Cow Tom Bio

Cow Tom Bio


ChickenBones: A Journal

for African-American & Multiethnic Literary & Artistic Themes



When the nation reassembled after the war,  Chief Sands appointed Cow Tom as an official chief.

Harry Island was nearby working now as the official interpreter for the US Army.



Cow Tom

Bio-Sketch of a Leader & Translator of the Muskogee Nation


The history of the Creek Nation must not be written without the name of Cow Tom. His presence in the Creek diaspora and its reformation in the West the leaders of the Muskogee Nation were very dependent. Of course, his name is often omitted in many circles because of his African ancestry. For those who seek the entire side of Muskogee Creek history, Cow Tom’s name  and his deed must be considered in detail. But a prevailing Afri-phobia still dominates this nation which dismissed the rights and significance of Creek Freedmen in 1979, in an effort to follow Jim Crow sentiments of 100 years ago. Cow Tom–like his couterparts, Harry Island and Sugar George, epitomized the energy, spirit and intelligence of the African leaders of the Muskogee Nation. Born approximately in 1810, Cow Tom was a slave to the Muskogee leader Yargee of the Upper Creeks, in Alabama. As a young man, Tom tended the cattle of Chief Yargee, thus the source of his name.  In the 1830’s when the U.S. government moved the Nations to the West, Tom along with his family  were also force to make this westward journey with Yargee. His family survived the relocation. He became close to Yargee, because unlike the chief, Tom possessed the linguistic skills necessary to communicate with both the Creek and white men. Before removal, Yargee, the chief, earned over $300 a year by leasing Tom, his slave, to the US Army, desperate in needed of interpreters. 

There were other black interpreters, but Cow Tom was described in the book by John H. Major as the Negro Creek upon whom General Jessup most trusted. (1) 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 blacks 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, the black Seminole, had done so for the Africans living among the Red Stick warriors who later became the Seminoles, Tom insured the safety of several hundred Africans who moved with the Creeks during the removal.  After arrival in Indian Territory, Chief Yargee depended further upon Cow Tom. Although a cattle man in his youth, Cow Tom’s job became primarily 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 Indian Territory. He spoke of Cow Tom often in the diary, noting how the Negro always spoke for the chief who knew no English. And as a result of his services, Cow Tom acquired enough money to purchase his own freedom and that of his family. As a free man, he thus began to receive  payments directly for his services as an interpreter, earning more money than the highest paid blacksmith. By this means, Cow Tom also acquired land and livestock of his own.  There were two sets or clans of Creeks — Upper and Lower. Chief Yargee was the head of the Upper Creek clan, who had little interest in mixing with whites. They were often in conflict with the Lower Creeks — mixed blood Creeks who had intermarried with whites and thus embraced the sentiments of their southern white neighbors before relocation. The Lower Creeks  later sought to expel the Africans from the Nation, and  also signed a treaty with the Confederacy to preserve their interest in African slavery. 

After the South lost the War the Lower Creeks constantly battled the presence of Africans in the Nation, this hostility continued into the late 20th century, when they successfully removed Africans  from the Nation. They rewrote the Nation’s constitution and thus removed their names names from the in 1979. This reactionary action took place only eleven years after the end of the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of  Martin Luther King — all events that  had their impact on the lives of Africans in Oklahoma. The Upper Creeks provided an environment, however, in which Africans like Cow Tom could live and thrive. The Upper Creeks were the more traditional people, who shunned contact with white settlers, and the Lower Creeks needed few black interpreters, as their English, was sufficient, and their sentiments more agreeable to those of white Southerners. At the time of the Civil War, many persons fled to Kansas, but Cow Tom managed to remain in the Oklahoma Territory, living almost in isolation from conflict. However, after the Battle of Honey Springs, many of the Confederate Lower Creeks settled in the area. They brought hostility toward African with them. Cow Tom and his family moved to Ft. Gibson with other refugees. 

It was at Ft. Gibson, that Cow Tom became a chief within 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 of Ft. Gibson needed his skills to communicate with the Creek refugees. The refugees of the Upper Creek clan needed him to talk to the white soldiers. He was not appointed officially chief, but he assumed the role out of necessity for no other chiefs were present, and the role suited him well.   In Kansas, the refugees there, also had need of an interpreter and a similar situation arose for Cow Tom’s close friend Harry Island to emerge also as an interpreter. Even after the War, Harry island and Cow Tom 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, among the Upper Creeks, the Africans and the Creeks became one Nation. Having to rely upon the Unions soldiers, the indigenous, who spoke no English, needed this in between. The former African slave were isolated on two sides found a certain amount of comfort and security among the Upper Creek. They became one people having been forced off their land making a new life in a war-torn world. The soldiers who spoke no English conducted business in the camp and to so in an orderly way, giving instructions and such, Cow Tom’s role thus became vital to all. When the nation reassembled after the war,  Chief Sands appointed Cow Tom as an official chief. Harry Island was nearby working now as the official interpreter for the US Army. When leaders of the nation were sent to Ft. Smith to negotiate the official treaties of peace the Creek Nation was the only nation of four nations to use the Africans in an official role.  In this post-War environment, Cow Tom had his enemies as the Confederate Creeks reasserted their authority under the direction of Sam Checote. Cow Tom,  Harry Island and others tried to keep  abreast of all official arrangements with the U.S. government and the maneuverings of the Lower Creeks, for these mixed blood Creeks were determined to remove all traces of Africans from their nation. Belief of racial superiority was prevalent among them, and their influence was strong. Cow Tom, along with Ketch Barnett, and Harry Island, made a trip to Washington, unknown to their Creek brethren, to insure that the Africans would be treated fairly and included in benefits extended to the citizens of the Creek Nation. 

The census taken in the Nation excluded the Freedmen. So the three –Cow Tom, Ketch Barnett, and Harry Island — acted quickly and wisely and made their appeal in Washington, to insure benefits and inclusion of rights for the Freedmen. These rights would hold, until the late 1970’s when the Nation finally establish a modern apartheid rule, eliminating Africans who had been a part of the Nation for more than 180 years. A faction of the Lower Creek followed Cow Tom, Ketch Barnett and Harry Island to Washington and argued against integration of the African into the Nation of their birth. The sentiment and fear was that the Africans dilute the funds directed to their Nation. However, the African Creek freedmen received their Nation citizenship and land allotments.

Cow Tom retired eventually to farm and family life, and to his cattle business. He became the patriarch and the ancestor of the prosperous Simmons Oil Family of Oklahoma. The Oil magnate Jake Simmons is the grandson of Cow Tom. The legacy of this powerful African Creek leader, carried on through the tenacity, intelligence, and insightfulness of his descendants. The fastidiousness that many black Oklahomans have developed have emerged from the spirit of Cow Tom that inspired many African Creek, African Cherokee, African Seminole, African Choctaw and African Choctaws to succeed. It is to Cow Tom, Sugar George, Harry Island, and many many others, who created powerful legacies of human success, human dignity, and human pride.  The citizenry in the Indian Territory of the Oklahoma Black Indians thrived due to the successes of Cow Tom, and much self-esteem was instilled into African Indian culture. Many have this sprit today, though the name Cow Tom has slipped away from household use. Cow Tom died in 1874. He and his wife Amy are buried in the Cain Creek cemetery.


The Horned Snake


Horned Snake, My Sister!

Horned Snake, My Brother!


Take me to your snake towns,

Give me your magic cane!


Show me the way to your sacred cave!


Horned Snake, make me the hunter

my grandfather was

with his name Yabi Odja!

                      Yabi Odja!

With his string of turtles

                       tied to his back

                       held together

with hickory bark: Yabo Odja,

my grandfather, the hunter!


Source: Gerald Hauman’s Meditations with Animals: Native American Bestiary (1986)

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update 13 May 2012




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