By Renée Gordon
ABOVE PHOTO: The Trail of Tears.
“There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs. I am and will protect them and be their friend and father.” –Andrew Jackson
Prehistoric people roamed what is now Oklahoma for thousands of years prior to the entrance of the Europeans in the 1540s. There is archeological evidence of large villages in the area as early as 600 AD and fragments of artifacts prove they traded with other tribes the length of the Mississippi River.
As white settlers began to move west across the Appalachian Mountains they began to covet the Indians’ traditional lands. The US government responded by enacting the Indian Intercourse Act in 1834. The act set aside specific land for the resettlement of Native Americans, a process begun in the 1820s and legitimized by the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The land was located west of the Mississippi River and included Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. The boundaries changed in 1854 when Kansas and Nebraska were declared territories and Indian Territory was abolished with Oklahoma’s statehood.
In 1837, the Cherokee were informed that they would have to leave their homes in the East and make their way 1,000-miles to Indian Territory. Approximately 16,000 people were forced into 13 camps to await departure. It is believed as many as 4,000 Cherokee died and more than 1,000 escaped and settled in North Carolina’s mountains. The forced journey included the Five Civilized Tribes, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. The Cherokee remember it as “Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hili-I,” “the Trail Where They Cried.” It is also referred to historically as “The Trail of Tears.” Some members of the five tribes were slave owners and their slaves made the journey with them. After the Civil War, and freedom, they were referred to as “freedmen.”
Government policy changed radically on February 8, 1887 with the passage of the General Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act. It sanctioned the parceling of reservation land into smaller individually owned plots previously held by the tribe and not by individuals. Prior to this act tribes were self-governing but tribes were granted additional land in return for acknowledging state and federal laws instead of tribal laws.
One of the most interesting stories to grow out of the convergence of the Dawes Act and the role the freedmen in the tribes is that of Sarah Rector, the wealthiest “colored” girl in the world. Sarah, a Creek freedman, was allotted 160-acres of land that proved to contain oil that yielded $300 a day in 1913 ($6533.16 in 2010 dollars) when she was eleven years old. She managed to maintain her wealth in the face of con men, murderers and marriage proposals from as far away as Europe. Sarah went on to Tuskegee Institute and later became a society doyenne in Kansas City.
On May 31, 1921, Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District was the scene of the worst race riots in our nation’s history. A black man was accused of assaulting a white woman and 2,000 whites gathered to get “justice.” When blacks confronted them a race riot ensued that decimated the 35-block district and destroyed the homes and businesses of many of the 11,000 residents and several hundred lives were lost. The Black Wall Street Memorial is on the grounds of the Greenwood Cultural Center.
Tangible monuments to the heritage and spirit of survival and perserverance of the Native Americans are everywhere in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism Group offers four award-winning tours, the Cherokee History Tour, Will Rogers History Tour, Civil War History Tour and Cherokee Old Settler Tour that immerse you in the culture and history of the Cherokee. www.Cherokeetourismok.com
Tulsa, Oklahoma lies at the heart of the state and, while the state has the largest concentration of Native Americans of any state, the greatest number reside within a 50-mile radius of Tulsa. www.visittulsa.com
The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa is an excellent place to begin a tour. Thomas Gilcrease was born in 1890 and through his mother’s Creek ancestry he was a tribal member entitled to a 160-acre allotment. His land, south of the city would become part of an oil strike. In 1922 he established Gilcrease Oil Company and began traveling throughout Europe and amassing artworks. On his Tulsa estate in 1949 he founded a public art gallery. Gilcrease was a formidable collector of Native American and Western art and today the 460-acre Gilcrease Museum boasts the largest, most comprehensive and finest collection in the world as well as seven themed gardens.
Gilcrease collected 12,000 pieces of fine art, 350,000 artifacts, books and 25,000 manuscripts, maps and documents. The collection is arranged both geographically and by Native American artistic tradition. Special note should be taken of the Seminole quilted apparel. It is believed that escaped slaves introduced the art of quilting to the Seminole.
Two gems of the Revolutionary Gallery are documents related to the Founding Fathers. The first is a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence sent to Franklin in France, the only surviving diplomatic transcription. On July 2, 1776, Jefferson wrote a letter in response to an accusation by the Virginia Legislature of his wasting time in Philadelphia. He writes to a friend, “Wait until they see what I have been up to.”
The Kravis Discovery Center on the lower level is filled with artifacts arranged by type in numbered drawers that pull out. Adjacent computer stations allow visitors to locate information on the objects by individual number, tribe or type.
Plan to spend a substantial amount of time here. It is open 10 AM to 5 PM and is only closed on Mondays. www.gilcrease.org
Claremore, Ok is located 21-miles from Tulsa and it is here that you can thoroughly explore the life of Will Rogers, actor, author and humorist, travel Route 66 and visit world class museums. The city’s documented history dates from 1830 when the Osage and Cherokee had a territorial battle over Clermont Mound. www.visitclaremore.com
Modern Downtown Claremore has become a shopper’s paradise. It is filled with more than 250 antique shops as well as trendy eclectic eateries and unique stores. You will also find the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum. The museum displays more than 14,000 objects from its collection, the largest of its type in the world. www.thegunmuseum.com
The 400-acre Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch complex features picnic facilities, outdoor living history exhibits, an 1879 barn and the 2-story, 2200- sq. ft, ranch house in which Rogers was born. The house was originally 200-yards from Lake Oologah but has been relocated slightly inland. www.willrogers.com
Will Rogers’ crypt overlooks Claremore and is located on the 20-acre Will Rogers Memorial Museum campus steps away from the museum. The museum is stunning and showcases his life and times in 12 interactive galleries. Rogers was born in 1879 of Cherokee heritage. He inherited two slaves and credited a black man, Dan Walker, with teaching him to rope. He became the highest paid actor in Hollywood and authored six books. In 1935, he died in a plane crash in Point Barrow, Alaska.
The Cherokee Heritage Center, Tsa-La-Gi, was founded in 1963 on the grounds of the former Cherokee National Female Seminary. Museum tours consist of several parts, interior gallery displays, an exemplary museum shop and the Ancient Village.
The Ancient Village features a guided, living history walk through a working pre-contact village. Visitors interact with villagers and learn about traditional practices and crafts. A highlight of the tour is the Council House complete with specific areas for each of the 7 clans.
A highlight of the interior tour is the “Trail of Tears” exhibit populated with life-sized figures. As you pass among them you hear their conversation. It is extremely moving. www.cherokeeheritage.org
The 1845 George M. Murrell Historic House, Hunter’s Home, was built, by slaves, for a wealthy Cherokee family. The Greek revival home is in the classic L-shape with a detached kitchen and several dependencies and two-thirds of the home and furnishings are original. A one-room cabin on the grounds interprets the life of the average Cherokee family.
The Murrell’s owned approximately 42 slaves and the slave cabin area remains visible today. On the 2nd floor of the mansion there is a display on Cherokee slave owners. The 1860 census lists 1,816 black slaves owned by 382 Cherokee. www.okhistory.org/outreach/homes/geomurrell.html
The newest historic site on the Cherokee History Trail will be the 1844 Cherokee National Supreme Court. It is situated inside the state’s oldest public building. The 3-story site showcases a Cherokee printing press, artifacts, original cells, sheriff’s office and gallows. The 1898 Curtis Act brought about a shift from tribal law and in 1900 the Cherokee Nation granted pardons to everyone convicted in their courts. This is a rare and important historic structure. It is located in Tahlequah. OK. www.cherokeetourismok.com/Attractions
To make this historic journey complete the perfect accommodations can be found at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa. This Cherokee venture offers a first –class hotel, dining, entertainment and shopping. The décor will rock you and visitors should be sure to check out the wall of images of Jimi Hendrix a wonderful acknowledgement of his Cherokee heritage. www.hardrockcasinotulsa.com
“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”
I wish you smooth and enlightening travels!