Sarah Wilson

Oklahoma Writers' Project



Age 87 yrs.

Fort Gibson, Okla.

I was a Cherokee slave and now I am a Cherokee freedwoman, and besides

that I am a quarter Cherokee my own self. And this is the way it is.

I was born in 1850 along the Arkansas river about half way between

Fort Smith and old Fort Coffee and the Skullyville boat landing on the

river. The farm place was on the north side of the river on the old

wagon road what run from Fort Smith out to Fort Gibson, and that old

road was like you couldn't hardly call a road when I first remember

seeing it. The ox teams bog down to they bellies in some places, and

the wagon wheel mighty nigh bust on the big rocks in some places.

I remember seeing soldiers coming along that old road lots of times,

and freighting wagons, and wagons what we all know carry mostly

wiskey, and that was breaking the law, too! Them soldiers catch the

man with that whiskey they sure put him up for a long time, less'n he

put some silver in they hands. That's what my Uncle Nick say. That

Uncle Nick a mean Negro, and he ought to know about that.

Like I tell you, I am quarter Cherokee. My mammy was named Adeline and

she belong to old Master Ben Johnson. Old Master Ben bring my

grandmammy out to that Sequoyah district way back when they call it

Arkansas, mammy tell me, and God only know who my mammy's pa is, but

mine was old Master Ben's boy, Ned Johnson.

Old Master Ben come from Tennessee when he was still a young man, and

he bring a whole passel of slaves and my mammy say they all was kin to

one another, all the slaves I mean. He was a white man that married a

Cherokee woman, and he was a devil on this earth. I don't want to

talk about him none.

White folks was mean to us like the devil, and so I jest let them

pass. When I say my brothers and sisters I mean my half brothers and

sisters, you know, but maybe some of them was my whole kin anyways, I

don't know. They was Lottie that was sold off to a Starr because she

wouldn't have a baby, and Ed, Dave, Ben, Jim and Ned.

My name is Sarah now but it was Annie until I was eight years old. My

old Mistress' name was Annie and she name me that, and Mammy was

afraid to change it until old Mistress died, then she change it. She

hate old Mistress and that name too.

Lottie's name was Annie, too, but Mammy changed it in her own mind but

she was afraid to say it out loud, a-feared she would get a whipping.

When sister was sold off Mammy tell her to call herself Annie when she

was leaving but call herself Lottie when she git over to the Starrs.

And she done it too. I seen her after that and she was called Lottie

all right.

The Negroes lived all huddled up in a bunch in little one-room log

cabins with stick and mud chimneys. We lived in one, and it had beds

for us children like shelves in the wall. Mammy need to help us up

into them.

Grandmammy was mighty old and Mistress was old too. Grandmammy set on

the Master's porch and minded the baby mostly. I think it was Young

Master's. He was married to a Cherokee girl. They was several of the

boys but only one girl, Nicie. The old Master's boys were Aaron, John,

Ned, Cy and Nathan. They lived in a double log house made out of

square hewed logs, and with a double fireplace out of rock where they

warmed theirselves on one side and cooked on the other. They had a

long front porch where they set most of the time in the summer, and

slept on it too.

There was over a hundred acres in the Master's farm, and it was all

bottom land too, and maybe you think he let them slaves off easy! Work

from daylight to dark! They all hated him and the overseer too, and

before slavery ended my grandmammy was dead and old Mistress was dead

and old Master was mighty feeble and Uncle Nick had run away to the

North soldiers and they never got him back. He run away once before,

about ten years before I was born, Mammy say, but the Cherokees went

over in the Creek Nation and got him back that time.

The way he made the Negroes work so hard, old Master must have been

trying to get rich. When they wouldn't stand for a whipping he would

sell them.

I saw him sell a old woman and her son. Must have been my aunt. She

was always pestering around trying to get something for herself, and

one day she was cleaning the yard he seen her pick up something and

put it inside her apron. He flew at her and cussed her, and started

like he was going to hit her but she just stood right up to him and

never budged, and when he come close she just screamed out loud and

ran at him with her fingers stuck out straight and jabbed him in the

belly. He had a big soft belly, too, and it hurt him. He seen she

wasn't going to be afraid, and he set out to sell her. He went off on

his horse to get some men to come and bid on her and her boy, and all

us children was mighty scared about it.

They would have hangings at Fort Smith courthouse, and old Master

would take a slave there sometimes to see the hanging, and that slave

would come back and tell us all scary stories about the hanging.

One time he whipped a whole bunch of the men on account of a fight in

the quarters, and then he took them all to Fort Smith to see a

hanging. He tied them all in the wagon, and when they had seen the

hanging he asked them if they was scared of them dead men hanging up

there. They all said yes, of course, but my old uncle Nick was a bad

Negro and he said, "No, I aint a-feared of them nor nothing else in

this world", and old Master jumped on him while he was tied and beat

him with a rope, and then when they got home he tied old Nick to a

tree and took his shirt off and poured the cat-o-nine-tails to him

until he fainted away and fell over like he was dead.

I never forget seeing all that blood all over my uncle, and if I could

hate that old Indian any more I guess I would, but I hated him all I

could already I reckon.

Old Master wasn't the only hellion neither. Old Mistress just as bad,

and she took most of her wrath out hitting us children all the time.

She was afraid of the grown Negroes. Afraid of what they might do

while old Master was away, but she beat us children all the time.

She would call me, "Come here Annie!" and I wouldn't know what to do.

If I went when she called "Annie" my mammy would beat me for answering

to that name, and if I didn't go old Mistress would beat me for that.

That made me hate both of them, and I got the devil in me and I

wouldn't come to either one. My grandmammy minded the Master's yard,

and she set on the front porch all the time, and when I was called I

would run to her and she wouldn't let anybody touch me.

When I was eight years old old Mistress died, and Grandmammy told me

why old Mistress picked on me so. She told me about me being half

Mister Ned's blood. Then I knowed why Mister Ned would say, "Let her

along, she got big big blood in her", and then laugh.

Young Mister Ned was a devil, too. When his mammy died he went out and

"blanket married." I mean he brung in a half white and half Indian

woman and just lived with her.

The slaves would get rations every Monday morning to do them all week.

The Overseer would weigh and measure according to how many in the

family, and if you run out you just starve till you get some more. We

all know the overseer steal some of it for his own self but we can't

do anything, so we get it from the old Master some other way.

One day I was carrying water from the spring and I run up on

Grandmammy and Uncle Nick skinning a cow. "What you-all doing?", I

say, and they say keep my mouth shut or they kill me. They was

stealing from the Master to piece out down at the quarters with. Old

Master had so many cows he never did count the difference.

I guess I wasn't any worse than any the rest of the Negroes, but I was

bad to tell little lies. I carry scars on my legs to this day where

Old Master whip me for lying, with a rawhide quirt he carry all the

time for his horse. When I lie to him he just jump down off'n his

horse and whip me good right there.

In slavery days we all ate sweet potatoes all the time. When they

didn't measure out enough of the tame kind we would go out in the

woods and get the wild kind. They growed along the river sand betaween

where we lived and Wilson's Rock, out west of our place.

Then we had boiled sheep and goat, mostly goat, and milk and wild

greens and corn pone. I think the goat meat was the best, but I aint

had no teeth for forty years now, and a chunk of meat hurts my

stomach. So I just eats grits mostly. Besides hoeing in the field,

chopping sprouts, shearing sheep, carrying water, cutting firewood,

picking cotton and sewing I was the one they picked to work Mistress'

little garden where she raised things from seed they got in Fort

Smith. Green peas and beans and radishes and things like that. If we

raised a good garden she give me a little of it, and if we had a poor

one I got a little anyhow even when she didn't give it.

For clothes we had homespun cotton all the year round, but in winter

we had a sheep skin jacket with the wool left on the inside. Sometimes

sheep skin shoes with the wool on the inside and sometimes real cow

leather shoes with wood peggings for winter, but always barefooted in

summer, all the men and women too.

Lord, I never earned a dime of money in slave days for myself but

plenty for the old Master. He would send us out to work the neighbors

field and he got paid for it, but we never did see any money.

I remember the first money I ever did see. It was a little while after

we was free, and I found a greenback in the road at Fort Gibson and I

didn't know what it was. Mammy said it was money and grabbed for it,

but I was still a hell cat and I run with it. I went to the little

sutler store and laid it down and pointed to a pitcher I been wanting.

The man took the money and give me the pitcher, but I don't know to

this day how much money it was and how much was the pitcher, but I

still got that pitcher put away. It's all blue and white stripedy.

Most of the work I done off the plantation was sewing. I learned from

my Granny and I loved to sew. That was about the only thing I was

industrious in. When I was just a little bitsy girl I found a steel

needle in the yard that belong to old Mistress. My mammy took it and I

cried. She put it in her dress and started for the field. I cried so

old Mistress found out why and made Mammy give me the needle for my


We had some neighbor Indians named Starr, and Mrs. Starr used me

sometimes to sew. She had nine boys and one girl, and she would sew up

all they clothes at once to do for a year. She would cut out the cloth

for about a week, and then send the word around to all the neighbors,

and old Mistress would send me because she couldn't see good to sew.

They would have stacks of drawers, shirts, pants and some dresses all

cut out to sew up.

I was the only Negro that would set there and sew in that bunch of

women, and they always talked to me nice and when they eat I get part

of it too, out in the kitchen.

One Negro girl, Eula Davis, had a mistress sent her too, one time, but

she wouldn't sew. She didn't like me because she said I was too white

and she played off to spite the white people. She got sent home, too.

When old Mistress die I done all the sewing for the family almost. I

could sew good enough to go out before I was eight years old, and when

I got to be about ten I was better than any other girl on the place

for sewing.

I can still quilt without my glasses, and I have sewed all night long

many a time while I was watching Young Master's baby after old

Mistress died.

They was over a hundred acres in the plantation, and I don't know how

many slaves, but before the War ended lots of the men had run away.

Uncle Nick went to the North and never come home, and Grandmammy died

about that time.

We was way down across the Red river in Texas at that time, close to

Shawneetown of the Choctaw Nation but just across the river on the

other side in Texas bottoms. Old Master took us there in covered

wagons when the Yankee soldiers got too close by in the first part of

the War. He hired the slaves out to Texas people because he didn't

make any crops down there, and we all lived in kind of camps. That's

how some of the men and my uncle Nick got to slip off to the north

that way.

Old Master just rant and rave all the time we was in Texas. That's the

first time I ever saw a doctor. Before that when a slave sick the old

women give them herbs, but down there one day old Master whip a Negro

girl and she fall in the fire, and he had a doctor come out to fix her

up where she was burnt. I remember Granny giving me clabber milk when

I was sick, and when I was grown I found out it had had medicine in


Before freedom we didn't have no church, but slipped around to the

other cabins and had a little singing sometimes. Couldn't have anybody

show us the letters either, and you better not let them catch you pick

up a book even to look at the pictures, for it was against a Cherokee

law to have a Negro read and write or to teach a Negro.

Some Negroes believed in buckeyes and charms but I never did. Old

Master had some good boys, named Aaron, John, Ned, Cy and Nat and they

told me the charms was no good. Their sister Nicie told me too, and

said when I was sick just come and tell her.

They didn't tell us anything about Christmas and New Year though, and

all we done was work.

When the War was ended we was still in Texas, and when old Master got

a letter from Fort Smith telling him the slaves was free he couldn't

read, and Young Miss read it to him. He went wild and jumped on her

and beat the devil out of her. Said she was lying to him. It near

about killed him to let us loose, but he cooled down after awhile and

said he would help us all get back home if we wanted to come.

Mammy told him she could bear her own expenses. I remember I didn't

know what "expenses" was, and I thought it was something I was going

to have to help carry all the way back.

It was a long time after he knew we was free before he told us. He

tried to keep us, I reckon, but had to let us go. He died pretty soon

after he told us, and some said his heart just broke and some said

some Negroes poisoned him. I didn't know which.

Anyways we had to straggle back the best way we could, and me and

mammy just got along one way and another till we got to a ferry over

the Red River and into Arkansas. Then we got some rides and walked

some until we got to Fort Smith. They was a lot of Negro camps there

and we stayed awhile and then started out to Fort Gibson because we

heard they was giving rations out there. Mammy knew we was Cherokee

anyway, I guess.

That trip was hell on earth. Nobody let us ride and it took us nearly

two weeks to walk all that ways, and we nearly starved all the time.

We was skin and bones and feet all bloody when we got to the Fort.

We come here to Four Mile Branch to where the Negroes was all setting

down, and pretty soon Mammy died.

I married Oliver Wilson on January second, 1878. He used to belong to

Mr. DeWitt Wilson of Tahlequah, and I think the old people used to

live down at Wilson Rock because my husband used to know all about

that place and the place where I was borned. Old Mister DeWitt Wilson

give me a pear tree the next year after I was married, and it is still

out in my yard and bears every year.

I was married in a white and black checkedy calico apron that I

washed for Mr. Tim Walker's mother Lizzie all day for, over close to

Ft. Gibson, and I was sure a happy woman when I married that day. Him

and me both got our land on our Cherokee freedman blood and I have

lived to bury my husband and see two great grandchildren so far.

I bless God about Abraham Lincoln. I remember when my mammy sold

pictures of him in Fort Smith for a Jew. If he give me my freedom I

know he is in Heaven now.

I heard a lot about Jefferson Davis in my life. During the War we hear

the Negroes singing the soldier song about hand Jeff Davis to a apple

tree, and old Master tell about the time we know Jeff Davis. Old

Master say Jeff Davis was just a dragoon soldier out of Fort Gibson

when he bring his family out here from Tennessee, and while they was

on the road from Fort Smith to where they settled young Jeff Davis and

some more dragoon soldiers rid up and talked to him a long time. He

say my grandmammy had a bundle on her head, and Jeff Davis say, "Where

you going Aunty?" and she was tired and mad and she said, "I don't

know, to Hell I reckon", and all the white soldiers laughed at her and

made her that much madder.

I joined the Four Mile Branch church in 1879 and Sam Solomon was a

Creek negro and the first preacher I ever heard preach. Everybody

ought to be in the church and ready for that better home on the other


All the old slaves I know are dead excepting two, and I will be going

pretty soon I reckon, but I'm glad I lived to see the day the Negroes

get the right treatment if they work good and behave themselves right.

They don't have to have no pass to walk abroad no more, and they can

all read and write now, but it's a tarnation shame some of them go and

read the wrong kind of things anyways.

Sarah Taylor Sarah Woods Burke facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail