October 26, 2004

The Freedmen: Harry Island was an official U.S. Interpreter for the Muskogee Cre


A significant number of Afro-Americans escaped or fled from slavery and eventually settled in the West, where they were adopted by Indian tribes and accepted into the tribal structure as equals. Many even assumed roles of leadership. Harry Island served as one of the official U.S. Interpreters with the Muskogee Creek Nation. He was present during many official hearings during the 1860s and 70s in the years following the Civil War.

The “official” perspective given by historians about Harry Island is that the is believed to have “tricked” the Creeks, by including benefits for Freedmen in all negotiations. Yet, Harry Island was himself a citizens of the nation, having lived, practiced the customs and spoken the language of the land of his birth during his entire life. 

It would seem most improbable that he would have excluded his own people, who were a part of the same nation, from benefits accorded to his nation. It is interesting now that 20th and 21st century scholars would have expected him to have ostracized several hundred African Creek Citizens, or for any to have expected him to do so. 

The late Angie Debo, noted Oklahoma historian wrote about Harry Island in The Road to Disappearance the book about the Creek Nation, and she described Harry Island as a “shrewd Creek Negro who served as interpreter and apparently looked after the interest of his race.” (1)

Harry Island was utilized most often by the nation, because of his fluency in both English and Muskogee. He had other African contemporaries who were also interpreters—Silas Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and John Meyers. During the hearings for the Loyal Creek Claims, Harry Island served as government interpreter for Louisa Tiger and others, who were refugees from the War, from the Muskogee Nation. (2)

Ketch Barnett and Cow Tom joined Harry Island as part of the official delegation of African Creeks making claims. Island is said to have been among the strongest voices to insure that the Freedmen were included among the Loyal Creeks. The reason is that the nation initially wanted to exclude their African citizens from receiving benefits extended to the nation. This attitude was to later come into fruition as years later in violation of the Treaty of 1866, the nations would become successful of exclusion once again. 

In March of 1867, payments began to the Creek citizens who remained Loyal to the Union in the Civil War. Dunn, and Indian agent prepared a roll of the Negro Creeks, entitled to receive payments. Sam Checote tried to exclude the blacks, and immediately Harry Island went to Washington to protest. He was accompanied on this trip by Cow Tom and Ketch Barnett. Harry Island is remembered for his skills as a negotiator, and is remembered with reverence by the Freedmen and descendants of Freedmen. During his lifetime, he was able to secure the placement of the African Creeks in the nation.

He is buried at Agency Cemetery. The inscription on his granite stone slab reads: Harry ISLAND, died August 15, 1872, aged 60 yrs.

The cemetery where he rests is now abandoned with no accesse outside Muskogee. Harry Island and other African Creek leaders are buried there, forgotten by the community where they lived and served.(3)


1. Debo, Angie, The Road to Disappearance, Norman, Univ. of Oklahoma Press
2 . National Archives RG 75, Claims of the Loyal Creeks
3. Indian Pioneer Papers Volume 111 Cemeteries. Microfiche # 6046979

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