MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

February 23, 2014

Underground Railroad in Indian Territory?

By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History

— Documentation on the work of the Underground Railroad can be difficult to find. Naturally, the passage of escaping slaves had to be kept secret, so the route and stops along this road to freedom are not always known. Much of what we know about the efforts to help runaways comes to us through the stories passed down orally through the generations.

Some of those stories tell that Indian Territory, though far removed from the more well-known Underground Railroad routes, had its own place on the freedom trail. It is an ironic twist in Oklahoma history, since members of the Five Civilized Tribes held slaves. But there were abolitionists in the territory as well, just as there were throughout the South.

What made Indian Territory a destination for runaway slaves was this simple fact. Once individuals crossed out of Texas, Arkansas or Louisiana, they were no longer in the United States. Law officers from the states had no jurisdiction to make arrests or capture fugitives in the sovereign nations of the Five Tribes. Bounty hunters were not welcome either. This information was surely passed through the slave quarters in surrounding states.

The Creek and Seminole Nations had a long history of tolerating and even welcoming runaway slaves into their land. The Seminoles were a mixture of Negro and Indian members who found refuge in the swamplands of Georgia and Florida. This openness to runaways would have made the Creek Nation a hopeful destination for escaping slaves in the decade before the Civil War. They could hide in the sparsely settled land of Indian Territory or pass through to other “railroad stations” in free Kansas.

The Honey Springs Battlefield site has recently received designation as one of those “stations” on the Underground Railroad. The Honey Springs area was a well-known resting spot on the Texas Road. Its spring of clear, sweet water made it a place where travelers could stop and replenish water supplies while traveling through the territory.

It could well be that the many missions that operated churches and schools in Indian Territory also were Underground Railroad stops. Most of the missionaries who worked at these sites were from New England and were staunch abolitionists.  Though not documented, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that these abolitionists would have been willing to provide a meal, medical attention and a place to hide for runaways.

One of the best known individuals who escaped to Indian Territory was Bass Reeves. Fleeing from Texas, he lived for several years in Indian Territory, learning the land and the languages of the Five Tribes. This time spent in the Territory well equipped him for his later work as a federal marshal, serving Judge Isaac Parker’s court in Fort Smith, Ark. Reeves later served the federal court in Muskogee.

We may never know exactly how many individuals passed through Indian Territory along the Underground Railroad, but we can appreciate the courage and faith it must have taken for all who were a part of this passage to freedom.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.