Tahlequah Daily Press

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May 9, 2014

Murrell Home slave exhibit

TAHLEQUAH — Daisy Allen, a Northeastern State University junior from Hulbert interning at the George M. Murrell Home, is helping develop an exhibit focusing on slavery as it existed in Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation home.

The building is a historic site maintained by the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“The Cherokees adopted the institution of slavery in the Southeast before they moved to Indian Territory and brought slaves with them to their new western homes,” Allen said. “Most Cherokee slave owners were from the mixed-blood element of the tribe, who treated their human property like the white planters in the states where they had lived before removal.”

Although he had accompanied the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, George M. Murrell was not an Indian. The son of a prominent Lynchburg, Va., family, he was born in 1808 and moved as a young man to Tennessee, where he went into business with his brother and Lewis Ross, brother of Cherokee chief John Ross. In 1834, Murrell married Minerva Ross, the oldest daughter of Lewis. After removal, prominent members of the Cherokee tribe built large homes at Park Hill, near the tribal capital at Tahlequah. Construction began in 1844 on Murrell’s home, which was a spacious two-story Greek Revival-style house known as  “Hunter’s Home” because of Murrell’s fondness for fox hunting.

“Park Hill’s flinty hills did not support the large-scale production of cash crops that provided work for most Southern slaves,” Allen said. “Instead of working in cotton or tobacco fields, Murrell’s slaves tended his apple orchard, served as blacksmiths, maintained the family garden, and attended the family in its home.”

Allen’s research revealed that by 1851, of the 17-18,000 residents of the Cherokee Nation, 1,844 were slaves and 64 were free blacks. Only 400 of the 1,400 mixed-blood families owned slaves. A few prominent mixed-bloods augmented their income as slave traders, and Tahlequah had a slave market.

Archaeological surveys of the area around the Murrell Home revealed the remains of slave cabins built of logs, and family accounts describe slave quarters in the attic of the home. Like slaves in the states of the South, those serving the family in the home enjoyed a higher social standing than blacks employed outside.

In researching slavery among the Cherokees, Allen used Rudia Halliburton’s book, “Red over Black: Black Slavery Among the Cherokee Indians.” Halliburton, a retired NSU historian, was among the first to study slavery among the Indians.

Halliburton pointed out that Alice Robertson, Oklahoma’s first female member of Congress and granddaughter of Cherokee missionary Samuel A. Worcester, was impressed by the appearance of the Murrell family at her grandfather’s Park Hill church on Sundays. Years later, she recalled they arrived in an elegant coach driven by a black coachman, accompanied by a footman “with a high cocked hat.”

The Murrells and other prominent Park Hill families experienced the same problems as slave owners in the southern states – runaways, defiance, stealing, and malingering. Their response was also similar. Runaways were hunted with dogs; disobedient and disrespectful blacks were whipped and sometimes sold; and to identify their “property,” some Cherokees branded their slaves.

Even slaves who enjoyed elevated status demonstrated their resistance by attempting to escape. George Murrell’s coachman ran away, prompting his owner to place an ad in the Cherokee Advocate, offering a $50 reward for his return.

The exhibit, which is scheduled to open May 2, will feature panels describing slavery in the Cherokee Nation, focusing on the Murrell slaves. Several artifacts will be on display, including tongs used by the plantation’s blacksmith, a blanket, a cooking pot, and a bell that may have been used to summon house slaves. Some of the items were discovered during recent archaeological work at the historic site.

Allen is also assisting the staff of the historic site in researching an exhibit booklet that will provide background information concerning the Murrell Home and the slaves who belonged to the family. Research is based on material from the Murrell Home and documents available at NSU’s John Vaughan Library and its Special Collections Department.

Allen is working under the supervision of Amanda Pritchett, an historical interpreter at the Murrell Home with a Bachelor of Art in History and Meetings and Destination Management in 2005, and an Master of Arts in American Studies in 2007 from NSU. Dr. Suzanne Farmer, assistant professor of history, is directing Allen’s internship for Northeastern’s history department.

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