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Wed, 03.21.1810

Cow Tom, Interpreter born

Cow Tom (gravestone)

*The birth of Cow Tom is celebrated on this date in 1810.  He was a Black Creek Native American interpreter. 

He was born a slave in Alabama to the Muskogee leader Yargee of the Upper Creeks.  As a young man, Tom was known to tend to the cattle of Chief Yargee; thus, the name Cow Tom was applied to him.  In the 1830s, when the removal of the nations to the west occurred, Tom, along with his family, made the sojourn westward with Yargee. His family survived the death march. He became close to Yargee because, unlike the chief, Tom was fluent in several languages, including the white man's English and his native Muskogee. Before removal, Yargee, the chief, earned over $300 by leasing his slave Tom to the US Army, which desperately needed interpreters.

Tom was assigned to a white officer and then reassigned to General Jessup, the officer of the entire military campaign in Florida. There were other Black African interpreters, but Cow Tom was described in the book by John H. Major as the Negro Creek upon whom General Jessup trusted the most. (1) It is stated that the African Creek-the Negro Indians were the basis of all official action because "they were as important in any negotiation as the most exalted person present." (2)  Tom was insightful, and he realized that it would be to his advantage and the advantage of all of the other Africans who lived among the Creeks to relocate from their southern white slave masters, and thus Tom made sure that it was clear to the military that the slaves were to move westward with the Creeks.

Just as Abraham had done so for the Africans living among the Red Stick warriors who later became the Seminoles, Tom ensured the safety of several hundred Africans who moved with the Creeks during the removal.   After arrival in Indian Territory, Chief Yargee depended upon Cow Tom even more. Although a cattleman in his youth, his job was as a negotiator and interpreter for the chief. As the chief knew no English and had no interest in the language, the role of Cow Tom was critical and made him even more valuable to the Chief.   The military writer Ethan Allen Hitchcock kept a diary in 1842 and wrote about his experiences in the Indian Territory. He spoke of Cow Tom often in the diary, noting how the Negro always spoke for the chief who knew no English. 

Tom eventually earned money and was able to purchase his freedom from the chief and that of his own family. As a free man, he began to receive payment for his services as an interpreter, earning more money than the highest-paid African. He acquired land and livestock of his own.   Chief Yargee was part of the Upper Creek clan, who had little interest in mixing with whites. They often conflicted with the Lower Creeks, mixed-blood Creeks who had intermarried with whites. The Lower Creeks had embraced the sentiments of their southern white neighbors before relocation. It would later be the Lower Creeks who would seek to expel the Africans from the nation and who would immediately sign a treaty with the Confederacy to preserve their interest in African chattel slavery.

The Lower Creeks would constantly battle the presence of Africans in the nation till the late 20th century, when they would successfully remove Africans from the nation by re-writing the constitution, and removing them from the books, in 1979. (This was only ten years after the turbulent American Civil Rights movement that would also be felt in Oklahoma.)   The Upper Creeks were the people around whom Cow Tom would live and thrive. The Upper Creeks were the more traditional people who shunned contact with white settlers. The Lower Creeks needed few African interpreters, as their English was stronger, and their sentiments more aligned with white southerners. 

At the time of the American Civil War, many persons fled to Kansas, but Cow Tom managed to remain in the Territory, living almost in isolation from conflict. However, after the Battle of Honey Springs, many Confederate Lower Creeks settled in the area, bringing hostility to them. Cow Tom and his family moved to Ft. Gibson with other refugees. At Ft. Gibson, Cow Tom became the Chief of the Muskogee Nation. Being among one of the few persons who spoke Muskogee fluently as well as English, all depended upon Cow Tom; the military officers at Ft. Gibson needed him to communicate with the refugees. The refugees needed him to talk to the white soldiers. He was not appointed chief; he assumed the role which suited him well. No other tribal chief was present, and out of necessity, he assumed the role.  

In Kansas, the refugees there also had a need for an interpreter, and a similar situation arose for Cow Tom's friend Harry Island to emerge also as an interpreter. The two of them, even after the war ended, were the two most critical interpreters upon whom the nation depended.  Before the war, there was a distinction between the two people Creek and African, master and slave. After the war, the Upper Creeks became one nation, the indigenous Creek now relying upon the Union soldier, who spoke only English. The former slave had to live and find a new life among strangers from the military or those they knew from the Creek Nation. They became one people having been forced off their land, making a new life in a war-torn world. The soldiers had a need to conduct business in the camp in an orderly way, giving instructions to those who spoke no English; thus, Cow Tom's role was vital to all. 

After the war, Chief Sands appointed Cow Tom as an official chief when the nation reassembled. Harry Island was nearby, now working as the US Army's official interpreter. When leaders of the nation were sent to Ft. Smith to negotiate the official peace treaties, the Creek Nation was the only nation of 4 nations to bring Africans in an official role with them.   Cow Tom had enemies among him; however, since the Confederate Creeks had returned, under the direction of Sam Checote, Cow Tom, Harry Island, and others would have to be abreast of all issues, as these mixed-blood Creeks were determined to remove all traces of African people from their nation. Their belief was in racial superiority, and their influence was strong. Cow Tom, along with Ketch Barnett and Harry Island, had to make a trip to Washington, unknown to their Creek brethren, to ensure that their people would be treated fairly and included in benefits extended to the citizens of the Nation.

A census had already been taken in the nation that excluded the Freedmen, so the three acted quickly and wisely and made their appeal in Washington to ensure benefits and inclusion of rights for the Freedmen. These rights would hold until the late 1970s when the nation would finally establish a modern apartheid rule eliminating people who had been a part of their nation for more than 180 years.  Cow Tom, Ketch Barnett, and Harry Island were followed to Washington by a faction of Lower Creeks who would argue against the integration of the Africans into the nation of their birth. The sentiment and fear were that the Africans would dilute the funds being directed to their nation.

However, the Creek Freedmen received citizenship, land allotments, and status as citizens.  Cow Tom retired eventually to farm life and family life, and his cattle business. He became the patriarch and the ancestor of the Simmons Oil Family of Oklahoma. The Oil magnate Jake Simmons is the grandson of Cow Tom.  This powerful African Creek leader's legacy was carried on through his descendants' tenacity, intelligence, and insight.  The fastidiousness that many African in Oklahoma have developed has emerged from the spirit of Cow Tom that inspired many African Creek, African Cherokee, African Seminole, and African Choctaws to succeed.

Cow Tom, Sugar George, Harry Island, and many others created powerful legacies of human success, dignity, and pride.   The citizenry in the Indian Territory of the Oklahoma Black African Indians thrived due to the successes of Cow Tom, and much self-esteem was instilled into African Indian culture. Many have this spirit today, though the name Cow Tom has slipped away from household use.  Creek Nation history cannot be written without the name of Cow Tom. To do so is to negate the presence of the very man upon whom the leaders of the Muskogee Nation depended.

His name will be omitted in many circles because of his Black African ancestry. However, his presence in the nation was there, and for those seeking the entire story of Muskogee Creek history, Cow Tom's name must be there. To overlook his name will be a subscription to the prevailing Afri-phobia that dominates the nation that wrote out the Freedmen in 1979 to follow Jim Crow sentiments of 100 years ago.  Like his counterparts, Harry Island and Sugar George, Cow Tom epitomized the energy, spirit, and intelligence of the African leaders of the Muskogee Nation.  Cow Tom died in 1874. He and his wife Amy are buried in the Cain Creek cemetery. 

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