|By: Savannah Grandey, Director of Interpretation
The first confederacy in the southeast region, much like the more popular one that followed in the 19th century, was anything but monolithic. Differences among Creek people stemmed from their primary loyalties to clan and town, the extent to which they interacted with EuroAmericans, and the futures they imagined for themselves. Leaders of the Creek confederacy struggled to align the personalities, agendas, and engagements of several individual Creek towns and chiefs into feasible plans of actions and policies that would best preserve their lifeways, power, and slippery solidarity. Nowhere was this lack of uniformity more apparent than in their relationships with African Americans and their adoption or rejection of the concept of race and slavery within a market economy.
Slavery existed among the tribes that made up the Creek confederacy before Europeans arrived. People enslaved by Creeks were often war captives, women and children who remained among their enslavers as servants, were traded for various reasons, or were incorporated into Creek society through marriage or merit. While all slavery is offensive to basic human rights, as practiced by Creeks it was not race-based, justified by malleable pseudoscientific ideologies, or used to amass individual or societal wealth.
Before the ever rising tide of European bodies encroached upon Creek society, the Creeks had little use for using complexion to categorize people. Though they certainly noted the physical appearance of Europeans and Africans, Creeks initially categorized people based on attributes other than complexion. For example, some referred to all Spanish people as Christians and up until the early 1800s, many Creeks called any person who encroached on their land “Virginians,” a term applied to both EuroAmericans and African Americans. Creeks learned about the concept of race through their interactions with EuroAmericans.
Historian Claudio Saunt notes the fluid status of Africans and African Americans in the Old Southwest indicated the somewhat haphazard spread of EuroAmerican culture, especially the notions of private property and centralized power. Private property fiercely protected by the laws of a centralized government flew in the face of the communal values and tribalism that were a sustainable way of life for the Creeks. Not surprisingly, those Creeks who accumulated wealth through the market economy were more likely to enslave African Americans. By the 1790s, this population was first concentrated near the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers (present day Alabama), where plantations served as models of racial segregation. On the other end of the spectrum, the Creek towns around the lower Chattahoochee River and in the north part of present day Florida often adopted African Americans as equal members of their societies.
Enslaved African Americans and Creeks standing against the spread of plantation agriculture had common interests. Along with the constant westward lurch of plantations came more rigid attitudes about race and private (human) property, with each plantation becoming an example of the racial hierarchy that prescribed much of the experiences of blacks. The collective clearing and burning that preceded the establishment of plantations cut into Creeks’ hunting areas and signaled increased infiltration of settlers who disregarded Creeks’ claims to land. One Creek settlement near the Suwanne River had a chief who was noted at the time as a “black half breed.” Philatouche, also called “Black Factor,” fought for the British during the Revolution, participated in attacks on EuroAmerican settlements, and offered assistance to Spain when rumors swirled that the U.S. and France were planning to attack Florida.
In addition to the two extremes of African Americans being enslaved by Creeks or incorporated into society, some found themselves enslaved alongside Creeks on plantations. Some Creeks “stole” enslaved people when they raided EuroAmerican properties. Sometimes enslaved African Americans willingly joined these Indians and eventually followed them into Creek country. Finally, a telling example of the messiness of wealth, motives, and race on a frontier, Ninnywageechee, recorded as an “Indian and negro mestizo,” was a trader among the Lower Creeks who enslaved African Americans on his plantation.
Laws passed by Creek leaders in 1818 indicated some extent of their adoption of European racial attitudes. One law stated if a black man killed a Creek, the black man would be executed. If a Creek killed a black man, the Creek had to pay the person who legally owned the black man. In 1824, Creek laws disinherited any Creek who married a black person, but stopped short of outlawing marriage. Of course, laws do not always dictate behavior. Intermarriage continued under the new national law.
The increasing color-consciousness of the Creeks was a direct consequence of the spread of EuroAmerican culture. Some Creeks’ adoption of racial ideologies and practices, setting themselves apart from and above African Americans, were, perhaps, exercises in self-preservation. Maybe living in defiance of this racial hierarchy was, too. When the federal government forced the majority of Creeks from their homes in the 1830s, they carried their relatively new cultural baggage with them to Oklahoma. Slaveholding Creek families there influenced the passing of slave codes in the 1840s and 1850s that limited property ownership and outlawed sexual intercourse between a Creek and a black person. It is hard to fathom that, based on race, a Creek person could own another human in what would become Oklahoma, yet still be prohibited from stepping foot in the state of Georgia. What’s more, both groups of people suffered under discrimination laws in the Jim Crow South one hundred years later.
Race is an idea that has been used for centuries to justify the mistreatment of other people. Looking at how and when that invasive idea gained more ground, spreading and taking hold of the southeast region, may be integral in understanding how we can begin to lessen its divisive power today.
 Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733- 1816 (New York: Cambridge, 1999), 111.
 Robert Wald Sussman, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2014), 14. This idea of justifying taking Indian land on the grounds that they were not using it appropriately had larger implications that can be traced to John Locke, the 17th century architect of English colonial policy. He believed that the Indians had lost rights to their land because they were not using it properly. This supposed misuse of land was considered a “personal failure” used to justify mistreatment of nonwhites. Some people at the time (early 1700s) actually believed that “degeneration” from light skin to dark skin was a result of ways of life that were “inferior” to that of Europeans. This mindset and others like it helped to uphold the racist ideas that shaped the westward expansion of the United States and the slave economy that propelled it.
 Carla D. Pratt, “Loving in Indian Territory: Tribal Miscegenation Law in Historical Perspective” in Loving V. Vriginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage eds. Rose Cuison Villazor and Keven Noble Maiilard (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 52.
 John Ellisor, The Second Creek War: Interethnic Conflict and Collusion on a Collapsing Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 152. Georgia passed a law in 1835 making it illegal for a Creek to enter the state unless accompanied by a white person.