had a big lawsuit and employed Colonel Adair to defend him and I was sold to pay the lawyer fee. William Penn Adair was a mighty smart lawyer and served his country as a Cherokee senator and was sent to Washington to represent his people so many times, I can't begin to tell you how many. It was on one of these trips to Washington that he died in the city of Washington and was shipped back to Tahlequah in a coffin.
I didn't stay but six months with Colonel Adair , before the Northern soldiers came and told all the slaves they had come to get them and take them to Kansas, where they would be set free and live just like white folks. They gathered up all the horses and cattle they could find and the slaves helped drive them out to Kansas. They made a drive up and down Grand River and gathered up every "nigger" they could find and they had about one hundred when they left here, but had four or five hundred before we reached Kansas. Some of the families I remember who lost their slaves at this time were the McNairs , Martins , Vanns , Daniels , Schrimshers , Landrums , and a great many others, whose names I do not remember. It was just before this trip that one of Benjamin Franklin Landrum 's educated slaves composed the celebrated violin piece, "I tell you, Marsa Ben, your nigger's gwine to leave you". The Landrum family was one family that believed in educating their slaves, and they taught them all to read and write, from the time they were children. This had a telling effect and many of the negroes returned after the war, and went to work for their old masters.
When we reached Kansas most all the negro men folks joined the Northern Army, and the women were put to work in the fields just wherever we could find work. It was much different from what we expected. When we drove all those horses and cattle back from the Indian Territory we thought they would be given to us to start out with, but we never saw them anymore after we landed When they set me free, they made my master, William Penn Adair , a prisoner and took him to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where they gave him a trial of some kind, but he made them such a fine speech that they set him free and he came right back and took up his place in Stand Watie's army, where he fought all during the war. Clem Vann and a lot of other prisoners were taken to Kansas on the same trip that took us out.
John Ross was chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1862, and tried to get his people to not take sides in the Civil War, but some of them called him a "Yankee" and were going to kill him, and would have done so, had not the fullblood Cherokees guarded him, until a bunch of Northern soldiers came into the Territory. He went with them, going to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1866. He was brought back to Tahlequah and buried.
Hanging In 1859 - Illinois District In 1859 John McFields killed Jim Colston over some Cherokee money and threw his body into the Illinois River. They tried him in the Illinois District, found him guilty and hanged him in the courthouse yard. In those days each district did its own hanging, but later on a National jail was established at Tahlequah and all the prisoners were taken there to be hanged.

After the war was over, my folks came back to the Indian Territory in 1866 and settled on Fourteen Mile Creek, near Melvin, in the Cherokee Nation. The Indians' slaves didn't like it in Kansas and most of them returned to the Indian Territory, after the war. They found many empty buildings here, belonging to people who had left the country during the war, seeking a place of safety. I remember two big old brick buildings, located on Grand River, about twenty miles southeast of Vinita, that had been left by Johnson Thompson during the war. They were so large that several families camped in them until they could build a log cabin of some kind to live in. Most of the slaves settled on the rivers and were there when statehood came, and that is how so many of them got the river bottom land for allotment. Johnson Thompson had been a merchant before the war and was considered very wealthy, but he had gone to the Choctaw Nation where Southern soldiers were located and stayed all during the war. He came back after the war and claimed his two brick buildings. Andy Fry , an exslave and neighbor of Thompson, told me he helped him dig up a fruit jar full of money after he came back that he had buried under the front step of one of the old brick buildings before he had left. I came to Vinita in 1888 and began work in the home of Dr. Oliver Bagby , one of the first doctors to locate in Vinita. In 1889 I was married to Columbus McNair , a slave of the McNair family, living near Pryor in Mayes county. My husband died several years ago and I have lived all alone in the home he left me in Vinita.