Slave or Free? The Saga of the Beams Family

Black Choctaw family

Black Choctaw family

The declining status of free people of color during the 19th century, and the increasing precariousness of their lives, can be seen in dramatic relief in Indian Territory.  Attitudes towards African-Americans, free or enslaved, varied considerably among the “five civilized tribes”— Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Cherokees—but as the Civil War drew nearer, the attitudes of the mixed-blood elites became closer to those of slaveholding whites. Caught in the confusion between whites and Indians, tribes and factions, were three generations of the mixed-race Beams family. Their story is told in detail in a fascinating article by Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr. and Mary Ann Littlefield.

In Mississippi in 1823 a white man named William Beams, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation by virtue of his previous marriage to a Choctaw woman, took his enslaved second wife Nelly and their children to Illinois to set them free.  They returned to the Choctaw Nation, where Nelly and her children lived as free people for the next five years before moving back to Illinois.  After William’s death, Nelly and her children unwisely returned to the Choctaw Nation, now removed to Indian Territory.  In 1832, their Choctaw half-siblings decided to sell them.

That action set off a 22-year saga of flight and struggle.  Although the entire family, then numbering eleven people, was registered as free in the Mississippi courts, a man named John B Davis “bought” them from their siblings, rounded them up, and kept them captive for a year, until the Choctaw chief intervened and ordered them released.

For the next eight years, Davis made repeated attempts to capture the family. Twice, he took his case to Washington, where, by misrepresenting the case as one of the applicability of the Fugitive Slave Act, he succeeded in convincing the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of War that the Beams belonged to him.  Each time, however, they were protected by lower-level Federal officers who knew that they were free.

Davis then gave up and sold his claim.  It was subsequently resold several times, twice to men who didn’t bother with legal process but simply resorted to kidnapping.  This time, instead of protecting the family as they had before, the Choctaw authorities actually helped in their capture.  Four of the family members were sold, and one killed; the kidnappers in both cases were tried and acquitted.  In 1847, both Davis and one of the remote purchasers of his claim went to a second Commissioner of Indian Affairs and a second Secretary of War; but the family, now numbering about 50 people, had already been warned and had scattered.

In 1854, the chain of protection finally broke.  It pains me to report that it was my own ancestor, Thomas Drew, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern Superintendency, who fumbled—partly because of a three-month delay in receiving instructions from Washington, and partly, perhaps, from distractions caused by family problems.

As a result of Drew’s mistake, eight family members were captured.  They were taken to the Cherokee Nation, where a missionary who knew the family promptly intervened.  A missionary to the Choctaws and several friends of the Beams family joined in, and persuaded the government to take the case to court.  The family members were detained for a year and a half, until, after the briefest of deliberations, an Arkansas jury decided they were free.  In the opinion of one contemporary lawyer, the vigorous manner in which the case was prosecuted helped to put a stop to the kidnapping industry that had flourished throughout the Indian nations.  Thomas Drew had been fired a year before it was heard.


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